With the disappearance and death of Sarah Everard in south London in March 2021, women’s safety – and their rights to use public spaces without the fear of coming to harm – have dominated news headlines and social media. Sarah was walking from Clapham to Brixton, a journey that should have taken her 50 minutes. How could a woman go missing simply walking home from a friend’s house?

More than 70 per cent of women in the UK say they have experienced sexual harassment in public. Debate about this case has brought forward numerous stories from other women about instances where they have felt threatened in public spaces, together with comments implying that a woman on her own should not have been walking at night in an urban space. Although men are also victims of assault in public spaces, it is rare for a male victim to be blamed for being in the “wrong” place at the wrong time – and arguments about women’s use of public spaces, and their safety within them, are nothing new.

Public space has historically been a male space, designed, built and shaped by men for their own use. This can be seen in even the smallest of details in the Victorian city, from the absence of wide enough pavements and pedestrian space to push baby carriages and perambulators, to public toilets in 19th-century London catering overwhelmingly to men.

Public space has historically been a male space, designed, built and shaped by men for their own use. This can be seen in even the smallest of details in the Victorian city

In previous centuries, although class impacted to some extent on what women could and couldn’t do, they were largely viewed as occupying a separate sphere, a more domestic space. Their ability to move around public spaces, whether in urban or rural areas, was more circumscribed than men’s. In the 18th century, for example, women’s space was seen as more domestic, being focused on their homes, and on specific activities such as doing the laundry, shopping and churchgoing – although some, of course, did work. Men were able to utilise a wider range of spaces without judgment, even if only walking through the city on their own, particularly at night.

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People queue for train tickets in an 1872 engraving
People queue for train tickets in an 1872 engraving. Newspapers highlighted the risk of sexual violence on trains in an era when women’s access to such spaces had become a political issue. (Image by Mary Evans Picture Library)

Conversely, moral judgments were made about women who ventured out after dark, or on their own. This is clear from the evidence of court cases, where female victims were put in the dock as often as the men they had accused. Where had the woman been attacked? What had she been doing there? Had she really made clear that she did not want the attack? The onus, in cases involving assaults that occurred in public spaces, was on the woman to prove she was respectable and had been out for an acceptable reason. In 1824, one newspaper published an account of a woman being assaulted in public near Bristol by three men. The coverage made clear that she was “a very respectable girl” and that, therefore, her being out walking at seven o’clock at night was for an innocent and acceptable reason.

Women’s responsibility

During the Victorian era, as women gained increasing independence, their access to public space became a more political issue, and thus the focus of moral press reportage about assaults on women. The scholar Robin Barrow has noted how newspapers of the 1860s and 1870s highlighted sexual violence on trains due to this concern about female freedom, with the railways being seen not only as a “hybrid public and private space” but also a means by which women could more easily access other public spaces. In the 1890s, a man was charged with grabbing women who were exiting Lime Street station in Liverpool and forcibly kissing them – highlighting to readers that not only were the railways dangerous places for women, but so too were their entrances and exits onto the public street.

Various environments, from railways to city centres, had typically been viewed as the territory of men. However, the late Victorian era saw many urban centres become centres for shopping and pleasure. More women were attracted to them, in order to shop, socialise and, of course, work. The growing empowerment of middle-class women in particular meant that they felt increasingly able to venture into city centres to shop. This could lead to street harassment, but also, as the historian Judith Walkovitz has explored, to women feeling better able to articulate their experiences, arguing that they had the right to travel through public spaces without fear of assault.

Three women shop together on the music-sheet cover for an 1859 song
Three women shop together on the music-sheet cover for an 1859 song. In the Victorian era, more women ventured into city centres – and harassment rose. (Image by Mary Evans Picture Library)

Yet when out in male-dominated public spaces, the responsibility was placed on women to respond to unwanted attentions in a suitable manner, and publications such as the Girl’s Own Paper offered advice as to how to go about this. One girl writing to the paper in 1886 about “young men” who had accosted her and a friend was advised that they were unsuitable acquaintances for respectable girls, but the blame was still put on them: “You should not have been rude; you should simply have walked away to your chaperone, or some married person of your acquaintance.” A woman was not safe in the public space even with a friend; she needed an appropriate chaperone, and should always remember to be polite to men, regardless of how they behaved towards her.

However, there were some spaces where Victorian women could meet each other, such as tearooms and shops; they were regarded as far safer for women than the public street, where chaperones were still advisable. In 1887, several letters appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette debating the “question of ladies walking without an escort in the London streets”. During this debate, one male writer asked: “Is it possible to prevent men from following women and staring at them? Yes, by locking them up...” It was the women he suggested locking up, not the men who followed them.

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Making safer spaces

Over the past few centuries, one fact has remained the same. The number of assault cases against women that either reach court, or are successfully prosecuted, remains small, despite an increase in the number of trial committals for sexual assault over the second half of the 19th century. The historian Carolyn Conley’s research into Kent magistrates’ courts in the latter half of the 19th century suggests that the conviction rate in rape trials was substantially lower than that of trials for other felonies, at around 40 per cent, and recent research shows that in 2019–20, less than 4 per cent of reported rape cases in England and Wales led to a court case. In addition, there have always been further, unreported, offences. This means the historical records of violence against women, whether in private or public spaces, can never represent the true number of offences that were actually committed.

In the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s death, the government vowed to “protect” women, a comment that implied women are still incapable of occupying public space without being looked after by others. Although measures being considered to make parks and neighbourhoods safer – including better lighting and CCTV – are welcome, these will not change male behaviour.

Women cycle on a country lane, 1897
Women cycle on a country lane, 1897. The public street was seen as the most dangerous place for women, who were discouraged from meeting outside alone. (Image by Mary Evans Picture Library)

In the 19th century, women were seen as being subject to the natural and uncontrollable passions of men: they were viewed as passive recipients of this “natural” male behaviour, rather than the focus being on changing men’s conduct and making spaces safer for women to be in. The Pall Mall Gazette’s letter writer, in a similar vein, regarded harassment as being an inherent part of normal male behaviour and something women should accept if they wanted to utilise the public streets.

There are parallels with modern society. A Swedish study noted that sexual comments create a cultural atmosphere where unwanted attention from men becomes accepted as a “normal” part of being in public spaces. Meanwhile, the UN has recognised that simply the fear of verbal or physical abuse results in the reduction of female freedom of movement. Women have the right to use space in the same way as men, and should feel safe in doing so, but how this can be achieved remains the subject of debate. In some ways, little has changed since Victorian times.

Nell Darby is a historian who specialises in gender and crime. Her most recent book is Sister Sleuths: Female Detectives in Britain (Pen & Sword History, 2021)

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This article was first published in the June 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine