Book Review: Flaneuse-Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London

Flaneuse

Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin.

Lauren Elkin. Flaneuse: Women walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. London: Vintage, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback.

As a Geographer, the flaneur is a familiar figure. It refers to some one who walks through cities, normally with no specific destination in mind, observing the city, it’s people, and it’s character. Flaneurs are mostly wealthy, and overwhelmingly male. But that has never quite sat right with me. After all, I love wandering around cities seeing what I can see, and I am not wealthy. Or male. So when I first heard Lauren Elkin speak, at an event at the Museum of London, I was intrigued by what she had to say about the female flaneur; the flaneuse.

But surely there have always been plenty of women in cities, and plenty of women writing about cities, chronicling their lives, telling stories, taking pictures, making films, engaging with the city in any way they can…The joy of walking in the cities belongs to men and women alike.

Elkin, 2017; p.11

Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London is hard to categorise. It’s publisher defines it as memoir/social and cultural history and whilst this sounds like an odd mix, it is quite accurate. I think at its heart, it is an argument to redefine the concept of the flaneur to include women. Elkin offers up her new definition, and then spends the rest of the book providing us with examples; attempting to persuade us of the existence of the flaneuse. As evidence, Elkins tells us about women whose walking in cities is in some way central to who they are, such as their identity or livelihood. Some of the examples are well known; Virginia Woolf in London and George Sand in Paris. Others are perhaps less so: French filmmaker Agnes Cards in Paris and Elkin herself in Tokyo and Paris. I would say Elkin makes a very convincing argument, but she was pushing against an open door with me; others may be harder to convince.

If you are expecting a straight social history of women walking in cities, then you will be disappointed. It is more a series of snapshots into this history. Some of these snapshots contain quite detailed descriptions of the cultural outputs of the women featured, such as the novels of Jean Rhys and the art of Sophie Calle. Elkin is an English Lecturer, and at these points in the book this background comes through the clearly. In this way, Flaneuse is similar to Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont, about the writings of the (overwhelmingly male) people who walked the streets of London after dark. Nightwalking feels like a more coherent history than Flaneuse, but that is largely because it focuses on one city rather than five. To be fair to Elkin, I don’t think she set out to narrate a history, and what she has done is done well.

I read Flaneuse over two days, mainly on two long journeys. Even if I am enjoying a book, I sometimes lose focus after an hour or two of reading. This wasn’t the case with Flaneuse; chapter after chapter kept me hooked. Elkin is a good writer, her work is engaging and thoughtful. The book is a nice balance of Elkin’s own story and the stories of the women and cities who have shaped her.

Some sections of Flaneuse were published elsewhere first, but there was only one point that I guessed the book wasn’t written as a coherent whole. The chapter on Tokyo revolves around Elkin’s relationship with a French banker–she moves to Japan to be with him when he is transferred. In a later chapter, she mentions this relationship as if she is telling the reader about him for the first time. It is a minor detail however, perhaps made so noticeable because it is the only such slip-up in the whole book. Each chapter is named after the city in which it is set. I think this is slightly misleading as, although the cities are very important, it is the women who wander them that are the book’s driving force.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. I would recommend it to anyone interested in women’s or urban history, anyone who fancies something a bit different, or anyone who just appreciates a good book.

Brighton’s Protest Stickers: Anti-Fascism

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There are lots of stickers in Brighton, of all kinds (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Queens Road, 02/04/17).

One of the most common themes of protest stickers is anti-fascism in pretty much every city I have visited (see London’s Protest Stickers: Anti-Fascism 1 and 2), and Brighton is no exception. There is a strong tradition of anti-fascism in the UK, inspired by events such as the Battle of the Cable Street (1936) and the Battle of Lewisham (1977). I have found anti-fascist stickers all over Brighton, some unique to the city, others that I have also found elsewhere. There is a local group called Brighton Anti-fascists, but the stickers I have found suggest that the city is also visited by a lot of other anti-fascist groups.

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Right wing groups often choose Brighton as a location for marches and demonstrations, probably because of its liberal reputation. They are almost always met by counter demonstrations (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Robertson Road, 08/07/16).

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Brighton Antifascists is the local anti-fascist group. This sticker features the city’s mascot, the seagull (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Churchill Square, 24/03/17).

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There are a large number of local anti-fascist groups around the country, many connected by the Anti-fascist Network. They frequently travel to other places in order to participate in demonstrations and events. When groups travel, they often put stickers up (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Trafalgar Square, 24/04/15).

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Some anti-fascist groups are not opposed to violence, as this sticker produced by the Leicester Antifascists demonstrates (Photo: Hannah Awcock, London Road, 24/12/16).

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The Clapton Ultras are an antifascist group of supporters of Clapham FC. They support the football team, working to keep football accessible, and participate in political campaigns (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gloucester Place, 31/12/15).

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This sticker was produced by Berkshire Anti-fascists (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Brighton Station, 07/01/17).

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This sticker was also made by the Berkshire antifascists. The red flag of the anti-fascist logo has faded, which suggests that the sticker has been there for some time (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Providence Place, 25/10/16).

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The 161 Crew is a Polish anti-fascist group that has quite a strong presence in the UK (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Bartholomew Road, 04/02/17).

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This sticker is designed in a vintage style, which is quite unusual for anti-fascist stickers. Active Distribution sells a range anarchist products, including protest stickers. Disorder Rebel is a radical shop in Berlin (Photo: Hannah Awcock, York Place, 31/12/15).

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This sticker has no obvious producer. It is reminiscent of an aggressive neighbourhood watch sign (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Ann Street, 24/12/16).

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This sticker is imitating signs that encourage you to throw away litter. In this case, the litter is fascist groups like the English Defence League and the British National Party (Photo: Hannah Awcock, London Road, 31/12/15).

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Anti-fascism is not universally popular in Brighton. This is the first anti-anti-fascist sticker that I have ever found (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Queens Road, 03/12/16).

Turbulent Londoners: Millicent Garrett Fawcett, 1847-1929

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. The second of my suffragists is Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a pioneer of the campaign before the WSPU was even a twinkle in Emmeline Pankhurst’s eye.


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Millicent Garrett Fawcett as a young woman (Photo: Wikipedia).

A few weeks ago, my sister and I were having a conversation about Millicent Garrett Fawcett being the first woman to be commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square. When our Dad, a man with quite high levels of general knowledge, responded to the conversation by asking “who?”, I knew who my next Turbulent Londoner was going to be. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was a writer and campaigner, and was President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) for more than two decades.

Millicent Garrett was born in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on the 11th of June 1847, the eighth of ten children. The family was close and prosperous, and Millicent’s childhood was happy. The children were encouraged to read, speak their minds, and take an interest in politics. At the age of 12, Millicent was sent to school in Blackheath with her sister Elizabeth. Her older sisters introduced her to radical ideas and thinkers. In 1866, Millicent went to hear a speech given by John Stuart Mill, an early supporter of women’s suffrage. His words helped her decide to take action. That same year, at the age of 19, she became the Secretary of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage.

Through her new political connections Millicent soon met Henry Fawcett, the radical Liberal MP for Brighton. Despite the 14-year age gap they were married in 1867, and had their first and only child, Philippa, in April 1868. The couple were politically well matched, and it seems that they had a happy and loving marriage.

Henry was blinded in a shooting accident in 1858, so Millicent acted as his Secretary, alongside her activism and a successful writing career. In 1868, she joined the London Suffrage Committee, and spoke at the first public pro-suffrage meeting. It was unusual for women to speak in the public at the time, and Millicent got very nervous before making a speech. Despite this, she was known for her clear speaking voice, and her ability to explain complex arguments simply. In 1870, Millicent published Political Economy for Beginners. It was very successful, going through 10 editions in 41 years. Along with her sister Agnes, Millicent also raised 4 of her cousins whose parents had died.

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Millicent with her husband Henry in around 1880 (Photo: LSE)

Millicent was a strong supporter of women’s education. In 1875, she co-founded Newnham College, one of the first Cambridge Colleges for women. She also supported a controversial campaign for women to actually receive degrees from the University of Cambridge, rather than just being able to study there. This wasn’t achieved until 1948.

Henry died unexpectedly in November 1884, leaving Millicent a widow at the age of 38. She sold the family homes in Cambridge and London, and took Philippa to live with Agnes. When she re-entered public life in 1885, Millicent began to concentrate on politics. She was a key member of what became the Women’s Local Government Society–a cross party group that campaigned for women to be allowed to stand as local councillors. This goal was achieved in 1907.

After the death of Lydia Becker in 1890, Millicent became the Chair of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed as an umbrella organisation for all the suffrage societies in the country. Millicent became President of this new group, a role she kept until 1919. Although the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) frequently commanded the headlines and publicity, the NUWSS consistently had the majority of the support of the women’s movement. By 1905, the NUWSS had 305 constituent societies and 50,000 members. Millicent disapproved of militant tactics, believing that they alienated politicians and the general public. Despite this, she admired the courage of militant activists.

In July 1901, Millicent was asked to lead a commission of women to South Africa to investigate allegations that the families of Boer soldiers were being held in awful conditions in concentrations camps during the Boer War. It was the first time British women were trusted with such a responsibility in war time.

The NUWSS lost patience with the Liberal Party in early 1912, giving up the long-held hope that they would eventually give women the vote. Instead, they formed an electoral alliance with the Labour Party, which was the only political party that supported women’s suffrage. By 1913, the NUWSS had 100000 members, and organised the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage to demonstrate how many women wanted the vote. On the 18th of June, NUWSS members from all over the country set off for London, meeting in Hyde Park six weeks later on the 29th of July. Now aged 66, Millicent took an active part in the pilgrimage, and was the headline speaker at the Hyde Park rally.

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Millicent Garrett Fawcett speaking at the rally in Hyde Park that finished the NUWSS’s Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage in 1913 (Photo: LSE)

Millicent was a not a pacifist, but the NUWSS continued to campaign for the vote during the First World War, unlike the WSPU. It will never be possible to find out whether the NUWSS or the WSPU’s campaigning methods were more effective for winning women the right to vote. There is no doubt, however, that Millicent Garrett Fawcett played a huge role in winning that right. After the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918, Millicent largely withdrew from the suffrage campaign. Throughout her long career, however, she had supported a large number of campaigns, not all of which were successful. These included: raising the age of sexual consent; criminalising incest; preventing child marriage; repealing the Contagious Diseases Act; and Clementina Black’s campaign to help protect low-paid female workers.

Her hard work and dedication were recognised in 1925, when she was made a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire. She passed away four years later on the 5th of August 1929. In 1953, the London’s Society for Women’s Suffrage was renamed the Fawcett Society in her honour. The Society continues to campaign for women’s rights and gender equality. In 2017, it was announced that Millicent would become the first woman to be commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square, which is due to be unveiled in February 2018.

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The planned statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett with the artist who designed it, Gillian Wearing (Photo: Sky News)

After Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Millicent Garrett Fawcett is perhaps one of the best-known suffragists. But that doesn’t mean she is well-known. Despite having a charity named after and a statue in Parliament Square planned to honour her, most people don’t seem to recognise her name, let alone are aware of what she achieved. I think that’s a real shame.

Sources and Further Reading

Biography Online. “Millicent Fawcett.” No date, accessed 29 January 2018. Available at https://www.biographyonline.net/politicians/uk/millicent-fawcett.html

Fawcett Society. “About.” No date, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/about

Murray, Jenni. A History of Britain in 21 Women. London: Oneworld, 2017.

Simkin, John. “Millicent Garrett Fawcett.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified June 2017, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/WfawcettM.htm

Simkin, John. “Women’s Pilgrimage.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wpilgimage.htm

Sutherland, Gillian. “History of Newnham.” Newnham College, University of Cambridge. No date, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at http://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/about/history/history-of-newnham/

Wikipedia. “Millicent Fawcett.” Last modified 28 January 2018, accessed 29 January 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millicent_Fawcett

Women’s Local Government Society. “Women’s Local Government Society.” Suffrage Pioneers. No date, accessed 29 January 2018. Available at http://www.suffrage-pioneers.net/wlgs/

Book Review: A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

A History of Britain in 21 Women Front Cover

A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

Jenni Murray. A History of Britain in 21 Women. London: Oneworld, 2016. RRP £9.99 paperback.

A few weeks before Christmas, I was browsing a bookshop when I noticed the vibrant cover of A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray. I was sorely tempted, but, remembering my overflowing bookshelves and the growing piles of books at the bottom of my bed, I restrained myself. I put the book on my Christmas list instead, so I at least didn’t have myself to blame when my piles of books grew a little bit taller. I am very glad that I was given the book; it is a thoroughly enjoyable read that has left me more determined than ever not to allow misogyny to hold me back.

The twenty-one women in this book rose above the low expectations of their gender and defied anyone who insisted ‘a girl can’t do that.’ Slowly, slowly, over the centuries, they changed the gender landscape for those of us who came after.

Murray, 2016; p.4

As the name implies, A History of Britain in 21 Women profiles 21 women from British history. Each chapter is about 15 pages long, and details the women’s biography, their achievements, and their impact on society, politics, and culture. The selection is historically comprehensive, beginning in the first century with Boadicea, and ending in the modern day with Nicola Sturgeon. Inevitably, many women are left out, but Murray is careful to justify her choices, explaining why the 21 she chose resonate with her personally.

The book is more personal than I was expecting. It does have the subtitle A Personal Selection, but this is only mentioned in the front matter, not on the title. After initially being unsure about this, I came to enjoy Murray’s short personal reflections and anecdotes. I was particularly charmed by a conversation she describes having with one of her sons when John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.

Beyond being thrown at first by the tone of the book, I can find very little to criticise in A History of Britain in 21 Women. Each chapter is self-contained, so it feels almost like a collection of short stories, but I wasn’t put off if I read several chapters in one sitting, as I often am with similarly structured books. Each chapter is accompanied by a portrait by Peter Locke, the style of which suits the book’s message really well. Locke’s sketches don’t feel idealised or ‘touched up,’ the women in the sketches feel…real; they look like they’ve lived. It’s quite hard to put my finger on it, but I like them.

It is the women themselves, their lives, actions, experiences, and attitudes that are the real stars of this book. Some of them are familiar–such as Elizabeth I, Jane Austen, and Margaret Thatcher–whilst others are less well-known–like Aphra Behn, Mary Somerville, Gwen John. But they are all remarkable. Every one exelled in the field they chose, whether it be medicine, art, politics, or science, often despite massive obstacles and prejudice. They are inspirational.

I was given A History of Britain in 21 Women as a Christmas present, and I do think it makes a wonderful gift, even for those who aren’t avid readers. It’s especially good for those who need a reminder of just how much it can be possible to achieve.