In Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, Lizzy Bennett scandalizes her norm-abiding acquaintances when she walks three miles through rain and mud to tend to her sick sister.
Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley find the act absurd, but do their best to contain their contempt for her dirty stockings. Lizzy, on the other hand, regards a rainy day walk lightly. “I do not wish to avoid the walk,” she said, declining a horse-drawn carriage. “The distance is nothing when one has a motive.”
Not everyone of her day would agree, as writer Lauren Elkin points out in her new book Flâneuse, part memoir, part social history of women exploring cities on foot. Elkin thinks of herself as a flâneuse, the female version of a flâneur, or a dandy who fills his days with wandering and observation. But, the book’s introduction notes, there’s no entry for flâneuse in most dictionaries. That’s because, until the 19th and 20th centuries, women didn’t typically go on walks in urban areas, and those who did were presumed to be “street walkers.”
Elkin celebrates the historical exceptions, such as George Sand, who found freedom from societal expectations by cross-dressing. She also devotes a chapter of her book to protest, an act made more radical by its oppressive history.
The marvel of this month’s Women’s March, then, might not be that it went off peacefully ― the privilege and protection that accompanies white feminism is nothing new ― but that it could happen at all. Women are still not completely free to walk through cities uninhibited; catcalling is one of the more innocuous present burdens. But for one day, they stood up together, and marched ahead.
Below, Elkin talks about Flâneuse (on sale Feb. 21 from FSG), protesting, and the history of bipedal exploration.
You describe the flâneur as “a figure of masculine privilege and leisure.” When did this status become widely available to women?
Certainly with the rise of public entertainments like the department store or the cinema in the late 19th and early 20th century we start to see women spending more time in public space. The First World War as we know brought women into the workforce in unheard-of numbers. Achievements like the right to attend university, vote, own property, obtain a divorce ― there are so many factors which contribute to women becoming independent enough to occupy that role of privilege and leisure. But we’re still not there yet; women still don’t have the freedom to walk in the city that men enjoy. When we can walk in the street without being harassed or groped or assaulted, when we can truly become invisible if we wish to be ― like the flâneur who blends into the crowd ― then I suppose we’ll enjoy something of that privilege and leisure.
The flâneur is also celebrated for being objective or removed in his observations. How is this different for women walkers, who have fewer privileges, such as the privilege of being invisible?
Women are put in the position of being either too visible ― as in the situations I described above ― or invisible, as in the history of writing about the city. It’s always this reified canon of masculine writer-walkers from [Thomas] De Quincey to [Charles] Baudelaire to [Walter] Benjamin to [Guy] Debord to [Upton] Sinclair. They’re great to read and walk with, but you have to ask: where are the women? There’s such a range of women’s voices we could be hearing about what it means to be a flâneuse, the different literal and figurative intersections you have to navigate.
Women walking has been unfortunately connected to sexuality rather than freedom. In the past, women walkers were assumed to be “street walkers”; today, women are burdened by catcalling. How has this impacted the idea of the flâneuse?
Quite simply we’ve been told she doesn’t exist, she’s an impossibility. But it’s not as simple as saying women haven’t had the freedom to walk the way men have. Women have still walked in cities ― they’ve just negotiated a complex web of constraints and challenges to do it. It just means the flâneuse has to take certain risks to claim her space in the city.
In your book you write about George Sand, who was only able to walk freely and independently by cross-dressing. Do you think women walkers have to deal with the same sort of restrictions today?
I think society asks us to. Don’t wear too short a skirt, carry this pepper spray, lace your keys between your fingers. It shouldn’t be up to us to modify the way we present. There will always be someone who finds something else for you to change. No, I think we need to be done with restrictions. I think the onus should no longer be on us.
You also write in your book about protesting or marching as an extension of the freedom of walking. Do you think it’s especially powerful for women to use their bodies in this way today?
I do! The Women’s March had an incredible impact on morale, and I think the Republicans were really freaked out by it. They thought they had the monopoly on populist movements. But in spite of the noise they’re making about the results of the election being “the will of the people,” 3 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton, and against the guy who’s occupying the White House. I think it’s incredibly important to create a populist movement not only of the Left but of those who believe it’s important to defend our constitution and democratic institutions from the onslaught of this crypto-fascist and his band of freaky friends. But since women’s rights are directly threatened by this president and his party, it’s even more important for women to take part in this movement.
If there’s one message you want readers to take away from your book, what would it be?
That it’s so important for women to dare, to make themselves visible, to get outside, to show up. Political complacency is as deadening as walking down the same street every day, without being alive to the infinite variations life puts in our path.