The Case for the Flâneuse

In her new book, the author Lauren Elkin discusses the forgotten history of women artists who wandered the city and fought back against the masculine notion of the drifter.

I Pilon / Shutterstock / Francisco Moreno / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

For as long as there have been cities, there have been wanderers, figures who have slipped away from the constraints of time and responsibility, to drift through urban terrain, seduced by a hidden alleyway or a crowd in the marketplace. The flâneur, as this wanderer came to be known in his more polished nineteenth century incarnation, was a symbol of privilege and leisure, an embodiment of the artist who submits himself to the transient experience of the metropolis. A passionate spectator of the ways in which modernity unfolded across these cityscapes, he became both a recorder and a reflection of a new historical moment. The flâneur was, as Charles Baudelaire wrote, “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness … an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’.”

The idea of the flâneur presented by Baudelaire, as a phantom of the streets who can dissolve into the flux of daily life, ignores the key fact that invisibility was widely only afforded to men. From the city-driven poetry of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, to the modernist essays of Walter Benjamin and James Joyce’s odyssey through Dublin in Ulysses, to the work of Guy Debord and Vito Acconci (who were interested in psychogeography and the impact of the urban landscape on memory), the archetype of the flâneur flourished in literary and artistic movements of the twentieth century, while continuing to largely exclude women.

Despite their presence on the same streets, historically, women haven’t always shared the same privilege of anonymity or drift in the urban setting; whether because of domestic responsibilities or simply issues of safety, they have often been less free to roam the streets without purpose, to go where they choose or where inspiration leads them.

This frustrating paradox is what led the author and literary scholar Lauren Elkin to challenge the patriarchal practice of the flâneur. In her book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (the title of which simply converts the masculine to the feminine in French), Elkin pushes back against the oeuvre of work by men who catalogued their urban meanderings, presenting instead an alternative model of women artists and writers from Virginia Woolf and George Sand to Sophie Calle and Martha Gellhorn, who all broke new ground when it comes to how women could navigate the cityscape. Blending historical analysis, literary criticism, and memoir, Elkin seeks to re-define the concept of flânerie itself, and to reclaim the city for its women wanderers.

At a moment when women’s rights have come to significant national attention, Flâneuse also reads as a document of resilience, one that celebrates female figures fighting to be seen. I spoke to Elkin by phone. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Arnav Adhikari: What was the genesis of the book?

Lauren Elkin: I had been originally studying abroad in Paris; Something about that city just draws you out and makes you dawdle on street corners and sit and take it all in. Someone said the word “flâneur” to me once and I thought it was so interesting that there was actually a word for this idling. So when I got back to Barnard for my senior year I wanted to write my thesis on the female flâneur, the flâneuse, but when I was researching, I found that critics categorically said that there could not be a female flâneuse because historically, women have not had the same access to urban spaces that men have had. Back then I gave up and ended up writing on other kinds of public women—prostitutes and actresses.

But after I finished my PhD, I felt this need to return to the flâneuse, and devoted the next few years to it. I thought there had to be a way around what these critics said. Okay, there can be no female flâneur if she is just a female version of the flâneur, but surely there have been women walking in the cities. What have they been doing there? How have they been walking, and what has walking meant to them?

Adhikari: You point out that the history of great cities is often embedded in a male historythat from architecture to literature to art, maleness is coded into the urban fabric. How did you start to discover this?

Elkin: You sort of already know, as a woman, that the space of the city is not made for you. You sit down at a bus stop and your feet dangle off the edge. I’m 5’4”, a very average height for a female, and I often find myself feeling like a little girl in the city. It just feels like the urban landscape is not built at the height of a woman, but at the height of a man. We’re also told from an early age to be careful, not to make eye contact, and if someone talks to you on the street, don’t talk back. Women are brought up to feel like we don’t have power out in the city, so we have to be cautious in how we interact with it and in it.

Once I started researching the flâneuse, even as an adult, I still didn’t know from the outset that the literature of the city was basically all written by men. Janet Wolff has a really interesting essay called “The Invisible Flâneuse,” and she makes the argument that all the major texts that we have on the experience of living in and walking through cities are in masculine voices. There’s this reified canon of men who walk around town, from Baudelaire to De Quincey to Benjamin, who are all of course brilliant and really inspiring, but it continues today, specifically in Britain. I don’t know the case in the U.S. but in the U.K., there’s a real cult of the masculine walker, these British psychogeographers of nature and the city alike. People like Will Self, Iain Sinclair, or Robert Macfarlane are all wonderful writers of place, but they’re all guys who walk together with their male friends and write articles in The Guardian and The Observer about it. But there’s a long history of women engaging with the city’s spaces who weren’t getting a lot of coverage.

Adhikari: Can you talk a little bit more about how the flâneur differs from the flâneuse?

Elkin: Martha Gellhorn, the war reporter, is a particularly interesting figure to look at for these differences. It was actually her technique to wander the streets of Madrid to get the story from people on the ground, instead of covering the “official” narrative of the war by talking to fighters and generals. I found that Gellhorn actually uses the word “flâne” to refer to travel and how important it is to her to go where the action is happening. She had a very broad definition of what that meant, and so, if the flâneur is thought of as this kind of emotionally detached man out on the street taking it all in, maybe if that’s not possible for a woman, she can instead choose to be very engaged. For women, perhaps being in the city and walking is a form of extreme un-detachment, being emotionally bound up in everything that’s happening in your environment. I started discovering more and more women like Gellhorn, Marie Bashkirtseff for example, and feeling that a woman often uses the city as a testing ground, a place for her to prove her independence or help her break away from her family. The urban space was never neutral for women; it has always been charged.

Adhikari: Looking at some of these earlier walkers and writers, do you think there’s a contemporary context in which they can be relevant?

Elkin: Completely. Women still can’t walk in the city in the way a man can. I think it really came to the fore a few weeks ago when we were all marching in the city streets in defense of women’s rights, for control of a woman’s body and where she goes or walks. I have a chapter on protest, which looks at the ways in which women’s movements have been incredibly effective and powerful in a political sphere that they might not have anticipated. An historical example of this is the women’s march on Versailles in 1789, and the impact that that had; 7,000 women hiked out to Versailles from Paris, and took the king back to the center of town with them, making him sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—a fundamental document of the French Revolution—which is something he was delaying doing before that. I think we have a lot to learn from those 7,000 ladies.

Adhikari: You talk about the idea of space being essential to the flâneur’s practice. But you say space is not neutral, that it’s a feminist issue. How do you think art or writing can liberate that space?

Elkin: So often “liberation” comes from seeing a model, seeing someone else do something and daring to try it out as well. I bring many of these women artists who I write about to my students because I’m trying to show them something they haven’t thought about doing before. Sophie Calle’s work, for example, gives them another way of engaging with the world and thinking about their relationship to space. Reading Virginia Woolf or George Sand or Calle, it offers women an alternative model for being in space, and gives them a kind of permission to live a little bit outside the lines and think about how else they could be in public. To write or make art in those spaces is a way to reclaim them.

Adhikari: Is belonging in the historical male space then not the ultimate goal the flâneuse is aiming for?

Elkin: I think that’s the rhetoric of possession, which Hemingway uses in A Moveable Feast. It sets the world up into people who belong and people who possess, and I don’t feel comfortable with that dichotomy. I think it’s up to the flâneuse to rewrite those narratives. I’m not going to belong to anyone or to anywhere. I’m just going to be.

Adhikari: Who are some of the contemporary writers or artists that you think embody the same ideas that Sand or Woolf embodied?

Elkin: The first person who comes to mind is Laura Oldfield Ford, who’s doing drawings and art projects about wandering the peripheries of the cities. Someone like Janet Cardiff, who has these remarkable guided walks around Whitechapel that were commissioned by Artangel, is also fascinating. If you go to Whitechapel in London and download this file to your phone, you can listen to her as she guides you. It’s like a guided flân, but more active than an audio guide; it’s more an art experience of the city. Rachel Lichtenstein is great too; Rebecca Solnit is obviously amazing.

Adhikari: Do you have an audience in mind for this book, and if so, what do you want them to take away from this?

Elkin: I would love to think that anyone could take something from it, but specifically younger women, and I guess men who want to get a sense of what it’s like to be a woman in the city and how that’s different. People who might be interested in getting beyond the male-specific definition of what it is to be neutral or universal.

Adhikari: When you travel to a new place, one of the ways you can feel like you can belong is through technology. Google Maps or Yelp allows you to only access the specific parts of a city you want to access. Has technology made it harder to get lost?

Elkin: Regardless of the technology, it’s always a choice to flân in the city. You can always decide to go from point A to point B. So I think it’s tempting to be out there flâning and be on your phone, but it’s still a choice. You can get caught up in whatever you’re doing in the city. I’m not at all bothered by the threat of technology to our ability to get lost or be in the city. And thank god for Google Maps.