In 1974, Englewood native Mary Wallace defied the odds and made history as the first woman to drive a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus and she drove for 33 years.
Wallace became a popular driver at a time when such a profession for a woman was unheard of. Even to date, many people still have reserved and undisclosed views about women driving commercial vehicles.
“I used to work for the Planning & Placement Center when I was going to college, and we had job orders for CTA bus drivers. So I decided I wanted to check this out for myself, and I did. I went for three years, and they kept saying no…” she said.
Wallace first applied to become a bus driver when she was 19 years “because the CTA didn’t have any women and somebody needed to break that ice.” Plus, driving a bus seemed like a great way to meet new people, Wallace said.
“They said, ‘We just can’t hire you as a bus operator because we don’t have the facilities. We could hire you as something else,’” Wallace said. “But I kept going down there and calling every week.”
For three years, she pestered the CTA before the agency finally hired her. Wallace said that the training took her 15 days during which “it rained a lot.”
June 1974 was the first time Wallace drove the State Street bus and she grabbed headlines. According to Wallace, she did not have a hard time with the other drivers, however, she noted that some guys were” jealous because I had my own private bathroom” in the bus garage.
Wallace recalled that she used to get mixed reactions from CTA riders on her bus routes when they noticed a woman behind the wheel.
“I would get cheers from the ladies and stares from the guys,” Wallace told Chicago Sun-Times in a 2007 interview. “When I opened this door, it opened up a whole lot of opportunities,” she said.
She said that handling a 40-foot bus was easy, thanks to power steering. Wallace worked nights, exposing her to passengers who tried to attack her. As a result, she thought about quitting several times because of security concerns.
After retirement, Wallace said she’s glad she stayed on the job to see how the CTA has changed over the years. Today, there are more women CTA drivers. Some of the women even manage some of the garages.