“Take Back the Night” events occurred in various communities in the last few weeks. A movement that has its roots in 1970s feminists’ resistance to violence against women, its main focus is on making the nighttime streets of cities safe for a lone woman to walk.
This aspiration underlines how far we have come since the days when it was understood that no “respectable” woman could walk city streets unaccompanied even in daytime. It was dangerous and inappropriate. Making urban public spaces available to women even in the day was, noted historian Mary Ryan wrote, one of the “major civic project[s]” of the late 19th century. There is more of this project to complete.
(This account is drawn from Ch. 5 of Made in America.)
In the 18th and first half or so of the 19th century, most of the women who went into the streets without male escort were the poor who went out to hawk goods or get to their jobs, perhaps as washerwomen. They had to walk past loiterers, hucksters, and gangs of men who assumed that unaccompanied women were available for the taking.
In a notorious 1793 case, a 17-year-old working-class girl in New York City charged that she had been lured off the street into a whorehouse and raped by the scion of a wealthy family. The defendant’s attorney argued that the alleged victim was clearly a strumpet, because everyone knew that no innocent woman would walk the streets unescorted. (The jury’s almost instant acquittal of the defendant led to three days of rioting.)
Antebellum guide books for women made clear that if their readers ventured into the streets, they should anticipate stares, comments, and badgering, if not worse.
When “respectable” women needed to enter public spaces, authorities tried to shield them from strangers. Post offices, for example, attracted pickpockets and other idlers, so postmasters of large offices set up separate windows and lines for women who needed to appear in person. Concern for such women helped spur the postal system to provide mail drop-boxes in residential neighborhoods and free home delivery in 1863. (Historian David Henkin recounts the postal story.)
American cities in the 19th century were flooded with unattached, laboring men, many of whom, such as the Irish and Italian, were felt to be threatening by native-born Americans. More and more middle-class husbands removed their wives and children from what they feared was disorder and physical danger by setting their families up in new, purely residential neighborhoods. These gilded refuges were initially built a mile or two away from downtown and then later a train or ferry ride away. And so began the commuting husband. (Kenneth Jackson and Stuart Blumin tell this story well.)
Women Take the Daytime Streets
The “civic project” Mary Ryan referred to involved taming the city streets. Women increasingly stepped out, in part because the streets became less dangerous and in part because women asserted claims to public spaces. In the last decades of the 19th century, urban authorities used various tactics, from creating a professional police force to dragging youths into schools, as ways to reduce the disorder and danger of the streets. At the same time, the growing cities provided more attractions for middle-class people to come out in numbers, attractions such as theaters, shops, museums, amusement parks, and most notably, the department store.
Dazzling emporia, such as Macy’s, opened in the 1880s and provided women with places to meet friends for shopping and lunch. The doors were open to all who had the time to enter, even factory girls, whether to buy or just to look. In 1866, an etiquette guide had cautioned women against lingering in front of shop windows because they’d be molested; but an 1891 guide encouraged women to enjoy window shopping and did so without noting any danger.
An Italian visitor, recounting his exertions trying to navigate through crowds of women heading for the department stores on Boston’s Washington Street, wrote that “the Public here is a common noun of the feminine gender.”
The 20th Century
During much of the 20th century, especially the second half, middle-class families retreated from the city streets and public places they had claimed a generation or two earlier. They increasingly spent time in suburban dens and backyards. (Family attendance at movies plummeted after the 1940s, for example.) The dramatic upswing in urban crime starting in the late 1960s was one among several reasons for abandoning city streets.
But the history of the last decade or two hints at another swing in pendulum – back to the streets. Demographers are noting more middle-class people, particularly the young and well-educated, living in the centers of major cities. And some large cities — not all, by a long shot — have had a downtown renaissance of commercial and entertainment activities.
Now, the prospect arises that women will not only populate the streets in the day and “take … the night.” Not take back, but take the night-time street at last.