Global Roaming: The global historian Lisa Hellman reflects on the ‘Gender and the Global City’ session at the ESSHC 2018

View of the front of the hongs at Canton, after 1807

View of the front of the hongs at Canton, after 1807

One of the pleasures of being a global historian is to not only study diverse places, but also visit them. Walking the winding streets of Tokyo, negotiating the traffic of Guangzhou or bicycling through Amsterdam makes ownership of the street into a personal and bodily issue. Moving through cities on four continents as a North European scholar drives home the connection between mobility, power and diverse forms of capital. Doing so as a woman prompts me, as lamentably as inevitably, to see the influence of gender norms and relations on my presence and my mobility. But most of all, doing so as a global historian triggers the imagination. This is not surprising: any longer conversations with the Freedom of the Streets group will inspire you to see layers upon layers of change and continuity; cities become not only what they are, but also what they have been, and what we have imagined them as.         

Another joy of global history is its ability to disrupt and unsettle conventional truths – and thereby start new conversations. One such meeting took place on April 4th, as the Freedom of the Streets project invited a few scholars, myself included, to join them for a panel at the European Social Science History Conference at Queen’s University in Belfast.

The tone was set by Danielle van den Heuvel, who stated that it is both possible and helpful to question what public and private spaces were actually constituted of, and consider categories such as indoor and outdoor (including liminal spaces, such as doors and windows). But, in general, just adding more labels is as futile as the easy deconstructivist route, and risks leading further and further away from historical actors and their agency. She urged the panels not to simply discard all hitherto used concepts and studies of modernity, urban change and gender norms but rather to add something: the practices of mobility. With this theme as a nexus, the group was then able to explore formal and informal ownership of streets in relation to movement, materiality, gender norms and governance. The practice-focus invited us to combine visual and textual material to chart events, persons as well as locations, and the overlaps between spaces and actions. In short: the idea was to let the cities be a conglomerate of people and practices, rather than structures that individuals merely act out.

We started in a discussion familiar to those in global and urban history: does the story of modernity presuppose a certain cityscape and a particular change of it? What happens if this narrative is expanded to urban centres outside of Europe? Even though an ever-increasing amount of studies have shown both the fruitfulness of comparing European and Asian cities, and of acknowledging their mutual influence, there is still a disconnect between urban history studies dealing with these two regions. The strength of the panel, then, was the range and difference of the scholars taking part and the variety of case studies and methodologies that they brought to the table; it gathered scholars trained in economic history, architecture, maritime history, historical geography, working on Europe, Africa, North America and Asia.

The papers were:

  • Danielle van den Heuvel : Freedom of the Streets. Some Thoughts on Gender and Urban Space in the Pre-modern Era
  • Bebio Amaro : Gender and Urban Space in Edo (1600-1850)
  • Lisa Hellman : The City of Women: the Gendered Spaces of Eighteenth-century Canton
  • Bob Pierik : Gender in the Streets of Amsterdam (1600-1850)
  • Emma Hart : Men and Women in the Eighteenth-Century British American Provisioning Trade
  • Miki Sugiura : Selling her Possessions Home: Women's Agencies in the Formation of Urban Space in 18th Century Cape Town
  • Antonia Weiss : Gender and Urban Nature in the Modernising City
  • Suze Zijlstra : Women in Trans-Atlantic News Networks in Dutch Port Town

The panel then concluded with a commentary by Elizabeth Cohen.

While I very much recommend clicking on these links [to follow], to get more detail on the individual papers, some of the most exciting things happened in the meeting between them. As the group placed studies of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Amsterdam, Canton (Guangzhou), Berlin, Cape Town and Charleston side-by-side, certain topics and questions moved to the foreground: how to localise and scale connections; historicising notions of public, private, home and work; integrating analyses of representation with those of practices; and considering mobility in relation to discussions of agency and freedom. These tie in with debates in diverse fields, but the panel led to a satisfyingly challenging result: not only were these debates now linked to each other, that interweaving also made each theme impossible to circumvent – to broaden the scope showed which questions simply cannot be ignored.

First, while the panel had gender analysis as a starting point, the papers consistently integrated the construction of class and race. Bebio Amaro used two Japanese diaries (more on which can be found here) to map movement in Edo, and suggested that his actors by and large did move in accordance with their class, and adhering to the government’s goal of a socially segregated city: urban governance can be followed by tracing movement. Conversely, claiming spaces could be a matter of appropriation: to physically be in a space could push other groups away. While the upper-class women of Edo were free to move in some ways, they had to avoid the commoners’ quarters to preserve their privilege. Similarly, in the foreign quarters of Canton, there were multiple occasions when European foreign traders and Chinese street performers and hawkers clashed over the use of the few open spaces in the foreign quarters. There, the presence and activity of lower-class groups was perceived by European traders as limiting access to one of very few Chinese spaces they had access to. However, while these spatial restrictions were based on the division between Chinese and non-Chinese, these limits were even more drastic in relation to minority groups, such as the eta/hinin in the case of Edo, or the boat people of the Pearl River in Canton. Indeed, there were strong ties between class difference and racialisation, as shown by Miki Sugiura, demonstrating how the mobility of slaves in Cape Town was also dependent on their status as unfree. An additional point, stressed by Bob Pierik, is that there is no such thing as a simple dichotomy of mobility versus non-mobility for different groups: a space could change profoundly in terms of class, gender, age depending on the time of day. For example, one of his preliminary explorations may even suggest that some women in 18th century Amsterdam had a larger range of movement in the evenings than many of their male counterparts. Not only did mobility depend on whether you were a man or woman, young or old, married or unmarried, or on how you were racialised –  the construction of space also had a temporal aspect.

Second, the panel tied into the current methodological discussion within global history on how to best connect the local and the global. Drawing from insights of urban history might in fact take this debate further, and land us with a differentiated concept of the local. For some historical actors, the locality they would primarily relate to would not be the city, but their own part of the city. Anyone having lived in a big city knows how many people still live and move primarily in a small part of it, creating a manageable social village of a metropolis. This might have methodological repercussions: taking seriously the traction and social thresholds inherent in visiting a different part of the city, means tracing a local rootedness of urban residents. This presents a possible contrast to the idea of the city both as a haven of freedom and an environment with frail social ties. This grounded idea of locality does neither contradict the actors’ mobility within or beyond the city, but it makes the scaling from these localities exciting, as the friction might not primarily be between the scales. One example of this came from Suze Ziljstra, who traced the participation in transatlantic correspondence by women in Dutch ports. That not only placed them within a global news network, but also broke up boundaries between the maritime and the domestic spheres. At the same time, it presented them with problems when the office where these letters were distributed moved. Another example was provided by Emma Hart, showing how British American wharfs were dependent by suburban supply chains, enabling female actors to take part in the trade. Again, access to larger scales did not equal increased influenced. These markets were less regulated than their British counterparts, but the property regimes meant that a small group of men controlled almost all the property. The majority of the female merchants worked as small-time hawkers and, albeit crucial to the local trade, their potential influence and commerce was circumscribed.

An insight that leads us to the third theme: the notions of public, private, home and work. As stressed by Elizabeth Cohen in her concluding comments, it would be misleading to only think about early modern work in terms of just activities people were paid for. As few chores would be carried out by individuals, only a fraction of early modern labour can be converted into single data points. She argues that if one defines work as including not only productive work but also transactional work, circulation, managerial, disciplinary, ceremonial and ritual work, it counters any arguments that middle-class women retreated from the world of labour. This is particularly clear if the large-scale economic influence of religious and ceremonial practices on urban spaces could be stressed more, that is: if taking care of the religious duties of a family would also considered be work. The river Sumida in Edo, for example, worked as an economic gateway, which lead to the development of large temple complexes on its shores, and women shouldered much responsibility for temple visits. That is not to say that there was no gendered division of labour, but rather that chores tied into each other, or were collaborative. As shown by Antonia Weiss, the gardens of the elite in the Netherlands and Germany were worked by both men and women, albeit in complementary roles. In fact, she demonstrates how the garden can further complicate notions of work, and of inside and outside. Green spaces for profit, such as kitchen gardens, were gendered as female, but pleasure gardens were gendered male. However, some of the activities that were considered as labour in the city, like cleaning vegetables, became a pleasure and a reminder of a bucolic past when exercised in suburban space. The same prodding of the ideas of public and private can be found in the example of Cape Town. As an effect of shops being banned, as they were considered an illegal competition to the Dutch East India Company, alternative spheres of commerce emerged. Commodities were either peddled by slaves on the streets, sold through auctions or from home, all of which had strong domestic and social connotations. Taken together, these cases questioned the usefulness of the using terms as public and private as dichotomous, even for the end of the early modern period. To work was not the same as making money; to be at home was not to be isolated.

Fourth, there is a need to integrate both representation and practices. It matters not only what we do in a city, but how we talk about it, paint it, sell it. But while theorists such as Tim Cresswell conceptualises this as examples of diverse forms of mobility, that does not help us untangle how these representations actually affected the practices, and vice versa. These types of projections, dreams and discourses might in fact be crucial when gendering the construction of space. Narratives of the cloistered Chinese women formed a crucial part of the European travellers’ characterisation of the foreign quarters of Canton. These projects might also be another key for scaling history from local lives to global empires. The private correspondence from Surinam to the women in the port towns of the Netherlands, gave a much harsher image of the reality than the official, rather rosy, narrative. In the future it will probably be necessary to not only show that these representations existed, but to explicate to what degree, and in which ways, practices and discourses on movement and accessibility actually influenced each other.

Which bring us to the final theme, that is to consider mobility in relation to discussions of agency and freedom. Coming back to the first point, social positioning and class was presented as a consistent part of the story of urban life – but maybe not in the ways we imagine, based on how we presently can and choose to move in the world and on the streets.  As pointed out in the discussions: the times when people were explicitly restricted, allowed or forced to move are the exciting exceptions, the norm was not outspoken. This is why it is so helpful to consider a diverse set of practices, and based on that trace where these took place. That takes us away from the binary of who was on the streets and who was not with and replaced it with the fact that streets were used in diverse ways over the course one day, and overlapped with other spaces through open doors, windows and through green spaces. The streets would not be thoroughfares but historical arenas in which to be. But to be sure, considering walking, being, seeing streets as social activities does in no way counter the relationship to power. This is the point the panel returned to recurrently and insistently: how do you define ownership of the street and is that the same as being legitimately present? What type of movement is then a sign of freedom? The very title of the project “Freedom of the Streets” is a reference to, and a probing of, the literature that quickly connects cities to freedom and individual liberty. This has larger implications, both for how we do our studies and how we interpret the results: we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of equating mobility with agency, and influence. The case studies presented diverse forms of movement in the context of servitude, slavery, or of servants’ daily tasks. Mobility could be a daily chore, not a sign of liberty. That serves as an important point to probe further in global comparisons of systems of friction, immobility – or indeed of forced mobility and displacement.

Global history constantly risk having a mobility bias, that is to give undue attention to those things, people and ideas in flux that are moving, and traversing space. In contrast, studies of urban history might have a more stable locality, one that might do well from being disrupted a bit. The meeting between global and urban history does not only give ample opportunity for roaming cities worldwide, it also makes us consider and reconsider how, with whom and where these streets have been navigated in the past, and underline their multifaceted and multidirectional power structures. Rather than offering a set answer, this conversation has opened up a winding path for us to follow.