Newsletter | Jul/Aug 2012

Book Circle 5: Women and the Everyday City
by Jamie Brown and Rachel Slonicki

The OWA book club met on March 26th 2012 to discuss Women and the Everyday City Public Space in San Francisco 1890-1915 by Jessica Ellen Sewell. The author explores public space as three different and overlapping environments, the imagined, the experienced, and the built. The imagined landscape idealizes separate spaces for men and women, for example, imagining that business men were isolated from leisure shoppers in the downtown area. The reality of the downtown was that men and women comingled in the downtown area. Many women were taking the same public transportation and walked on the same sidewalks as men to arrive at Market Street destinations. The built environment reflected the imagined landscape by physically separating the gendered spaces. She carried these themes through the public spaces that the book investigating public transportation, stores, eating establishments, and entertainment spaces. The final chapter of the book departed from this pattern to illustrate how women used public space to move the suffrage movement forward.

At the beginning of the period circa 1890, society imagined women to be private and not to draw attention to themselves in public. With the development of large down stores concentrated in the Market, Mission, and Fillmore areas, women were drawn out of their own residential neighborhoods, on to public transit, and on to public sidewalks. As the era progressed and women were more visible in public, etiquette guides described and broadened possibilities for how women deported themselves in public. To transgress these rules in public was to invite suspicion and to tarnish reputations. New building types evolved to serve the new market of women about town such as tea rooms, cafeterias, and Nickelodeon theaters. By the end of era circa 1915, women’s position in public was more accepted and they were able to demand and to obtain the right to vote by campaigning on the public stage.

Since the scope of this book focused on women’s shopping and amusement activities, the book club wondered about expanding this model into other realms of public space such as educational institutions and women’s clubs. Since data was gathered from diaries of an upper and middle class woman, another realm of investigation might include the impact of lower class women’s movement about the city on public space. Applying these ideas to women in more recent history, the group wondered about societies today that censor the public interaction of the genders and how public transportation might isolate communities by circumventing them rather than connecting them. In covering emerging role of women in public, the book also revealed the development and history of San Francisco at that time.