In 1911, etiquette expert Florence Hall praised cities as safe places for women to travel. This, according to historian Georgina Hickey, reflected “the middle-class optimism of the Progressive Era.” But by the 1960s, that advice changed dramatically, both due to shifts in how cities were viewed, and rising numbers of women in the workforce, which required them to be alone in public. Women now needed to actively avoid danger, Hickey explains. It lurked around every corner, and etiquette lessons weren’t going to save you. While these ideas seem like complete opposites, Hickey argues that they weren’t so different, as “both placed much of the responsibility for how women fared in public space on the individual women themselves.”
Safety advice has been given to women for a long time, but never more so than when women are in public. This is because of how public spaces have been coded, explains criminology professor Sara M. Walsh, “By constructing public space as off limits and dangerous to women,” Walsh writes, “safety advice reinforces traditional gender norms which emphasize women as vulnerable and necessarily fearful and men as fearless and invulnerable.” And these norms are solidified almost before we even know it.
Using research collected from a college campus in what she describes as a low-crime college town, Walsh noted that women often “view evening exams, late running buses and far away parking lots that force women to be alone in the dark as threats to women’s safety.” This, Walsh notes, likely has deeper roots. “College culture does not exist in a vacuum; surely women and girls come to campus already exposed to and invested in the ‘stranger in the woods’ mythology.” This mythology reinforces the perception of public spaces as dangerous, and much like the etiquette manuals of old, leads to advice about how women should act in these spaces. But, Walsh writes, “the result is a collection of safety advice that is dominated by traditional imaginings of women and women’s place in the world that more or less amounts to a collegiate retelling of Little Red Riding Hood….”
These ideas are reflected outside of campus walls, too. As Hickey explains, women are often told that “individual women were ultimately responsible for what happened to them in public space. … It was women’s responsibility, then, to avoid or avert the dangerous consequences of their presence, not the duty of society at large.” This meant that women were told how to behave in public spaces throughout history, not just as safety measures, but so “they might enjoy a host of rights while in public, perhaps the most significant of these being a right to be in public in the first place.”
The overall effect of these safety warnings is that women enjoy public space less, not that it’s made any safer. These ideas go back to Victorian times and the “separation of spheres ideal,” Walsh explains. This ideal “regulated women to ‘private spaces’” like the home. Modern safety advice, she continues, often has hints of this and “excludes women from the public sphere by structuring women and men into distinct symbolic spaces as well as physical spaces.” From early etiquette books to modern campus brochures, the undertone can be strikingly similar: that, as Hickey notes, “women should guard their person and behavior closely in order to earn the privilege of safe access to public space.”