A Womanly Endeavor: Reimaging the Transcontinental Railroad

Presentations and Audience Q&A



Thursday, June 27, 2019 6:00PM

<p>A Womanly Endeavor: Reimaging the Transcontinental Railroad</p>
<p>Presentations and Audience Q&A</p>
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Where: California Historical Society Headquarters, 678 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94105

Cost: $10 General Admission, Free for CHS Members, plus one guest per membership.

Please join us for two short presentations from historians Amy G. Richter and Julia Lee on women and their role in and on the railroads.

Presentations include:

“The Binding Together of the Nation”: Women Travelers and the Meaning of the Transcontinental Railroad

Amy G. Richter

In the summer of 1869 Godey’s Lady’s Book published an editorial marking the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. “This great work was begun, carried on and completed by men only. No woman has laid a rail: no woman has made a survey. The muscular force and the intellectual guidance have come alike from men.” Historians have long portrayed railroads as sites of manly power. And so it is surprising that Godey’s also acknowledged women’s role in this accomplishment: “The great works of modern civilization, the Pacific Railway, for example, are chiefly made in the interest of those humane and peaceful employments in which the feminine element is so prominent; for the advancement of trade, the intercourse of friends, the binding together of the nation.”

This talk will recast the spaces and experiences of nineteenth-century rail travel through the lens of “the feminine element” and question the ways in which the Transcontinental Railroad bound the nation together.

“The Train Is Ready for Us”: The Transcontinental Railroad in Chinese American Women's Imaginations

Julia H. Lee

Chinese men built much of the Transcontinental Railroad. They chopped trees, leveled the grade, laid ties, drove spikes, and dynamited through miles of solid rock, working at speeds and with skill that was considered unmatchable at the time. The physical strength and mental dexterity required on the part of these Chinese men stands as a powerful historical refutation of long-standing and pernicious stereotypes about Asian American men, who are even today often portrayed as emasculated, effeminate, or deviant. But such a conventionally masculine conception of the work that went into the Transcontinental obscures the relationship that Chinese American women have had with the railroad and its legacy in this country.

This talk will explore how Chinese American women have imagined railroads, investing it with a significance that makes it more than just a symbol of masculine achievement.

About our Speakers:

Julia H. Lee is associate professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California at Irvine. She is the author of Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896-1937 (New York University Press, 2011) and Understanding Maxine Hong Kingston (University of South Carolina Press, 2018). Her book-in-progress is The Racial Railroad, which explores the prevalence of the train as a setting for narratives of racial formation and conflict in American culture from the mid-19th century to the present. She is organizing a conference examining the impact of the Transcontinental Railroad at UCI and the Chinese American Museum of Los Angeles this fall and will be completing further research on the book this summer as a George and Arlene Cheng Fellow and a Mayers Fellow at the Huntington Library. Courses that she has recently taught include the contemporary Asian American novel, Asian American women, race and urban space, and the Asian American bildungsroman.

Amy G. Richter is Associate Professor of History at Clark University. Her research and teaching focus on nineteenth and twentieth-century American cultural history, with an emphasis on women’s and urban history. She is the author of Home on the Rails: Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity (University of North Carolina Press, 2005) and At Home in Nineteenth-Century America: A Documentary History (New York University Press, 2015). Her current research looks at international marriages between wealthy American women and impoverished European nobles as well as broader conversations about marriage, markets, and commodification at the end of the nineteenth century. Richter’s teaching repertoire includes courses on Home in Nineteenth-Century America, Marriage and the Meanings of America, Gender and the American City, and American Consumer Culture.

Citation: Southern Pacific Company, California for the Tourist, 1910, California Historical Society