Abstract: You see, my husband's so partial to a mantel-shelf: The Railways' Gendered Construction of Britain's Passenger Trains, 1920-1939

Colin Divall


Historians have given little attention to the gendered nature of public transport in early twentieth-century Britain. Throughout the interwar period the railway train remained an important means of getting around. As part of their efforts to maintain passenger numbers in the face of road competition, male railway managers tried to get both sexes to travel by train by emphasizing qualities such as safety, security, and comfort. There was a gendered dimension to this marketing. Men were usually understood as the primary consumers of train travel, and male-dominated norms were taken to form the framework within women's use of the train was thought to be determined. Moreover, mobile masculinity was civilized, not denied, by representing the train's interior as a semi-private zone akin to the feminine space of the home, available, if not always on the same terms, to both sexes. In this way the train was understood as an acceptably feminized response to the supposedly masculine pursuit of motorized "freedom." Such managerial attitudes were widely mirrored by the railways' male workforce, although workers were more likely publicly to acknowledge the ways, many of them gendered, in which the realities of moving by train fell short of the official image.