The International Women’s Day (IWD) organisation describes as “Celebrating women’s achievements and increasing visibility, while calling out inequality, is key.” Given the fact that this year IWD falls on a Monday and the day I publish my blog posts, I’ve decided to do a post on five women that, through their firsts, changed the face of travel and transport for the better. Covering both the railways and aviation, these five women were true pioneers, and whilst you may have heard of some, a couple are lesser known but deserve to have their achievements shared.
Raymonde De Laroche – Born in Paris in 1882, Elise Raymonde Deroche was the daughter of a plumber, and as a young woman became an actress using the stage name of Raymonde De Laroche. Inspired by Wilbur Wright’s 1908 demonstrations of flight in Paris, de Laroche befriended a number of aviators, and in late 1909 appealed to Charles Voisin to teach her how to fly. With Voisin’s aircraft being a single seater, de Laroche operated the controls with Voisin shouting instructions from the ground. After learning the controls whilst taxiing around the airfield at Chalons, de Laroche took off and flew 270m, a feat which is believed to be the first flight piloted by a woman.
Less than five months after first taking the controls, in March 1910, de Laroche was issued her pilot’s licence by the Aero-Club of France. This licence was the 36th issued in the world, and the first to be issued to a female pilot. Over the next few years, de Laroche continued to fly, participating in air shows, testing experimental aircraft, and winning the Aero-Club of France’s Femina Cup. Having flown at 15,700ft and a distance of 201 miles, de LaRoche was the holder of the women’s records for altitude and distance, achieving the former in June 1919, just a month before her death. With a plethora of aviation achievements in just a decade since she first took to the control’s Raymonde de Laroche died during the test of an experimental aircraft at Le Crotoy airfield in Northern France.
Eleven years after de Laroche’s untimely death in France, Yvonne Pope Sintes was born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1930. Gaining her pilot’s licence in Denham, UK, in 1953, Sintes co-founded the British Women’s Pilots’ Association two years later. 1960 was the year in which Sintes achieved her first ‘first’ as she started working a Gatwick as an Air Traffic Controller, the first female to work in this role.
In 1965, Sintes began her career as a commercial pilot, flying for Morton Air Services and then British United Island Airways (BIUA) from Gatwick to destinations in the UK and Europe. After 7 years of flying with Morton and BIUA, Sintes moved to another Gatwick-based airline, Dan-Air in 1972 as a captain and at that point became Britain’s first female commercial airline captain. Flying with Dan-Air for eight years, Sintes retired from the airline in 1980, having also received both the Jean Lennox Bird Pendant and the Brabazon Cup from the British Women Pilots’ Association during her career.
In 1960, as Sintes started her role as an Air Traffic Controller, Karen Harrison was born in Glasgow. Daughter of a Customs Officer, Harrison was raised in London and left school at sixteen before applying the following year to start an apprenticeship as a ‘Secondman’ with British Rail (BR). The role of ‘Secondman’ was the first step to becoming a train driver at the time, and even at the interview stage, BR recruitment officers pushed for Harrison to take up a secretarial role instead of her aim of a frontline apprenticeship. Having insisted she wanted to become a train driver, Harrison started working at BR’s Old Oak Common Depot and experienced high levels of sustained verbal and physic harassment from managers and colleagues.
Describing her career as “ten years of hell, ten years of heaven”, Harrison transferred to Marylebone depot after a decade on the Great Western and, following the transfer, most of the harassment stopped. Rising through the ranks of ASLEF (the train driver’s union), Harrison also became the first woman to chair the union’s conference, the highest position a lay member can hold. Harrison’s railway career was unfortunately cut short by a bout of meningitis which resulted in her being declared ‘medically unfit’ to drive trains. Becoming a full-time trade union officer for UNISON, Harrison also became a mature student at the University of Oxford, dying in 2011 before finishing her studies.
In the same year as Harrison started her career with BR, on the other side of London, Hannah Dadds was also making history on trains of a slightly smaller size. Born in 1941 and having worked as a shop assistant and factory worker, Dadds joined London Underground (LU) as a ‘railwoman’ in 1969 at Upton Park. Progressing to become a ticket collector and then a train guard in 1976, Dadds completed what was then a seven-week course to become a District line train driver in 1978.
With her new role having been leaked, staff at LU HQ asked Dadds to take a few days off after her training, as opposed to immediately undertaking a shift in her new role. Dadds’ experience working for LU encouraged her sister, Edna, to also apply for a role with the company and whilst working as a guard, Edna partnered with Hannah to become the first all-female train crew in LU history. After 15 years as a driver, Hannah Dadds took early retirement in 1993, with the London Transport Museum recording an oral history of Dadds’ career to ensure her story could be shared for generations to come. In late 2011, Dadds passed away after a long illness, and in 2019 a plaque was unveiled in her honour at Upton Park station, where she started her career.
Despite the progress in the 1970s of women entering what were until then male roles, the overall progress has been slow, with many of these jobs still being male dominated, and sexism, harassment and bullying still being prevalent in many areas. Progress does still continue to slowly be made though, and earlier this year another barrier was broken, as the first female drivers operated trains on the Moscow Metro in decades. Although women were allowed to drive trains on the network from 1936, a ban on hiring new female drivers was introduced in the 1980s.
Kristina Vakulenko became one of the first women to sign up for the new recruitment programme and started operating trains on 3rd January. Disappointingly the press around this occasion was still filled with some old-fashioned comments with the Russian Department for Transport indicating that it had only ordered the role to be opened up as more automated processes limited the “heavy physical exertion”. Comments such as these show how much progress is still needed, but it is good to see some more barriers being broken.