Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.29

Lin Foxhall, Gabriele Neher (ed.), Gender and the City before Modernity. Gender and history special issue book series.   Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.  Pp. x, 256.  ISBN 9781118234433.  $34.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Margherita Carucci (


Originally published as Volume 23, Issue 3 of Gender and History, this volume edited by Lin Foxhall and Gabriele Naher is a multidisciplinary collection of papers exploring the ways in which gendered behaviours affected the use of urban space before modernity, that is in ‘cities unaffected or lightly touched by the processes of large- scale industrialisation, capitalism, large-scale globalisation and world-wide networks’ (p.1). At the core of the whole volume is the idea that gender played a highly significant role in the social construction, use, and shape of urban space. As the editors acknowledge, the construction of spatial structures as cultural forms and an expression of social ideologies have long been explored by scholars, such as Jürgen Habermas, Henri Lefebvre, Edward Muir and Ronald Weissman, who have developed influential social theories of urban space. The novelty (and strength) of this volume is the analysis of urban geography with specific reference to the complex role of gender in secular, religious, political, public, and domestic space. As the eleven papers included in this volume collectively highlight, gendered ideologies and behaviour affected the way in which space, time, movement, boundaries, and identity of the pre- modern cities were shaped.

The volume starts with Gillian Ramsey’s paper on the interactions between the Hellenistic queen Laodike III and the cities of Iasos, Teos, and Sardis in Asia Minor in the second half of the 3rd century BCE. With the support of inscriptions and official letters, the author shows how Laodike’s patronage of women reinforced the relationships between the beleaguered cities and the royal dynasty at large. The Hellenistic queen’s interventions in the political affairs of the cities also had political ramifications for the women. The honours that the cities bestowed on Laodike in the forms of festivals and sacrifices, which involved mainly the participation of women, reinforced female involvement in the civic life; also the identity of the queen as a sisterly consort and a mother highlighted the importance of women as partners of male citizens and hence as guarantors of civic longevity. Ramsey’s paper certainly makes a significant contribution to the study of female agency in the public affairs of the ancient Greek city, though the detailed description of the genealogy of the royal family and its marriage system the author’s argument the wider audience that this multidisciplinary book addresses. What is missing is rather a discussion of the way Laodike’s identity as patron of female citizens affected the perception that these ‘more ordinary’ women had of themselves, an aspect which Ramsey or other scholars explore in future research.

Caroline Dodds Pennock analyses the way in which gender roles shaped the physical and social worlds of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, during the period immediately preceding the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Following the recent work on Mesoamerican gender relations, the author interestingly argues that Aztec identity and ideology were deeply influenced by a binary model of gender complementarity or parallelism. Far from being closed in a strict patriarchal system which associates women with the domestic area and men with public affairs, Tenochtitlan was a society where ‘men and women fulfilled highly distinctive roles in a parallel system of gender which was rooted in concepts of reciprocity and complementarity’ (p. 39). Pennock’s paper contains some interesting theoretical concepts that could be applied to the study of gender relations in any ancient society, especially her definition of domestic as opposite to foreign (i.e. what is outside the physical territory and ideology of a city) rather than to public, as it is often understood in the analysis of patriarchal systems.

Ross Balzaretti’s paper explores how power over urban space was gendered in 10th-century CE Milan. She starts with the will of Archbishop Andreas, who had chosen a small community of nuns for setting up a hospice and thus ensuring his safe arrival in Paradise through their prayers. She analyses the main religious communities in Milan in terms of physical space and property rights in order to show how urban space was either female or male gendered. The scanty textual evidence for the period does not allow any certain conclusion or explanation of the reasons why Andreas entrusted his hospice to a small female monastery, but certainly suggests that in the 10th century women were increasingly involved in urban property.

In her contribution, Lisa Nevett traces the presence and activities of women in the civic spaces of late sixth-fifth century BCE Athens through the analysis of four case-studies: visits to friends’ and relatives’ houses; collection of water at public fountain houses; tending graves in cemeteries; and participation in religious processions. The author’s focus on small-scale activities and short-term use as the ‘context in which the activities of subordinate social groups can be detected through the material record’ (p. 88), leads to a demonstration of a female presence in the urban landscape in contrast to the dominant rhetoric of the ancient texts by men, which articulate an idea of the house as the place where women were secluded. Nevett acknowledges that her paper only sketches some preliminary aspects of a more complex topic that she intends to explore in more detail in future publications. It is hoped that the author will analyse more particularly the social status and age of the women who moved through the streets and beyond the physical boundaries of the Athenian city a question that Nevett touches upon without reaching any convincing conclusion. A deeper analysis of this question, which would help us delineate how age and social status affected uses and perceptions of civic spaces from the point of view of women as users of those spaces and of the passers-by as viewers of their movements, would give a more complete reconstruction of the female topography of Athens.

James Davidson too explores the gendered topography of classical Athens with the support of textual evidence. He argues against the tendency of the recent scholarship to view Greek written texts as one-sided products of a restricted group of elite males that modern scholars often use as the basis for generalisations about a clear-cut opposition between the female domestic space and the male public area. As Davidson shows, the Greek discourse of sexed space and zoned gender is more complicated and requires a more flexible and dynamic approach to the textual evidence. The result in Davidson’s paper is the articulation of new ways of seeing the traditional opposition between women’s quarters and men’s rooms in the house, the body as itself a space, the construction of space and gender in other discourses (e.g. images, artefacts, and habitual practices).

Emma Loosley discusses how the use of space in the seventeenth century CE city of Isfahan in modern Iran was shaped by gender and, more specifically for women, by their social status and religion. Through the analysis of the domestic buildings in terms of architectural layout and painted decoration, the author shows that elite women in the Safavid dynasty, be they Muslim living in the harem or Christian, were independent and literate. Loosley’s conclusions will certainly interest the non-specialist readers, especially when the author challenges the traditional depiction of the elite Iranian women as incarcerated in the harem and distanced from the male worlds of politics.

In her contribution, Monica Merlin deals with a distinct category of women, the artistic and intellectual courtesans of the Chinese city of Nanjing in the second half of the 16th century CE. Through the specific example of a highly esteemed courtesan, Ma Shouzhen, and her literary and artistic works, the author shows how in the space of the pleasure quarter gender boundaries were constantly negotiated through the social and cultural engagement of the courtesans with the literati of late imperial China. Interestingly, the engagement of courtesans with a specific urban area of Nanjing was so deep that a well-known courtesan was used as a symbolic place in the male literati’s discourse about the urban space of the city.

Helen Foxhall Forbes explores the way in which three monastic houses, two male and one female, in the city of Winchester in late Anglo-Saxon England (10th -11th century CE), engaged with each other and with the surrounding secular urban space. The author interestingly argues that gender division was not always the most important issue at play, but other factors (e.g. the monastic communities’ competition for resources and the division between monastic and lay townspeople) were equally significant in the construction of the city’s identity.

Kate Cooper’s paper offers an appealing reading of the memoir of Perpetua, a Christian martyr in the third century CE African city of Carthage.

Claire Taylor explores women’s social networks within the urban space of the Hellenistic city with a specific focus on their civic engagement and personal relationships. The author argues that the analysis of social networks ‘that is, the array of personal ties that connect people together’ (p. 214) allows us to overcome the limits of the ancient sources, which offer a disproportionate representation of the male elite in terms of its political and economic power, and therefore better assess the women’s involvement into the political affairs and their contribution to the ancient city.

Alexander Cowan’s paper gives a vivid glimpse of the daily life and social relationships in early modern Venice through an analysis of the social functions of the balcony. As a liminal space between the domestic space and the public area of the street, the balcony functioned as a stage on which forms of urban social behaviour were at play. Interactions between people on balconies and others outside the building promoted constructive social relationships or generated gossip; women’s presence or absence on balconies affected their reputation and public idea of their moral behaviour; the use of balconies as illicit entrances or exits from the house could foster disruptive behaviour.

The volume has been well edited.1 Some of the figures accompanying the text are too small to appreciate the details discussed by the contributors, most specifically in Foxhall Forbes and Cowan. My main criticism is that the volume would have benefitted by the inclusion of contributions exploring gendered space in other pre-modern societies. There is a preponderance of papers on ancient Greek culture (Ramsey, Nevett, Davidson, Taylor), and ample discussion even in the Introduction (pp. 12-16). However, on the whole, the volume is a thought-provoking, stimulating, and useful work of reference for anyone interested in urban geography and gender issues. The analysis of the complex relationship between gender and city, which, as the papers show, was dynamic, fluid, and changing according to situation and location, offers useful tools for future research into the urban space and experience. The inclusion of such diverse papers, which span the 6th century BCE to the 17th century CE and cover Europe, Near East, Mesoamerica, and China, provides the reader with a broad picture of gendered space in a range of urban communities and allows for fruitful intersections and exchanges of ideas.


1.   Note 4 of Taylor’s paper has Cemocracy for Democracy.

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