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

Clark Hall Women’s Residence, Brandon College, c.1910

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?

By Dr. Hana Layson
Manager of School and Educator Programs
Portland Art Museum

By Dr. Ann Brigham
Associate Director, Humanities
Great Minds


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.

Women and Transportation: Bicycles to Automobiles

Bicycle Episode or the Pleasures of Wheeling (1897): When this sheet music was published, bicycles had only recently become safe, affordable, comfortable, and—as a result—immensely popular.

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.

Henry’s Made a Lady Out of Lizzie: This 1928 song takes the metaphor of car as woman to extraordinary lengths while paying tribute to Henry Ford’s new Model A, which replaced the Model T, or “Tin Lizzie.” / Walter O’Keefe. 1928

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.

“Announcement”: In this poem, writer Langston Hughes explores the relationships between women, men, and cars within the context of 1940s Harlem. / Langston Hughes. From Shakespeare in Harlem, 1942

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.

Women and Dance

Souvenir de Ballet. Polka Bohemienne du Faust (1857): This sheet music cover portrays two ballet dancers and sisters in costume for the Bohemian polka. One is dressed as a man.

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.

Reuben Fox-Trot. Society’s Latest Dance (1914): The Reuben Fox Trot was a smooth, fast dance style popular from the 1910s through the 1940s.
Dancing and Delinquency (Ann Barzel): This undated manuscript essay is 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.

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.

Women, Literary Culture, and Mobility

Improvisation: Chicago poet Carl Sandburg wrote this poem about his friend, Fanny Butcher, the Chicago Tribune’s longtime literary editor. / Carl Sandburg. Circa 1916

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.

Willa Cather in the Southwest (c.1925): This photograph shows novelist Willa Cather in the Southwest and was probably used to promote her 1925 novel The Professor’s House.
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Alighting from a Plane (c.1934): This photograph shows writer Gertrude Stein with her partner Alice B. Toklas in Chicago, disembarking from their first plane ride. Stein was on a six-month lecture tour around the United States.

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.)

Women and the Great Migration

It Ain’t Necessarily So: This sheet music cover vividly illustrates one of the most popular songs from Porgy and Bess, Gershwin and Heywood’s 1935 folk opera. / B. Harris. 1935

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.

“a song in the front yard”: Gwendolyn Brooks included this poem in a collection named for the Chicago, African American neighborhood of Bronzeville. / Gwendolyn Brooks. From A street in Bronzeville, 1945

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.

Women and Transportation: The Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad

Women Workers: The Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company commissioned photographers Russell Lee and Esther Bubley to document the social and economic impact of the railroad. Lee photographed these women railroad employees at a repair shop in Lincoln, Nebraska. / Russell Lee. 1948

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 of Westbound Denver Zephyr: The Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company commissioned photographers Russell Lee and Esther Bubley to document the social and economic impact of the railroad. These passengers ride the Denver Zephyr express train. / Russell Lee. 1948
Morning Zephyr to Chicago. 2. Scenes in coach: The Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company commissioned photographers Russell Lee and Esther Bubley to document the social and economic impact of the railroad. These passengers ride the Twin Cities Zephyr express train, bound for Chicago. / Russell Lee. 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.

Mrs. Scott Rader, Knoxville Farm Wife, Takes the Zephyr to Chicago for a Shopping Tour: This image from a project commissioned by Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company shows Mrs. Scott Rader (on right), a “farm wife” from western Illinois on a shopping trip to Chicago. / Esther Bubley. 1948
Hinsdale Station—Early Morning Commuters Waiting: The Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company commissioned photographers Russell Lee and Esther Bubley to document the social and economic impact of the railroad. This image shows commuters waiting on a platform in Hinsdale, Illinois. / Esther Bubley. 1948

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.

Selected Sources

Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, 10.26.2012, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.