Sitting down in the distant past to discover society: a case for Foucault’s ‘history of the present’

Sitting down in the distant past to discover society: a case for Foucault’s ‘history of the present’

Susan Marie Martin

An archaeologist finds artefacts in situ and she has in hand clues about the context in which they were created, used, or abandoned.  But how to ‘unearth’ a past that wasn’t recorded? The words and thoughts of those who existed in the social and economic margins? Those rendered mute by the power structures that shaped their lives, reduced to demographics and grouped as casualties of social and economic progress?

This was my dilemma when I set out to understand how legislation, nearly a century old, that promised ‘fairness’ in the consumer marketplace, had problematised and persecuted women street traders in 1920s Ireland.  I had to find a way to sit down in that past amidst the swirl of narratives surrounding it.  Once I did, I was able to re-evaluate the legislation as an attack on their survival.  This revealed an untold chapter of a policy-practice divide in Ireland’s social history, and highlights one that persists for women trading in public space in developing countries.

Ubiquitous Yet Nonexistent
The inspiration to use history to understand contemporary abuses of power governing urban public space came from the work of Michel Foucault.  Relying on archival research, Foucault used documents that detailed encounters between the marginalized and the powerful, allowing  “these absolutely undistinguished people to emerge from their place amid the dead multitudes, to gesticulate again.  I knew that references to women street traders were brief and sporadic in Irish social history.  As I struggled with the absence of data about their lives and the threat posed by the legislation, I also struggled with the fact that ‘the Shawlies’, as they were known in Cork, were invisible as a demographic in government records.

This omission was odd considering their local ubiquity:  they existed in public art including statues, films, and were held in great affection.  Reading the debates surrounding the legislation, however, I learned that they were held in contempt by the government.  Newspaper accounts denigrated the Shawlies and women street traders in Dublin as relics at best and social deviants at worst.  How to compile a new truth about old events?  What story would they tell about why they continued to trade under threat from hegemonic ‘truths’ about street trading and women street traders?

The only documentary evidence about the Shawlies was a registry compiled in 1928 by the local police.  The insight provided is limited by its purpose.  It lists basic data: names and ages, addresses, commodities sold, stall type unless trading itinerantly, and the length of time trading.  This generates statistics but leaves unanswered questions about their personal lives, and the power relations that coded them and their trade. The register did, however, provide a vital piece of information to push this study forward:  The Street Trading Act, 1926 was both gendered and classed.  The stated aim of the intense cry for regulation was ‘fairness’, and the debates and legislation were cloaked in gender-neutral terms as ‘street trader’ and ‘stall trader’, but this simple table now exposed a story that waited ninety years to be told.

Of the 199 street traders listed, all were women trading in the two key working class neighbourhoods.  Of the 81% working in the Centre Ward, only 9% were itinerant, an indication of semi-permanent pitches and custom for the remainder.  They reported trading from stalls constructed of “boxes and boards”, “barrels”, and some traded from “blankets”.  The addresses provided indicate that 82% lived in the District Electoral Divisions where Cork’s tenements were clustered.  This was the foundation from which a richer narrative of their lives emerged.

Encore, Michel Foucault
Foucault used what he conceptualised as genealogy to “establish a historical knowledge of struggles” and to use this “tactically” in the present (1).  In his words, genealogy brings to life knowledge “insufficiently elaborated” and “located low down on the hierarchy” (2).  I collected qualitative data from the debates in Dáil Éireann; business plans and planning documents developed the context for the legislation.  A genealogy of the exclusionary social practices that prompted and implemented the legislation developed.  At no time were the voices of women or the poor present despite extensive plans to redevelop the public urban spaces where women had traded for centuries.

From privileged corners in 1925, allegations of threats to public health and a visible ‘blight’ in business centres were constructed, along with notions of what constituted ‘legitimate business’.  ‘Citizenship’ was conflated with ‘rate payer’.  But the 1928 registry provides an overview of the importance of this precarious but regular source of income:  84% of the non-itinerant traders worked daily, and 70% of that same number had been trading for more than 11 years, some for more than 40 years.  Beyond this, however, the registry did not demonstrate the deep social need to protect subsistence trading.

I turned to census records to supplement this statistical picture of the Shawlie.  The women who sold onions and used clothing on Cork’s streets in 1901 represent a small portion of the information gathered in the larger study, but their disclosures indicate how vital this income was given the limited avenues for women to earn.  Of the onion sellers, 39% were Head of Household, and 22% were Head of Household with dependents.  Only 30% had basic literacy skills.  Those residing in tenements classed as unfit for human habitation totaled 74%.  The oldest was 70-years of age, and the youngest 13.  Of the women who listed their occupation as ‘clothes dealer’, 44% were Head of Household, and 31% were Head of Household with dependents.  Faring slightly better, 56% had basic literacy skills.  Those residing in tenements classified as unfit for human habitation totaled 73%.  A similar range in age from very young to very old also existed in this group.

Those silenced in the past became, in the present, voices opposed to the coercion of the privileged:  they were poor and needed this income from trading in public space, a marketplace that had been accessible to them for centuries.  The numbers may not address directly the substance of the complaints but, just as Foucault’s “undistinguished” had risen to “gesticulate again”, they highlight who had a voice in deciding the use of public space and who did not, what constituted ‘valid’ trade and what did not.  Whatever ‘nuisance’ women street traders were alleged to have posed for bricks-and-mortar traders, the reality was they needed work that required low financial overhead, provided a consistent entry into the marketplace, and required little education.

Despite this, they were shut out of discussions that decided their futures; the complaints raised by advocates in the political arena were dismissed. Elected officials claimed that the legislation was not a ban but simply regulated street trade; in practice these regulations were so punitive that the legislation was tantamount to a ban.  The police were now given exclusive power to license, monitor, and prosecute street traders.  They could arrest anyone failing or refusing to comply with demands to produce a licence, and could also seize goods without warrant.  This included all goods for sale along with the stall and whatever earnings or cash a trader was carrying. Anyone found guilty of an offence pursuant to the Act was now guilty of a criminal offence.  The fines were substantial for the day, and out of reach for the women affected:  first offence, up to £5— approximately £205 in 2017 —and on the second or any subsequent offence it doubled.

Discovering ‘society’, globally
As a ‘history of the present’, the value of a historical study is both a glimpse into why a once-vibrant street market disappeared, and how regeneration is an exclusionary practice when ‘stakeholder’ is not defined beyond developers’ or business interests. A genealogy also illuminates how unshakeable these historical underpinnings of abuses against women street traders remain in urban centres in poor countries.  In cities such as Bangkok they, like the Shawlies, are ubiquitous but nonexistent in shaping the gentrification policies that affect their livelihoods.

The intrinsic ‘strategists’ do include the seemingly nebulous workings of social class, goals of elected officials, and the power of amalgamated business interests.  These intersect with larger, historical practices.  History has an ongoing hand in deepening the struggle over public space. Ironically, the marketplace and the price mechanisms for essential items like food and clothing are considered safe in the private hands of large-scale retail outlets, but not in those of street traders.  This despite having been enshrined in four of the UNs seventeen Sustainability Goals: no poverty, zero hunger, gender equality, and decent work and economic growth.

[1] Foucault, M., 1980c. Two lectures.  In:  C. Gordon, C. ed. 1980.  Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. New York:  Vintage Books, pg. 83.
[2] Ibid, pg. 82


Susan Marie Martin is an independent researcher.