Home on the Rails: Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity

Article excerpt

Amy G. Richter, Home on the Rails: Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC (2005), 304 pp., $19.95.

Women who stepped aboard the technological wonder of the nineteenth century carried with them lunch baskets and luggage, but they also brought with them a fair amount of cultural baggage. According to Amy Richter, popular narratives of women riding on trains stood for everything from changing conceptions of the American landscape to racial politics to narratives of modernity. This is a book about far more than what Americans thought about women riding trains: it is an ambitious consideration of how Americans came to grips with the social, geographic, and economic changes of the second half of the nineteenth century.

Richter's approach to the well debated territory of public versus private space is refreshing. Rather than looking at female rail passengers as newcomers to a masculine public sphere, she considers the nineteenth-century railroad as a new and shared public space in which notions of masculinity and femininity were negotiated alongside and in service of an emerging commercialism. This resulted in the creation of a 'public domesticity' that softened the chaotic and unpredictable edges of public encounters by building home-like elements into the institutions and behaviours of railroad travel. The amenities of Pullman cars and services of porters fit in this rubric, but Richter goes beyond these to argue that Victorian gender roles provided useful tools for creating this sense of order and security aboard trains.

Women aided in this process, as their very presence on the rails transferred their 'private' roles to the public world of trains, suggesting morality and refinement. Women played an active role in this transference, using the conventions of the private sphere to smooth their way into new spaces by demonstrating their respectability. Along the way, however, women also developed commercial skills in line with the needs of an evolving public sphere. Whether women appeared as weak creatures ill suited to travel, a familiar image in the early days of railroads, or as robust and adventurous ladies, more common by the close of the century, their forays into the public world of trains generally tied them to Victorian notions of gender difference. According to Richter the evolution of images of women on the rails suggests the larger story of how Americans navigated the transition to modernity. The strong, capable woman who rode the rails (at least in fiction) paid tribute to the technological and commercial accomplishments of the men who had made her adventures possible. …