Street harassment in Victorian London

At the end of the 19th century, new consumer cultures emerged in Western Europe and the United States, giving women from the middle and upper classes new reasons to move in urban public spaces. As historian Judith R. Walkowitz writes, in London’s West End, this change brought new kinds of problems in the form of street harassment.

By this time, writes Walkowitz, the West End had become an economic, political and commercial center, where the wealthy mixed with middle-class employees and civil servants, as well as working-class servants and sex workers. For some, the very status of women as customers in this heterogeneous neighborhood made it a playground for “street impertinence”. In letters to the popular Pall Mall Gazette, women described “so-called gentlemen” staring at them, following them, blocking their way and talking to them “in the most obnoxious way”. The writers explained that the police were of little help. One of them asked a policeman why he had not “cleared these men who prowl the streets and squares”. His response, according to the letter, was “these are the gentlemen who live in the big houses here: what do you think my place would be worth if I interfered with them.”

The blurring of class lines in the neighborhood confounded the question of which women men felt free to “disturb.” Sex workers could dress in fancy clothes, and respectable upper-class women were sometimes accused of walking the streets. An 1865 lithograph captures the confusion, showing a clergyman approaching a well-dressed woman, who explains, “You are mistaken. I’m not a social evil, I’m just waiting for a bus.

In 1887, after covering the issue of harassment for some time, the Pall Mall Official Journal posted an answer column titled “What ‘Male Pests’ Have to Say About Themselves.” Some insisted on their freedom to follow and talk to the women. As one wrote, unless England follows the practice of “locking up women as they do in the Orient, there is nothing [left] but to leave the men perfectly free to watch and even follow the women as they please. Others criticized ‘respectable’ women who wrote for assuming that no morally upright woman would want to be ‘talked to’ – with at least one suggesting they misunderstand seduction practices among men and the working-class women who organize their “parties”. in the street.”

“The girls who feel really insulted by strangers talking to them in the street are usually just ladies, and the ‘insult’ often consists, not so much in what is said, as in the act of saying it. be taken to belong to a lower class of girls. , who welcome such a self-presentation,” the respondent said.

In fact, Walkowitz notes, there is little record of what working-class women thought about these issues. Overall, however, it’s hard not to see how closely the patterns of street harassment match those we still see a century and a half later.

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By: Judith R. Walkowitz

Representations, n° 62 (spring 1998), p. 1 to 30

University of California Press

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