When Joyce Barry was selected as one of the first women tram driver trainees in 1956, she could hardly have imagined that it would take nineteen years to make it into the driver’s cab. First, she had to overcome prejudice and male privilege before a wave of feminism helped to propel her to the controls in 1975. As she famously declared, “I don’t need a penis to drive a bloody tram!”.
Joyce had joined Melbourne’s tramways as a conductress soon after World War 2. She enjoyed her job of selling tickets and assisting passengers but she soon showed an interest in becoming a driver. She’d previously worked in factories and on farms, so her physical aptitude could hardly have been questioned.
In 1956, the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board selected sixteen women, including Joyce, to train as drivers. But the men of Joyce’s union threatened strike action if they were forced to train the women. And so matters stood for nineteen years. All the while, Joyce lobbied her colleagues, government organisations and women’s groups to win support for overturning her union’s ban on training women drivers.
Even in 1973, the ban was re-affirmed. But times were changing. At a fiery union meeting at the Collingwood Town Hall in 1975, the ruling was finally rescinded and Joyce Barry soon became the first woman in Australia to take the controls as a tram driver.
Joyce retired in 1983, having worked 28 years as a conductress and seven years as a driver. She died in Melbourne in 2006 at the age of 84.
Joyce Barry’s struggle for equal opportunity is commemorated with plaques at the Brunswick Tram Depot, where she worked for most of her career, and in the Melbourne boardroom of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union.
On Radio National, those who knew Joyce recall her pioneering struggle. Cap #4074 - the Joyce Barry story went to air as part of the Hindsight program on Sunday 2 September, and is now available for audio streaming or download.
The show includes interviews with FOHTD members Russell Jones and Geoff Brown.