Dear Reader, Women’s History Month is nearly over. I promised myself that I would sing praises for women letter carriers in these final March moments. So, here are some stories….
In our current culture, it is not unusual to see a woman driving a postal truck or approaching your door with a large mailbag on her shoulder. This was not always the case. Like any profession that is generally considered “man’s work,” the transition for women to become letter carriers was long, slow, and bumpy.
Early records dating back to 1845 , introduce Sarah Black who was hired to ferry mail between the train depot and Charlestown, MD. Apparently, several members of the Black family were also employed by the local post office. One became a female postmaster.
Women as mail carriers were a novelty, and therefore many news articles were written about them. Dozens of women in the later half of the 19th century worked as rural carriers. In 1884, The Boston Daily Globe described the tough job of “star route” carrier Polly Martin, who had to dig her team of horses out of deep snow and who once confronted a would-be robber by beating him with a horse whip. (Postal Record)
In 1888, The Postal Record article, “A Girl Mail Carrier” introduced 20 year old Minnie Westman, “a plump little brunette” who helped her father and uncle carry mail under contract in Oregon. The story describes how tough her job was. Why once Minnie even had an encounter with 3 bears on her mail route!
At the turn of the 20th century, more women were getting hired as rural carriers. Many men could not leave the farm to take these jobs in remote areas. It was noted that the “girl carriers” proved themselves as “unflagging in their devotion to the service as the men and were as efficient.” In 1904, there were 105 women rural carriers in the Nation’s postal service.
Still the old boys’ attitude prevailed. In 1902, Postmaster General Henry C. Payne wanted only single women to apply. He reasoned that married women needed to stay at home to do household duties. And the overall thinking was that these women were taking a job away from a man.
Still when the women were given a chance, they excelled. Some became pilots flying mail planes. But it wasn’t until World War I that women began working as city letter carriers. The war caused a workforce shortage, as the men enlisted to fight. These women letter carriers met and overcame the skepticism they faced by doing their jobs exceptionally well. Over the course of the war, dozens of women were hired to fill in for the men. And as the war ended, most of these women gave up their jobs to the returning veterans.
World War II once again brought women back as carriers to keep the mail moving while the men were away. And as before, when the war ended, most women gave up their jobs to the returning men.
In 1955, there were only 95 women city letter carriers. In 1962, President Kennedy passed an anti-sex discrimination ruling for federal job hiring. Then the ranks of female letter carriers grew. In 1983, (which was one year before I was hired), there were 18,000 women carrying the mail nationally.
Today women make up 32% of the city carrier ranks. And women continue to apply for city carrier jobs at a very rapid pace. So be prepared to see more women delivering our mail in the near future.
One of the women who was hired in the early 1970’s was Megan Brennan. She began as a letter carrier in Lancaster, PA, and advanced through the ranks to become chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Postal Service. Then in 2015, she became the first female postmaster general in U.S. history. Now, there’s a testament to what a woman letter carrier can do.
“A Century of Progress, Honoring the March Forward of Women Letter Carriers.” The Postal Record, Volume 131/Number 3, March 2018. p.16-21.