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Fops, flappers and fascists

British urban history takes a new slant in Judith Walkowitz’s scholarly study of life in Soho in the

Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London

Judith R Walkowitz
Yale University Press, 400p, £25

In 1906, an inspector for the Metropolitan Police denounced Greek Street, Soho, as the "worst street in the West End of London . . . some of the vilest reptiles in London live there or frequent it". Given that you have to be a banker to afford the prices at L'Escargot, and that such establishments as the unassuming Coach and Horses and the quite presumptuous Soho House cater to media types and journalists, many readers might conclude that little has changed.

Judith R Walkowitz has written a social history of Soho in the first half of the 20th century. She begins with Virginia Woolf, on her "usual round" from Bloomsbury to the book stalls of Charing Cross Road, then down to Gerrard Street and the 1917 Club, co-founded by her husband, Leonard, as a place for intellectuals and activists to gather. Woolf also enjoyed slumming at Berwick Street Market, "the Street of Silk Stockings"; there, she wrote, "the stir & colour and cheapness [pleased] me to the depths of my soul".

At the end of the Victorian era, the district of Soho - approximately one square mile - was one of the city's most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, marked by urban vices including crime, illicit sex and political intrigue. Nineteenth-century urban planning ploughed boulevards through the West End, including Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road. "One of Nash's stated objectives" in building Regent Street, Walkowitz notes, "was to provide a 'complete separation between the Streets occupied by the Nobility and Gentry, and the narrower Streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading part of the community'". It worked: cockney inhabitants were pushed east, making room for the immigrant populations that rapidly took their place, and then created business and entertainments that were frequented by the rich, despite - and because of - their proximity to the edgy, "vicious" spaces of Soho.

Looked at from one angle, Nights Out is a history of cultural tourism, but Walkowitz is more interested in the people offering the tours than the people taking them. That said, the book offers its own kind of tourism, of the social transformations created by "men and women of many walks of life: rich and poor, unschooled émigrés and Bloomsbury literati, moral purity campaigners and libertarian anarchists, undercover police and dance hostesses, fascists and anti-fascists, queers and heterosexuals, Italians, Jews, Greeks, Americans, Germans, Swiss, black GIs and white Britons". Walkowitz suggests this diversity was all part of a new "cosmopolitan identity", an academically fashionable idea that is also tautological. Such scholarly lily-gilding is, happily, infrequent - mostly she lets her stories speak for themselves.

The book is organised in a loosely chronological sequence, each chapter selecting a representative example that enables Walkowitz to map the varied cultural experiences on offer in Soho: theatre, dance, shopping, restaurants, nightlife. She begins with Mrs Laura Ormiston Chant, a "Shavian heroine" and feminist purity reformer who was satirised by Punch as "Mrs Prowlina Pry". Mrs Chant's efforts at reforming the drinking and sex trade at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square were met by resistance from a group of young aristocrats, led by a Sandhurst cadet named Winston Churchill, who delivered his maiden political speech in these "rather unvirginal surroundings". Attending the shows to find evidence of moral turpitude, Mrs Chant was surprised to find that she enjoyed the female acrobats, and she announced that the "immense muscular power displayed by a woman must have dispelled from the spectators any pet theories as to innate physical incapacity in the weaker or, more accurately speaking, the undeveloped sex".

Next comes Maud Allan, an American dancer at the Palace Theatre whose Vision of Salome was so popular with London audiences that the newspapers insisted she was Canadian. Eventually conservative papers accused Allan of belonging to the "Cult of Clitoris", an Edwardian euphemism for lesbianism; the subsequent lawsuit destroyed her career. In the name of scholarly originality, Walkowitz wants to shift focus from the sensationalist trial to Allan's dance and what it suggests about changing ideas of the female body, which is all very worthy, but probably less interesting to most of us than the trial.

Another chapter considers the "Fascist Invasion of Soho" by the Italian food industry, represented by Peppino Leoni's Quo Vadis restaurant, which opened in 1926. Quo Vadis became popular thanks in part to its innovative strategy of displaying modern art for sale; by 1932, "everyone who is anybody in the theatrical and artistic worlds" was dining there. Leoni was eventually interned during the Second World War for his fascist sympathies. Meanwhile, just down the street, the York Minster pub, better known as the French House, became the "unofficial headquarters" of the Free French.

Soho shopping comes next, exemplified by the emergence of Berwick Street Market as a fashion district in the 1920s and 1930s. Flappers found independence and ready-made dresses here, but clothes rationing during the Second World War signalled the beginning of the end. "A Jewish Night Out" follows, in which Walkowitz shifts abruptly into oral history to reconstruct the story of restaurants such as the Lyons Corner House, which employed young women as waitresses. They were known as Nippies, to suggest modern speed and efficiency.

Then there is the queen of the London nightclubs, Kate Meyrick, memorialised as Ma Mayfield in Brideshead Revisited. Meyrick's prosperity enabled her to purchase for her children the education that would assimilate them into "upper-class social networks". This was precisely what conservatives feared: that the "free and easy mingling of classes" in an "atmosphere of artificial gaiety" could lead to "strange matrimonial alliances" across class lines. The Bright Young Things of the 1920s frequented Meyrick's clubs, which were "open to customers with deep pockets and no pedigree". This leads into a discussion of mixed-race dances in nightclubs; it was "Harlem in London", the Melody Maker proclaimed in 1936.

The final chapter focuses on the nude revues at the Windmill Theatre during the 1930s and through the Blitz, when Laura Henderson's girls became one of the symbols of British endurance. Pictures of the Windmill's naked women made it into the papers, paving the way for use of female nudes as marketing tools. An epilogue brings the story more or less up to date, whistling through Paul Raymond's sex empire and the establishment of the Soho Housing Association, which helped to bring professionals and artists back into the area in the 1980s and 1990s.

For all Walkowitz's efforts to do justice to Soho's "cosmopolitan identities", there are choices here that one might dispute. Most surprising of these is that the queer history of Soho between the wars is not given a chapter of its own, though the Jewish experience gets two. She by no means ignores the gay experience, but surely such a definitive aspect of the district's history should not be elbowing for space - especially not in a book so interested in the story of Soho as a history of inclusion and exclusion.

Sarah Churchwell is the author of "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe" (Granta Books, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.