Women at Large: Travel in Antebellum America

How easy or safe was it for women who travelled - often alone - in the new American republic? Patricia Cline Cohen charts their progress - and perils - and the way in which public transport helped shape the gender system.

In the sixty years from the 1790s to the 1840s, the United States experienced what has been aptly termed a 'transportation revolution'. Revolutionary it truly was, for the social, economic and political consequences of the changes in transportation were far-reaching and transformative. Usually historians identify activities such as the growth of markets and the flow of information as the most significant results of the growth of regularised stagecoach, canal boat or railroad routes. But equally important, the transportation revolution altered gender relations as well. The speed, convenience and regularity of travel (compared to earlier years) enticed many more passengers to take to the roads, among them large numbers of women.

Back in the 1770s, when travel depended on individual equestrian skills or access to the rare private coach, one young mother named Abigail Adams commented to a male correspondent on American women's low propensity to travel, which she framed in terms of women's weakness as well as sexual danger:

Women ... inherit an Eaquel Share of curiosity with the other Sex, yet but few are hardy eno' to venture abroad, and explore the amazing variety of distant lands. The Natural tenderness and Delicacy of our Constitutions, added to the many Dangers we are subject to from your Sex, renders it almost imposible for a Single Lad! to travel without injury to her character.

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