“My advice to women who wish to rise in the railway field would be to miss no opportunity to learn. Such opportunities must be more than welcomed, they must be sought,” Daisy Oden told Railway World magazine in 1915.
Iowa History, a weekly column, appears at IowaWatch on Saturdays.
Cheryl Mullenbach is the author of non-fiction books for young people. Her work has been recognized by International Literacy Association, American Library Association, National Council for Social Studies, and FDR Presidential Library and Museum.
Visit her website at: www.cherylmullenbachink.com
Oden had worked for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad for years, as far back as the 1880s. Starting her career as an office girl, she later became a telegraph operator and eventually became a clerk with the railroad, advancing to a position as chief clerk.
In 1910 Oden made history when the railroad offered her a job as passenger agent, claiming she was the first female agent in the world. Without a doubt, she was C. B. & Q.’s first female agent; and the Quad-City Times reported that Oden had remarked prior to her appointment, “Why could not a woman fill that position?”
According to the International Railway Journal, Oden was taken by surprise when her employer offered her the new position. But her “prompt, uniform and courteous treatment” of customers and her “ever mindful” attention to the company’s interests had been noticed by officials. Adding that Oden possessed a “splendid knowledge” of railway business practices, the company eagerly touted her expertise and admitted that the increase in travel by women passengers had necessitated the hiring of a female agent who was “familiar with the tastes and requirements of women in railroad travel.”
The Quad-City Times reported on a Chicago Tribune article featuring Oden in 1911. The reporter warned readers and railroad presidents to “beware of Miss Oden” who might be after men’s jobs. She had won her new position “over the heads of four men.”
By 1915 Oden supervised numerous other ticket agents in her territory which served Davenport and Bettendorf, as well as Rock Island, Moline and Silvis, Ill. They looked to her for guidance in performing their duties in a manner expected of the railroad.
Early in her career Oden had joined the International Association of Ticket Agents, becoming the first female member of the group, after officers consulted their constitution to confirm no restrictions for membership based on gender. The Quad-City Times described the association as a unique organization consisting of rail ticket agents who enjoyed both social and educational benefits. Throughout her years as a member, she traveled to annual conferences throughout the United States and to Mexico and Cuba.
During World War I the railroad plucked Oden from her position in Iowa to become part of a federal program designed to train women as railroad employees. As one of three instructors in the Chicago headquarters, Oden taught women the skills needed to successfully fill positions held by men who had gone to the front. When the war ended and men reclaimed their jobs, Oden stayed in Chicago working as supervisor of women’s services for the railroad.
As part of those duties, Oden tackled a problem that plagued the company in 1921. According to the Davenport Daily Times, the clothing worn by female employees had become “embarrassing to the working morale.” Under Oden’s leadership the “reckless pace of fashions” came to a screeching halt. No more peek-a-boo waists or rolled hose. As far as makeup—a little powder was fine, but forget the rouge.
In June 1931 a headline in the Quad-City Times announced “First Woman Passenger Agent in World Resigns After Almost Half Century Service With Burlington.” Oden returned home to Iowa to enjoy her retirement years. Living in Des Moines, she spent her final years traveling. When she died in 1949, her obituary claimed she had traveled over 9,000 miles by rail in her lifetime.
- “Burlington Bars Light and Airy in Girls’ Dresses,” Daily Times (Davenport), June 25, 1921.
- “Daisy Oden, First Woman Railroad Passenger Agent, Once Here, Dies,” Daily Times, Aug. 31, 1949.
- “First Woman Passenger Agent in World Resigns After Almost Half Century Service With Burlington,” Quad-City Times, June 30, 1931.
- “Miss D. Oden Promoted,” International Railway Journal, vol 18, p 101, 1910.
- “To Be Supervisor Women’s Service of Burlington System,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, Nov. 28, 1919.
- “Women in Railway Work,” Railway World, vol 59, p 100. Jan., 1915.
- “Woman Wins in Man’s Job,” Quad-City Times, Feb 27, 1911.
Type of work: