- Women and the Everyday City: Public Space in San Francisco, 1890-1915
For historians of nineteenth-and early twentieth-century women and gender, the spatial metaphor of "separate spheres" has long served as the preeminent descriptor of the era's gender ideology. In Women and the Everyday City, Jessica Ellen Sewell deconstructs the trope of "spheres" through an examination of women's everyday experiences in San Francisco. Her focus is on uncovering the daily relationship of women of various classes and ethnicities to the city's built environment, both as it was physically conceived and culturally imagined. She draws on a broad array of sources—including photographs, maps, letters, diaries, travel guides, fiction, newspapers, and other published materials—to paint a rich and textured portrait of how women negotiated their place in the city's urban landscape. Sewell persuasively demonstrates that as San Francisco's female workers and consumers expanded their use of the city's public spaces, they challenged and transformed the ideological conventions and political restrictions of their day.
Sewell begins with an examination of women's movement around the city on sidewalks, in streetcars, and on ferries. This was a period in which women became more visible on San Francisco's streets and public transportation due to their increased presence in the workforce and the lure of shopping downtown. Indeed, the city's streetcar system was designed to bring passengers to Market Street, in the heart of the city's downtown office and shopping districts. Yet according to the cultural norms of the day, Sewell argues, the presence of women on streets and in streetcars was "problematic" because it could bring them into improper proximity to unknown men (2). Late nineteenth-century etiquette books counseled women traveling about town to avoid eye contact or conspicuous dress, forego lingering at shop windows, and behave as discreetly as possible; and streetcar interiors were designed to shield middle-class female customers from the gaze of street goers and their male fellow passengers.
Women's everyday presence in the city, however, began to challenge this physical environment and the gendered prescriptions regarding its use. As greater numbers of working-class men and women used streetcars on a daily basis, their design became more utilitarian, maximizing their capacity for generating fares in lieu of protecting the respectability of their female customers. Women's conspicuous downtown presence as both shoppers and workers changed behavioral norms as well, Sewell contends. By the 1910s, men accustomed to treating the "girls" in their office as subordinates were less likely to give up their seat to a woman on a streetcar. But neither were they as apt to remark on the impropriety of a woman who stopped to admire a department store window or walked about the city unescorted at night.
Sewell's second chapter focuses on shopping and other errands. These accounted for a larger share of women's activity in the city as consumption became an increasingly important pursuit. Shopping, even more than transportation, varied according to class. Department stores, which were well-established destinations by the turn of the century, attracted women of all classes, although elite women frequented different stores than middle-and working-class women. Sewell effectively shows that even when women of different classes shopped in the same department store, their experiences as consumers were shaped by their class status. The architecture, furnishings, and merchandise displays within department stores were intended to emphasize interiority, for they were built to be islands of consumption. This pretense of separation from the rest of the city was designed to stimulate women's desire to consume and to enable them to give in to such impulses. In the safe, feminized space of the department store, women could indulge temptation while maintaining their respectability. This was a fantasy in which upper-class women could easily take pleasure, for their wealth enabled them to spend...