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 history—that 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.