Reflections on Social Norms, Women and Public Space

I am most conscious of my place as a woman in the built environment when I am running alone. I have become intensely aware, for example, on the Roanoke River Greenway of which bushes individuals are employing for housing and of the shady, secluded spots that could hide an attacker. My parents consistently recommend that I carry a weapon for protection when I run—a gun, or pepper spray or a taser. While women in the last half- century have become much more mobile and visible as members of the workforce, there are still significant safety and cultural barriers that prevent them from freely and fully utilizing public spaces. Fear of street harassment, physical attack or social exclusion if a woman should use common areas without a male companion, or at certain times of the day or night, have significantly influenced and continue to shape the way women consider public spaces.

I examine this concern briefly in the essay that follows. I first link the challenge to social norms. Thereafter, I seek to contextualize it and suggest its implications for women’s use of public spaces. Finally, I suggest what changes in belief and behavior will be necessary to change these conditions so that women may act with as much freedom in the built environments in which they live and work as men already do.

With the exodus of white, middle-class families from the cities to single-family detached dwellings in the suburbs following World War II, women became responsible for the upkeep of those homes and for caring for children while their spouses worked outside the home (Silbaugh 2008). The physical design of houses reflected these norms by providing specific spaces in which women spent their time (for instance, designated areas for a laundry room). More generally, social norms prescribed that women should create a “nurturing and soft environment” in their homes, while their spouses were expected to work in the larger, more risk filled, work-a-day professional environment beyond (Bondi 1992). The dominant customs of the period expected women to spend minimal time outside their homes, apart from ensuring that responsibilities for the care and management of that dwelling and their children were met.

This social expectation of separate spheres of activity and influence continues to characterize the behavior of some men, and therefore shapes, in turn, how women affected by that male conduct relate to public spaces. Parks, sidewalks and public transportation are areas where women must be alert, due to the constant potential for harassment there. Sexualized comments directed to women occur, “generally in the public world where people are strangers to one another” (Thompson 1993, 315). Men engaged in such behaviors are often demonstrating “territorial harassment”—untoward comments ultimately predicated on a view that the public environment in question, whether a street, sidewalk, a subway or a park—is “distinctly male turf” in which, in this view, women do not have the right to act autonomously. In these cases, as these males understand gender roles, women traveling to work or otherwise active in public spaces are outside of their “appropriate” home-sphere, and their goal (conscious or not) is “effectively to drive women back into their private sphere, where they may avoid such violations” (Thompson 1993, 323). The message of such catcalling is that women do not belong in public spaces unaccompanied by a man. While, in most instances, lewd and vapid remarks remain just that, as ugly and hateful as they may be, they do serve to signal a vague hostility and as a reminder of the constant potential of personal violence to those women so targeted.

Men, as the “standard of normality,” still disproportionately write the rules concerning how public spaces are developed and utilized (Bondi 1992, 167). Given that males are more likely to be the architects and planners of our urban spaces than females, men influence the character of the built environment deeply. Because males are much less likely to be victims of a random sexual or physical assault in public spaces than women are, they may not prove as sensitive to that potential as one might hope, as demonstrated—in the case of the Roanoke River Greenway—by the presence of public bathrooms without doors and locks. This is to say that leisure activity for women “is deeply gendered, both in terms of the spaces and places that young women occupy and their behavior within such spaces” (Green and Singleton 2006, 2). In short, women’s mobility and activities are persistently circumscribed by the social production of public space and its attendant risks (Green and Singleton 2006). Being able to run, bike or go for a walk on trails or even sidewalks alone is restricted for women by such structural elements as “poorly lit spaces, boarded up houses, alleys, a tunnel to the supermarket, parks and bushes” as well as by time of day (Green and Singleton 2006, 7). This reality limits women’s engagement with such public entities in ways that men need not, and often do not, consider (McDowell 1983).

Whether these specific potentially threatening spaces actually produce physical or verbal attacks does little to allay the feelings of fear, anxiety and avoidance experienced by women who must nevertheless remain mindful of them (Green and Singleton 2006). Indeed, prevailing social norms dictate that females should be fearful and cautious about using public spaces perceived as potentially dangerous or threatening. In fact, women who have been found to be in the “wrong place at the wrong time” have borne at least partial blame for the harassment or attacks they endured in some court decisions.

The recent case of former Stanford University undergraduate Brock Turner and his unnamed victim provide an example of this phenomenon. Turner capitalized on one of these questionable spaces (a poorly lit area near a dumpster) to rape an unconscious female resident, and the presiding judge in his trial has been sharply criticized for the leniency of the sentence he imposed. Moreover, Turner’s father publicly insinuated that the victim had placed herself in a dangerous scenario and contended that women should be more careful in the future to avoid such spaces. These behaviors suggest that some people persist in judging women harshly for using public spaces and that social conventions concerning those norms continue in practice to restrict female freedom of movement and action and, thereby, their civil rights.

Personally, I have chosen not to carry a weapon when I run, but this is not to say that I am not conscious of the potential risks of physical or psychological abuse I bear when I use the Roanoke Greenway. Running, for me, as for many of the other female runners I know, is a therapeutic and self-esteem boosting activity. I do occasionally wear headphones to block out catcalls and similar harassment, but I do not pretend to be completely comfortable on the Greenway at dusk or in that path’s bathroom at any hour, without someone standing watch outside. Nevertheless, I do routinely pursue an activity I enjoy in that public space.

Sadly, however, it is nonetheless true that many women have been completely deterred from utilizing the Greenway (and similar public spaces in Roanoke and elsewhere) in light of the potential personal risks to self or psyche or both that these locations may harbor. I do however remain hopeful that increased public recognition of this discriminatory reality, more gender aware and sensitive design of public spaces and ultimately, a more complete change in social norms and expectations, will soon ensure that women enjoy the possibilities such locations represent safely, and without a second thought.



Bondi, L.(1992) “Gender Symbols and Urban Landscapes.” Progress in Human Geography: 16.2, pp.157-70. Accessed 7 Sept. 2016.

Gilbert, Melissa R. (1997) “Feminism And Difference In Urban Geography.” Urban Geography 18.2: 166-79. Accessed 7 Sept. 2016.

Green, E. E. and Singleton, C. (2006) ‘Risky bodies at leisure: young women negotiating space and place’, Sociology, 40(5), pp.853-871. Accessed 11 Sept. 2016.

Hayden, Dolores. (1980) “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5(S3) n. pag. Accessed 7 Sept. 2016.

Mcdowell, L. (1983) “Towards an Understanding of the Gender Division of Urban Space.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 1.1, 59-72. 7 Sept. 2016.

Silbaugh, Katharine. (2008). “Women’s Place: Urban Planning, Housing Design and Work-Family Balance.” Fordham Law Review, 76, Accessed 7 September 2016.

Thompson, Deborah M. (1993) “”The Woman in the Street:” Reclaiming the Public Space from Sexual Harassment,” Yale Journal of Law & Feminism: 6(2),


natalie-pattersonNatalie Patterson is a second year Master’s student in Urban and Regional Planning and is pursuing that Program’s Nonprofit and Nongovernmental Organization Management and Economic Development certificates. She earned her BA in Environmental Studies and Geography from Calvin College. Her current research interests are focused on faith based communities and how they serve the interests and needs of individuals with disabilities. Natalie enjoys running, reading and exploring the ‘green and blue trails’ of the Blue Ridge Mountains by foot and kayak.



Accessed 11 Sept. 2016.


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