I’ve chosen Judith Walkowitz – out of an enormous canon of inspirational feminist work that I am indebted to – because she was the first gender theorist that opened my eyes to the possibilities of approaching gender as an object for critical sociocultural analysis. As a third year undergraduate in an elite university that seemed to prefer dead white men, I had the good fortune to be assigned a brilliant dissertation supervisor (thanks Emma!) who insisted I read “her favourite book ever”. At the time all I knew was that I wanted to look at populist biographies of serial killers – after reading Walkowitz I saw that our cultural fascination with serial killers serve complex (and often contradictory) purposes in the reproduction of gendered myths about sex, gender and public space.
City of Dreadful Delight (1992) is a fascinating social history of a period in Victorian London, when the growing and troubling visibility of women in political campaigning life resulted in an explosion of moral narratives of danger and purity, respectability and outrage. Using Jack the Ripper, and the fantasies that begin to circulate around him, Walkowitz takes up the insights of Michel Foucault – understanding sexuality as incited, policed, disciplined and normalised – and at the same time reveals his indifferences to gender, class and race. Walkowitz is a rollicking storyteller and her cultural critique draws on grisly crime reporting in the tabloids, puritan campaigns against prostitution and sexual scandals, to demonstrate the powerful mechanisms through which gender and class and urban life become disciplined at moments of social change; but also reformulated and resisted by women who insisted on being seen and heard, on being public.
This book challenged my own preconceptions of Victorian life being a site of repression and passivity for women and sent me on a journey of looking conjuncturally at how and where social and moral panics crystallise upon figures who demand and invent new horizons and possibilities – and in doing so, who come to serve as vessels of concern. Walkowitz showed me that popular culture is a place of “imaginative confrontations” and deserves our serious attention: something that continues to drive my research today. I still love this book – it serves as a constant reminder that ‘woman theory’ is often the place where we find the hidden counter-histories, the rich archival detail, the everyday moments buried within pamphlets, diaries, salacious newspaper stories, and courtroom logs. Walkowitz brought this period of London history to life for me and in doing so brought feminist cultural critique into my world. Read this book – you will not regret it!