“Dear Sarah,” read the note left on the makeshift memorial, “we are so sorry. You did nothing wrong.” It was just after 5 p.m., an hour from sunset, on March 13 and women were already beginning to gather at the park in Clapham, South London, to remember Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman kidnapped from the capital’s streets on March 3. Her body was found a week later in a woodland 50 miles away, in a builder’s bag, and had to be identified from dental records.
The terrible buildup between Sarah’s disappearance and the discovery of her body drew widespread attention to the case, as did the identity of the man now charged with her murder: a serving police officer. On the same day he was arrested, a survey was published showing that 80 percent of young women in the U.K. have been sexually harassed in a public space, and the online conversation returned to a familiar theme: Will women ever feel safe walking the streets?
The right to enter the public sphere is one of the longest-running fights waged by the feminist movement. A speech at the vigil for Everard on March 13 referenced the conviction of the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, known as the “Yorkshire Ripper,” 40 years ago. Back then, police warned women to stay home if they wanted to be safe, which prompted a movement called Reclaim the Night. But feminists were arguing that women had restricted access to public spaces well before that, as much through the design of cities as through cultural taboos. In the 1900s, the American suffragist Susan B. Anthony praised the bicycle for giving women “a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.” Later, activists fought for more public toilets, better street lighting, spaces for strollers on buses, and baby-changing facilities in restaurants—all amenities that make it easier to leave the domestic sphere. More recently, researchers have looked at how men crowd women at ATMs, how male pedestrians expect women to move out of their way, and how groups of men take up more space on the sidewalk. Even online abuse—which is disproportionately directed at women and members of racial and religious minorities—can be seen on this continuum. Some of those who are relentlessly trolled, harassed, and screamed at will retreat from the open internet, just as surely as the woman who is afraid to go out at night has been harried out of public life.