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"Having Been Born Locomotive...": Women, Mobility, Progress, and Activism

Leslie C Working, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Over the course of the nineteenth century, the development of communication and transportation technologies transformed American life, giving an already mobile society ready access to new spaces and new opportunities as the geographic reach of the nation expanded. The language of mobility, modernity, and progress that developed with these new technologies and dominated public discourse was a stark contrast to cultural assumptions that positioned women in a static, domestic sphere. This study considers the ways the increasing mobility of nineteenth-century Americans impacted female activists’ ideas about stasis and movement in women’s lives and how their assertion of women’s freedom to move and right of access to the tools of modern life made travel to Western spaces a possibility for female reformers who were optimistic about Westerners’ willingness to embrace new ideas about women’s rights and woman suffrage. From the antebellum period through the 1890s, as the nation moved steadily westward, female activists traveled into newly-accessible states and territories – first in the Old Northwest and then into the trans-Mississippi West – building communities of supporters as they went. The state and national networks that developed through the efforts of itinerant organizers were vital to the creation of a lasting woman’s movement and key to post-Civil War rights agitation as state workers created political opportunities for change well into the twentieth century. The mobility of people and ideas created by new technologies fed hopes for the region in spite of failed referenda campaigns and the challenges of campaigning in across Western spaces. Correspondence from national leadership and the records of state suffrage organizations in Washington, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Kansas reveal a movement that deliberately penetrated into the furthest-flung communities on the Great Plains and in the West. The woman’s rights effort in the West was shaped by the efforts of local and national workers who were willing to travel thousands of miles to educate and organize, bringing Eastern advocates into Western spaces for extended periods of time, creating a shared sense of work and possibility in the region.

Subject Area

Womens studies|History

Recommended Citation

Working, Leslie C, ""Having Been Born Locomotive...": Women, Mobility, Progress, and Activism" (2017). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10683123.