Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2012/7 posted by hidden europe on

International Women's Day (IWD), which is celebrated today in many countries across the world, has been a feature of the European social landscape for more than a century. From the outset, IWD gave focus to a range of initiatives across Europe that pre-dated the designation of a special day. For example, Emmeline Pankhurst's suffragettes had already been very effectively promoting women's rights in England, while Clara Zetkin and her followers had been pursuing a similar agenda in Germany.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

International Women's Day (IWD), which is celebrated today in many countries across the world, has been a feature of the European social landscape for more than a century. From the outset, IWD gave focus to a range of initiatives across Europe that pre-dated the designation of a special day. For example, Emmeline Pankhurst's suffragettes had already been very effectively promoting women's rights in England, while Clara Zetkin and her followers had been pursuing a similar agenda in Germany.

As travellers and travel writers, we have often reflected on how developments in nineteenth-century travel helped reshape women's lives and horizons. The European imagination was fired by the extension of the railway network. The geology exposed in railway cuttings invited new interpretations of the natural world, while the new mobility afforded by railways encouraged a new social order.

Of course, the first railway companies were not radical by nature. In the early days of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&M), which opened in 1830, passengers were required to give advance notice of their wish to travel, advising the company's local agent of their age, address and occupation. The granting of tickets depended on the whim of the agent, who would only authorise travel if he were persuaded that the would-be traveller's motives were 'just and lawful'. Lone women travellers were rarely granted the privilege of a ticket on the L&M.

The importunities and impertinences that might be visited upon an unguarded female were an early pretext used by men to discourage women from taking to the rails. Progress was slow, but it eventually came. In England, the Grand Junction Railway in the early 1840s introduced the novelty of a carriage set aside for ladies travelling without escort. But the prevailing rhetoric still emphasised the hazards of letting women travel. In 1862 the Railway Traveller's Handy Book (a book written by men for men) advised that women's concept of timekeeping was incompatible with the discipline of railway schedules, even suggesting that men risked undermining their dignity if they were "accompanied by a wife and a numerous family of young children." By 1909, by which time Britain was well and truly exposed to the views of the suffragettes, Railway Times was reminding railway companies that there was money to be made from transporting women, whilst at the same time snidely noting that women's business was "not as urgent as that of men."

Yet for English women travellers, there was one man who really championed the cause of the lone female wanting to see the wider world. That was Thomas Cook. He challenged the railway companies' prejudices with his cheap excursion trains that opened up the chance of travel for families of humbler means. And he encouraged lone women travellers to join his tours. Whether it be his early Tartan Tours to Scotland, excursions to the Rhine and Switzerland, or later more adventurously to Egypt and beyond, Thomas Cook attracted a loyal following of enterprising spinsters and younger women who wished to escape domestic routine. The man credited with creating 'travel for the millions' might appropriately, on this International Women's Day, be particularly remembered for having bucked the trends of his generation by recognising women's right to travel.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.