Women and Public Space in the Urban United States

Endorsed by the Women and Social Movements in the U.S., 1600–2000

Friday, April 3, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Social and Cultural; Urban and Suburban; Women's History


Key to understanding the rise of women’s political power is their struggle to occupy public space. The woman suffrage movement challenged the belief that respectable women should not mix indiscriminately with men; in antebellum America, women who appeared in a “promiscuous crowd” were considered sexually available (Lebsock, 1984). On this panel, scholars working in different historical eras and employing a variety of research methods examine the ways public spaces in the urban United States were segregated and integrated, mapping their uses by individuals and groups. These papers illuminate how different bodies characterized by race, gender, class, and sexuality, interacted with, created, and mapped meaning onto urban neighborhoods and public buildings, and in turn, how experiences of and in public spaces have given meaning to the bodies moving through them. Lauren Santangelo begins in the period 1870-1917 with her work on “Mapping the Suffrage Metropolis” (mappingsuffrage.com), a digital humanities initiative that layers the location of hundreds of suffrage meetings onto georeferenced fire insurance maps of New York City. Moving to the turn of the twentieth century, Rachel Boyle examines urban networks of women who publicly engaged in an intimate economy of drinking, prostitution, and thievery in Chicago, while Paula Austin examines the racialized space and spatialized race of Washington, D.C. as the growing federal presence expanded into predominantly and historically black and poor areas of the city. Finally, Molly Brookfield discusses the normalization of catcalling, ogling, and other forms of gender-based street harassment in American cities in the 1930s and 1940s. Melinda Chateauvert, author of Sex Workers Unite!, closes with a comment.

Papers Presented

“Most Girls Want Boys to Whistle at Them!”: Normalizing Street Harassment in the United States, 1930–1945

While recent public debates about sexual harassment have centered on the workplace, women are as likely or more likely to experience unwanted sexual attention in city streets, on public transportation, and in other public places. Male strangers have harassed women with uninvited sexual remarks, stares, and touching since women’s first prolonged entrance into urban public space in the antebellum period. This paper examines a period when Americans contested the meaning of these intrusive behaviors, now popularly known as street harassment. Women’s groups and law enforcement denounced street harassment in the Progressive Era, arguing it impeded women’s mobility in public space. However, as campaigns for gender equality, suffrage, and sexual liberalism began to shift ideas about gender and sexuality in the early twentieth century, popular discourse increasingly characterized street harassment as trivial, harmless flirtation. By the 1930s, commentators across the country ridiculed the implication that American women needed protection from something as harmless as a leering glance or shouted come-on. Through an examination of newspaper reports, advice literature, popular culture, and women’s writings, this paper argues that public discourses in the United States steadily normalized catcalling, ogling, and other forms of street harassment in the 1930s and 1940s. In particular, it traces how the intrusive behaviors that had outraged Progressive Era reformers came to be thought of as the “right” of white, middle-class men by midcentury. In so doing, this paper will consider the impact of typical forms of sexual harassment that, while prevalent, are often perceived as normal and thus benign.

Presented By
Molly M. Brookfield, University of Michigan

Mapping the Suffrage Metropolis

This paper introduces a digital humanities initiative, Mapping the Suffrage Metropolis (https://cdh.princeton.edu/projects/mapping-suffrage-metropolis/), to illuminate how digital tools can help provide a more textured understanding of women’s use of public space. More specifically, Mapping the Suffrage Metropolis layers the location of hundreds of suffrage meetings in 1870, 1890, 1910, 1915, and 1917 onto georeferenced fire insurance maps of New York City. It allows for spatial and temporal analyses highlighting the unique political choreography activists developed in the nation’s largest metropolis. How did suffragists access and occupy public spaces? Were suffragists willing to hold street meetings at night in one neighborhood but not another? How did that change over time, and as the city changed around them? What does this indicate about suffragists’ assumptions regarding safety and vulnerability in urban public spaces? Perhaps most importantly, the paper will model how to use Mapping the Suffrage Metropolis for conference attendees, empowering them to make their own discoveries and further enrich our understanding of women in public space.

Presented By
Lauren C. Santangelo, Princeton University/New-York Historical Society

“Constant Riot and Effervescence”: Chicago’s Intimate Economy, 1871–1909

In late nineteenth-century Chicago, a network of women fought, drank, and stole to make a tenuous living in an industrial city. The public, mixed-gender interactions that defined these women’s leisure and labor constituted a distinct intimate economy that intersected with the well-documented culture of working-class women’s labor and men’s leisure. Activities such as communal drinking, physical violence, commercial sex, stage entertainment, and thievery all involved women’s physical activity or bodily contact with other women and men in closely situated spaces such as saloons, brothels, and city streets. “Intimate,” then, describes both the physicality of interactions and the nearness of institutions. Furthermore, the intimate economy relied on the exchanges facilitated by public women—whether prostitutes, leisure workers, or thieves—who embodied and performed a transgressive femininity that subverted gender expectations and exploited interactions with men to secure income. Public women also frequently and visibly transgressed the spatial boundaries among public and private institutions of the intimate economy to conduct business and engage in leisure. Although public women’s economic activity rarely translated into expanded wealth, it did provide the foundation for ward bosses to secure personal fortunes and political power as they presided over a decentralized political economy. Reading against homicide records, newspaper accounts, and surveillance from turn-of-the-century reformers provides an opportunity to center women’s economic choices and gender behavior and reveal their critical role in conducting the foundational transactions of a broader political economy.

Presented By
Rachel Boyle, Omnia History

A Fairyland of Fine Mexican Food: The Mitla Café, Mexican Women, and Cultural Expression along Route 66

This paper examines the historical contours of cultural production in the Inland Empire with an emphasis on Mexican women in the city of San Bernardino, California, in the 1930s through the post–World War II era. During the 1930s, San Bernardino developed into a significant site along Route 66 with Mexican merchants playing a central role in shaping how whites perceived Mexican food and culture. In particular, the Mitla Café, founded in 1937 by Lucía Rodríguez, developed into a landmark Mexican restaurant that catered not only to barrio residents but also to the local white population and white Route 66 motorists. During the highway’s heyday, the Mitla Café built a reputation as a “go-to” restaurant for many white motorists passing through the city, and women in the city utilized the famous highway to establish successful businesses and support community-building cultural initiatives. During the 1950s the Mitla Café once again served as an important site for Mexican and Mexican American culture when Glen Bell, founder of the fast-food restaurant Taco Bell, learned how to make hard-shell tacos after visiting the Mitla Café. The Mitla Café’s history reveals how Mexican women built community, ethnic identity, and performed cultural work that allowed for a formidable Mexican public presence during an era of segregation. Through analyzing how these women utilized food as a tool of cultural expression, resistance, and economic independence, we see how Mexican women’s agency emerged to contest racial dynamics and shape our understanding of the past.

Presented By
Mark Anthony Ocegueda, Dartmouth College

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Melinda Chateauvert, Front Porch Research Strategy, New Orleans
Melinda Chateauvert is Associate Director of Front Porch Research Strategy in New Orleans, Louisiana (www.frontporchresearch.org). For over two decades, she taught courses on the civil rights movement, social justice organizing, gender and sexuality in African American families, sex work and gendered labor, and law and public policy at a research university. She holds a B.A. in Women’s Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an M.A. in Women’s Studies from the George Washington University; she earned a Ph.D. in United States History from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992. “Marching Together” Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was published by the University of Illinois Press in 1998; she has also published on gender roles and activists’ senses of race and intimacy in mid-twentieth century civil rights campaigns. Sex Workers Unite! A history of the movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk (Beacon Press, 2014) has been recognized as an essential reading in intersectionality as well as women’s activism. In addition to teaching, Dr. Chateauvert has a long record of activism on civil rights, sexual citizenship, and queer justice movements; she has served on the boards of the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago and HIPS, a Washington, DC nonprofit agency to reduce harm in US capital since 1993; she is also an advisor to Women With A Vision in New Orleans, a community-based grassroots collective of African-American women founded in 1991 in response to the spread of HIV/AIDS in communities of color.

Presenter: Rachel Boyle, Omnia History
Rachel Boyle is a co-founder of Omnia History, a public history collaborative dedicated to using the past to promote social change in the present. As a historian of Chicago and the Midwest, Boyle studies the movement of people in space, from women navigating the streets of turn-of-the-century Chicago to groups migrating across the Midwest over time. She recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Newberry Library and curated a digital exhibit on Chicago’s history of protest for the Chicago Collections Consortium. Boyle brings over ten years of experience in the field of public history and has earned awards from the National Council on Public History, the American Association of State and Local History, and the Midwestern History Association. She holds her PhD in U.S. and Public History from Loyola University Chicago, where she also received the President’s Medallion for Leadership, Scholarship, and Service.

Presenter: Molly M. Brookfield, University of Michigan
Molly Brookfield is a PhD candidate in the departments of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She is writing a dissertation on the history of street harassment in the nineteenth and twentieth-century United States. This project traces the emergence and initial reactions to street harassment in the nineteenth century and asks how public discourse normalized street harassment so that it was viewed as benign and, eventually, the “right” of white, middle-class, heterosexual men by the mid-twentieth century. She is particularly interested in the quietest, most trivialized forms of harassment, such as ogling or staring, and the impact these intrusive behaviors have on women’s ability to navigate public space unimpeded. Prior to beginning her doctoral research, she received an MA in Cultural Heritage Studies from University College London and worked for several years in museums, archives, and historic sites.

Presenter: Mark Anthony Ocegueda, Dartmouth College
Dr. Mark Ocegueda is currently the 2019-2020 César Chávez Postdoctoral Fellow at Dartmouth College and is an assistant professor of United States and Mexican American History at California State University, Sacramento. His research and teaching interests include Chicanx Latinx history, race and ethnicity, immigration, urban history, and sports history.

Presenter: Lauren C. Santangelo, Princeton University/New-York Historical Society
Lauren C. Santangelo is a Lecturer at Princeton University, where she teaches in the Writing Program. She earned her Ph.D. from CUNY’s Graduate Center and held a Bernard and Irene Schwartz Postdoctoral Fellowship at the New-York Historical Society/New School. Her book, Suffrage and the City: New York Women Battle for the Ballot, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press (June 2019). She is currently developing her digital humanities project, Mapping the Suffrage Metropolis, which has received funding from Princeton University.