[URBAN NOTE] “Who Has the Right to Walk?”
Cody Delistraty’s blog post takes a look at the way women has been excluded from the city as random walkers, how the word “flâneur” is gendered masculine in more ways than the obvious one, and how a new generation of women are challenging this.
For centuries, the word ‘flâneur’ has burrowed itself into the historical conversation of what it means to intimately know a city, to walk in it, to fully experience it, to be independent within it. The term, meaning a man who saunters around observing society, can be traced back to at least 17th-century France. It was first explained in detail in an 1872 edition of Larousse’s Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle in which the dictionary’s authors define it taxonomically: “flâneurs of the boulevards, of the parks, of the cafés.” In his 1837 novel César Birotteau, Honoré de Balzac called it “gastronomy of the eye.” Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve said that to flâne is “the very opposite of doing nothing,” insofar as it is an intellectual pursuit. Some trace the word back even further back, to 1587, with the Scandinavian noun ‘flana’, meaning “a person who wanders.” And it was Walter Benjamin, drawing on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, who first used the term in a scholarly context, writing about it in the 1920s and further honing its definition: a flâneur, for Benjamin, was at once an inherently literary character, a man of leisure, and a symbol of the modern, urban experience.
Flâneur became a historically valuable term. For at least two centuries, the word adopted a variety of meanings and contexts, but eventually it became a catchall byword for a modern, educated person. To be a flâneur was to encapsulate the progress and the civility of the Western world. The best-known flâneurs are also some of modern history’s most important writers, scholars, aristocrats, poets, and thinkers: from Thomas de Quincey to André Breton to Edgar Allen Poe to Charles Baudelaire to Will Self.
Google ‘flâneuse’, the feminine form of the word, and one only finds photographs and descriptions of a type of chaise longue. Women are excluded from the term. While this is a linguistic exclusion, it is also very much a historical one. To be excluded from the word is to be ostracised from the history of intellectualism, modernisation, even civilisation.
And yet it shouldn’t be so. Virginia Woolf was walking and learning and thinking; so too were the writers Jean Rhys and George Sand and the intrepid reporter Martha Gelhorn; likewise contemporary women like writer-artist Sophie Calle, artist Laura Oldfield Ford, and film director Agnès Varda. There have been dozens of important female saunterers, but centuries in the making, the word flâneur has failed to find room for them. Their contributions to the progression of modernity have largely been forgotten or rendered less important than those of their male counterparts.
Lauren Elkin, a critic, novelist, and author of the recent Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, believes that the solution to women being omitted from the history of walking is not to try to retroactively integrate them into the definition of flâneur. Instead, she has sought to redefine “flâneuse,” not as a type of chaise longue, but as a female flâneur. In doing so, Elkin has allowed herself—and historians—to reflect on the history of women walking and to properly revise it.