The Makers of Place

Judith Maloney
September 01, 1999

When she lived for a year in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, Lorraine Dowler took note of the murals, as geographers interested in the landscape of that area traditionally had done. The murals, some of them two and three stories high, were on the sides of private homes. They were on the sides of office buildings. Shops. A nursery school. A homeless shelter.

Dowler, now an assistant professor of geography at Penn State, lived and conducted her dissertation research within the working-class Irish Catholic community of West Belfast; the murals that seemed to leave no blank wall untouched were largely political, which meant, in that community, pro-Irish Republican Army and anti-British. On one, a figure is painted against the green, white, and orange of the Irish flag. A black ski mask, dark eyes staring out from the narrow opening, covers the figure's face and neck. A semi-automatic weapon, braced on one shoulder, points skyward. Long, jagged red flames half-surround the masked and armed figure. "Freedom's Sons. 2nd Battalion Belfast Brigade," the mural reads. "Free Ireland," says another, this one showing a raised and shackled arm against a map of a united Ireland. And, scrawled across the front of a town house, painted white letters a foot or more high proclaim, "We will leave Europe alone when they leave us alone." The message is signed, "P. IRA": Provisional IRA.

A mural of a very different nature caught Dowler's attention while she was there; indeed, the mural captures the attention of almost everyone who visits Belfast, located as it is at the foot of the Falls Road, which is the Irish Catholic stronghold, and just two blocks from the city center. No guns, no defiant slogans, are to be found on this mural; here, painted two stories high, is a blue sky with soft white clouds and, framed within the clouds, the figure of a woman, her head and body draped in white, her face smooth and serene, her gaze directed toward the infant that she cradles in her arm. It is the Virgin Mary, Dowler says; this image of purity, of devoted motherhood, is held up in the landscape for the Irish Catholic women of the community, daily, to see. It is here that Dowler began to depart from, to move beyond, what the traditional geographer might have done. She had noted the murals. She had read the message that they, as a prominent feature in the landscape, seemed to deliver: A message of nationalism. Of solidarity in the struggle against British rule. Of the place of women as mothers and as sources of compassion. She had noted, as well, another element of the Northern Ireland landscape—the "resistance parades" held throughout the summer months, when both Catholics and Protestants march so frequently through the streets, Dowler says, that these are known as the "Mad Months" in Belfast. The women of the Irish Catholic community march year after year in support of the IRA soldiers, in support of husbands and sons "doing their whack" in prison. The public marches, the political murals, the anti-British graffiti, Dowler says, "seem to inscribe into the landscape a homogeneous discourse of resistance."

But Dowler wanted, she says, to "break away from just reading a landscape from the point-of-view of the academic." She began interviewing the people in the community, wanting to find out whether the images of them as represented in the landscape "matched up" with their everyday, real attitudes and experiences. "Was this some monolithic thing, that people hate the British government, hate the Protestants . . . or are there many discourses vying in this Irish nationalism?" She was interested, particularly, in the women of the community: How did they see their own roles in the conflict? Did they see themselves only, or primarily, as mothers and wives, as keepers of the home and supporters of the male "warriors"?

"When you start talking to these women," Dowler says, "you see that they all of a sudden start having different voices. I marched in the parades and I interviewed people as I went along. Some of the women of course were there to march. But many said that they came out because their husbands made them: If there were women in a parade, it was more likely that it wouldn't be attacked by a Protestant paramilitary group. One woman said to me, 'You know, we do this year in and year out; it's like walking in a memory.' Their bodies were walking down the road, but their minds were in other places. Women would say to me, 'Why am I considered a mother and not a soldier in this conflict?' Or, 'I don't support this conflict.' Or, 'I want a feminist agenda.'" As a geographer, Dowler was interested, moreover, in "how public and private space plays out in all of this." She has written in a paper based on her research, that war "can often become an agent of conservatism as regards gender identities." The battlefield, which is public space—and which has been, in the case of Northern Ireland, the streets themselves—becomes firmly the province of men; the "home front," which is private or domestic space, firmly the province of women. The Holy Mother looms large on the Falls Road mural. Although women march in great numbers through the city streets, they carry banners and signs identifying themselves as the mothers of IRA prisoners. "The women may have access to physical public space," Dowler says, "but their identities are constantly being attached to the home."

Dowler's work is but one refraction of the theme for a conference that she—along with Bonj Szczygiel of the Department of Landscape Architecture, and Josephine Carubia of The Schreyer Honors College and the English Department—conceived and organized. The diversity in the backgrounds and interests of the organizers reflects the diversity of the conference itself: Its title was "Gendered Landscapes: An Interdisciplinary Exploration of Past Place and Space," and it brought together over 100 scholars from the United States and abroad, working in disciplines ranging from art history to political science to religious studies to urban planning to anthropology. The conference was meant to examine—from a wide array of scholarly perspectives—ways that gender connects with landscape, a richly ambiguous term defined in their proposal as the "built environment" but broadened by some, according to Dowler, to mean "everything you can see from a certain vantage point," and then taken by still others and turned inward to mean "a way of seeing."

An anthropologist at the conference discussed mountaineering and mountain landscapes as historically masculine terrains, and the women who have "transgressed gender boundaries" by venturing into these spaces; a landscape architect examined the part that "moral reasoning" plays in the design process, and the ways that male and female sensibilities may perceive, for example, the social responsibility of the design differently; a graduate student in nursing discussed the movement of lesbians from urban to rural areas as "health-seeking behavior," with rural space perceived as a kind of "idyll" where a spiritual connection with the land may foster a strong female identity. Differences in the ways that male and female clergy use sacred space; the medieval country estate as the symbol of good housekeeping; the masculinity of maps . . . these and many other topics kept scholars talking for three days, with five panels running concurrently for two and three sessions per day.

"It's not very often," says conference organizer Bonj Szczygiel, "that scholars are able to talk to each other across disciplinary lines." Szczygiel is speaking in her comfortably cluttered office in Engineering Unit D; she is a slender woman crisply dressed in slacks, blazer, white blouse, with a short tousle of brown hair. She speaks with a quiet intensity about the conference, the need for interdisciplinary dialogue, her own work: She describes herself as "a landscape architect by training, an historian by preference."

The intention of the Gendered Landscapes conference, Szczygiel says, was to "pull us away from microscopic investigations within our own well-defined disciplines, and take us in the opposite direction of looking at other disciplines from a bird's-eye view." As she speaks, she conjures up an image of the conference itself as a kind of variegated landscape, composed of academic areas bordering and sometimes overlapping one another, the conference participants, from their raised vantage point, able to see the relatedness and the continuity of the landscape. Thus, says Szczygiel, they could begin to understand, "for example, the history of design as it relates to other issues such as the economic development of cities, or the changing roles of women over time. I think it's in pulling back, and looking at how we fit into this broader body of knowledge, that lies the possibility for our culture's future development."

In her research and writing, Szczygiel has tried to broaden the body of knowledge in her own discipline of landscape architecture, whose written history, she says, has traditionally focused on "grand movements and big ideas." The "heroes and visionaries" of the field—such as Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, the designers of New York City's Central Park —are prominent in the history books; women, who have affected the landscape in smaller ways—for example, as members of village improvement associations that flourished in this country in the 19th century—are either absent altogether, or mentioned and dismissed. Szczygiel talks about the writing of history as a process of "framing questions": "In framing the question in a particular way, you then frame the response. And if all you're doing is looking for the role of professionals in the built environment, then you will come up with a particular set of responses. I think the question can be framed, and should be framed, a different way: 'How have women affected the built environment?' And once you start asking that question, you find that of course, 50 percent of the population have been out there, and they've been influential. Influential in community building, influential in actual physical design, certainly influential in garden design."

Women belonged "by the thousands," Szczygiel says, to the village improvement associations that have been a focus of her research, with the first such group appearing in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1853, its members pledging to work "till every street shall be graded, every side-walk shaded, every noxious weed eradicated." The quotation points to what was, Szczygiel says, a primary trait of the mostly white, middle-class women who joined these associations: They felt personally responsible for bettering their communities. "This," she says, "was their method for getting at problems —'I'm going to do something about this'—whether it was raising money or actually planting the petunias in the park or buying the park bench . . . It was a personal responsibility."

At a time when a woman's place was in the home, the society permitted these women to assume, in large numbers, an active, visible role in their communities. This, says Szczygiel, was thanks to the perception of the role as a domestic one; the term "municipal housekeepers" was commonly used. "Everywhere that village improvement takes active form," began an 1897 Atlantic Monthly article, "we find women connected with it, for there is something about it congenial to the feminine temperament, even as the intimate connection between a woman and a broom handle is an obvious and natural fact." Planting trees, fixing sidewalks, improving sewage systems, the women were seen as "cleaning up" their surroundings, which was simply an extension of their function in the home. Still, says Szczygiel, the women did gain greater visibility, and greater responsiblity, in the public realm . . . even if their efforts were viewed as domestic in nature. In a sense, the women became victims of their own success: As the positive impact of their work became more noticeable, national interest in their activities grew until, in 1903, a convention was held, a national league of improvement associations formed, with men stepping into the dominant governing positions. Though the original purpose of the league was simply to provide support and information, it soon began to distance itself from the small-scale, "one project at a time" philosophy central to the village groups. It interested itself, instead, in grand schemes for urban development focused more on aesthetics than on utility.

At the same time, a movement gathered in the league toward "professionalism"; in a paper Szczygiel co-authored she writes, "While grass roots involvement was encouraged, and was thought necessary, it was clearly felt that the village, town, or city improvement activities needed to be guided by experts and professionals." This, she says, "disallowed" women, largely excluded from the professions at that time, from holding positions of power in the league. A schism developed, Szczygiel writes, between "the grand aspirations of male leadership and the more humble goal of service held by the women improvers." Even as they became more peripheral to the league's agenda, the women's groups continued with their work as they had always done it; in fact, Szczygiel says, the women—precisely because they were denied power—were best qualified to see and address the real problems in their communities. "As a pure cultural construct," she writes, "women were simply in a better position to recognize the needs of the people; they did not have lofty positions from which to view the grand scheme. By virtue of their cultural 'grounding' they were able to suggest and often arrive at better solutions."

The trend toward "grandiose" urban planning became known, Szczygiel says, as the City Beautiful Movement, characterized by ambitious designs for new civic centers, monumental boulevards, park systems, and sometimes entire cities. "History book after history book," according to Szczygiel, "ignores the presence of women in the City Beautiful." She finds this "inexcusable," arguing that the City Beautiful Movement—and the urban planning profession itself—had their roots in the civic improvement activities in which women had been engaged since the 1840s and 1850s. And even as the public's attention was diverted by the "tumultuous and exciting rise and fall of City Beautiful," Szczygiel writes, the women continued to "influence the look and function of the American landscape through thousands of individual projects."

When we look at a landscape, says conference organizer Josephine Carubia, we "assume that it's neutral . . . we leave out gender. But, most of the time, when we think of something as neutral, or universal, there is some gender basis underlying it . . . it's just invisible, and we need to look for it." To her, that is what the conference was about—looking for the gendered component of landscapes, be it an urban Irish landscape, or a 19th-century American village landscape, or, in her case, a landscape that exists not in real space but in the imagination, a landscape evoked in fiction or in poetry.

Carubia, a tall, striking woman, says that she works "at the intersections of disciplines." She has written extensively on Virgina Woolf, looking at Woolf's novels, sometimes, through the prism of semiotics, which Carubia first defines as "the science of human signs,' and then, after a pause, adds, "Semiotics is a way of looking at everything as if it has potential for meaning." At the conference, she talked about a particular "sign" that appears in Woolf's fiction, as well as in the work of other authors: the garden landscape.

"In literature," Carubia says, "some of the patterns of classical gardens have been used as metaphors for cultural constraints on women's lives. We see over and over again the image of the strict rows in a garden as the image of a woman who could never make choices in her life, couldn't stray outside of the expectations that were set for her." She points, as an example, to a passage in Woolf's novel, Jacob's Room, where the image of "flowerbeds uncompromisingly geometrical" becomes, for the reader, the visual equivalent of the constricted lives of young women.

Carubia points, also, to the poem, "Patterns," by Amy Lowell, in which a woman walks in a garden; tucked into the bosom of the woman's dress is a letter with the news that her fiance has been killed in war. "I walk down the patterned garden-paths," the poem reads, "in my stiff, brocaded gown. With my powdered hair and jewelled fan, I too am a rare pattern. . . . And I sink on a seat in the shade of a lime-tree. For my passion wars against the stiff brocade."

The poem harks back to the fiction of Woolf, who, Carubia says, came to view the male "way of knowing in the world," which she saw as pedantic, and highly theoretical, as having produced the horrors of the two world wars fought in this century. Woolf explored in her later novels, Carubia says, "ways of knowing that do not promote violence, oppression, and war."

The woman in Lowell's poem has lost the man who would, in a month's time, have become her husband, to what the poem describes as "a pattern called a war." War has shattered her present, and sentenced her to a future of bereavement: "In Summer and in Winter," she thinks, "I shall walk up and down the patterned garden-paths in my stiff, brocaded gown." She moves through a world—represented by the garden—that imposes patterns upon her, patterns that confine, and define, her, and against which she futilely rails: "Christ!" concludes the poem. "What are patterns for?" "Everything about this woman," Carubia says, "is constrained. Her dress is a very tight dress. She is encased in whale-bone and brocade.

Everything is limited in the way the garden is limited. And she's saying, 'I don't want that. I don't want that limitation. Why did he haveto die in that pattern called war?'"

Besides the murals, the resistance parades, the anti-British graffiti, another symbol of conflict, says Lorraine Dowler, has been inscribed into the Belfast landscape: The "Peace Line" is an actual constructed wall that separates the working-class Irish Catholic from the working-class Protestant communities. The wall has stood since 1969, when rioting in the area left Catholics barricaded behind buses, refusing to come out until their safety could be guaranteed. Negotiations with the British government led to the creation of the Peace Line. Its materials vary from brick to corrugated tin to spiked fencing. In some places, Dowler says, there are doors in the wall, opened up by day for access to shopping districts and closed at night for security . . . and now opened up more as the peace process takes hold. The women in Belfast, Dowler says, have always been able to cross the Peace Line more freely than the men, because, she says, they are perceived as "political innocents."

Dowler is in her Department of Geography office, a long, modern-looking space with banks of file cabinets supporting white work surfaces, these surfaces covered, here and there, with colorful patterned cloths. She gazes frankly out of pale blue eyes framed by narrow gold glasses. Her close-cut reddish hair, her freckles, are just what might be expected in this daughter of Irish Catholic parents, both of whom grew up in the Republic of Ireland.

Dowler grew up, she says, listening to the stories told to her by her mother and her grandmother; the gender issues she addresses in her research, she writes, "come from a lifetime of reflection." Dowler's grandfather, her mother's father, was killed fighting for Northern Ireland's freedom from the British. He left a wife with 12 children to support. Dowler's mother, the oldest of the children, had to leave school at the age of ten to help raise her brothers and sisters while Dowler's grandmother went out to work.

For Dowler, her mother represents an irony of "The Gendered Landscape": that those who bear the burden of change remain ignored, unrecognized, anonymous. She allows her mother, the "political innocent," to tell her own story: "I had to give up my life. Dada loved us, but he loved Ireland more. I remember Mamma crying herself to sleep at night. . . . Dada was considered the soldier in the family, he is even written about in a book called The Fighting Men of Limerick, but Mamma and I were not written up in any book and we were left with fighting the war in our own ways long after Dada died."

The conference, "Gendered Landscapes: An Interdisciplinary Exploration of Past Place and Space," was organized by Bonj Szczygiel, Lorraine Dowler, and Josephine Carubia. Szczygiel, M.L.A., is assistant professor of landscape architecture and associate director of the Center for Studies in Landscape History in the College of Arts and Architecture, 307 Engineering Unit D, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-8596; Dowler, Ph.D., is assistant professor of geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, 302 Walker Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-3433; Carubia, Ph.D., is coordinator of student programs and service learning in The Schreyer Honors College and affiliate assistant professor of English in the College of the Liberal Arts, 214 Willard Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-2635; . The conference was supported by funds from the College of Arts and Architecture; the Program Innovation Fund for Conferences and Institutes; the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies; the Glenda Laws Memorial Fund in the department of Geography; and the College of the Liberal Arts. Judith Maloney is a freelance writer in State College, PA.

Last Updated January 10, 2014