Today in Feminist History: Are Women-Only Train Cars the Future? (April 1, 1909)

April 1, 1909: Women-only cars on the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad’s “Hudson Tube” route through the McAdoo Tunnel from 23rd Street in Manhattan to Hoboken, New Jersey, are proving popular.

Today’s ridership is up by 50% (3,000 vs. 2,000) over yesterday’s test run. Already being referred to as “Suffragette Cars” (a derisive term local suffragists dislike) or “Merry Widow Cars,” they are the last in each train during rush hours, from 7 to 9 in the morning and 4:30 to 7:00 in the evening.

Whether the special cars will be adopted by the five-year-old Interborough Rapid Transit Company’s subway system and be established on New York City routes is still unknown—though it seems doubtful. Hearings were held two weeks ago, and with the exception of the Women’s Municipal League, host for the discussion, there was strong opposition.

Ida Husted Harper, author of “The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony,” acknowledged that there were substantial problems for commuters: “It is an outrage for people to be subjected to what they have to endure in the way of transportation in New York.”

But she also said:

“I am opposed to the plan principally because by setting aside one car for women, men would consider that all the rest of the train belonged to them. Then, when the overflow from this segregated car tried to get into the others, the men would put up the cry that women were encroaching on their domain. We are hearing entirely too much nowadays about ‘women’s invasion.'”

Harper said that she was “constantly surprised at the number of men who do give up their seats and try to help women both in the subways and the surface cars,” and that the only hope is to rely on the “kindness and consideration” of the majority of the men in the cars.

Lillie Devereux Blake, veteran suffragist and President of the Legislative League, said of the proposal:

“I am opposed to it. I don’t think our New York men are such beasts that we can’t sit in the same car with them. I like men. Of course, they don’t give us all we want them to. They don’t let us vote, for instance, but they will in good time, and even now they’re pretty good to us. I think it would be most unpleasant if we had a car to ourselves.”

Florence Kelley, Secretary of the National Consumers League, testified that: “The last thing in the world women want is to be segregated.”

The experiment will continue to see if its popularity lasts.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.