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The Bay Bridge Battle of the Sexes (1947)

(This story was originally written and recorded for Podcast 25, released on April 9, 2024.)

When the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge opened on Thursday, November 12, 1936, the toll was set at 65 cents. That sounds like a bargain until one adjusts for inflation. 65 cents is approximately $14.51 today. They also charged an additional 5 cents ($1.12 today) per passenger. And that was for just one direction of travel. Decide to head back over and your cost would double.

Yet, by 1941, it was realized that there was no need to charge so much. The toll was reduced to 25 cents ($5.28) per direction, which was sufficient to cover the bonds taken out to fund its construction. It would stay at this price through 1969.

Today, the tolls are collected electronically, but that wasn’t the case when the bridge opened. Back then, toll booths at both ends of the bridge were staffed by a 100% male workforce.

That worked well until World War II broke out. Suddenly, there was a shortage of male workers, so the State Personnel Board had no choice but to hire women to collect the tolls.

And when the war was over, the men wanted the women gone. Toll collecting was tough, and it was felt that women simply weren’t up to the demands of the job.

It all came to a head in January 1947, when representatives of the male employees penned a four-page letter to the Personnel Board demanding that the next civil service examination, scheduled to be administered on February 8, be restricted to men only.

The letter was signed by 65 male collectors and read, in part, “We strongly protest the placing of an unfair, additional burden on the shoulders of the men toll-collectors by employing women.”

San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 2022
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 2022, as seen from a drone. Wikipedia image.

A story in the January 30, 1947, publication of the Oakland Tribune offered up the opinions of some of those involved.

J. A. Grant, a red-headed ex-Marine First Lieutenant, who resided at 3246 San Pablo Avenue, summed up the opinion of many of the men. He said that a “Woman’s place is in the home.”

In response, Hazel Howard, 3808 West Street, said, “We were good enough to do this work when you men were off at war.”

E.M. Carroll, who had been collecting quarters on the bridge for six years, stated, “This isn’t a woman’s job—14 automobiles a minute. We have to be peace officers as well, imagine women on the police force.” He added, “It’s the pay. It starts at $220 and goes to $260. ($3,000 to $3,600 today.) That’s good for a woman.”

Sgt. Harry Burke, who had been collecting tolls since the bridge opened, noted that the women did a good job while the men were off fighting the war, but said, “We don’t need them anymore.” He added, “It’s one of the toughest women’s jobs going. It’s tedious, with long, erratic hours and women can’t maintain the standard of accuracy.”

One of the female toll collectors was Mrs. Juanita Merriam, who noted “We do everything the men do.” Yet, her husband signed the petition demanding that the women be forbidden from collecting tolls.

Carl S. Hamilton, a bridge maintenance engineer, acted as spokesperson for his staff. “We are very grateful for women’s work during the war under trying circumstances. There are certain phases of work women can’t fulfill with drunken and obstreperous patrons. They can’t handle barricades and cash registers and men have to do that work.

“During the war, some patrons tried to take advantage of the women who had to put up with a lot of guff from roughnecks.’’

On February 1, 1947, the State Personnel Board met in San Francisco to hear evidence from both sides. In addition to their previously mentioned complaints, they added that the women had excessive absenteeism during bad weather and made numerous errors in giving customers change during peak hours.

And just who won the Bay Bridge Battle of the Sexes? The men. The board ruled that women would not be allowed to take the civil service exam. In addition, all but one of the women needed to leave their jobs by June 30 of that year. That one woman was allowed to keep her position because she had already obtained permanent civil service status.

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