As night falls on London, the urban landscape becomes a no-woman’s land. To go out alone after dark is to take a journey through my own nervous system, assessing at every street corner the hospitability of the streets ahead of me. I do it all the time – I have to – but every journey from bar to bar, from workplace to the train or from home to the shops comes with a mild sense of risk, which increases tenfold whenever I pass a particularly sinister lone lurker or a group of men congregating together. I’m hypersensitive to the dangers of the streets because I’ve been unlucky enough to have faced it all, from stalking to harassment to sexual violence, but I know that it could have been any young woman in my place. In the city streets, one of millions, I am as much a nobody to the men who harass me as they are to me. We perceive each other as mere abstractions: they as abstract men and me as an abstract (white) woman onto which they can project their masculine desires and frustrations.
When I first moved to London, a friend warned me: “You have to be careful in a big city like London. London doesn’t care about anyone.” It felt poetic somehow, using London as a signifier for all that’s in it – the people, cars, buildings, even the atmosphere. And every day I’m reminded of what she meant. London has an aura of apathy, the apathy of anonymity and alienation. Where does it come from? Is it the sheer numbers of seemingly interchangeable faces streaming by – the kind that T.S. Eliot implicitly wished were dead in ‘The Waste Land’ (1922)? Is it the way that people look through you and dodge past you, even if you sit down in the middle of the pavement and cry? Or is it the buildings themselves, emanating disinterest from their concrete and glass walls? Whatever the cause, London manages to project an indifference so strong it can become suffocating, even on the days I love the city for its sheer vastness, vibrancy and variety.
About 450 years ago, a little-known poet named Isabella Whitney felt as ambivalent towards London as I do. Like me, Whitney arrived in London in her youth because of the economic and creative opportunities it might offer her. Also like me, she arrived “weak in Purse”, as she euphemises neatly, and we both found ourselves faced with a city that was both exciting and alarming, filled with both opportunity and danger. Whitney’s time saw a new flowering of potential roles for single women in the city, either as servants for noble families or more controversially as street-sellers selling marketable wares, or as sex workers. As a result, most of the canonical writing of the time, almost exclusively written by men, like Thomas Nashe and Thomas Dekker, decries the immorality of the streets and the perversion of ideals of femininity that the expansion of women’s choices represents. Around this time, a flurry of legislation was introduced (even under the oversight of a female monarch, Elizabeth I) to remove women from public space and restore the supposed ‘orderliness’ of male domination of the public sphere. This included restrictions on women’s work, particularly the market trading that could begin to enable women’s financial autonomy in the era of mercantile capitalism (as discussed in further detail by Laura Gowing).
It was in this climate that Isabella Whitney began to write her ‘Will and Testament’ (1573), a poem which wistfully details her experiences in the urban wilds. Whitney wrote the poem in the form of a mock ‘will’, but this was well before women were legally allowed to own property. As such, it served as a bold demand for the right to be recognised – very radical for its time, since changes to the law wouldn’t actually be realised in the UK until 1870, and even then were limited to married women. Whitney addressed the poem to London, her adjudicator, with whom she had a very mixed relationship:
The time is come I must depart
from thee, ah, famous City:
I never yet, to rue my smart
did find that thou had pity.
Wherefore small cause there is, that I
should grieve from thee to go:
But many Women foolishly,
like me, and other moe
Do such a fixed fancy set,
on those which least deserve,
That long it is ere wit we get,
away from them to swerve.
As if addressing someone with whom she is in unrequited love, Whitney complains about London’s lack of pity and her own foolishness for loving the city despite its apathy (a familiar feeling). She goes on:
No, no, thou never did me good,
nor ever will, I know:
Yet am I in no angry mood,
but will, or ere I go,
In perfect love and charity
my Testament here write:
And leave to thee such Treasure
as I in it recite.
Now stand aside and give me leave
to write my latest Will:
And see that none you do deceive,
of that I leave them tyl.
Whitney’s authoritative-sounding “now stand aside” attests to her intention: the poem is a call for new freedom, the legal right to bequeath the things she owns as she wishes. However, it becomes clear very soon that Whitney has nothing to bequeath except the city streets themselves, which she gives back, magnanimously, to London and its people. She then gives the reader a historical anatomy of London, listing in extensive detail the varieties of people, products and shops a contemporary flâneuse could encounter while wandering from borough to borough. In a time where women’s presence in public streets was heavily regulated and policed, the descriptions of the city and the people who lived in it – high and low, rich and poor – read back as curious and non-judgmental, one of the period’s warmest and least moralistic renderings of London and urban life. Reading ‘Will and Testament’, I feel heartened in my own night-time walks through the city, reminded of women’s history in streets that can feel like they don’t belong to me. ‘Will and Testament’ is a declaration, a 16th century Reclaim the Night march.
It is easy to dismiss Whitney’s as a different time, but we are certainly not beyond the policing of public space to exclude women which characterised the society Whitney lived and died in. Representation of women in power is still incredibly poor, and beyond the Houses of Parliament and the boardroom, women’s lives are still characterised by male violence and harassment in the traditional arenas of their dominion: paid work and public space. Tithi Bhattacharya argues that, under neoliberal capitalism, sexual violence on the streets and in the home is intensified and allowed to flourish because of the structure of capitalism – both today’s capitalism and the capitalism-in-formation that Whitney experienced in the 1570s. Since capitalism divides its labour force roughly into those who can bear children and those who can’t – and indeed generates gender through this division of labour – the pressure for women to remain as much as possible in the home, performing unpaid domestic labour and childbirth, is common to both eras. In this understanding, street-based violence is a disciplining force on women, not necessarily consciously enacted as such, but tolerated and dismissed as such nevertheless.
We seem to have come a long way from Whitney. But we haven’t, not really. Whitney, after all, walked the same streets I do every day, streets which in many cases still have the same names and reputations centuries on, and feel very similar to the two of us. Like most women in London and across the world today, Whitney faced multiple forms of oppression: there was her gendered experience of the city, and the experience of her poverty, thrown into sharp relief by the Vagabonds Act of 1572. The Act, now known as the 1572 Poor Law, allowed for public “views and searches” of the poor and the punishment of ‘vagabonds’ – a familiar concept for residents of today’s London, in which begging is still criminalised and Stop and Search laws enable police to exercise their racialised prejudices in public pretty much freely. Just one year after the Vagabonds Act was implemented, Whitney was recently unemployed and so likely subject to its humiliations. Whitney describes her financial difficulties in ‘Will and Testament’, again addressing London:
And now hath time me put in mind
of thy great cruelness:
That never once a help would find,
to ease me in distress.
Thou never yet would credit give
to board me for a year:
Nor with Apparel me relieve
except thou paid were.
It seems that London’s high rent left Whitney as much out of pocket as it does your average millennial today, and without money – either through direct employment (and therefore exploitation) or marriage – she can’t even buy clothes. In these ways, the life of a lower-class woman in capitalist London hasn’t changed all that much in 450 years.
Whitney died at some point in the years following this poem. It’s generally agreed that she died in about 1577, since no more poetry of hers appears much later than that. Yet there’s no record of her death, and of course there was no adjudication of her mock will and testament. She was buried once – and then again, disappearing from the canon for centuries. After all, she was not a nobleman and didn’t move in the right circles to be preserved; her writing was ‘low’, available on the market, a mode of publication which was condemned by any high-status male writer as a form of prostitution.
Now Whitney is credited to have been the first female poet and professional woman writer in England. I stole that line from Wikipedia and I’m not happy with it: like with all declarations of its kind, it hides multitudes of processes and silences – about other women who tried and failed; women whose manuscripts were rejected; women who had their works ignored and eventually destroyed, never making it into the canon with all the male Greats; those who hid behind pseudonyms and died still presumed to be men. Nevertheless, Whitney is now at last remembered as a pioneer. Even more importantly, she was a critic of the system from below, a clever woman assured of her own “steadfast brain”, angry about gender roles and the subordination of women, and reliant only on her own income and wits until her death. Miserable as it is to note the continuities in women’s negative experiences of the city, we can admire and learn from Whitney’s resourcefulness and rebellious spirit.
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Bhattacharya, T., 2013. Explaining gender violence in the neoliberal era. International Socialist Review 91.
Clarke, D. (Ed.), 2001. Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney and Amelia Lanyer: Renaissance Women Poets. Penguin, London.
Gowing, L., 2000. “The Freedom of the Streets”: Women and Social Space, 1560 – 1640, in: Londinopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London. Eds. Griffiths, P. and Jenner, M.S.R. Manchester University Press, Manchester.
McGee, S., Moore, H., 2014. Women’s rights and their money: a timeline from Cleopatra to Lilly Ledbetter. The Guardian. Accessed 27/10/17. https://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2014/aug/11/women-rights-money-timeline-history
Whitney, I., 1573. ‘Wyll and Testament’. Accessed 27/10/17. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45991/will-and-testament
 I put this in to acknowledge that the experience of walking city streets is as much racialised as gendered; as a white woman I may face less violence, or different kinds of violence, to a woman of colour or those with other visible markers of difference.
 All quotations from Whitney’s writing come from the poem ‘Will and Testament’ (1573), available in the original English in a 2001 Penguin Classics edition Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney and Amelia Lanyer: Renaissance Women Poets, or online at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45991/will-and-testament. I have occasionally modernised the spelling and glossed the English in this version, since I think it’s more important in this case that her meaning is accessible to modern readers.
 Laura Gowing, ‘‘The Freedom of the Streets’: Women and Social Space, 1560 – 1640’, in Londinpolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London, eds. Griffiths, P. and Jenner, M.., (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)
 smart: pain
 other moe: others too
 ere wit we get: before we are wise enough
 ere: before
 of that I leave them tyl: of what I leave to them
 A feminine version of the better-known ‘flâneur’, a type of man from the imaginary of French writers like Balzac and Baudelaire who wanders the streets, observing and commenting intelligently on social phenomena in the urban environment.
This essay appears in Red Wedge #5: “Bad Dreams.” Order a copy here.
Kate Bradley is a UK-based revolutionary socialist and member of rs21. She has written for various publications including Red Pepper and Oxford Left Review.