When Did America Decide That Women Do, In Fact, Be Shopping?

In Depth
When Did America Decide That Women Do, In Fact, Be Shopping?

The stereotype of women converging upon public retail spaces for voracious shopping is so deeply engrained that the image seems both self-evident and timeless. Shopping and femininity are presumed to be inextricably intertwined, two sides of the same coin. But that’s nonsense; in fact, when department stores first began attracted moneyed women into American downtowns unescorted, their presence was downright controversial.

Shopping and femininity are presumed to be inextricably intertwined, two sides of the same coin.

In her new book, A Shoppers’ Paradise, Notre Dame professor Emily Remus traces the rise of the idea of the city as a landscape for shopping women through the microcosm of downtown Chicago, which in the second half of the 19th century transformed from a business-oriented space that revolved around men, to one flooded by department stores and ancillary businesses catering to women with money to spend. The shift unleashed social tension over the right ways for “respectable” women to be in public. Could they be alone, and if so, did that invite harassment? Could they—shudder—drink? At times this transition involved significant pushback; there were public debates over both elaborate theater hats and the prospect of the return of the hoopskirt, which were less arguments about fashion than a debate about the amount of space to which women were entitled.

Of course, now retail is in the midst of another transformation, leaving huge swaths of physical real estate empty for repurposing.

Curious to get more background on how moneyed women conquered America’s downtowns, I spoke to Remus about the fuss over hoopskirts, the proper response to street harassment, and and how retail is changing, yet again.

JEZEBEL: What was the “hoopskirt war” of 1893?

EMILY REMUS: The hoopskirt war is this really curious incident where several states are sent into a panic in 1893 over the notion that this traditional hoopskirt style is going to come back into fashion. It had gone out of fashion basically around the end of the Civil War, and in the early 1890s there were rumors circulating in Paris, the hub of western fashion in this period, that the hoop skirt was going to be revived. The concern was that American women would unthinkingly follow the dictates of Paris fashion and adopt this really elaborate and large style, so several states actually pass anti-hoopskirt legislation banning the important, sale, and use of hoopskirts. Which is such a strange thing—that they would go to the lengths of passing real legislation. Sumptuary laws we tend to associate with premodern eras. In the modern United States they’re grappling with this new economy and modernity in general and they’re like, you know what would be a great idea? A sumptuary law.

I want to use that as a way to get into the larger topic of the book, which is this idea of how downtown Chicago becomes friendly to women and specifically to women shoppers. Obviously now we think of the great retail palaces, and the idea of women shopping downtown, as being very obvious to people. What is downtown, initially, at the start of the story here?

Before the late 19th century, the downtown is really a space that is oriented toward the needs of production. It’s a space that is dominated by manufacturing, distribution, processing, wholesale trade, so really it’s oriented toward the needs of men who are a majority of both workers and businesspeople. It’s a space that’s accommodating their day-to-day needs and not really taking into consideration the needs of women. It’s called a central business district for a reason—it’s where business happens. Their understanding of business doesn’t really incorporate women.

As a result, the downtown is oriented toward men’s needs and not women’s needs. In fact, women are primarily treated as guests in these spaces, so by-and-large they’re expected to have an escort if they go anywhere in the city center. They definitely need a male escort if they want to go to a restaurant or to a hotel or to the theater. A lot of the spaces, venues like clubs and saloons, are simply closed to women. There really aren’t many spaces that are designated as female-specific spaces.

Women are primarily treated as guests in these spaces, so by-and-large they’re expected to have an escort

That really starts to change at the end of the 19th century with the growth of these new consumer spaces that cater to women, and the department store is really the driving force here. Department stores become one of the first places to really rely on women’s consumer power. And so with the growth of department stores, we have a host of ancillary industries that will cater to women shoppers who are at the department stores. It’s really the flowering of this new arm of capitalism that incorporates women into urban life.

A lot of your book talks about how there are skirmishes as part of this larger battle. At first it’s just passively assumed to be a space for men and there aren’t any accommodations, but gradually there’s active resistance to the idea that all these women are descending upon us and they don’t belong here and this is ridiculous. What generates that resistance, and then how is that resistance overcome? What happens?

Initially, the women tend to lose. The early conflicts over the hoopskirts and the theater hats, those laws end up getting passed and women have to give up that larger clothing. But what we see is that women are enacting this strategy of just continuing to show up. When there’s pressure on them not to drink in public, which becomes a major point of a moral panic in the early 1900s, they don’t listen to the critique. They continue to go about their social lives and enjoying these new spaces that are opening to them.

The same thing happens with concerns about street harassment. Initially, problems with street harassment that emerge in this period are pinned on women. Why are these women going around in public alone? They’re the ones who are inviting harassment. They should just stay at home. And the women have none of that. They just continue to show up. In Chicago, the police chief says women should just stay at home at night and limit their time spent out of home in general. Instead of bowing to that sort of demand, women say no, actually there should be accommodations that are made by the state to ensure that this city is comfortable and livable for women to go about on their own. So it’s pressure from women, in that they continue to pursue these activities.

But there’s also a strange sort of alliance with retail capitalists, who recognize that a city needs to be friendly to the situation and mobility of women in order for them to be able to spend their money. It’s about the circulation of women’s bodies, but also of women’s pocketbooks, which becomes important to this growing sector of business. As more and more people are making their money in consumer capitalism, it becomes more and more important for the people who are really pulling the strings behind the city government and behind business influences in the city to make those sort of accommodations. So it’s really the dual pressure from capital and from women themselves that creates a more female-friendly city. And I would be remiss if I didn’t note that it’s friendly to a particular group of females. Part of the story is about how the downtown becomes increasingly policed with regards to both race and class. It becomes increasingly exclusive in that sense.

That was my next question—when we’re talking about women, which women are we talking about here?

I call them moneyed women in the book, and it’s a shorthand for upper and middle class white women. I explain in the book that Chicago’s class structure is a little different than other cities—there isn’t a strong boundary lines between middle class and elite. These are women that flowed back and forth between them, largely because it’s a western culture where a lot of people had been self-made. But they are all white women. Even though Chicago’s population of African Americans was very small before the Great Migration, never more than 2 percent of the city’s population, there’s still very active policing around racial boundaries. So African Americans cannot expect to walk into many of the consumer spaces downtown and expect to be served. They would be either ignored or given deliberately poor or slow service to encourage them to leave. And that’s despite the protections of the 1885 Illinois Civil Rights Act, which in theory guaranteed everyone equal access to public accommodations. But in practice, that did not play out in that way.

It was really interesting, the parts of the book where you talked about the population in Chicago whose money is fairly new, but you do have to have the money, and you have to be the “correct” race.

Exactly. Even though it’s seen as this free-for-all in the eyes of eastern cities like Boston and New York, who are looking to Chicago and thinking my goodness, they have no social controls there at all, that’s not exactly the case. You need to have money to access these spaces, and you need to be white, and those are pretty hard boundaries. So the notion that there aren’t any strictures on who can be a part of this culture is not true.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you selected Chicago as your case study. What was particularly interesting about Chicago?

Chicago is actually the center of the American consumer economy at the turn of the 20th century. It is the home to all of the nation’s largest mail-order houses, as well as the nation’s largest department stores. In terms of mail-order houses, it’s the home of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, and in terms of retailers, Marshall Fields is the largest retailer in the world for the time being in the early 20th century. And because Chicago sits at the center of this enormous railroad network, it’s able to distribute its cultural influence via things like these mail-order houses and also these enormous wholesale divisions of the city’s department stores. So it’s not just serving Chicagoans—it’s reaching across the United States and picking up customers throughout the west and southwest.

Because Chicago has achieved this national attention, because of its reputation as this urban laboratory where these new urban ideas are being tested and forged and put on display, particularly in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition, people are looking to Chicago for answers. How do you make a city that is suitable for corporate capitalism? Urban scholars sometimes talk about the “City Beautiful” movement in this period—how do you create a city that is at once beautiful, but also friendly to corporate capitalism? Chicago becomes the center of that. These convos are happening in other cities as well, but the stakes are particularly high in Chicago because of its cultural influence and its position at the center of this economy.

Do other cities follow a similar pattern? Or is Chicago sort of exceptional?

I think Chicago’s exceptional in some regards, in that the intensity of the conflict there is just higher, because of the spatial limits that the city is facing. Because Chicago’s downtown is surrounded by water on three sides, it faces questions of overcrowding and how to divide space sooner than other cities do. Chicago’s the birthplace of the skyscraper for a reason. They ran out of space, and so they had to start building up. But other places also deal with these questions: How do we segment space to make sure that a city can function efficiently? What should take priority over where we should build, and what should be allowed in the most concentrated parts of the city? So it looks different in every city, because every city has a different spatial organization and particular history, but most cities are going to be confronting how do we prioritize what belongs in our core?

Is that why New York City had the “Ladies Mile?” Did New York deal with this partyl by being like, here’s where we put these shops! Or was it a battle to put the stores there in the first place?

So, the Ladies Mile is a great example of another concentrated retail district, and it’s also an interesting case study in that similar to Chicago, it buts up against a vice district in the mid 19th century. So, again, the question becomes, how do we sort these spaces? What belongs in an elite shopping district? Where should this elite shopping district be placed? Does it make sense for it to be in this residential area? Should it be closer to the center of finance and trade? It plays out in a different way in New York, because of the way Manhattan is laid out, but the question is, okay, should this be a separate space where women can go and be segregated from everyone? Or should it somehow be integrated into the life of the city? Should there be a division between shadier transactions in the vice district and the retail spaces where respectable women go? It’s questions about who goes where and whose claims should be prioritized.

It’s really interesting how much all this is informed by what is the right way to be a respectable woman in public, and there’s this cultural panic over how to distinguish between “good” women and “bad” women in a very classed way.

Absolutely. That’s because suddenly we have more women circulating in public in the late 19th century. Before this period, women who circulated alone in public were primarily prostitutes. Right? You could easily tell if a woman’s out walking alone why she’s there and who she is and you can label her and understand her and police her. As this space is expanding and drawing more women into public, the boundaries between respectability and I guess “non-respectability” are blurrier.

So one thing that Chicago tries to do to deal with that is to separate the vice district from the retail district. More women are moving around alone, and there starts to be a problem with street harassment. That really hadn’t been a major issue, because most women had been escorted before this period in time. And so with street harassment becoming an ongoing problem, Chicago’s like, we’ll just move the vice district away from the retail district and then it’ll be really easy for everyone to tell who’s respectable and who’s not respectable and that will curtail our street harassment problem.

Because it’s okay to harass these women, but not these other women.

Exactly. Some people are okay to be targeted. Obviously in this time period who that’s going to be is working class women and women of color. Those women are okay to target. These women who we have deemed respectable are not okay to target, so we’re going to separate them and put them in this hallowed ground where no ones going to touch them. So instead of policing the harassment, they police the movement of the women. And low and behold, this doesn’t work, and everyone’s still getting harassed in both the vice district and the retail district.

It’s really the women who push back and say look, this is unacceptable. There need to be more resources put toward policing this type of harassment. And they’re able to push that through by connecting it to something that contemporaries were able to recognize as a problem, and that was homicide. So they were like, look, this culture of harassment builds into a culture of murdering women. And so by making that link, they’re able to persuade contemporaries it’s a real problem. Otherwise people just thought it was like a jokey, ha-ha who cares. If women are getting harassed it’s because they’re inviting harassment, and that’s on them. And so, it’s a real coup that they’re able to get the city to do anything about it.

You’ve mentioned in a couple of interviews that lately we’ve seen the reverse of this. The big example here in New York is that Lord and Taylor sold their HQ to WeWork. All these spaces are being turned into something else in the era of online shopping. It’s interesting how that tide has turned and now downtowns face a different question.

I like to think of this as completely the opposite of the problem I’m looking at it in this book. What I’m looking at is, okay, how do we as a city deal with the fact that our city was built for a moment of industrial capitalism, but now we’re facing a different moment in capitalism, when we have women consumers flooding into the city to patronize these new consumer spaces? That becomes a point of conflict, as I show in the book. Now we’re dealing with, okay, how do we deal with this new moment in capitalism when people are not walking into brick and mortar stores to buy things anymore? What do we do with the fact that our city was built for that different moment in time? In South Bend, some of these spaces are being turned into tech centers. How do we transform these spaces to make them suitable for this moment in capitalism? What tha points to is cities are physical spaces. It’s not easy to eliminate an enormous factory when we’re in a moment of deindustrialization, and it’s not easy to eliminate an enormous department store when we’re in a moment that people no longer shop in stores. It’s something we’re going to be trying to resolve for a long time.

The other interesting thing about the growth of online shopping is not only that it transforms the way people work with cities, or interact with cities, but it also transforms the gender dynamics of shopping. Throughout the 20th century, 80 to 85 percent of consumer spending was driven by women, and the split in online shopping is actually much more even. There is, I think, a Harvard Business Review study from a couple of years ago that suggests that as much as 45 percent of online shopping is driven by men. So what does that mean, not only for the spatial organization of America’s cities, but also for how women are able to wield public influence? So some of the only reasons that there were female-friendly spaces was because of the consumer power that women could exercise. And if they’re losing that area, that sphere of influence, what does that mean for the pressure that women are able to exert on business and government to make the world friendly to them.

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