Women on the Move: Gender and Mobility in American Culture, 1890–1950

What are the relationships between social mobility and spatial mobility in American culture? In what ways do we associate movement—the ability to go anywhere and be anyone—with freedom? How do these relationships change when women are the ones on the move?


In many ways, the American experience has been defined by the promise of mobility, that is, the freedom to go anywhere and become anyone. In fact, the two have often been linked: spatial mobility—the movement between places or across space—has often been understood as a way to achieve a range of other mobilities—to rise economically, or escape social constraints, or claim a new identity. But how does this promise hold up when women are the ones on the move? Their movement reveals a conflict between an understanding of mobility as individual liberation and an understanding of mobility as a subversion of established norms.

The writers Willa Cather and Ann Petry both explore these issues—though in quite different ways—in their novels. Cather’s My Antonia (1918) portrays new immigrants to a small frontier town in Nebraska in the 1880s. Petry’s The Street (1946) follows the character of Lutie as she struggles unsuccessfully to escape the crime and poverty of her Harlem neighborhood, or in other words to achieve both social and spatial mobility. The following collection of documents develops the historical and cultural context for these novels. It includes representations of women on the move, both socially and spatially, in such different contexts as transportation, dance, literary culture, and the Great Migration.

Morning Train to Chicago, 1948

Please consider the following questions as you review the documents

  • In what ways do these documents associate mobility with freedom? What kinds of freedom does movement provide?
  • In what ways do these documents associate mobility with setting aside social mores or subverting established norms?
  • How do these documents explore the relationships between physical and social mobility? When do the two forms of mobility, one literal and one figurative, correspond? When do they diverge or come into conflict?
  • How do understandings of gender influence these representations of mobility? Does women’s mobility have the same stakes or consequences as men’s?

Women and Transportation: Bicycles to Automobiles

In 1896 Susan B. Anthony declared that bicycling “had done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” While the first bicycle was invented in 1817, it was not until the 1880s and ‘90s that bicycles became affordable, safe, and comfortable enough for widespread use. They inspired praise from feminists such as Anthony and her friend, Frances Willard, and tributes such as the sheet music cover reproduced below.

But within a few decades, the automobile would displace the bicycle in the American popular imagination and inspire a new set of popular associations between women and transportation. The 1928 song “Henry’s Made a Lady Out of Lizzie” takes the metaphor of car as woman to extraordinary lengths while paying tribute to Henry Ford’s new Model A car. The Model A replaced the Model T Ford, known as the Tin Lizzie.

The poet Langston Hughes develops these associations in different ways in his poem “Announcement.” Hughes is one of the most celebrated writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural movement of the 1920s and ‘30s based in the African American neighborhood of Harlem in New York City. His poem “Announcement” appears in the Lenox Avenue section of this collection of poems, which specifically evokes the Harlem community. Here, he reformulates the relationships between women, cars, and sexuality within the context of Harlem and black culture.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe the cover of “Bicycle Episode.” What are the “pleasures of wheeling” as portrayed here? Why do you think the bicycle seemed so significant to women at the turn of the century?
  2. How has Ford “made a lady” out of the Model A, according to the song by Walter O’Keefe? Who is the car’s presumed buyer and driver? What does the song suggest about perceived relationships between women, men, automobiles, and sexuality in the 1920s? How does the illustration reinforce or complicate the ideas conveyed in the song’s lyrics?
  3. How does Hughes evoke these relationships over a decade later in his poem “Announcement”? Who is the narrator? What does his car mean to him?
  4. In what ways do these three documents associate women’s increased physical mobility (through bikes and cars) with social mobility? Is transportation a form of freedom according to these sources? What are its social consequences? How are these consequences different for women and for men? How are they different for blacks and whites?

Women and Dance

Dancing is a source of immense pleasure as well as controversy in Willa Cather’s My Antonia, as it was in the United States more broadly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the novel, it is exotic people from outside Nebraska—a Southern, African American pianist and a traveling group of Italians—who introduce the practice of social dancing. The narrator, Jim Burden, finds that his grandparents forbid his going to the dance hall. His friend, Antonia, loses her job with a respectable family over her refusal to stop dancing.

During these decades, young people, especially among the working class, flocked to dance halls in cities and towns across the country. As historian Kathy Peiss explains, they experimented with new dance styles that allowed increased physical contact between women and men. The two examples of sheet music below suggest some of these developments. The first, “Polka Bohemienne,” dates to the mid-1900s and portrays two sisters (one dressed as a man) who performed the dance in folk costumes. It also suggests the resonance of Bohemian (now Czech) culture to nineteenth-century Americans, a resonance that Cather invokes with the character of Antonia and her Bohemian family. The second is music for the Reuben Fox Trot, a smooth, fast dance style popular from the 1910s through the 1940s. The third document below is an undated manuscript essay by Ann Barzel, a dancer and, later, dance critic who wrote for publications such as the Chicago Times and Dance Magazine from the 1940s through the late twentieth century. All three of these documents suggest a tension between the status of dance as, on the one hand, a disciplined, culturally sanctioned form of movement and social interaction and, on the other, a suspect form of pleasure, associated with sexuality.

Questions to Consider

  1. Compare the “Polka Bohemienne” and the “Reuben Fox Trot” covers. What do you learn from these images about how these dances were performed? What makes a dance traditional and what makes it modern? How do the cover images serve to promote, or advertise, the dances and their music?
  2. What changes in the history of dance, and its status in American culture, does Barzel identify? How does she make the argument that dancing discourages delinquency and that it promotes good moral character?

Women, Literary Culture, and Mobility

Fanny Butcher presided over Chicago’s literary scene for much of the twentieth century, befriending many celebrated Modernist writers and artists, and serving as the Chicago Tribune’s literary editor from 1922–1962. The documents below include a poem by Carl Sandburg and publicity photos of the writers Willa Cather and Gertrude Stein, all of whom were Butcher’s friends. None of the documents include precise dates. But, in Butcher’s memoirs, she recounts how Sandburg gave her this “bit of sheer doggerel” after having her to his house for dinner soon after they first met. The photograph of Cather includes a caption explaining that it was “taken among the cliff dweller ruins of the Southwest … the setting of the new novel The Professor’s House,” published in 1925.

The photograph of Stein and Alice B. Toklas, her companion and lover, was taken during their six-month lecture tour through the United States in 1934 and 1935. Stein and Toklas were American citizens, but had lived in Paris since 1903. The tour brought them to 37 cities in 23 states and transformed Stein from an obscure expatriate writer to a national literary celebrity. Literary critic Liesl Olson writes that “Stein vaunted the mobility of American people and how they forced the American language to have ‘a different feeling of moving.’” Olson argues that mobility was central to Stein’s persona: “Stein was a figure who navigated the middle of things, who moved freely among different circles: a long-time resident of France who was yet an American, a society lady who yet appeared manly, a Radcliffe-educated woman who was distanced from university culture, and a very famous writer whose major works were mostly unknown.” Olson notes that Stein and Toklas traveled by train on their American tour with the exception of the flight to Chicago, their first experience on an airplane, from which they are disembarking in the photo below. (The small voodoo dolls they hold were apparently gifts from their friend, writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten.)

Questions to Consider

  1. How does Sandburg portray Butcher in his poem “Improvisation”? What is the significance of the contrast between “the bitterly cold night” and the “warm street car”?
  2. What relationships does the poem suggest between Butcher, her environment, and her reading? How do you interpret his speculation on whether “She has done what she ought to”?
  3. Describe Cather’s and Stein’s appearances in their photographs. How are they dressed? How do they appear in relation to their surroundings?
  4. Does literary celebrity seem to provide Butcher, Stein, and Cather with more opportunities for social and spatial mobility than other women enjoyed? In what ways? Is their mobility presented in sexual terms, as we’ve seen in other documents in this collection?

Women and the Great Migration

Between 1916 and 1970, approximately seven million African Americans left the South for Northern cities, such as Chicago and New York, in a population movement known as the Great Migration. The two documents reproduced below, along with works such as Ann Petry’s The Street and Langston Hughes’ “Announcement,” discussed earlier in this collection, all explore this experience in different ways. The sheet music cover “It Ain’t Necessarily So” represents a song from the opera Porgy and Bess by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, which premiered in 1935. Though the Gershwin brothers and Heyward were all white, Porgy and Bess told the story of an African American community in Charleston, South Carolina, and their production featured an all-black cast of classically trained singers. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” became one of the opera’s most popular songs. It is sung by the character Sportin’ Life who peddles “happy dust” and, in the song’s lyrics, expresses skepticism about the Bible. Throughout the opera, Sportin’ Life repeatedly attempts (with ultimate success) to convince Bess to run away with him to New York, and abandon the virtuous, crippled Porgy who loves her deeply.

Gwendolyn Brooks was a celebrated poet whose family had participated in the Great Migration, moving from Kansas to Chicago when she was an infant. This collection of poetry, named for the African American, Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville, brought Brooks national acclaim, which she sustained until her death in 2000.

Questions to Consider

  1. Examine the cover of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” How does the illustration suggest the idea of moving from the South to the urban North? What seem to be the promises and risks that migration holds for Bess?
  2. How does Brooks map the moral geography of her narrator’s yard and street? What do the front and back yards represent?
  3. Why is Brooks’ narrator drawn to the alley? What is its allure?
  4. In the final stanza, the narrator declares, “I’d like to be a bad woman.” How does this poem compare to other documents in this collection that associate women’s mobility with sexuality?

Women and Transportation: The Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad

The Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad began as 12 miles of track connecting Aurora, Illinois, to the Chicago Union Railroad in 1850. Within the next 15 years, the railroad had laid an additional 400 miles of track and linked Burlington, Iowa, to Quincy, Illinois. In the decades that followed, the company developed a network of tracks traversing eight states (including Colorado, Wyoming, and Texas) and touching the borders of six more. The line followed what was known as the Granger road (granger means “farmer”). It allowed the produce of the West (such as corn, wheat, hogs, and cattle) to reach factories and markets in Chicago and, from there, the East. But the railroad was quick to embrace innovations in transporting people as well. In 1934 it adopted the Pioneer Zephyr, America’s first diesel-powered streamlined passenger train, shown in three of the photographs below.

Scene in Pullman Car, 1948

In the late 1940s, in anticipation of its 100th anniversary, the railroad commissioned two photographers, Esther Bubley and Russell Lee, to document the social and economic impact of the railroad for a commemorative book, Granger Country: A Pictorial Social History of the Burlington Railroad. The negative images shot by Bubley and Lee—roughly 3,000 in all—were later discovered in the CB&Q archives at the Newberry Library. Many of these, including the four presented below, now appear in the Newberry digital collection Daily Life Along the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad.

There is little information available about the subjects of most of the photographs below. However, Mrs. Scott Rader, who appears in the final image, was featured in a series of photographs at the end of Granger Country. She lived in a small town in western Illinois, five miles from the Galesburg train station. The book describes how the new high-speed trains “have widened, dramatically, the shopping range of the modern Granger housewife. Now… she may travel to the distant big city as casually as her mother used to visit the near-by county seat.” And, indeed, Rader apparently fed the chickens in the morning, hopped the 8:45 Zephyr to Chicago, 162 miles away, enjoyed four hours of shopping, and was home in the evening to eat supper with her family.

Hinsdale Station Commuters, 1948

Questions to Consider

  1. What relationships did women have to the railroad, as suggested by these photographs? What brought them into contact with the trains?
  2. How do they occupy the spaces of the railroad—the repair shop, the platform, and the train car? Describe their postures and expressions. Do they appear at ease? Are they enjoying themselves?
  3. Does riding the train evoke pleasure and freedom in the same ways that bicycles and automobiles did in earlier documents in this collection? In what ways is this form of transportation similar and in what ways is it different from those other modes?

Selected Sources

Burlington Route Historical Society. www.burlingtonroute.com/cbq.html

Cather, Willa. My Antonia. 1918, 1994.

Domosh, Mona and Seager, Joni. “On the Move.” In Putting Women in Place. 2001. 110–139.

Gambino, Megan. “When Gertrude Stein Toured America.” Smithsonian Magazine. www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/When-Gertrude-Stein-Toured-America.html#ixzz29ahsiGRj.

Lewis, Lloyd. Granger Country: A Pictorial Social History of the Burlington Railroad. 1949.

Newberry Library. Daily Life Along the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad. Digital collection. collections.carli.illinois.edu/cdm4/index_nby_rrlife.php?CISOROOT=/nby_rrlife.

Newberry Library and Chicago Historical Society. “Great Migration.” In The Encyclopedia of Chicago. 2005. www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/545.html

Olson, Liesl. “‘An invincible force meets an immovable object’: Gertrude Stein Comes to Chicago.” Modernism/Modernity 17, no. 2 (April 2010): 331–361. Project Muse. muse.jhu.edu/journals/mod/summary/v017/17.2.olson.html.

Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. 1986.

Petry, Ann. The Street. 1946, 1974.