- Ma Kiley: The Life of a Railroad Telegrapher*
There are a number of reasons why you should read Thomas Jepsen’s Ma Kiley: The Life of A Railroad Telegrapher. The most compelling one is Mattie C. Kuhn, Ma Kiley herself. This book is a reproduction of a set of articles written in 1950 by Ma Kiley about her career as a railroad telegrapher during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Kiley’s account melds her personal and work life together in a narrative that is breezy, entertaining, informative, and, on occasion, sad. Jepsen, then, by giving us access to the words of Ma Kiley, has done us a service.
This compelling book, with just over a hundred pages of text, could be used as a teaching tool. Professors, especially those teaching surveys of United States history or technology, could use it to explore the rise of the telegraphic industry, changes in the practice of telegraphy, and, more tangentially, working women’s lives during the early part of the twentieth century. Jepsen’s introduction to the mainly male preserve of railroad telegraphy provides a good overview of the technology of the telegraph and the place of the telegraph in American economic development. Furthermore, because men’s and women’s telegraphic work was, for the most part, made up of the same basic components—sending and receiving messages in Morse code via the telegraph key—Jepsen’s introduction can be used to talk about telegraphy without reference to gender.
Yet gender does matter to Jepsen, who maintains a website on women in telegraphy (http://www.mindspring.com/~jepsen/Teleg.html). For Jepsen, Ma Kiley’s life serves as a vivid reminder that women did work in the industry. As Jepsen seeks to remind us of how women were a part of the working world, however, I think that he overemphasizes women’s role in telegraphy. For example, he quotes Frances Willard’s remarks that it was common, by 1897, to see women at the telegraph key (p. 14), and he emphasizes women’s roles in the industry to the point that when one reads that “Ma Kiley’s perception of telegraphy, especially railroad telegraphy, as being largely a man’s world is correct” (p. 26), it comes as a surprise. Reinserting women into the historical record is a noble and honorable endeavor, but it behooves us to remember that even in 1920, at the height of the telegraphic trade, only approximately 21 percent of telegraphers were women (p. 26). Women were a decided minority, and Ma Kiley was an even rarer kind of worker. Unlike most women telegraphers, she worked for over forty years as a telegrapher, she insisted on being paid what men were paid, and she was a skilled, proud, “first class operator.” Her experiences were not the norm.
How then, might one use this text in a classroom despite these drawbacks? One solution might be to use Jepsen’s book to explore the lives of [End Page 696] women at work through the prisms of home and family. Clearly, Ma Kiley’s life was marked by her marriages, the birth of her two sons, and the premature death of one of them. Her life was shaped by the ways in which she had to organize her personal life in order to support herself and her surviving child, Carl. Kiley was married at least five times; so again, she was not exactly the norm. But her life story would be a way to raise questions about the relationships of women to their families and their work responsibilities.
The text raises such questions as, did Ma Kiley formally marry and divorce husband John Kiley in one year? Or did she practice serial monogamy in a more informal way? How common was it for women to say they were “married” when they hadn’t gone through a ceremony? How common were the kinds of extended familial child care arrangements that Kiley used to make sure that her son received...