February 7, 2015

Victorian Women on the Railways

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 11:19 am by historywardrobe

One of my favourite work ‘tasks’ is reading primary sources – essentially, scouring period newspapers, magazines, diaries and letters for insights and revelations.

For no accountable reason my family (Midlands mining/textile background) kept a bound volume of the sensationalist newspaper The Days Doings – Here and There, from 1870-1874.  I loved turning the stiff pages as a child and seeing women being savaged by circus lions; men blown sky high in factory explosions; actresses ‘surprised’ in their boudoirs by moustachioed strangers… All very gory or titillating by turns, and yet quite tastefully depicted.

The newspaper is disgracefully racist – a facet which was sadly lost on me as a child, but which spoils the re-reading as an adult.  In contrast to this casual and demeaning discrimination, it is often quite feminist (despite recurrent images of slender female ankles and impossibly dainty button boots.)    For example, journalists report positively on suffrage campaigning in New York and London.  In May 1872 they note with pride the employment of a female engine driver in an unspecified American Western state.  Naturally, they must then resort to drooling over her alleged appearance:

Days Doings 1870s_0018“The womanly engineer is a blonde, a genuine blonde, with wavy hair and the brightest and bluest eyes.”

However, much emphasis is placed on the fact that she is “thoroughly efficient in her duties” and “gifted with a very considerable degree of physical strength – having an arm which can pull with vigour, and a frame which can stand a certain amount of shaking.”  Ultimately the railway company and the reporters conclude:

“the experiment and the engineer work well, and the lady and the company, and the public are satisfied.”

We can be less than satisfied with the image accompanying the article.  For once the female’s ankles are hidden, but it is extremely unlikely anyone would drive a locomotive in fashionable hat, low-cut bodice and swirling skirts.

Now I’m speculating – is there, somewhere in the States – a genuine image of this pioneer railway worker?

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