On 18th of last month, Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87. She obtained the law degree in the 1950s, when women were seldom able to attend law schools, and went on to serve as a US Supreme Court Justice for 27 years. She was only the second woman in history to achieve this, and wielded great influence as she used her position to consistently advocate equality, especially of gender.
There is no doubt that the United States remains a male dominated society. The Gender Gap Index puts the country 53th in the world (Japan is 121th!). No index can tell the whole story, but conservative states still exist where women’s rights are restricted. Such is the USA where Ginsburg fought for her beliefs. We extend our deep condolences.
In this issue, we would like to consider a history changed by women. Last month our principal, Kaz Yoneda, began a course at Japan Women’s University on the contemporary critique of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In this book, Jane Jacobs criticised modern urban planning. She was another woman that profoundly influenced the mid-20th century USA. As a journalist living in the Greenwich Village, she was a part of and eventually would lead the movement to oppose the aggressive construction of highways and other large-scale developments.
Post-War New York still had a large portion of its population struggling with poverty living invarious slum areas. In that context, Robert Moses, the so-called “master builder”, set out to achieve an urban regeneration. His urban projects were soon underway, forging gigantic highways forcibly into the city, clearing low-income housing, and dividing residential and commercial areas completely, with a preference for skyscrapers. Moses began with good intentions towards local communities, but he increasingly pursued the efficiency of developments. In her book, Jacobs’s drew on her own perspective to challenge what Moses was doing. Culture is rooted on the street, she argued, and it is not the people who are moulded by a city, but that the city is be moulded by the people living in it.
In 1954, a plan to insert a highway through Washington Square Park emerged. Jacobs and other activists started a protest movement. She wrote directly to the city mayor objecting that local communities would be destroyed. Moses scoffed that this was “only a protest of housewives.” With that one sentence, he turned many more women against him. Jacobs was talented at mobilizing people, and she managed to get celebrities on her side. As the result, the highway plans were eventually cancelled.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published as a result of these moves in urban planning. Jacobs sent a copy of her book to Moses, which he returned to her, accompanied by curtreply. New Yorker magazine’s architectural critic Lewis Mumford, penned his own title to Jacobs’s publication: “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies.” He described Jacobs as “nothing more than a middle-aged woman with home remedies for our urban problems.” In those days, and perhaps even now, women of strong opinions were never welcome.
However, around the time that Jacobs wrote her book, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and Rachel Carson came out with Silent Spring. It was the age of movements supporting the environment, civil rights, urban planning, and feminism. All emerged during this time in history, and all manifested the growing consciousness of civilians and their rights. All were triggered by female writers too.
Many of Moses’ high-rise residential projects were torn down just 30–40 years after completion. The urban environments he demolished will never return, but Washington Square Park still serves as an urban oasis for many people.
Writing: Mai Tsunoo
Translation: Kazuhiro Murayama
Direction: Kaz Yoneda