International Women’s Day, celebrated this month, is a reminder of the accelerating momentum of the movement toward gender equality. It’s also a reminder of how much farther we have to go.
Let’s be blunt: Nothing is doing more to spur the fight for women’s rights than revelations of abusive and politically disgusting behavior by men, certainly including the incumbent president of the United States. At the local level we have seen the #MeToo movement chasten sexually abusive men, among them bigshots in the restaurant industry. And we can be sure that for every offender actually named, disgraced, and in some cases ousted from corporate leadership, other men have taken note and begun to rein in sexually chauvinistic behavior that for decades — generations — has been deemed a male privilege.
And then there’s the equally positive and potentially more far-reaching political militancy of women who are disgusted, not just by a president boasting about sexually predatory behavior, but also by the misogyny at the heart of Trump’s effort to exclude the most vulnerable victims of international chaos — women and children — from the asylum America has traditionally provided.
Now, Love, which sprang up locally in the aftermath of Trump’s election, is just one expression of the newfound militancy. Huge anti-Trump marches here, in Washington, and across the nation, have been powerful statements of solidarity among women. Even more promising and potent is the increasing activism of women in electoral politics, both as voters and, there is reason to hope, as candidates.
Of course for many women of color, this is kind of activism is nothing new. Their fight, like their oppression, has been ongoing.
My own early awakening to the untapped power of women is rooted in my 30-year acquaintance with the remarkable urbanist Jane Jacobs, the focus of numerous articles, speeches and books I have written over the years.* Her encouragement strengthened my interest in writing about cities.
In a field dominated by men, Jacobs broke through with utterly original ideas about how cities should work.
Her most important book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961), changed the way the world understands the urban phenomenon. Yet even when she was acknowledged as an important thinker, there was a qualifier invariably attached: “housewife.” Still today, when we talk about strategies for city growth and economic development, women aren’t often offered seats at the table. They hold jobs in the field but are not acknowledged as critics. Jacobs was the exception.
She broke into the national discussion about cities somewhat by accident. At a cities conference in 1956 Jacobs was a reluctant stand-in for Douglas Haskell, her editor at Architectural Forum. She had written some insightful articles about how cities work, some of them for Vogue magazine, documenting how New York City’s fur and flower districts evolved organically.
Today, her early observations are considered path-breaking. But mere happenstance thrust her into the public eye.
Jacobs’ early attention-getting magazine articles in Architectural Forum and Fortune happened because a distinguished male editor named William Holly Whyte championed her work. Whyte gained fame for writing “The Organization Man” and for espousing ideas similar to hers. But in giving Jacobs the reach and visibility her ideas deserved, Whyte had to overcome a spluttering, angry Fortune publisher who asked, “Who is this crazy dame?”
A housewife without even a college degree was an unacceptable addition to the ranks of cutting-edge American pundits. The New Yorker published Lewis Mumford’s scathing review of “Death and Life” under the headline “Mother Jacobs Home Remedies.”
And yet Jacobs went on to prove herself powerfully effective fighting Robert Moses, the “master builder” behind so many ill-considered efforts to strangle New York City in ribbons of closed-access thruways, a concession to the automobile age that he also tried to impose on New Orleans. Moses also drank the Kool-Aid of the federal Urban Renewal era, ripping apart the complicated weave of living cities to replace older architecture and neighborhoods with massive, sterile developments. Jacobs fought that, too.
Pondering why men and women’s voices were heard differently on the subject of city building, Jacobs noted matter-of-factly that women think about things close to home — street, neighborhood and community. They more easily recognize the big difference small things can make. Men think big, national and global. They are top-down oriented.
This contrast was played out in a very public way when developer James Rouse and Jacobs appeared together in 1980 at the Boston Great Cities Conference. Their subject was the question of whether cities should be developed with big plans and inspiring visions or via modest steps and incremental change.
Rouse spoke first, recalling the words of Daniel Burnham, the turn-of-the-century Chicago architect: “Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
Jacobs followed. “Funny, big plans never stirred women’s blood,” she noted. “Women have always been willing to consider little plans.”
The applause was deafening.
Rouse argued that big plans could give the world exciting new communities. Jacobs said big plans lead to big mistakes and stifle imagination and alternatives. Rouse claimed big plans avoid wasteful haphazard piecemeal development. Jacobs saw big plans as formulaic routinizers. They have a way of smothering the eclecticism and vigor of more organic approaches to urban growth and change.
This was 1980. Jacobs had long since helped defeat three city-changing projects that Moses tried to impose: his proposal (1) to put a road through Washington Square and (2) an expressway across Lower Manhattan, and his plan for (3) an Urban Renewal project that would have bulldozed a swath of vintage architecture in the West Village, where Jacobs lived.
Victories to which Jacobs led strong coalitions of community activists — many of them active for the first time — accelerated Moses’ demise. She was world-famous for several books. But she didn’t for one moment think that what she had to say was heard with the same impact as it would have been if her words were spoken by men.
Too many people today claim they plan according to Jacobs’ precepts while actually embracing Robert Moses’ pursuit of big, bold visions. Jacobs, of course, thought big too, but in a different way from Moses – not big demolition and car-based projects but big physical and social infrastructure, like mass transit and library systems or big urban networks of smaller components like interconnected neighborhoods.
In the 1993 introduction to the Modern Library edition of “Death and Life,” Jacobs questioned the widespread claim that her book changed the urban development field. Interestingly, she divided the world into foot people and car people. For foot people, she agreed, the book gave “legitimacy to what they already knew but whom the experts of the day deemed old-fashioned and stopping progress.”
“It is not easy for uncredentialed people to stand up to the credentialed, even when the so-called expertise is grounded in ignorance and folly. This book turned out to be helpful ammunition against such experts. But it is less accurate to call this effect ‘influence’ than to see it as corroboration and collaboration. Conversely, the book neither collaborated with car people nor had influence on them. It still does not, as far as I can see.”
The subtext here is found elsewhere in Jacobs’ work. It goes back to her Rouse exchange and the difference in thinking between men and women. She talked about this with me over the years. She loved the stories I would bring her as I crisscrossed the country for research on my own books, stories of regenerating neighborhoods and whole cities where the catalysts were invariably small neighborhood-based projects most often initiated by women.
Today, those women are everywhere. In New York, Mindy Fullilove. Alexie Torres Flemming. Majora Carter. Kate Wood. Elizabeth Yampiere. Joan Byron. In New Orleans, Tanya Harris, Karen Gadbois, Carol Bebelle. They are activists like Jacobs was. It is one thing to dwell in the world of ideas, another to actively engage in the transformations we need in our world today.
Any dogged observer of American cities of the 20th and 21st centuries can’t escape the discovery that women have been in the forefront of saving and regenerating American cities.
Jane Jacobs was just one of them.
*This column is adapted in part from a 2011 talk by the author that was recently reprinted on the City Lab website.
Roberta Brandes Gratz is an award-winning journalist and author of “Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs,” and most recently, “We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City.”
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.