Women’s Safety on the Streets Throughout History: From the Victorian Years to the Present

With Sarah Everard’s disappearance and death in south London in March 2021, women’s safety – and their right to use public spaces without fear of harm – dominated headlines and social media. Sarah was walking from Clapham to Brixton, a journey that should have taken her 50 minutes. How could a woman disappear just on her way back from a friend’s house?

Over 70 per cent of women in the UK say they have been sexually harassed in public. The debate on this case has brought to light many stories from other women of instances where they have felt threatened in public spaces, as well as comments implying that a woman alone should not have walked at night in a urban space. Although men are also victims of assault in public spaces, it is rare for a male victim to be blamed for being in the “wrong” place at the wrong time – and arguments regarding the use of public spaces by women and their security within them is nothing new.

Public space is historically a male space, designed, constructed and shaped by men for their own use. This can be seen even in the smallest detail of the Victorian town, from the lack of sufficiently wide sidewalks and pedestrian spaces to push strollers and strollers, to the public toilets in 19th century London which cater mostly to men.

Public space is historically a male space, designed, constructed and shaped by men for their own use. This can be seen in great detail from the Victorian town

In previous centuries, although class had an impact to some extent on what women could and could not do, they were widely seen as occupying a separate sphere, a more domestic space. Their ability to move around public spaces, whether urban or rural, was more restricted than that of men. In the 18th century, for example, the women’s space was seen as more domestic, centered on their home and specific activities such as washing clothes, shopping and going to church – although some, of course, were working. . Men could use a wider range of spaces without judgment, even if they only wandered the city on their own, especially at night.

People line up for train tickets in an 1872 engraving. Newspapers highlighted the risk of sexual violence on trains at a time when women’s access to these spaces had become a political issue. (Image by Mary Evans Picture Library)

Conversely, moral judgments were made on women who ventured out at nightfall, or alone. This is clear from the evidence in court cases, where female victims were indicted as often as the men they accused. Where had the woman been attacked? What had she been doing there? Did she really make it clear that she didn’t want the attack? In cases of assaults in public places, the onus was on the woman to prove that she was respectable and that she had gone out for an acceptable reason. In 1824 a newspaper published the account of a woman assaulted in public near Bristol by three men. The media coverage made it clear that she was “a very respectable girl” and that, therefore, the fact that she was out for a walk at seven in the evening was for an innocent and acceptable reason.

Women’s responsibility

In the Victorian era, as women gained independence, their access to public space became a more political issue, and therefore the subject of moral reporting on assaults against women. Academic Robin Barrow noted how newspapers from the 1860s and 1870s highlighted sexual violence on trains because of this concern for women’s liberty, with railways being seen not only as a “hybrid public and private space. », But also a means by which women could more easily access other public spaces. In the 1890s, a man was accused of catching women exiting Lime Street station in Liverpool and forcibly kissing them – pointing out to readers that not only railways were dangerous places for them. women, but also their entry and exit on public roads.

Various environments, from railroads to city centers, were generally considered the territory of men. However, the end of the Victorian era saw many urban centers become centers of shopping and pleasure. More and more women were drawn to them, in order to shop, socialize and, of course, work. The growing empowerment of middle-class women in particular meant that they felt increasingly able to venture into city centers to shop. This could lead to street harassment, but also, as historian Judith Walkovitz has explored, to women feeling better able to express their experiences, arguing that they have the right to move around the spaces. public without fear of being attacked.

Three women shop together on the cover of an 1859 song

Three women shop together on the cover of a sheet music for an 1859 song. In Victorian times, more and more women were venturing into city centers – and harassment was on the rise. (Image by Mary Evans Picture Library)

Yet when they were in male-dominated public spaces, the onus fell on women to respond to unwanted attention in an appropriate manner, and publications such as the The girl’s own paper offered advice on how to go about it. A girl writing to the newspaper in 1886 about “young men” who accosted her and a friend was informed that they were not suitable acquaintances for respectable girls, but the blame was still placed on them: “You don’t. shouldn’t have been rude; you should just have walked away from your chaperone or a married person you know. A woman was not safe in public space even with a friend; she needed a suitable chaperone and always had to remember to be polite to men, no matter how they behaved with her.

However, there were spaces where Victorian women could meet, such as tea rooms and shops; they were considered much safer for women than the public street, where chaperones were still advised. In 1887, several letters appeared in the Pall Mall Journale debate the “question of the ladies walking the streets of London without an escort”. During this debate, a writer asked: “Is it possible to prevent men from following women and staring at them?” Yes, by locking them up… ”It is the women he proposes to lock up, not the men who follow them.

Listen: Hallie Rubenhold looks back at the little-known life stories of the five victims of Jack the Ripper, in this episode of the HistoryExtra Podcast:

Create safer spaces

Over the past few centuries, one fact has remained the same. The number of assault cases against women that are brought to court or successfully prosecuted remains low, despite an increase in the number of sexual assault referrals during the second half of the 19th century. Historian Carolyn Conley’s research of Kent magistrates’ courts in the second half of the 19th century suggests that the conviction rate in rape trials was significantly lower than in trials for other crimes, at around 40 %, and recent research shows that in 2019-20, less than 4 percent of reported rape cases in England and Wales led to trial. In addition, there have always been other unreported violations. This means that historical records of violence against women, whether in private or public spaces, can never represent the actual number of crimes that have actually been committed.

In the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s death, the government pledged to “protect” women, a comment implying that women are still unable to occupy public space without being cared for by others. While the measures being considered to make parks and neighborhoods safer – including better lighting and video surveillance – are welcome, they will not change the behavior of men.

Women cycling on a country lane, 1897

Women Cycling on a Country Road, 1897. The public street was considered the most dangerous place for women, who were discouraged from being alone outside. (Image by Mary Evans Picture Library)

In the 19th century, women were seen as subject to men’s natural and uncontrollable passions: they were seen as passive recipients of this ‘natural’ male behavior, rather than the emphasis on changing men’s conduct and creating safer spaces for women. to be in it. the Pall Mall JournalThe author of the letter from, in a similar vein, saw harassment as part of normal male behavior and something women should accept if they wanted to use public streets.

There are parallels with modern society. A Swedish study noted that sexual comments create a cultural atmosphere where unwanted attention from men is accepted as a “normal” part of being in public spaces. Meanwhile, the UN has recognized that mere fear of verbal or physical violence results in reduced freedom of movement for women. Women have the right to use space in the same way as men, and must feel safe to do so, but how to do so remains a matter of debate. In some ways, not much has changed since the Victorian era.

Nell Darby is a historian specializing in gender and crime. His most recent book is Sister Sleuths: detectives in Great Britain (History of the Pen and the Sword, 2021)

More from Nell Darby on Extra History: Meet the Victorian Super Detectives

This article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

Mara R. Wilmoth