Despina Stratigakos

 

On her book A Women’s Berlin: Building the Modern City

Cover Interview of February 13, 2009

A close-up

The first image in the book depicts a woman builder making repairs to the roof of Berlin’s town hall.  Balanced on a ladder high atop the city, this young woman physically intervenes in the urban built environment with her hands and tools. A dense and vibrant urban landscape unfolds beneath her.  This extraordinary photograph, taken in 1910, succinctly captures the phenomenon of brave new vistas appearing before women. As part of a series that documented women in male professions, the image associated the ascent of women to new occupations with the vertical rise of Berlin, linking female modernity directly to that of the city itself.

rorotoko.com A woman builder making repairs to the roof of Berlin’s town hall, 1910. From Illustrierte Frauenzeitung 38, no. 2 (1910): 17.

Readers of the Illustrierte Frauenzeitung, a popular Berlin fashion magazine, encountered this striking image of a female builder amid pages devoted to elegant hats and dresses.  The accompanying text introduced her as the first woman to undertake the demanding practical training required for this profession and emphasized the “great deal of courage and self-confidence it takes to stand on a ladder at this height in female clothing and, at the same time, perform a difficult task; in any case, however, this activity should be recommended only to vertigo-free ladies” (1910).  While depicting the new horizons opening up to women, then, the magazine’s editors conveyed a sense of danger pertaining to the female body and its clothing.  If her skirt did not snag, the subtext seemed to say, plunging a woman to her death hundreds of feet below, her mental instability (the supposed female tendency to swoon) might lead to a similar ruin.  This message, a warning to “lesser” women not to follow in the path of exceptional (and perhaps aberrant) pioneers, was at variance with the calm assurance displayed by the builder.  This same confident attitude permeates the chapters of A Women’s Berlin. The book reveals how women refused to be intimidated by prevalent tales of urban danger and other forms of social and legal harassment, constructing new urban narratives and spaces that embraced an open and optimistic attitude toward urban life and the modern woman.