BY: CAROLINE ROLF
Like so many women living in cities, I am constantly being advised, “Make sure you don’t walk anywhere alone at night.” Women are often reminded not to walk out at night alone, to avoid alleys and keep pepper spray in their purse—ready to point at the first suspicious stranger—upon entering their building. This is a socially learned construct, to the point that it is becoming the responsibility of the woman to stay safe. We don’t have to look much further than the places which women are absent from to understand their fears.
When walking through city streets, it has been suggested that women take on a more assertive demeanor and bold confidence as a way to reclaim this lost space. An attitude such as this can be described as ‘solitude’. The idea of solitude in this sense comes from feminist geography, which is the idea that a woman can be solitary in a public space—rather than dismissing or hiding her vulnerability, embracing it and making it her source of power.
Since the Industrial Revolution, there has been a great divide between the urban and suburban of a city and thus where the woman belongs and seems out of place. While working white families lived comfortably on the cities edges, immigrants lived in the slum houses, even while working the same jobs. The physical distance between the suburbs and old city centres changed what type of work the women were doing. Labour took place in the city while unpaid domestic work happened in the home. By 1970, many women had joined the labour force, which increased their presence in the city. Cities that hosted colleges became flooded with women who had access to education—mainly white and single. Women of colour were doing the same work as married white women, but were mostly absent from the urban environment. This could be due to a variety of reasons such as discrimination in housing or work and differences in family life. Maybe we should take a look at the organization of our cities now and consider how the spaces we live in influence our interactions with one another as they continue to develop, gentrify and expand. This directly influences societal norms and the kinds of people we are used to seeing in a certain place.
Part of the reason women are seen as vulnerable is because they are thought of as fragile, weak and are victimized. French artist, Sophie Calle, challenged this idea in Suite Vênitienne, a project in which she stalked a man, Henri B, from Paris to Venice, pushing the boundaries of propriety. She trails him through the city streets, photographing his every move and assaulting his privacy. She switches the narrative that tells us women are usually the targets and challenges herself to follow a “masculine path” through the city—spaces we would usually avoid while the subject engages with confidence.
Like Calle, the practice of solitude takes time and comes with its uncertainties, but still it must be done. Street harassment is unwanted and is too often considered harmless. This is a harsh reminder of the entitlement some men feel they have in public spaces. Public harassment towards women happens because women are seen as unsafe without a companion or made to feel as though they would be abandoned in a moment of crisis. Women shouldn’t have to fear walking down a city sidewalk, and a significant shift in attitude and mannerisms can push boundaries and lead to a more equal urban environment.