| Modern * Cambridge |
“Here was nothing formidable; I felt sure I might venture out alone” – Villette
The horrific news of Sarah Everard has been received with shock and heart-breaking sadness around the country. Some archaic reactions to the event have ignited the pressing issue of women’s safety in public spaces in a way that resonates with so many of us: the entrenched fear of walking alone, the demand that a friend to text back once they’re home, the deliberate choices made to supposedly ‘keep safe’. This weekend there will be vigils for Sarah in an attempt to 'reclaimthestreets'. It is a struggle that has been going longer than we imagine, back to the Victorian period, when it became apparent that the very first industrial cities were designed for men and men alone.
The debates over who was allowed in public spaces became controversial in the 19th century. Cities were for men, home was for women. Men’s clubs, bars, entertainment venues were everywhere, and women naturally wanted to be a part of this expanding metropolis. It was a place where you could explore and gain independence, just by rambling through the streets. The issue was that the cities themselves had become gendered. There were no women’s bathrooms, no women’s clubs, nowhere for them to stop and take a break. Unless you lived in the city, you were restricted in your movements. It was also dangerous. The badly-lit, dirty streets were a place of vulnerability for women. This wasn’t just because of random acts of violence and aggression, but often through regulated, organised campaigns against women.
The Historian Phillip Howell has written a brilliant study on how the streets of Victorian Cambridge became a place where women were systematically removed from the public space and stigmatised when they dared venture outside. The area of Cambridge was monitored by proctors – University police – who’s main job was to be on the lookout for ‘common women’, namely, the prostitutes who would corrupt the men of academia. This implementation of misogynistic power meant that they had the authority to eradicate women from public spaces, no matter their intentions. Women were sinful temptations, and they had to be removed. It led to a number of aggressive encounters against both those in the trade and those just walking the streets at the wrong time.
It got to the point where no women could walk in Cambridge without fear of being accosted and accused of indecent activity. Fundamentally, it was just another example of mis-used authority. In the late 19th century, when a local girl was thrown in jail after a mis-allegation of prostitution, it became clear that no women found in a public space was safe from the misogynistic gaze - and the town rose up against the authorities.
Women have gained the legal right to walk where they like, but the tragedy of this week has shown that although there has been progress for some, we are still a long way from equality of safety. There are still so many individuals who do not feel protected or accepted in these gendered spaces. It is a call for all of us to do better.