On the 27 November 1970, June Lusk drove a double decker bus from Wynyard to Palm Beach in Sydney Australia. It was celebrated as an historic moment – the first time a woman had been employed as a driver by a public transport authority in Australia. Over in the UK, just a few months earlier, the employment of Sandra Holt as a bus driver in Halifax had caused a lightning strike by the local busmen and brought the town to a standstill. Sandra asserted that bus driving was “easier than driving a car” but was forced back on conducting duties until the union dispute could be resolved. It was not until 1974 that Jill Viner took to the streets as London Transport’s first woman bus driver, after years of dispute within the bus section of the Transport and General Workers Union. In Melbourne, Australia, women drivers still had to wait for another year to get behind the wheel.
This paper traces women’s struggle to find bus driving work in the UK and Australia: from the early women bus drivers of the interwar period, to the ‘first’ women drivers of public-funded buses from the 1970s. It considers their experiences in this male-dominated field, and the nature of the challenges they faced both on and off the buses. Buswomen encountered strong resistance from employers, unions and sometimes passengers but were able to push for driving roles as urban public transport faced serious staff shortages after the Second World War. What can we learn from their story about the interrelationship between gender and transport history? The paper draws on newspapers, union archives, bus company records (including in-house journals), and extant oral history interviews with Australian women bus workers.
The research for this paper was funded by the Australian Research Council Discovery Project scheme. It is part of a larger project, ‘Breaking Down Tradition: Women in Male-Dominated Work, 1840-2000’, led by Professor Diane Kirkby and with Dr Lee-Ann Monk.
Emma Robertson is Associate Professor in History, La Trobe University, Australia. She researches gendered histories of labour and culture in Britain and the British empire. She is the author of Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History (Manchester, 2009), co-author of Rhythms of Labour: Music at Work in Britain (Cambridge, 2013) and co-author of The BBC World Service: Overseas Broadcasting, 1932-2018 (Palgrave, 2019). She is currently researching the history of women in “non-traditional” occupations, funded by the Australian Research Council (DP160102764) with Professor Diane Kirkby and Dr Lee-Ann Monk.