Last night, the BBC’s “Grand Tours of Scotland” series focused on women travelers. It included a look at walking in the countryside and even took us to Gretna Green – where couples still “run off” to for marriage. It also briefly reviewed the time when women did not normally travel alone because they usually weren’t allowed to.
At one point, the presenter shared how 19th century women needed male chaperones, and in explaining that did so including a clear inference at how unnecessary and sexist that was, a “need” concocted by men purely to keep women in their place.
As an historian, such offhanded, blasé commentary about a hugely complicated subject always irritates me. It was not just about sexism, although no doubt sexism played a part in it. But that sexism itself also historically stemmed from the issue of fundamental safety fears.
And they were pretty real and substantial worries. Indeed men too had to be cautious out there traveling. Before the 20th century in Europe and America generally, people often made journeys in groups for their own good.
We live in such a complacent and secure world in 2016, with us wandering around alone at night in cars, on public transport, walking well-lit streets, that we forget it has not always been this way – including having police just a “999” (911 in the U.S., of course) mobile phone call away, able to rush within minutes to our assistance virtually wherever we may be.
Before instant communications, the ability to summon help was non-existent. Land transportation on usually poor roads (often little better than dirt tracks) consisted either of walking, or horse, or horse-drawn carriage. Most country roads – even many towns – were pitch black at night. Most people did not normally even consider going out any distance from their home much after dark.
Your household relied almost entirely on itself – and maybe some trusted neighbors – for protection. There were no “police” as we today understand the word. Travelers usually carried weapons.
And before firearms – and using even a bulky, awkward pistol in the early 19th century was a lot more difficult than using its technological descendants in 2016 – what sort of weapons were available? Well, mostly knives and swords, which required a physical prowess to employ in a life or death confrontation that most women, and even quite a few men, utterly lacked. Even well-to-do men often found themselves at risk on the roads:
The phrase “highway robbery” comes from exactly where you think it does: gangs of thugs who traveled roads robbing and even killing travelers, even during daylight. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Britain still had dozens of offenses for which hanging was the punishment. If you were going to be hanged for robbery with a weapon, you might as well kill your targets too since you could only be hanged once and dead victims couldn’t identify you. And that included dead women. In fact, women were considered easier to rob if somehow caught alone, since most women physically couldn’t match a man in a confrontation.
We are often too flippant in assailing “the past” for its clear “backwardness” compared to our time. Many earlier social conventions often did stem simply from hard-headed practicality and fundamental self-preservation. “Safe spaces” before the 20th century, and especially after dark, were mostly only found at home amongst those closest to you, who knew you, and loved you.
Thankfully, the ability to physically defend ourselves in public is not nearly as important as it once was. However, in that former world in which law enforcement was often distant to non-existent, you were forced to look after yourself and your family in a way we don’t have to in quite the same way in 2016. We take it for granted now, but we are actually quite blessed that we may now take it for granted that, for example, we can drive around at night and chances are no one will lay a hand on us – women included.
What those a couple of hundred years ago would have given for the freedoms we enjoy today. Our public spaces are now so safe we assume that is essentially our birthright. But it is technological advances that have made that safety possible.
Life in the pre-industrial world was quieter, darker, and far more isolated than today. Rip away the veneer of immediate policing, street lighting, and the related clutter of our modernity, and we would very soon be living the same narrower, more dangerous and problematic lives our ancestors did. Let’s try to recall that before we self-satisfyingly sneer at them because we are….well, just oh, so much more socially advanced than they were.
Have a good Thursday, wherever you are in the world. 🙂