Here’s a shocker: Shopping, that decidedly female pastime of perusing consumer goods with or without the intent to purchase, was actually a catalyst for the women’s rights movement.
Erika Diane Rappaport writes in Shopping for Pleasure that “for many middle-class housewives in Victorian England, shopping was their first taste of real freedom, and the starting point for their push into public life.”
The 19th century shopping district, predecessor to today’s dying shopping mall, opened up modern cities to women and gave them areas where they could wander at will, just like men. Such wandering actually created a minor scandal, according to Rappaport, since walking the streets without a male chaperon was scorned by many into the late 1800s.
Along with these casual women shoppers came tea rooms, women’s clubs, public bathrooms and
shoplifting, labeled kleptomania because it was blamed on the woman’s uterus.
The early 1900s shopping districts became combat zones for the women’s suffrage movement. Rappaport talks about suffragettes going on “window-smashing raids against the same stores that relied on their business.” The London Daily Telegraph described how “women who had a moment before appeared to be on peaceful shopping expeditions produced from bags or muffs, hammers, stones and sticks, and began an attack upon the nearest windows.” By 1918, such passionate labors helped English women win the vote.