A detached observer of city life; a wanderer; a dreamer.
Walter Benjamin affirmed the flâneur as the epitome of modern city life in The Arcades Project. Charles Baudelaire romanticized the socially removed stroller in his poetry and essay on The Painter of Modern Life. For the flâneur, Baudelaire writes, the “crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.”
Ever since I learned of the flâneur, I’ve fantasized about becoming a reflection of him. I’ve also realized that that is a privilege I don’t have. It’s one I often think I may never have. The flâneur may be somewhat fictional, but he is nonetheless an embodiment of something I endlessly desire: being able to observe the everyday happenings of city life wholly unnoticed and unafraid.
As a woman, going unnoticed is seldom a guarantee. 81% of women report that they have experienced some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime, compared to 43% of men, according to a 2018 study by the non-profit Stop Street Harassment. To be adequately “invisible” requires effort—wearing baggy clothing, being discreet with how we carry ourselves, and taking a different route if need be—and yet, even taking precautions grants no guarantee.
For most of my young adult life, I’ve felt jealous of my male friends and coworkers who walk home past midnight with no concern for their safety. I’ve savored the rare nights that I’ve felt safe roaming the midnight streets, either with a large cluster of friends or with another man. When I am alone in public, I curse at myself for feeling the need to look up, around, or behind to make sure I’m not being watched or followed. But what if I really was?
On March 3rd, 2021, Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive from South London, was murdered by an off-duty police officer on her walk home from a friend’s house. In the aftermath of Everard’s murder, discussions about public safety—particularly women’s safety at night—began to blossom. While the discourse has since died down, the issue remains: how we exist in public space is mediated by the anticipation of a threat.
Women’s safety is a series of these what if’s. A five-minute walk from the bus stop after dark may be fine—but what if it isn’t? The person walking briskly behind you for the last ten blocks might simply be in a rush to work—but what if he isn’t? In many ways, it feels foolish to assume victimhood for things we’ve yet to experience, and still, it’s a precautionary measure that continues to be taken.
Last summer I read Leslie Kern’s Feminist City, a small but mighty testament to the difficulties of claiming space in a largely man-made world. Kern discusses the myriad ways in which the geographic make-up of cities excludes and marginalizes women at all stages of life. In the opening of the first chapter, she dotes on the idea and possibilities of the flâneuse. She asks, “could the flâneur be female?” In many ways, it seems difficult to imagine she could. During the day, we take familiar routes that avoid treading into back lanes and solitary terrain. At night we dip into our pockets for Ubers rather than public transit to inch closer to our homes. Cities are built for businessmen—not pregnant mothers or teenage girls.
Kern’s sentiments on gender and public space ring true for many; the “constant anticipation of harassment” means that seamlessly gliding through the city like the quintessential flâneur is simply not an option. At the same time, she acknowledges the privileges that afford her some “invisibility,” such as being white and able-bodied.
Halfway through Kern’s Feminist City, I read a chapter on a bus bench in between transfers. Ironically, as I went to cross the street to catch my bus ride home, a group of middle-aged men in a maroon pickup drove by with winks and catcalls. Normally, I would’ve brushed it off with an eye-roll, as I’ve done since I was barely a teenager. But with Kern’s musings on women and public space in mind, it was a stark reminder of the ways public spaces are rendered hostile to women. If not physically limiting, there is always the looming threat of a predatory call, wink, or stare. Again, it never seems to be a question of if, but when.
What makes instances like Sarah Everard’s murder so terrifying is the fact that she took the precautions and followed the unwritten rules—wearing bright colors and having a friend aware of her whereabouts—and yet she was still murdered. The case may be exceptional, but nevertheless, possible. We question whether it’s right to expect the worst—but what happens when we don’t?
For reasons such as these, the idea of a femme flâneur or a flâneuse seems all but a pipe dream. The freedom to observe and appreciate our surroundings is robbed from us when we are forced to anticipate the threat of harassment, whether it be on the street or in private establishments.
However, in some instances, the flâneuse has existed in limited capacities. In an interview with The Atlantic, Lauren Elkin, author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City, discusses how figures like Virginia Woolf rebelled against the notions of how women must exist in public and private spaces. By offering alternatives, figures like Woolf give them “permission to exist a little bit outside the lines and think about how else they could be in public.” In many ways, these historical embodiments of the femme flâneur can be seen as small reclamations of the imagined feminist city.
So what does the feminist city look like—or rather, what could it look like? Crucially, the (re)construction of the city must consist of both social and architectural changes. The feminist city is accessible; it must strive to accommodate all bodies, addressing gaps in accessibility that disabled women, mothers, and all women face every day. The feminist city also demands community; it builds on the preexisting safety nets we’ve created naturally—from our coworkers who make sure we get home safe to our comrades who help each other grow through mutual struggle—while creating the infrastructure needed to make cities accommodating of women.
Most importantly the feminist city must be intersectional; it cannot be achieved through gentrified means that benefit wealthy women while marginalizing others. It cannot look to solutions like over-policing that have continued to be the way “safety” is achieved for white, upper-class women.
Everard’s death reaffirmed many of the everyday fears women carry while existing alone in public spaces. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that many more women face intersecting identities that collide; women of color, disabled women, transgender women, and working-class women have faced the brunt of these inequities. There are women who are forced to walk alone from their jobs at night out of financial necessity, despite the risks; there are women who do not feel safe in spaces with other women, let alone in public.
Still, a final question remains: can the feminist city be created through reform, or must its patriarchal foundations be destroyed entirely?
In some cities, the ideals of the feminist city have already begun to be realized. For over 30 years, gender mainstreaming—a UN-enshrined practice that promotes gender equity in policy-making and planning activities—has been a hallmark of urban planning in Vienna. In the Austrian capital, women do not merely sit on city planning boards, but the city is designed with them in mind, from public seating and traffic-light height to housing and safety.
While the flâneur may be an exaggeration of modern, urban freedom, the difficulties women face when trying to merely exist in public without fear for their safety continue to exist. Public spaces can become more accommodating to people who aren’t men; we’ve seen visions of it in Vienna, but we’ve also witnessed the reclamation of space through organizing efforts in existing networks, whether in communities of mothers or feminist collectives.
I want to be able to walk alone after sunset, blend in with the crowd, and wander without fear of harassment. I like to imagine that maybe it’s not as impossible as we think. As Kern contends, “once we begin to see how the city is set up to sustain a particular way of organizing society—across gender, race, sexuality, and more—we can start to look for new possibilities.” Our environments shape who we are, but we also have the power to shape them. Instead of siding with fear, we must resist accepting city structures that marginalize us and demand support for solutions that affirm our value and safety in public spaces.
By Cierra Bettens