Being Women

Driving buses: A brief ‘her’-story

But was it fair work with equal wages? Not at all! Not surprisingly, they did not receive the same pay, neither were their work conditions in any way, equal to that of men. But there was a strong resistance from these working women.

Little boys often say that they want to become bus drivers or engine drivers, when they grow up. But do little girls dream of becoming a race car driver/ engine driver/ bus driver when they grow up as well?

When I came to the United States over twenty years ago, I was already driving a car out of necessity. I had to learn how to drive at the age of nineteen, a few months after my Baba’s passing away, just to keep the battery of the little Fiat my family owned, running. Baba had passed away in an accident, in a head-on collision with a long trailer truck, riding in the back-seat of the car. This incident had left me traumatized. I’d seen the scene play out in my mind, and it was exceptionally hard to let go of that image and learn to drive. But I soon realized that I was a good driver and, began to enjoy it.

A girl my age, driving a car, was not a common sight in India during those days. But when I came to America, I was surprised to see women behind big steering wheels at every turn. I would see women bus drivers manoeuvring big yellow school buses, and giant city transportation buses with effortless ease.

When was the glass ceiling of this male dominated field broken?

I found out that just like any other form of empowerment across the rest of women’s history, this too was not readily handed to them. Times had to be truly tough for women to be given this opportunity. And it only happened because of extra-ordinary circumstances during worldwide conflicts.

When men were heavily recruited to fight the World Wars I and II, western society was left with no choice but to hire more women employees. Women were given a green light to fill in the gaps created in many so called ‘masculine’ jobs, in order to keep communities running as smoothly as possible.

1918 onwards, during the first World War, 18,000 women were recruited in London’s Transport companies. Women worked as conductors, ticket-collectors, guards, engineers and maintenance crew.

But was it fair work with equal wages? Not at all! Not surprisingly, they did not receive the same pay, neither were their work conditions in any way, equal to that of men. But there was a strong resistance from these working women. Working outside homes may have been relatively new to these women, but fighting for their rights wasn’t! There was already a strong undercurrent of rebellion flowing beneath the surface by that time, a fire that demanded to be treated equally. In August 1918, a group of British women protested against being excluded from a war bonus that was awarded to male transport workers of the time. This quickly escalated into a nationwide strike of 17,000 female bus and tram workers who also demanded both wartime bonus and equal pay. After a week of strikes, the women received the war bonus. But they were still not given equal pay.

As the First World War came to an end, many women had to leave their jobs in London’s transport services when men came back from the battlefield. By 1919, they had to give up their seats on this temporary ride, to make room for the men returning from war. They had to give back the jobs that traditionally ‘belonged’ to men!

During World War II, from 1940 to 1945, one-third of the workforce was women! They worked at every job from building ships, to driving taxicabs and buses. But no one woman is given the credit for being the first woman bus driver, at the time.

Again, when the war ended, these women had to go back to their traditional, domestic roles. But by now, she had already tasted what it was like to work outside home and gain financial independence. That is why, in the next three decades, i.e. the latter half of the 20th century, the wheels of freedom began to turn much faster.

Finally, in May 1974, Kathleen Andrews, a British immigrant to Canada became the first woman to be a bus operator in Edmonton, Alberta! In the same year, Jill Viner officially became the first driver in London to operate a passenger service vehicle. Following in her footsteps, thirty other women applied to become bus drivers in that one year! 1974 was a good year for female drivers all over the world. Even United States had the first black woman bus driver in ’74, Elizabeth Duff, who was hired to drive a bus in Nashville, Tennessee. She broke both gender and race barriers in doing so!

Well, if the world moves forward, can India be left too far behind? In the last two years, Pratiksha Das, a mechanical engineer by profession, became the first Mumbai BEST (Bombay Electric Supply & Transport) bus driver in India at age twenty-four. Pooja Devi from Kashmir too became the first Jammu passenger bus driver, thereby breaking stereotypes.

It is a fact that women have begun to drive vehicles only in the last few decades, and they still have a long way to go! But is it not fascinating to realize that we are in the infancy stage of women getting back equitable rights like they once had in the pre-medieval and ancient times? So, next time if you hear bangles tinkling as ‘the wheels on the bus go round and round’, you can rest assured that SHE is at the helm of this ride! We know that she’s fought hard to break into that cabin and climb into that driver’s seat! And she will safely drive us to our destination.

By Swaroopa Gadgil

Swaroopa Gadgil is a Physical Therapist and a Yoga Teacher, who lives near the Jersey Shore. She is a multi-passionate nature lover, immersed in Art, Yoga, Writing, and Photography. Swaroopa loves to share the experiences she has lived through; people she has encountered in her professional practice through writing and art. She can be contacted at

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