Where Are The Women?

Now that we’re officially into Women’s History Month, I’ve been thinking more about women in my book. More accurately, I’ve been thinking about how women don’t show up often in my records.

Gender has always been a key framework for my understanding of the dogs’ lives (not their sex even though there is interesting material to mine there. Most of the famous dogs I’ve come across are male for several reasons, most practically because they didn’t get pregnant). Both Railroad Jack and Owney were the beloved pets of working men in the late 19th century. They lived in largely male spaces—the working rooms of train stations and post offices and baggage and mail cars. The dogs both provided men a safe outlet to express emotions of care and sentimentality. The issue of masculinity is fascinating and something I’ll be exploring more in the book, but that brings us back to the question at hand: where are the ladies at?

There are a few direct references to women in each of the dogs’ stories. According to the New York World, in 1890 Owney “developed a violent attachment for a lady ticket agent” in Hartford, Connecticut. That apparently ended when she got a poodle, which deeply offended Owney. Women were in the audience when the dogs would arrive at train stations, post offices, or other special locations. One report said that Albany women gave Railroad Jack a special collar. At the 1893 San Francisco dog show, Owney was “interviewed” and “quoted” as follows:

“I’d rather have fun with the mail boys on an express train than have a lot of women folks fooling with me all day. Dese hightoned, milk and water dogs make me sick with their stuck up airs.”

This last reference illuminates something I find critical to understanding how gender factors into this project: purebreds by the 1890s, particularly in the realm of dog showing and fancy, beg anto be widely associated with women of high social and economic standing. Meanwhile, Jack and Owney with their lack of pedigree and working-class hero status, symbolized a roguish masculine ideal. In some ways, the mythologizing of these two dogs seem to be a (subconscious) rebellion against the “feminization” of 19th century men who were working in less labor-intensive jobs. So, perhaps the lack of women in the story is due to the fact that the narrative of the dogs was meant for a male audience operating in uniquely male spheres. It isn’t until their celebrity grows that women (and children, too, for that matter) appear in the historical record.

That said, I need to explore this further because I suspect that women played a far more important role in this story than it appears on the surface. What about female train passengers? What about the wives and female family members of the railroad and postal workers who brought the dogs home with them? What about the mothers who read the bedtime stories about the dogs printed in the newspapers and then brought their children to see the dogs when they visited? Even if these women played minor roles in the day-to-day care of Owney or Jack, they certainly were integral in the spread of their celebrity.


Header Image (not Owney or Jack, it is an unidentified canine): By A.M. Gendron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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