Working with Spaces
Space is action. Having access to rooms that can be shaped and determined, that can be filled, understood, changed, called into question or even reconverted; having access to usable spaces means having the freedom to act.
The debates about special women’s spaces, spaces created by women, with women, and about women's interests, are far from over. Although the various positions on the matter and their discursive and political discontinuity (or even abrupt change) seem to be well known, this still does not mean that the fundamental question underlying the demand for space has been solved.
Space, as art historian Irene Nierhaus has often pointed out, is a cultural system of representation that generates gender, among other things. New generations of women are repeatedly confronted with and driven to action by the question of space. A room is a space in which one does something, according to Michel de Certeau.
It is pouring down rain. The year is 1873. It is early June and we are at the Vienna World Exhibition on the large grounds of the Prater nature park. The exhibitions are celebrators of progress and innovation, creating the images of ideological goals and political capital from which we form our fundamental beliefs and visions of the future as a culture. Back to the rain. A single inspector unceremoniously unlocks the doors of one of the pavilions. There are no dignitaries or political representatives to be seen. The attendants get in position. The catalog sales girls are ready. And now the building is open to the public.
That was the unspectacular opening ceremony of the Pavilion for the History of Inventions and Women’s Work. The openings of the exhibitions Technical Innovation as an Educational Aim and Works by Women were equally understated. Of course, one could interpret this as a forward-looking act, an open rejection of ceremonial and political (self) representation connoting free access for all people alike. However, as can correctly be assumed, the contemporary perception was quite a different one. It was one of insignificance, an overlooked minority. Thus, it is up to us to question the canonized traditionalism of descriptions and representations of space and its use over and over again; to look at them, examine them from all sides, and then to disturb them. The descriptions of an action and the range of possibilities of an action are closely related. The very narrow corset of concepts about “women’s work” can be seen clearly by which women’s works were ultimately selected and shown at the Vienna World Exhibition, revealing in retrospect that by definition, women’s work was constructed as marginal as a political strategy. Awareness of the necessity of the women’s labor force was high, as was the awareness of the potential explosiveness of political and social movements. And everybody was aware of the symbolic importance of the artistic and literary output of women. Contrary to the original plans, little to no effort was made to recognize any of these areas and they definitely did not come close to a fitting representation. Historians Gunda Barth-Scalmani and Margret Friedrich studied the facts in detail. (1) Author Aglaja von Enderes wrote in the Austrian Women’s Work exhibition catalog that in a complete “picture of present-day cultural activities in the enterprises of effort, ingenuity, and initiatives, which we currently know as human performance,” (2) women’s work cannot be missed.
But the picture is never complete.
Nevertheless, the exhibition on Austrian women’s work set a precedent in the history of that great driver of innovation, the world fair, where societal meaning is produced and symbolic order constructed for mass audiences through cultural formations. A specific area for women is ample evidence of the fights, tensions, demands and unresolved ambivalence they carry along.
In the late 19th century, unstoppable waves of urbanization thrust into European capitals and American cities alike. The city promised freedom and potential. But where could women meet unhindered? Where could they read the news? Where could they hear about business opportunities? Where could literary exchange take place? Where could they play billiards in peace? Where could they simply freshen up?
The infrastructures of a city extend its radius of action. The radius of action increases the potential for meetings and activities. On November 18, 1903, it was time. The New Vienna Women’s Club was opened in Vienna’s city center at Tuchlauben no. 11. Here, working women could make avail of the reading, writing, billiard, resting, and powder rooms. The dining hall could also be used for lectures. The previous headquarters of the Vienna Women’s Club had also been in the first district, in the Trattnerhof, where exhibitions, lectures, musical events and various classes had been held in a space designed by Adolf Loos. Excursions were organized; a literary group was formed. In 1905, an information center for women’s interests was established. Career counseling and information about employment opportunities for women was made available. The space was productive. Its productivity was culturally formative. This collective space harbored the potential of new encounters in a public and female sphere.
In 1903 in London, Constance Smedley and a group of friends founded the Lyceum Club and erected their new club house in Piccadilly, a formerly male-dominated area of London city. As with the women’s club in Vienna, the focus was on sociality and business. It was about power. This was a place where, as historian Erika Rappaport emphasizes, women could enjoy all the benefits of the home and all the benefits of a place of business, without any of their restrictions. (3) Women now had a reason to go out into the city. While out in the city, they now had an opportunity to meet in a new public space, one which they themselves had constructed. At the turn of the 20th century, these new spaces, which women designed or had designed for themselves, created a new image of their range of action. These spaces were part of the process of modernizing urban identities throughout Europe and North America, from Berlin to Vienna and from Boston to San Francisco. These spaces organized collectivity; they were part of an urban infrastructure both by and for women; they enabled the actions that make a space “free”.
Being aware of these and of other women’s spaces, knowing their stories and painting a different picture of them (which can never be complete) is the responsibility of the institutions that create the cultural memory of a city – the museums. Museums are places where the narrative of a city takes cultural form. The various narrative choices alter the picture of the city that is painted, choices about who plays or played what roles in the picture. For example, in the Wien Museum in Vienna, you will search in vain for any mention of Aglaja von Enderes, the author of the catalog for the Austrian Women’s Work pavilion in 1873; Clara Wittgenstein and Yella Hertzka, the co-founders of the New Vienna Women’s Club; Ernestine von Fürth, the dedicated director of the club’s library; or even a simple note on the co-founders of the Austrian women’s suffrage committee. In order to even think about looking for them, you would have to know they existed. In order to know of their existence, knowledge about them would have to be in general circulation.
The microphones are on. The hall is packed to the last chair of the back row. The first speaker has not yet arrived at the Vienna City Library, in the city hall. It is October 7, 2010. The much-awaited speaker is Mansoureh Shojaee, co-initiator of the Iranian Women’s Museum. She is still deep in conversation in the Café Eiles, going over a few final translation questions with Viennese architect Azita Goodarzi, who has Iranian roots and has offered to help with the translation. Shojaee mounts the podium. The foundation of initiatives changes the politics of space. Mansoureh Shojaee was a librarian. She then became a women’s rights activist and museum founder. She was co-founder of the Women’s Cultural Center, Markaz-e Farhangi-ye Zanan. She founded the Iranian Women’s Museum together with Shirin Ebadi. She has written about the history of International Women’s Day in Iran. The story of the struggle to establish spaces for women is a story that changes according to each political, economic and social situation. Mansoureh Shojaee’s lecture made this clear. Shojaee has been repeatedly jailed in Iran and is now based in Germany giving lectures, she is on panels, at discussions, and on exchanges. She seeks to create a space for dialogue between times and between spaces. At the symposium “Women: Museum. Between Collection Strategy and Social Platform”, which I curated, activists, educational scientists, researchers, historians, artists, cultural mediators, art historians, curators, and museum directors made presentation and joined in discussions in the reading room of the Vienna City Library in the city hall. The goal was to critically evaluate the status quo of women in museums. Gudrun Ankele, Petja Dimitrova, VALIE EXPORT, Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat, Stella Rollig, Carla Bobadilla, Stefania Pitscheider, Astrid Schönweger, Petra Unger, Vida Bakondy, Eva Geber, Li Gerhalter, and Edith Saurer were invited to participate. Silvie Aigner, Karin Schneider, and Marion Thuswald moderated the discussions.
The topic was women’s museums, which are for the most part self-initiated and established since the 1980's, starting in Germany. Discussion focused on the relationships of women and museums in terms of representational logistics, identity, the making of history, and the creation of spaces. The stories change the spaces. So does discussion. The discussion will never be over. Space is needed to carry on the discussion. And resources. Museums (could) have the capacity to act as a forum for the public. This includes women and men, as well as many other differentiations. The conflicts could and would become programmatic if the diversity of histories led to other questions. The discontinuous history of women’s movements, women’s spaces, and women’s stories would be a good starting point. There is no women’s museum in Vienna. There are many women’s museums in Vienna. Every museum can and should also be a women’s museum, something we are still very far away from. Just how far away is up to the battles and the actions set to create spaces of feminist agency and feminist historiography of spaces set in action by women’s works and women’s words.
Gunda Barth-Scalmani/Margret Friedrich: “Frauen auf der Weltausstellung von 1873: Blick auf die Bühne und hinter die Kulissen”, in: Brigitte Mazohl-Wallnig (pub. in): Bürgerliche Frauenkultur im 19. Jahrhundert, L'Homme. No. 2, Vienna 1995.
Aglaja von Enderes, Catalog for the Austrian Women’s Work Exhibition, Vienna, 1873.
Elke Krasny: Stadt und Frauen. Eine andere Topographie von Wien, Vienna 2008.
Irene Nierhaus, Felicitas Konecny: räumen. Baupläne zwischen Raum, Visualität, Geschlecht und Architektur, Vienna 2002.
Erika Rappaport: Shopping for Pleasure. Women in the Making of London’s West End, Princeton University Press 2000.
Despina Stratigakos: A Women’s Berlin: Building the Modern City, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
(1) Gunda Barth-Scalmani/Margret Friedrich: “Frauen auf der Weltausstellung von 1873: Blick auf die Bühne und hinter die Kulissen”, in: Brigitte Mazohl-Wallnig (pub. in): Bürgerliche Frauenkultur im 19. Jahrhundert, L'Homme. No. 2, Böhlau 1995
(2) Aglaja von Enderes, Catalog for the Austrian Women’s Work Exhibition, Vienna, 1873.
(3) Despina Stratigakos: A Women’s Berlin: Building the Modern City, University of Minnesota Press, 2008: 24.