Q&A with Georgina Hickey on public spaces, women, and advocacy

Q&A with Breaking the Gender Code author Georgina Hickey on Public Spaces, Women, and Advocacy

From the closing years of the nineteenth century, women received subtle—and not so subtle—messages that they shouldn’t be in public. Or, if they were, that they were not safe. Georgina Hickey’s forthcoming Breaking the Gender Code: Women and Urban Public Space in the Twentieth-Century United States tells the story of both this danger narrative and the resistance to it, investigating challenges to urban gender segregation in the twentieth century. Focusing on organized advocacy to make American public spaces accessible to women, Hickey traces waves of activism from the Progressive Era all the way through and beyond second-wave feminism. Ultimately, Hickey explores how gender segregation intertwined with other forms of social control, and interacted with class, race, and sexuality to shape women’s experiences of urban space.

In this Q&A, Hickey discusses how lessons from her research can be applied to public spaces and activism today, and suggests how her research over such a long period of time can inform current understandings of and solutions to the safety of public spaces for marginalized groups. Breaking the Gender Code is out wherever you buy books on December 12! Click here to preorder your copy, and learn more about our other titles in Gender and Sexuality Studies here!

Your book looks at the presence of women in public as a site of oppression and resistance for women’s movements across the twentieth century, and the desire, by male power structures, for them to remain in private. Do you see the public-private life tension of the twentieth century, and the forms of resistance you chronicle, as applicable to our contemporary moment of social media and surveillance?

Absolutely, although as with any type of cultural change, it is amorphous and complicated by a variety of different factors. Public space remains highly contested, especially with the addition of technology that increases surveillance. Social media has offered new spaces to counter that and certainly worked as a tool for those seeking to raise awareness around issues of violence and access in public spaces. On the other hand, it has also created new vulnerabilities as it is hard for anyone to control information once it makes its way to the internet, and we know that cyber-bullying is rampant. In the age of security cameras, cell phones, and alarming stories of data breachers, we might feel like the idea of privacy is largely dead, but the blurring of public and private these developments suggest in no way diminishes a larger fight for bodily autonomy—the right to go, do, be, and exist without interference as long as you are not harming others.

In your introduction, you mention the “darker forces” that women were told lurked in public life, which ultimately “propagated a culture of fear that not only erased the harassment of individuals who were not white, straight, or cisgendered, but also deflected attention away from private spaces, where women have always been statistically far more likely to experience harm.” How do these “dark forces” continue to manifest in popular culture today?

We continue to paint public space as inherently dangerous, and for some groups, such as trans women of color, that is most certainly the case. We need to address that violence as a society rather than treat these as isolated incidents. But I also hope this book offers some tools for critically assessing some of our popular culture narratives about the danger of public space. Focusing on public spaces as dangerous can distract us from the fact that women are more likely to experience violence in their own homes at the hands of someone they know. The messages also continue to place the onus for addressing danger in public on individuals instead of portraying harassment and violence as systemic and therefore something society at large has a responsibility to address. Finally, we need to come to terms with the ramifications of continuing to paint white women as potential victims and men of color as perpetrators. Those old narratives cause active harm in our society—they endanger men of color, tell white women public space is not safe for them, and invisibilize women of color. I’m somewhat amazed at the surprise that American society seems to have about the “Karen” phenomenon, in which white women’s fears are triggered and they call the police on—and thereby endanger—Black men. I won’t excuse their behavior, but my work suggests that these women’s reactions reflect and perpetuate the way in which gender protections and privileges have been used to support institutionalized racism and state-sanctioned violence. We must unpack the ways that “protecting women” (by which society has generally meant white women) has been used to uphold and perpetuate discrimination and violence against people of color.

What are some lessons readers who are interested in activist or organizing work can take from the acts of resistance and challenges to gender-based segregation you document in your book?

This is such a great question! First, there is power in the group. Groups can validate individual experiences and reframe them, offering a sense of efficacy and empowerment for those who participate. So many of the slights, insults, harassments, and limitations placed on women that I cover in the book were things that had been treated as something women needed to learn to deal with individually. It took women coming together, talking about their experiences, analyzing the intent and impact of these messages, to really start understanding that their negative experiences were valid and not their fault. From there they demanded that the issues be treated as social problems and not just individual ones. Also, when you are trying to create any deep-level social change, there are going to be so many forces working against you—systemic discrimination, social dismissal, deep acculturation of norms…you will need your people to support and validate you and the work. When you look at movements for social change in history, including ones I write about in this book, you’ll find powerful networks of reformers and activists who loved and supported each other in both activism and life more generally.

Second, listen and collaborate. Anytime historically disempowered groups attempt to challenge the status quo, they are going to need allies who can amplify and extend the issues and provide resources. Building allyship requires people with different backgrounds, experiences, and social positions to really listen to each other. While I chronicle a number of successful collaborations that crossed class or other lines, there were some missed opportunities—most notably when white women consistently failed to understand that race and gender intertwined in the lives of African American women and that protections offered to white women were often denied to women of color in a way that reinforced racial segregation and violence. On a more positive note, one bit of the research for this book that I particularly love is the story of how an older generation of housing rights activists mentored younger feminists organizing in New York in the 1970s. These activists came from different generations and backgrounds, but they found some common ground and built a fruitful relationship, passing on valuable organizing strategies and skills but also expanding their worldview for all involved.

Are there ways women are building autonomy and freedom in public spaces today? What do you think free, safe public spaces might look like in the future, and what is missing from them now?

Yes, but the movements are now often much less bounded by gender—or the identity of “women” specifically. The LGBTQIA+ movement, the #MeToo movement, and those challenging neoliberalism are all, in some ways, carrying forward the legacy of the challenges to power I document in the book. In the twenty-first century, a global thread in the movement has emerged, and the internet has fostered the sharing of awareness, art, and organizing. This has been particularly strong in efforts to challenge gender-based violence that twentieth century feminists dubbed street harassment. I’m also very heartened to see the work of Millennials and Generation Z who are demanding and creating more “third spaces”—public spaces that are truly open to all and free of the capitalist imperative to spend money in order to gain access. Finally, queer and trans activists are challenging the ways heteronormativity and the gender binary have been written onto our public spaces. While much of this work is coming out of the tragic violence that too many have experienced, there is so much hope—and even some joy—to be found in their deep questioning of these categories that governed spaces and behaviors for so long.

You refer to the restrictions that women faced in twentieth century urban public space as “gender segregation.” What does that term mean? Is it anything like racial segregation?

Gender segregation refers to the complicated—and at times inconsistent—formal and informal practices that use the gender binary (the categories of “men” and “women”) to organize and control urban space. Gender segregation manifested in a variety of expectations, stereotypes, restrictions, and protections. Gender segregation is often hard to recognize because assumptions about the inherent characteristics of men and women obscure and naturalize it, and many of the behaviors it demands get labeled as “just common sense.” Gender and racial segregation are certainly not the same thing, especially since gender was so often used to reinforce racial segregation, but the terrific scholarship on racial segregation really helped me to understand how gender worked as a system to organize public space. Like racial segregation, gender segregation was not a static system that merely separated groups. Both systems were active and required ongoing performances (Blacks and women showing subservience and whites and men showing dominance). The systems governed how people should act, interact, and appear, where they could go, and what they could expect there. And both brought condemnation or violence to those who did not follow the rules. That these rules were rarely consistent was also a key piece of how the systems functioned, keeping those being constrained perpetually off balance, which encouraged them to be fearful and timid—or at least cautious. To be subjected to complicated and often capricious rules undermines a sense of self and autonomy.

Your book covers a long time period from the end of the 1800s into the early 2000s. Why look across that whole period and not just at, say, Second Wave Feminism?

Many of the issues my book tackles—ideas about privacy, autonomy, rights, and belonging—are issues that extend across the history of modern America. They are highly contested in the 1960s and 1970s by civil rights activists, feminists, the new left, etc. but they are not exclusive to that era. To really unpack the power of the messages women received and the impact of these messages on urban life, social privileges, economic opportunity, and political power, I needed a wider lens. Issues related to who gets to access public space, how and on what terms, connect to larger issues of standing and power, which explains why they have come up in different historical moments. There is an important lesson that emerges with a broader time frame, something we might otherwise miss: accompanying moments of great social change (what many might think of as progress), there has always been a conservative cultural narrative that arises in response that mutes some of the gains. For women, this means that while we do see moments of new opportunities in education, employment, and politics, there has often been an increase in messages and images of the danger lurking for women who step out their doors to access them.

What kinds of sources did you use to do the research for this book?

Finding sources was both a challenge and a pleasure. As a historian, I tend to start in the archives looking for original sources that were created at the time I’m studying. That is hard to do with this topic since there were only a few activists who dedicated themselves primarily to issues of public space. What I came to learn is that activists working on certain kinds of issues (civil rights, votes for women, education, employment rights, etc.) usually ran up against gender segregation. When I dug into their work and organizations, I very often came across something relating to public space, so this meant digging through meeting minutes for women’s clubs in the early twentieth century, reading autobiographies, and tracking down organizational newsletters. Old newspapers—both mainstream and alternative—were invaluable, once I had a sense of the terms people used (“hassling” instead of “harassment,” “comfort stations” instead of “bathrooms”) in different eras and the kinds of actions they took. I was also able to do a number of oral history interviews with activists from the 1970s. These really helped me understand how the issue of access to public space was connected to women seeking autonomy and substantive social change. While public space was rarely a primary issue, it was one that linked so many other issues because of the way it represents someone’s standing as a political and social being in our society.

What are you working on now?

I continue to be interested in how people conceive of and work to achieve just, livable cities. My current work uses the thirty-two-year career of a local elected official in Detroit, Michigan in the late twentieth century to examine the intersection of social justice movements, electoral politics, and policy. Detroit was a hard city to love in that period. It faced so many problems from deindustrialization, the flight of people and employers to the suburbs, rising crime rates, a crumbling infrastructure, and disinvestment from the state and federal government, yet Maryann Mahaffey and her networks fought hard to make a city that put human rights, people, and communities first. I find it to be a pretty inspirational story and one that is counter to the traditional narratives we are used to for Detroit.

Georgina Hickey is a professor of history at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and the author of Hope and Danger in the New South City: Working Class Women and Urban Development in Atlanta, 1890–1940.