Walking After Midnight: Women, Sex, and Public Space

Nightwalk

An excerpt from Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit.

Caroline Wyburgh, age nineteen, went “walking out” with a sailor in Chatham, England, in 1870. Walking had long been an established part of courtship. It was free. It gave the lovers a semiprivate space in which to court, whether in a park, a plaza, a boulevard, or a byway (and such rustic landscape features as lovers’ lanes gave them private space in which to do more). Perhaps, in the same way that marching together affirms and generates solidarity between a group, this delicate act of marching the rhythms of their strides aligns two people emotionally and bodily; perhaps they first feel themselves a pair by moving together through the evening, the street, the world. As a way of doing that something closest to doing nothing, strolling together allows them to bask in each other’s presence, obliged neither to converse continually nor to do something so engaging as to prevent them from conversing. And in Britain the term “walking out together” sometimes meant something explicitly sexual, but more often expressed that an ongoing connection had been established, akin to the modern American phrase “going steady.” In James Joyce’s novella The Dead, the husband who has just discovered that his wife had a suitor in her youth asks if she loved that now-dead boy, and she replies, devastatingly, “I used to go out walking with him.”

Caroline Wyburgh, age nineteen, was seen walking with her soldier, and because of it she was dragged from her bed late one night by a police inspector. The Contagious Diseases Acts in effect at that time gave police in barracks towns the power to arrest anyone they suspected of being a prostitute. Merely walking about in the wrong time or place could put a woman under suspicion, and the law allowed any woman so accused or suspected to be arrested. If the arrested woman refused to undergo a medical examination, she could be sentenced to months in jail; but the painful and humiliating medical examination constituted punishment too; and if she was found to be infected, she was confined to a medical prison. Guilty till proven innocent, she could not escape unscathed. Wyburgh supported herself the fifth day she agreed to be examined, but her willingness failed her after she was taken to the surgery, straitjacketed, thrust onto an examining couch with her feet strapped apart, and held down by an assistant who planted an elbow on her chest. She struggled, rolled off the couch with her ankles still strapped in, and severely injured herself. But the surgeon laughed, for his instruments of inspection had deflowered her, and blood poured between her legs. “You have been telling the truth,” he said. “You are not a bad girl.”The soldier was never named, arrested, inspected, or otherwise drawn into the legal system, and men have usually had an easier time walking down the street than have women. Women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, talking a walk, because their walking and indeed their very beings have been construed as inevitably, continually sexual in those societies concerned with controlling women’s sexuality. Throughout the history of walking I have been tracing, the principal figures—whether of peripatetic philosophers, flâneurs, or mountaineers—have been men, and it is time to look at why women were not out walking too.

The soldier was never named, arrested, inspected, or otherwise drawn into the legal system, and men have usually had an easier time walking down the street than have women. Women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, talking a walk, because their walking and indeed their very beings have been construed as inevitably, continually sexual in those societies concerned with controlling women’s sexuality. Throughout the history of walking I have been tracing, the principal figures—whether of peripatetic philosophers, flâneurs, or mountaineers—have been men, and it is time to look at why women were not out walking too.

“Being born a woman is my awful tragedy,” wrote Sylvia Plath in her journal when she too was nineteen. “Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars—to be part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstructed as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.” Plath seems to have been interested in men for the very reason she was unable to investigate them—because their greater freedom made their lives more interesting to a young woman just setting out on her own. There are three prerequisites to taking a walk—that is, to going out into the world to walk for pleasure. One must have free time, a place to go, and a body unhindered by illness or social restraints. Free time has many variables, but most public places at most times have not been as welcoming and as safe for women. Legal measures, social mores subscribed to by both men and women, the threat implicit in sexual harassment, and rape itself have all limited women’s ability to walk where and when they wished. (Women’s clothes and bodily confinements—high heels, tight or fragile shoes, corsets and girdles, very full or narrow skirts, easily damaged fabrics, veils that obscure vision—are part of the social mores that have handicapped women as effectively as laws and fears.)

Women’s presence in public becomes with startling frequency an invasion of their private parts, sometimes literally, sometimes verbally. Even the English language is rife with words and phrases that sexualize women’s walking. Among the terms for prostitutes are streetwalkers, women of the streets, women on the town, and public women (and of course phrases such as a public man, man about town, or man of the streets mean very different things than do their equivalents attached to women). A woman who has violated sexual convention can be said to be strolling, roaming, wandering, straying—all terms that imply that women’s travel is inevitably sexual or that their sexuality is transgressive when it travels. Had a group of women called themselves the Sunday Tramps, as did a group of Leslie Stephen’s male friends, the monicker would have implied not that they went walking but that they engaged in something salacious on Sundays. Of course women’s walking is often construed as performance rather than transport, with the implication that women walk not to see but to be seen, not for their own experience but for that of a male audience, which means that they are asking for whatever attention they receive. Much has been written about how women walk, as erotic assessment—from the seventeenth-century miss whose “feet beneath her petticoat / like little mice, stole in and out” to Marilyn Monroe’s wiggle—and as instruction on the right way to walk. Less has been written about where we walk.

Other categories of people have had their freedom of movement limited, but limitations based on race, class, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are local and variable compared to those placed on women, which have profoundly shaped the identities of both genders over the millennia in most parts of the world. There are biological and psychological explanations for these states of affairs, but the social and political circumstances seem most relevant. How far back can one go? In Middle Assyria (circa the seventeenth to eleventh centuries BC), women were divided into two categories. Wives and widows “who go out onto the street” may not have their heads uncovered, said the law; prostitutes and slave girls, contrarily, must not have their heads covered. Those who illicitly wore a veil could be given fifty lashes or have pitch poured over their heads. The historian Gerda Lerner comments, “Domestic women, sexually serving one man and under his protection, are here designated as ‘respectable’ by being veiled; women not under one man’s protection and sexual control are designated as ‘public women,’ hence unveiled. . . . This pattern of enforced visible discrimination recurs throughout historical time in the myriad regulations which place ‘disreputable women’ in certain districts or certain houses marked with clearly identifiable signs or which force them to register with the authorities and carry identification cards.” Of course “respectable” women have been equally regulated, but more by social constraints than woman’s morality or will to make her inaccessible to passersby. It separates women into two publicly recognized castes based on sexual conduct but allows men, whose sexuality remains private, access to both castes. Membership in the respectable caste comes at the cost of consignment to private life; membership in the caste with spatial and sexual freedom comes at the cost of social respect. Either way, the law makes it virtually impossible to be a respected public female figure, and ever since, women’s sexuality has been public business.

Homer’s Odysseus travels the world and sleeps around. Odysseus’s wife Penelope stays dutifully at home, rebuffing the suitors she lacks the authority to reject outright. Travel, whether local or global, has remained a largely masculine prerogative ever since, with women often the destination, the prize, or keepers of the hearth. By the fifth century BC in Greece, these radically different roles were defined as those of the interior and exterior, the private and the public spheres. Athenian women, writes Richard Sennett, “were confined to houses because of their supposed physiological defects.” He quotes Pericles concluding his funeral oration with advice to the women of Athens—“The greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticizing you”—and Xenophon telling wives, “Your business will be to stay indoors.” Women in ancient Greece lived far from the celebrated public spaces and public life of the cities. Throughout much of the Western world into the present, women have remained relatively housebound, not only by law in some countries even now, but by custom and fear in others. The usual theory for this control of women is that in cultures where patrilineal descent is important for inheritance and identity, controlling women’s sexuality has been the means of ensuring paternity. (Anyone who thinks such matters are archaic or irrelevant need merely remember the anatomist-evolutionist Owen Lovejoy, discussed in chapter 3, attempting to naturalize this social order by theorizing that female monogamy and immobility were important for our species long before we became human.) But there are many other factors pertaining to the creation of a dominant gender whose privileges include controlling and defining the female sexuality often viewed as chaotic, threatening, and subversive—a sort of wild nature to be subdued by masculine culture.

Architectural historian Mark Wiggins writes, “In Greek thought women lack the internal self-control credited to men as the very mark of their masculinity. This self-control is no more than the maintenance of secure boundaries. These internal boundaries … cannot be maintained by a woman because her fluid sexuality endlessly overflows and disrupts them. And more than this she endlessly disrupts the boundaries of others, that is, men. … In these terms the role of architecture is explicitly the control of sexuality, or more precisely, women’s sexuality, the chastity of the girl, the fidelity of the wife. . . . While the house protects the children from the elements, its primary role is to protect the father’s genealogical claims by isolating women from other men.” Thus, women’s sexuality is controlled via the regulation of public and private space. In order to keep women “private,” or sexually accessible to one man and inaccessible to all others, her whole life would be consigned to the private space of the home that served as a sort of masonry veil.

 


 

Prostitutes have been more regulated than any other women, as though the social constraints they had escaped pursued them as laws. (Prostitutes’ customers, of course, have almost never been regulated in any way, either by law or by social condemnation: think of Walter Benjamin and André Breton a few chapters ago, who managed to write about their relations with prostitutes without fear of losing their status as public intellectuals or marriageable men.) Throughout the nineteenth century, many European governments attempted to regulate prostitution by limiting the circumstances in which it could be carried out, and this often became a limitation of the circumstances in which any woman could walk. Nineteenth-century women were often portrayed as too frail and pure for the mire of urban life and compromised for being out at all if they didn’t have a specific purpose. Thus women legitimized their presence by shopping—proving they were not for purchase by purchasing—and stores have long provided safe semipublic havens in which to roam. One of the arguments about why women could not be flâneurs was that they were, as either commodities or consumers, incapable of being sufficiently detached from the commerce of city life. Once the stores closed, so did much of their opportunity to wander (which was hardest on working women, for whom the evening was their only free time). In Germany the vice squad persecuted women who were out alone in the evening, and a Berlin doctor commented, “The young men strolling on the streets think only that a woman of good reputation does not allow herself to be seen in the evening.” Public visibility and independence were still equated, as they had been three thousand years earlier, with sexual disreputability; women’s sexuality could still be defined by geographical as well as temporal locale. Think of Dorothy Wordsworth and her fictional sister Elizabeth Bennet upbraided for going out walking in the country, or Edith Wharton’s New York heroine in The House of Mirth risking her social status at the beginning of the novel to walk into a man’s house unchaperoned for a cup of tea and ruining that status for good by being seen to leave another man’s house in the evening (while the law controls “disreputable women,” “respectable women” often patrol each other).

By the 1870s in France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, prostitutes were only allowed to solicit at certain times. France was particularly cynical in its regulation of prostitution; the practice was licensed, and both the licensing and the banning of unlicensed sexual commerce allowed the police to control women. Any woman could be arrested for soliciting merely because she appeared in the times and places associated with the sex industry, while known prostitutes could be arrested for appearing in any other time or place—women had been divided into diurnal and nocturnal species. One prostitute was arrested for “shopping in Les Halles at nine o’clock in the morning and was charged with speaking to a man (the stall holder), and with being off the beat stipulated on her registration license.” By that time, the Police des Moeurs, or Morals Police, could arrest working-class women for anything or nothing, and they would sometimes round up groups of female passersby on the boulevards to meet their quotas. At first watching the women get arrested was a masculine pastime, but by 1876 the abuses became so extreme that boulevardiers sometimes tried to interfere and got arrested themselves. The mostly young, mostly poor, unmarried women and girl children arrested were seldom found innocent; many were incarcerated behind the high walls of Saint Lazare prison, where they lived in dire circumstances, cold, malnourished, unwashed, overworked, and forbidden to speak. They were released when they agreed to register as prostitutes, while women who ran away from licensed brothels were given the choice of either returning to the brothel or being sent to Saint Lazare—thus women were forced into rather than out of prostitution. Many committed suicide rather than face arrest. The great champion of human rights for prostitutes Josephine Butler visited Saint Lazare in the 1870s: “I asked what the crime was for which the greater number were in prison and was told it was for walking in streets which are forbidden, and at hours which are forbidden!”

Butler, a well-educated, upper-class woman who grew up amid progressives, was the most effective opponent of Britain’s Contagious Diseases Acts passed in the 1860s. A devout Christian, she opposed the laws both because they put the state in the business of regulating prostitution and thus, implicitly, of condoning it and because they enforced a double standard. Women could be punished by incarceration or by the inspections dubbed “surgical rape” for the slightest suspicion of being a prostitute, and a woman found to carry a venereal disease was confined and treated, while men were left free to continue spreading it (similar measures have been considered and sometimes carried out in regards to prostitutes and AIDS in recent years). The law had been passed to protect the health of the army, whose soldiers had a much higher incidence of such diseases than the general public; it seems to have been based on a cynical recognition that the health, freedom, and civil rights of men were of greater value to the state than those of women. Many more extreme abuses than that of Caroline Wyburgh were carried out, and at least one woman—a widowed mother of three—was hounded into suicide. Going out walking had become evidence of sexual activity, and sexual activity on the part of women had been criminalized. Though the laws in the United States were never quite so bad, similar circumstances sometimes prevailed. In 1895 a young working-class New Yorker named Lizzie Schauer was arrested as a prostitute because she was out alone after dark and had stopped to ask directions of two men. Though she was in fact on her way to her aunt’s house on the Lower East Side, the act and the time were interpreted as signs that she was soliciting. Only after a medical examination proved she was a “good girl” was she released. Had she not been a virgin, she might well have been found guilty of a crime compounded of the twin acts of having been sexual and of walking alone in the evening.

Though protecting respectable women from vice had long been one rationale for state regulation and prosecution of prostitution, the eminently respectable Butler took on the formidable task of protecting women from the state, for which she was vilified and chased by mobs (often hired by brothel owners). On one occasion the mob caught her and she was badly beaten and smeared with dirt and excrement, her hair and clothes torn; on another, a prostitute she came across as she fled a mob led her through a labyrinth of back streets and empty warehouses to safety. Of course she herself had transgressed by moving into the public sphere of political discourse and challenging the sexual conduct of men, and she was decried by one member of Parliament as “worse than prostitutes.” As she lay dying in 1906, far more women were moving into that sphere and meeting with similar treatment. The women’s suffrage movement in the United States and Britain, after decades of quiet and ineffectual effort to gain the vote for women, became militant in the first decade of the twentieth century, with an extraordinary campaign of marches, demonstrations, and public meetings—the now-usual forms of outdoor politicking available to those denied entrée to the system. These demonstrations were met with an unusual degree of violence—by the police in Britain, and by crowds of soldiers and other men in the United States. Union activists, religious nonconformists, and others had been met by violence before, but some of the things that happened to the suffragettes were unique. In Britain archaic laws were invoked to criminalize the women’s public gatherings, and current laws that gave all citizens the right to petition the government were violated. In both the United States and Britain these women arrested for exercising their right to be and to speak in public went on hunger strike, demanding they be recognized as political prisoners. Both governments responded by force-feeding the prisoners, and the agonizing procedure—which involved restraining the woman, forcing a tube down her nostrils to her stomach, and pumping in food—became a new form of institutional rape. Once again women who had attempted to participate in public life by walking down the street were locked up and found the privacy of their bodily interiors violated by the state.

But women won the vote, and in recent decades most of this strange duet between public space and private parts has been not between women and the government but between women and men. Feminism has largely addressed and achieved reforms of interactions indoors—in the home, the workplace, the schools, and the political system. Yet access to public space, urban and rural, for social, political, practical, and cultural purposes is an important part of everyday life, one limited for women by their fear of violence and harassment. The routine harassment women experience ensures, in the words of one scholar of the subject, “that women will not feel at ease, that we will remember our role as sexual beings, available to, accessible to men. It is a reminder that we are not to consider ourselves equals, participating in public life with our own right to go where we like when we like, to pursue our own projects with a sense of security.” Both men and women may be assaulted for economic reasons, and both have been incited by crime stories in the news to fear cities, strangers, the young, the poor, and uncontrolled spaces. But women are the primary targets of sexualized violence, which they encounter in suburban and rural as well as urban spaces, from men of all ages and income levels, and the possibility of such violence is implicit in the more insulting and aggressive propositions, comments, leers, and intimidations that are part of ordinary life for women in public places. Fear of rape puts many women in their place—indoors, intimidated, dependent yet again on material barriers and protectors rather than their own will to safeguard their sexuality. Two-thirds of American women are afraid to walk alone in their own neighborhoods at night, according to one poll, and another reported that half of British women were afraid to go out after dark alone and 40 percent were “very worried” about being raped.

Like Caroline Wyburgh and Sylvia Plath, I was nineteen when I first felt the full force of this lack of freedom. I had grown up on the suburban edge of the country in the days before children were closely supervised and I went to town or to the hills at will, and at seventeen I ran away to Paris, where the men who often propositioned and occasionally grabbed me in the streets seemed more annoying than terrifying. At nineteen, I moved to a poor San Francisco neighborhood with less street life than the gay neighborhood I had moved from and discovered that at night the day’s constant threats were more likely to be carried out. Of course it wasn’t only poor neighborhoods and nighttime in which I was threatened. I was, for example, followed near Fisherman’s Wharf one afternoon by a well-dressed man who murmured a long stream of vile sexual proposals to me; when I turned around and told him off, he recoiled in genuine shock at my profanity, told me I had no right to speak to him like that, and threatened to kill me. Only the earnestness of his death threat made the incident stand out from hundreds of others more or less like it. It was the most devastating discovery of my life that I had no real right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness out-of-doors, that the world was full of strangers who seemed to hate me and wish to harm me for no reason other than my gender, that sex so readily became violence, and that hardly anyone else considered it a public issue rather than a private problem. I was advised to stay indoors at night, to wear baggy clothes, to cover or cut my hair, to try to look like a man, to move to someplace more expensive, to take taxis, to buy a car, to move in groups, to get a man to escort me—all modern versions of Greek walls and Assyrian veils, all asserting it was my responsibility to control my own and men’s behavior rather than society’s to ensure my freedom. I realized that many women had been so successfully socialized to know their place that they had chosen more conservative, gregarious lives without realizing why. The very desire to walk alone had been extinguished in them—but it had not in me.

The constant threats and the few incidents of real terror transformed me. Still, I stayed where I was, became more adept at navigating the dangers of the street, and became less of a target as I grew older. Almost all my interactions nowadays with passersby are civil, and some are delightful. Young women receive the brunt of such harassment, I think, not because they are more beautiful but because they are less sure of their rights and boundaries (though such unsureness manifested as naïveté and timidity are often part of what is considered beauty). The years of harassment received in youth constitute an education in the limits of one’s life, even long after the daily lessons stop. Sociologist June Larkin got a group of Canadian teenagers to keep track of their sexual harassment in public and found they were leaving the less dramatic incidents out because, as one said, “If I wrote down every little thing that happened on the street, it would take up too much time.” Having met so many predators, I learned to think like prey, as have most women, though fear is far more minor an element of my everyday awareness than it was when I was in my twenties.

 


 

The movements for women’s rights often came out of the movements for racial justice. The first great women’s convention at Seneca Falls, New York, was organized by abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott out of anger over the discrimination they faced even while trying to fight against slavery—they had attended the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London, only to find that the male-dominated organization would not seat any female delegates. “Stanton and Mott,” writes one historian, “began to see similarities between their own circumscribed status and that of slaves.” Josephine Butler and the English suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst also came from abolitionist families, and in recent years some of the most original and important feminists have been black women—bell hooks, Michelle Wallace, June Jordan—who address both race and gender.

When I wrote of the gay poets of New York, I left out the Harlem-born James Baldwin, because for him Manhattan was not a deliciously liberatory place where he could lose himself, as it was for Whitman and Ginsberg. It threatened instead never to let him forget himself, whether it was the policemen near the Public Library telling him to stay uptown, the pimps on uptown Fifth Avenue trying to recruit him, when he was a boy, to become one of the dangers, or the people in his own neighborhood keeping track of him as do people in small towns. He wrote about walking the city as a black man rather than a gay one, though he was both; his race limited his roaming until he moved to Paris. Black men nowadays are seen as working-class women were a century ago: as a criminal category when in public, so that the law often actively interferes with their freedom of movement. In 1983 an African-American man, Edward Lawson, won a Supreme Court case challenging a California statute that “required persons who loiter or wander on the streets to provide a credible and reliable identification and to account for their presence when requested by a peace officer.” Lawson, who, the New York Times reported, “liked to walk and was often stopped late at night in residential areas,” had been arrested fifteen times for refusing to identify himself under this statute criminalizing walking. An athletic man with tidy dreadlocks, he used to dance at the same nightclub I did then.

But in public space, racism has often been easier to recognize than sexism and far more likely to become an issue. Late in the 1980s two young black men died for being in “the wrong place at the wrong time.” Michael Griffith was chased by a gang of hostile white men in Howard Beach, ran out into traffic to escape their persecution, and was killed by a car. Yusef Hawkins was bludgeoned to death for being a black man in another white Queens neighborhood, Bensonhurst. An enormous outcry arose over these two cases; people rightly understood that these young men’s civil rights had been stripped from them when they were attacked for walking down the street. Not long after Griffith and Hawkins died in Queens, a large group of teenage boys from uptown Manhattan went into Central Park at night and found a white female jogger. She was gang-raped, cut with knives, beaten with rocks and pipes, her skull was crushed, and she lost most of her blood. Expected to die, she survived with brain damage and physical disabilities.

“The Central Park Jogger Case” was discussed in startlingly different terms. Considerable public outrage had been expressed that the two murdered men had been denied the basic liberty to roam the city, and the crimes were universally recognized as racially motivated. But in a careful study of the Central Park case, Helen Benedict wrote, “Throughout the case, even up to the start of the trial, the white and black press kept running articles trying to analyze why the youths had committed this heinous crime. . . . They looked for answers in race, drugs, class, and in the ghetto’s ‘culture of violence.’ ” The reasons proferred, she concludes, “were woefully inadequate as an explanation . . . because the press never looked at the most glaring reason of all for rape: society’s attitude toward women.” Portraying it as a case about race—the assailants were Latino and black—rather than gender failed to make an issue at all of violence against women. And almost no one at all discussed the Central Park case as a civil rights issue—as part of a pattern of infringements on women’s right to roam the city (women of color rarely show up in crime reportage at all, apparently since they lack men’s status as citizens and white women’s titillating appeal as victims). A decade after Bensonhurst and Central Park, the gruesome lynching of a black man in Texas has been greeted with outrage as a hate crime and an infringement on the civil rights of people of color, as has the brutal death of a young gay man in Wyoming—for gays and lesbians are also frequent targets of violence that “teaches them their place” or punishes them for their nonconformity. But similar murders motivated by gender, though they fill the newspapers and take the lives of thousands of women every year, are not contextualized as anything but isolated incidents that don’t require social reform or national soul-searching.

The geography of race and gender are different, for a racial group may monopolize a whole region, while gender compartmentalizes in local ways. Many people of color find the whiter parts of rural America unwelcoming, to say the least, even in the places where a white woman might feel safe (white supremacists seem to arise from or flock to some of the most scenic parts of the country). Evelyn C. White writes that when she first tried to explore rural Oregon, memories of southern lynchings “could leave me speechless and paralyzed with the heart-stopping fear that swept over me as when I crossed paths with loggers near the McKenzie River or whenever I visited the outdoors.” In Britain the photographer Ingrid Pollard made a series of wry portraits of herself in the Lake District, where she apparently went to try to feel like Wordsworth and felt nervous instead. Nature romanticism, she seemed to be saying, is not available to people of her color. But many white women too feel nervous in any isolated situation, and some have personal experience to draw upon. When she was young, the great climber and mountaineer Gwen Moffat went to the beautiful Isle of Skye off Scotland’s west coast to climb by herself. After a drunken neighbor broke into her bedroom in the middle of the night, she cabled for a man to join her and recounts, “Had I been older and more mature, I could have coped with life on my own, but living as I did I laid myself open to all kinds of advances and speculations. Ordinary, conventional men thought this way of life an open invitation and I couldn’t face the resentment which I knew they felt when they were rebuffed.”

Women have been enthusiastic participants in pilgrimages, walking clubs, parades, processions, and revolutions, in part because in an already defined activity their presence is less likely to be read as sexual invitation, in part because companions have been women’s best guarantee of public safety. In revolutions the importance of public issues seems to set aside private matters temporarily, and women have found great freedom during them (and some revolutionaries, such as Emma Goldman, have made sexuality one of the fronts on which they sought freedom). But walking alone also has enormous spiritual, cultural, and political resonance. It has been a major part of meditation, prayer, and religious exploration. It has been a mode of contemplation and composition, from Aristotle’s peripatetics to the roaming poets of New York and Paris. It has supplied writers, artists, political theorists, and others with the encounters and experiences that inspired their work, as well as the space in which to imagine it, and it is impossible to know what would have become of many of the great male minds had they been unable to move at will through the world. Picture Aristotle confined to the house, Muir in full skirts. Even in times when women could walk by day, the night—the melancholic, poetic, intoxicating carnival of city nights—was likely to be off limits to them, unless they had become “women of the night.” If walking is a primary cultural act and a crucial way of being in the world, those who have been unable to walk out as far as their feet would take them have been denied not merely exercise or recreation but a vast portion of their humanity.

Women from Jane Austen to Sylvia Plath have found other, narrower subjects for their art. Some have broken out into the larger world—Peace Pilgrim (in middle age), George Sand (in men’s clothes), Emma Goldman, Josephine Butler, Gwen Moffat, come to mind—but many more must have been silenced altogether. Virginia Woolf’s famous Room of One’s Own is often recalled as though it were literally a plea for women to have home offices, but it in fact deals with economics, education, and access to public space as equally necessary to making art. To prove her point, she invents the blighted life of Shakespeare’s equally talented sister, and asks of this Judith Shakespeare, “Could she even get her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight?”

Sarah Schulman wrote a novel that is, like Woolf’s essay, a commentary on the circumscription of women’s freedom. Titled Girls, Visions and Everything after a phrase from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, it is among other things an investigation into how useful Kerouac’s credo is for a young lesbian writer, Lila Futuransky. “The trick,” thinks Futuransky, “was to identify with Jack Kerouac instead of with the women he fucks along the way,” for like Odysseus, Kerouac was a traveling man in a landscape of immobile women. She explores the charms of Lower East Side Manhattan in the mid-1980s as he did America in the 1950s, and among “the things she loved best” was to “walk the streets for hours with nowhere to go but where she ended up.” But as the novel progresses, her world becomes more intimate rather than more open: she falls in love and the possibility of a free life in public space recedes.

Near the end of the novel, she and her lover go out for an evening walk in Washington Square Park and come back to eat ice cream together in front of her apartment building when they overhear a man in a group of men: “That’s gay liberation. They think they can do whatever they want whenever they want it.” They have been, like lovers since time immemorial, walking out together. Like Lizzie Schauer, arrested in the Lower East Side ninety years earlier for walking alone, their venture into public space threatens to become an invasion of their private lives and their bodies:

“Lila didn’t want to go upstairs, because she didn’t want them to see where she lived. They started walking slowly away, but the men followed.

“ ‘Come on you cunt. I bet you’ve got a nice pussy, you suck each other’s pussy, right? I’ll show you a cock that you’ll never forget. …’

“For Lila, this was a completely normal though unnecessary part of daily life. As a result she had learned docility, to keep quiet and do a shuffle, to avoid having her ass kicked in. . . . Lila walked in the streets like someone who had always walked in the streets and for whom it was natural and rich. She walked with the illusion that she was safe and that the illusion would somehow keep her that way. Yet, that particular night as she went out for cigarettes, Lila walked uneasily, her mind wandering until it stopped of its own accord on the simple fact that she was not safe. She could be physically hurt at any time and felt, for a fleeting moment that she would be. She sat on the trunk of a ’74 Chevy and accepted that this world was not hers. Even on her own block.”

 


Excerpted from Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. Viking Penguin, New York. 2001. pp. 232-246. ISBN 0140286012.

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on “Walking After Midnight: Women, Sex, and Public Space
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  1. Pingback: Thinking of walking and the insecurity of nearby gunshots, or your soul stolen – Now To Beyond

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