Joyce Barry: Grassroots advocate for equal opportunity

Ordinary people achieve extraordinary things. Joyce Barry was one such person. Born in 1922 in Brunswick, she was to become Australia’s first female tram driver and a key figure in the battle for equal employment opportunity and pay for women.

From the beginning, the Melbourne tramway system was pretty much an all-male affair. It was not until 1941 that the first conductresses were employed by the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board to relieve the manpower shortages experienced during the Second World War. However, women were banned from driving trams, as it was thought that it was an unsuitable occupation for the more delicate sex, and thus were not eligible for the higher status and pay awarded to tram drivers.

Joyce Barry was one of the many women who were employed by the Tramways Board as conductresses during the War, wearing cap number 4074. The tramway union, the ATMOEA, was firmly set against allowing women to drive, holding that women did not have the strength to drive a tram using the manual handbrake, or were unable to climb onto the roof to retrieve the trolley-pole if the trolley-rope broke. However, they were really defending male privilege. As soon as the war was over in 1945, all the conductresses were sacked, but three months later many of them – including Joyce – were rehired as there were still staff shortages.

Before she became a conductress, Joyce had spent years on her brother’s dairy farm felling trees, driving tractors and milking cows, so she saw the union’s objections to women drivers as ‘complete balderdash’. However, in later years when she encountered problems with trolley poles, she was gracious enough to say that many male employees were very gallant.

After an attempt in 1956 by the M&MTB to train two conductresses to drive, the ATMOEA went on a snap strike, and passed a resolution banning women drivers.

With the development of the women’s rights movement in the late 1960s, female tramway employees gained new hope and began a concerted push to become drivers. Joyce Barry played an integral part in this campaign. In May 1973, the M&MTB attempted to train Joyce and a colleague, Catherine Stone, as drivers, but the union immediately declared the Wattle Park line black [1], withdrawing services and forcing the M&MTB to stop their training. This was only a temporary setback for Joyce.

In October 1975, after years of lobbying, there was a union vote to rescind the 1956 resolution. When Joyce found out the result of the ballot, she grabbed the ballot papers and threw them into the air in joy.

Driving instructor W.J.Wright with conductresses Catherine Stone and Joyce Barry in a Y class tram, 1973. Photograph courtesy The Age Driving instructor W.J. Wright with conductresses Catherine Stone and Joyce Barry in a Y class tram,1973.
Photograph courtesy The Age.

In December the same year, she became Australia’s first female tram driver, working out of Essendon Depot and paid at the same rate as men. Ironically, some female conductors did not wish to work with her. Joyce said that her first trip was very nervous, as her every move was monitored by both the tramways and the public. However, she felt elated and vindicated by the result of her long battle to become a driver, and loved her new job behind the controller. Contrary to the claims of male unionists, she never did lose her nerve in peak hour traffic.

Joyce Barry worked for twenty-eight years as a tram conductress, and seven years as a driver. Her social conscience was not restricted to the field of equal employment, as for many years she worked on the Royal Children’s Hospital Good Friday Appeal. She died in 2006, but her place in Australian history is assured.

Further information

Cap #4074 - the Joyce Barry story was broadcast on Radio National as part of the Hindsight program on 2 September 2012, and is available to listen online or to download.



[1] Much of the driver training carried out by the M&MTB occurred on the Wattle Park line, due to the location of the Driver Training School at Hawthorn Depot. Therefore, as the M&MTB was attacking union policy by training female drivers on the Wattle Park line, the union declared the route black and withdrew services to the discomfort of intending passengers.