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New Left Review I/191, January-February 1992


Elizabeth Wilson

The Invisible Flâneur

The relationship of women to cities has long preoccupied reformers and philanthropists. [1] The theme of this article is touched on in Elizabeth Wilson, The Sphinx in the City, London 1991. The immediate stimulus for it was the ‘Cracks in the Pavement’ (Women and City Spaces) conference organized by Lynne Walker and the Design Museum in April 1991. I am much indebted to all those who participated in the lively discussions that took place on that occasion, and my especial thanks to Lynne Walker for inviting me. In recent years the preoccupation has been inverted: the Victorian determination to control working-class women has been replaced by a feminist concern for women’s safety and comfort in city streets. But whether women are seen as a problem of cities, or cities as a problem for women, the relationship remains fraught with difficulty. With the intensification of the public/private divide in the industrial period, the presence of women on the streets and in public places of entertainment caused enormous anxiety, and was the occasion for any number of moralizing and regulatory discourses. In fact, the fate and position of women in the city was a special case of a more general alarm and ambivalence which stretched across the political spectrum. It is true that some—predominantly liberals— expressed an optimistic and excited response to the urban spectacle. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who stood to gain most from industrial urbanization were the ones that praised it most strongly: the new entrepreneurs, the rising bourgeois class. For them the cities—above all the great city, the metropolis—offered an unprecedented and astonishing variety of possibilities, stimuli and wealth. The development of a consumer and spectacular society on a scale not previously known represented opportunities for progress, plenty and a more educated and civilized populace. [2] See, for example, Robert Vaughan, The Age of Great Cities, London 1843. Andrew Lees, Cities Perceived: Urban Society in European and American Thought, 1820–1940, Manchester 1985, discusses at length attitudes towards urbanization in Europe and the United States.

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