The relationship of women to cities has long preoccupied reformers and philanthropists.footnote1 In recent years the preoccupation has been inverted: the Victorian determination to control working-class women has been replaced by a feminist concern for women’s safety and comfort in city streets.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.footnote2

Hostility to urbanization was more likely to come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. On the Left, Engels was deeply critical not only of the slum and factory conditions in which the majority had to survive, but equally of the indifference and selfishness with which people behaved in crowds where no-one knew anyone else. By contrast with an implied natural order of things, the new urban forms of human interaction had about them ‘something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels’. Urban life encouraged ‘the brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest’.footnote3 The utopian socialist William Morris hated the dirt and poverty of the industrialized town, and advocated a return to medieval village architecture and ways of life—a life in which women would be once more safely ensconced in the domestic sphere.footnote4 That Morris is still so popular on the Left (especially with men), and received so uncritically, is an index of the strength of left-wing romantic anti-urbanism.

Right-wing critics of urban life equally harked back to an organic rural community. They feared the way in which the break-up of tradition in cities led to the undermining of authority, hierarchy and dignity. The menace of the cities was not only disease and poverty; even more threatening were the spectres of sensuality, democracy and revolution. One particular cause for alarm was the way in which urban life undermined patriarchal authority. Young, unattached men and women flocked to the towns to find more remunerative work. There, freed from the bonds of social control, they were in danger of succumbing to temptations of every kind; immorality, illegitimacy, the breakdown of family life and bestial excess appeared to threaten from all sides. Perhaps worse was that, in the rough and tumble of the city street and urban crowd, distinctions of rank of every kind were blurred.

In particular, female virtue and respectability were hard to preserve in this promiscuous environment. ‘Who are these somebodies whom nobody knows?’ famously enquired William Acton in his survey of prostitution, published in 1857; and prostitution was the great fear of the age. Evangelical reformers in the Britain of the 1830s and 1840s wrote impassioned tracts in which they described this, the ‘great social evil’, as a plague that was rotting the very basis of society, and they campaigned for its eradication. Significantly, they often linked prostitution to the ideals of the French Revolution. Prostitution, then, was not only a real and ever present threat; it was also a metaphor for disorder and the overturning of the natural hierarchies and institutions of society. Rescue, reform and legislation were to rid the cities of this frightful evil.footnote5

The pioneer of investigations into prostitution was the French bureaucrat, Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet, whose survey of the problem appeared in 1836. He favoured a regulatory regime of the kind Foucault has documented, arguing that each prostitute must have her dossier, and that the more information that could be gathered about each individual—the better she was known by the state—the easier would become the task of surveillance.footnote6 Alain Corbin has studied Parent-Duchâtelet’s work in other areas of hygiene, his investigations of slaughter houses, for example, and has drawn out the way in which his writings articulate a contradictory ideology of prostitution. In this ideology the prostitute’s body is putrefying, and infects the social body with corruption and death; yet at the same time it is a drain which siphons off that which would otherwise corrupt the whole of society. In order to effect this, bourgeois surveillance and regulation were to bring the brothel within a utilitarian regime of control.footnote7

Parent-Duchâtelet’s perspective was distinct from that of the British evangelical clergymen and philanthropists, and his stance closer to that of the physician William Acton. By the 1850s Acton was arguing for the regulation of prostitution from a worldly and cynical perspective far different in tone from that of the evangelicals.footnote8

In Britain an intense struggle developed between those who favoured more stringent regulation and those who objected to it. The regulation of prostitutes could all too easily shade over into the regulation of all —or at least all working-class—women. Josephine Butler undertook her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts (from 1864) on civil-liberties grounds, and partly because women who were not prostitutes could so easily fall foul of the new ordinances and find themselves subject to arrest and humiliating examination.footnote9 Judith Walkowitz has argued that the very existence of these Acts served to separate prostitutes more clearly from other women—and that therefore the regulation of prostitutes in a sense almost created and certainly exacerbated the evil it was intended to contain.footnote10