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Mary Norman Woods on The Invisible Flâneuse
31 March, 2021
In Janet Wolff’s article on the gendering of modern urban spaces, she argues that the flâneuse was not only invisible but really non-existent. Instead it was the flâneur, the male stroller and wanderer allowed to gaze and reflect on chance, fleeting, and impersonal encounters, that first Charles Baudelaire, Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, and then Richard Sennett and Marshall Berman characterised as the embodiment of modernity. Tracing the increasing spatial segregation of the sexes into different realms, Wolff argued that identifying the modern with only public spaces erased women and their experiences from the literature of modernity.
Despite the continued presence of working-class and lower-middle-class women in the modern city, Wolff observed ‘the ideology of women’s place in the domestic realm permeated the whole of society’ during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In her conclusion Wolff called for research into the histories of middle- and working-class women: ‘The recovery of women’s experience is part of the project of what has been hidden, and attempting to fill the gaps in classic accounts…What is missing in the literature is any account of life outside the public realm, of the experience of ‘the modern’ in its private manifestations, and also of the very different nature of the experience of those women who did appear in the public arena; a poem written by “la femme passante” about her encounter with Baudelaire perhaps?’ Wolff projected scholarship into the modern spaces of streets, factories, and tenements, as well as cinemas, department stores, and suburban homes.
More than two decades later she reconsidered this work in Gender and the Haunting of Cities, a 2008 edited volume that her 1985 essay inspired. Here she challenged the binary of public and private spaces and called for nuancing the actual experiences of modern women and men in both these realms. However, Wollf reaffirmed the flâneur is still gendered as male, thus marginalising women within public spaces of the modern city.
Wolff’s arguments continue to resonate today as seen in the events surrounding the 2021 murder of Sarah Everard, a young marketing executive in London. First the metropolitan police advised women to stay at home for their own safety after Everard’s disappearance. Then they forcibly arrested many women and broke up the crowds that came to honor Everard with a public vigil on the Clapham Common near where she disappeared. Women’s rights to the city, as Wolff wrote almost forty years ago, are still very much at issue in modern life.