Suffragette City
eBook - ePub

Suffragette City

Women, Politics, and the Built Environment

Elizabeth Darling, Nathaniel Walker, Elizabeth Darling, Nathaniel Robert Walker

  1. 224 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Suffragette City

Women, Politics, and the Built Environment

Elizabeth Darling, Nathaniel Walker, Elizabeth Darling, Nathaniel Robert Walker

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About This Book

SHORTLISTED FOR THE COLVIN PRIZE 2021! Awarded by the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, the Colvin Prize is one of the world's most prestigious honors in the field of architectural history. The medal is awarded annually to the author or authors of an outstanding work of reference of broad importance to the discipline; all modes of publication are eligible, including catalogues, gazetteers, digital databases and online resources. Suffragette City was nominated due to the new ways in which its contributors cast light on the work of women to shape the architecture of communities around the English-speaking world.

Suff ragette City brings together a collection of illustrated essays dedicated to exploring and analysing cases in which women have resourcefully leveraged or defied the politics of gender to form and reform architecture and urbanism. Throughout much of modern history, women have been assigned to the margins and expected to play passive social roles. Suffragette City draws on nineteenth- and twentieth-century architectural case studies from the English-speaking world, including the USA, South Africa, Scotland, India and England, to examine places and moments when women stepped into the centre of public life and claimed opportunities to shape the fabrics of their communities. Their engagements with the built environment consistently transcended architecture to achieve the level of urbanism, as whole networks of relationships came into their purview, transforming the architecture of socio-political connection as well as the confronting the physical divisions that have historically lain along racial, economic and gendered lines. Academics, researchers and students engaged in architectural history, theory, urbanism, gender studies and social and cultural history will be interested in this fascinating, politically-charged text.

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Reconfiguring communities



Gender, class and reform in Edwardian Edinburgh

Elizabeth Darling
The photograph shows an urban scene: a street lined with tenement buildings; washing hangs from windows; groups of women cluster around shop doorways; a lone figure, a woman, walks towards where the photographer must be standing; a small boy claps his hands excitedly, perhaps at something he has seen in the shop window (Figure 1.1). His delight translates into the movement that forever blurs his place in the historical record.
Another photograph (Figure 1.2): this time showing a domestic interior, almost certainly in one of the tenements seen in Figure 1.1. A woman sits on a bed holding a baby; a chair can just been seen on the right hand side of the frame. We infer that this might be all the furniture contained in a room that is otherwise dominated by the large fireplace. Housing the range, with ornaments and a gas lamp on its mantelpiece, it is as much a source for bodily warmth as it is for cooking.
FIGURE 1.1 View of the south side of the Canongate, Edinburgh, ca. 1908
Source: Reproduced by kind permission of the Episcopal Church of Old St Paul’s, Edinburgh
A second domestic interior, a bedroom and this time a description only:
it was big and full of strange objects, scents, and other mysteries. There was an electric ozone machine to purify the air. There were spirit lamps for midnight meals … Celtic crosses, scarabs and drawings from Egypt, several Buddhas of dubious sex, eaux de Cologne and lavenders galore.1
These scenes – photographed or written – have been chosen as shorthands for the themes that this chapter explores. All are Scottish and depict environments that were formed in Edwardian Edinburgh. The two images were probably taken around 1908, and show life in the Canongate, the steep street that forms part of the Royal Mile, the spine of Edinburgh’s Old Town, which runs from Holyrood Palace up to its famous Castle. The description takes us to the New Town, and is a recollection of the bedroom of Jane Whyte who lived at number 7 Charlotte Square, part of a terrace that formed one side of arguably the grandest set piece of the city’s neo-classical development, designed by Robert Adam. While at first glimpse these sites might appear to have nothing in common, as will be shown, the historical connections were strong and between them they serve to disrupt and redirect understandings of how urban environments are made, or re-made, and shed light on who has agency and who does not in this process. Gender is central to this story.
This chapter proceeds from the observation that despite decades of feminist revisionism, there remains an ongoing failure to think of urban sites generally, and, in this instance, early twentieth-century Edinburgh in particular, in terms of their female population. Equally, there is a failure to consider that women might have played some sort of active role in the spatial and material formation of the environments in which they dwelt or worked.2 Yet, as these examples show, these were feminine landscapes; in each instance, female protagonists dominate. This chapter seeks therefore to show how we might understand such sites as the products of the ideas and labors of women, and thus foreground women’s activities and concerns in our analysis of them. This will allow us to understand the historical relationship between the sites introduced above, and to comprehend the significance of that relationship, which wove the city together on a large scale, both physically and politically. In so doing, the aim is to articulate and posit a recalibration of hierarchies of significance and importance in histories of the built environment.
The photographs and description also signal a further, and often overlooked, dimension to this disruptive process of recalibration, that of class. The Edwardian Canongate was a slum. Once the locus of Edinburgh’s civic and commercial life, the development of the New Town from the late eighteenth century had seen the fine stone courts and tenements of the Old Town transformed into overcrowded dwellings by waves of migrants from the Highlands and Ireland. They sought work in the industries which remained on that side of the city: gasworks, breweries and piecework conducted at home for shoe manufacturers and publishers. By the end of the nineteenth century, the majority of the figures we see in Figure 1.1, whose garb – shawls, no shoes – marks them as members of the urban working class, were the objects of much social anxiety. This, in turn, led to a wave of reform activity, which ranged from slum clearance and social work to new forms of education, and which was very often instigated and devised by women.
It was the combination of anxiety and reform that allowed figures such as that lone woman to establish a presence in this classed landscape. The confidence in her demeanor, and her clothing – matching jacket and skirt, hat, the small bag she carries – suggest someone of more certain means. She is, perhaps, a social worker or a lady rent collector; the only certitude is that she is not in this slum area because poverty has rooted her there. We do not know her name or her particular history but she was probably on this street as an agent of her own volition. A key concern in this chapter, then, is to consider how gender and class intersected to enable women such as she to lead a professional, or quasi-professional, life, as a dispenser of urban and social reform. Similarly, it seeks to ascertain the extent to which Jane Whyte’s status as an upper-middle class lady enabled her to play, as we shall see, the not inconsiderable role she did in reforms enacted in the Canongate, but also limited her spatial freedom to her home in Charlotte Square. A preoccupation too is to ask how such women interacted with the working-class women at whom their activities were aimed. Did the politics of gender unite them, as Figure 1.1 seems to suggest, in a cross-class mutual endeavor to transform urban and domestic environments, or were more complex negotiations conducted across the class divide?
Such considerations matter because when historians – academic and popular alike – talk about urban reform in Edinburgh, the usual referents are the metropolitan clearance and improvement programs of the city council (much influenced by its medical officer of health, H.D. Littlejohn) and the Conservative Surgery approach developed by Patrick Geddes. These were the work (we are told) of middle- and upper-middle-class professional men doing heroic, highly visible things, such as ordering buildings to be knocked down (histories rarely mention the working-class men who carried out this work). Geddes, in particular, by virtue of the gigantic publicity machine that he built up around himself, and today for the heritage value he attracts in a city increasingly dependent on tourism, is particularly over-emphasized in our understanding of urban reform activity in the Old Town. Most will be aware of his decision in 1887 to move himself and his new wife to live at James Court, a tenement in the Old Town’s Lawnmarket. From this base he went on to initiate projects such as the Outlook Tower and develop his theories of planning and conservation.3 This was, of course, not insignificant work, but it is only a small fraction of the larger story.
To challenge the obstinate narratives that place the careers of men at the center and fixate upon fame and valor, let us take a lead from the women who lived and reformed in and around the Canongate and view our history differently. Rather than think about urban reform and transformation as residing solely in individual heroic acts, demolition and new building, and enacted through legislative and formal mechanisms, our focus could shift. We can look instead at the often ad hoc, cumulative, small changes that were effected collaboratively through networks of people working over time, and understand that all genders have agency. We then might see the Canongate less as a landscape “saved” by the grand vision of the heroic Geddes, and more as one re-imagined and re-worked through the labor of the women of all classes who lived there, worked there and sought to make it a more habitable place.
In the main body of this chapter, therefore, the focus will be on how class, gender and site intersected in Edwardian Edinburgh. Through a discussion of three protagonists and the places they occupied, we will see how their activities demonstrated contemporary ideas about women’s and children’s rights and their consequent impact on the built environment; how class could be both a liberating device and an inhibiting one; and how much women’s gender affects our ability to tell their history.

7 Charlotte Square

To start with a discussion of Jane Whyte (1857–1944) is useful because she was very much part of what, for now, will still be called the circle around Patrick Geddes. The accounts which have been written about her have tended to discuss her in these terms, or in relation to male family members. To trace Whyte’s agency and activity as an autonomous individual will, however, sketch in a more substantial sense of her work and life, and move towards shifting Geddes’s place in that circle. It will also go some way to explaining why he has for so long been seen as the center from which things radiated.
Until very recently, what has been known about Jane Whyte has been gleaned from studies of her husband, the Reverend Alexander Whyte (1836–1921), who was a minister of the Free Church (Presbyterian) of Scotland, theologian and the principal of New College, Edinburgh University (1909–1918). This status warrants him an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, one in which the sole reference to Whyte is to describe her as “a cultivated person who shared his intellectual interests” before noting the number of children the couple produced (seven). No more is said.4
A cultivated woman, then, but how so? Her husband’s biographer relates that as the daughter of a wealthy entrepreneur father, she was not deemed worthy of a formal education, unlike her brothers. It was, however, one of them, Robert Barbour (a distinguished graduate of the University of Edinburgh’s medical school), who instead chose to study with her daily: one summer’s reading was “the Niebelungen Lied, part of the Divina Commedia, the Odyssey, and sections of the AEneid.”5 Jane Whyte also attended university extension classes in literature and philosophy.6 Such determined self-education suggests someone not content to settle for life as a lady of the leisured classes. Her subsequent activities confirm this.
More recent scholarship by feminist historians and those informed by them has embarked on the long process of documenting the generations of Scottish women active historically in politics, reform and public life. This has situated Whyte more precisely in the context which enabled her to realize her ambitions and break out of gendered confines.7 Married to Alexander in 1881, and settled permanently in Edinburgh’s New Town (initially in a house in Melville Street and then in Charlotte Square), at the same time as she executed her duties as the wife of a leading member of the city’s religious community, she very quickly became part of a ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Table of Contents
  6. Contributors
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. About the cover
  9. Introduction
  10. PART I: Reconfiguring communities
  11. PART II: Pathfinding in the professions
  12. 4. The ‘minister of municipalities’: shared space and social fabric in the work of Caroline Bartlett Crane
  13. 5. This strange interloper: building products and the emergence of the architect-shopper in 1930s Britain
  14. 6. Adapting and anticipating: the home planning consultancy work of Hilde Reiss and Jane Drew, 1943–45
  15. PART III: Staking claims to urban space
  16. Index