The gendered underground

I cannot help liking manhole covers. In fact they feature in quite a few of my blog posts. In October 2010 I wrote: They are reminders that the pavement is not only a floor but a roof – the roof of a busy world of tunnels, tubes, chambers and canals; of light, electricity, water and workers. Manhole covers are shutters on the skylights in this roof.

Manhole cover holding together a dilapidated road in Camperdown (Sydney). Photo: meganix 2013.

Manhole cover holding together a dilapidated road in Camperdown (Sydney). Photo: meganix 2013.


But why do I persist in calling them manhole covers? I am usually careful about using gender-neutral language, and there are alternative terms available – service cover, access hatch, maintenance hole, for instance.

Although part of the answer is inertia – that’s what I’ve always called them – there is also the desire to align myself with a loose but international oddball fraternity of people who find aesthetic satisfaction in manhole covers. They admire the dull sheen of worn cast iron, remark upon the distinctive municipal manhole embellishments in Japan, take rubbings from old street covers and reproduce them in knitted bedcovers, and photograph tiny weed gardens growing in the patterned indentations.

If ‘manhole’ had not been part of my vocabulary I might have missed Mimi and Robert Selnick’s lovely book of black and white photographs, Manhole Covers. I certainly would not have found one of my all-time favourite websites, Tim Pitman’s Misplaced Manhole Covers. Worse still, people interested in manhole covers would never find my site.

LOOK RIG, Sydney. Photo: meganix 2010.

LOOK RIG, Sydney. Photo: meganix 2010.


Anyway, does it really matter that we call them manhole covers? It’s an established term in the English language. My copy of the Macquarie Dictionary (Revised edition 1985) defines ‘manhole’ as a hole, usu. with a cover, through which a man may enter a sewer, drain, steam boiler, etc. And there you have it. Why does their name need to be gender inclusive? It’s men who use manholes because it’s men who do the dirty work underground.

That was the entrenched opinion of many people when Andy Mitchell, the chief executive at Thames Tideway Tunnel, recently announced that he wanted to achieve gender parity by the time construction of London’s ‘super sewer’ was finished in 2023. There was a response of disbelief because, after all, this is a distinctly unglamorous construction project in a ‘man’s world’.

Andy Mitchell, chief executive of Thames Tideway Photo: Matthew Joseph/Thames Tideway in The Guardian 10 December 2014.

Andy Mitchell, chief executive of Thames Tideway Photo: Matthew Joseph/Thames Tideway in The Guardian 10 December 2014.


Browsing around a bit more I found a string on Yahoo! Answers/Social Science/Gender studies in response to the question ‘Why don’t women often choose jobs such as coal miner sewer worker etc. are these jobs unfeminine?’. While most replies were ill-informed, anti-woman and/or anti-feminist rants, there were some interesting thoughts amongst them.

One person wrote that those dirty, dangerous, unhealthy, jobs are called ‘glass cellar’ jobs. Feminists, he maintained, are only concerned with the ‘glass ceiling’, and look to the top in an attempt to shame society into giving women ‘positions of power’. They should also be looking at getting equal positions for women at the bottom. Men choose those jobs because they pay well as a trade-off for safety and comfort.

In reply to others who insisted that women won’t do dirty jobs, one man wrote, “In my former metropolitan area, the Labor Council and many of the individual unions sponsor a program to recruit and train more women for labor jobs. With no exceptions, whenever they open the books, every single available spot is grabbed by a woman looking to get in”.

A couple of years ago, the Daily Mail reported that two young women were to become the first females in Britain to start an apprenticeship in waste. The newspaper’s headline read ‘The pay’s OK but the hours stink’. Looking for an alternative to office work, these women applied for a position with South West Water where their jobs would involve visiting sewerage works, hand-raking raw sewage, taking samples for testing and using rods to clear blockages.

Change, of course, isn’t always easy. A New York Daily News article sub-headed ‘They work in the sewers all day, but they say the really nasty stuff wasn’t in the pipes – it was in the locker rooms’ tells the story of two woman laborers for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, who have withstood years of threats and insults from male colleagues treating the agency as ‘a man’s world’. The pair claim that they were denied overtime and promotions, and that the few other women in the agency were driven out by constant harassment.

But, as Andy Mitchell continues in the Thames Tideway article, ” From my first day in the job, I knew this was a place where we could achieve something different which would leave a legacy for generations about how good the construction world can be. This is not really a man’s world: we need women, and we need diversity […] We are working to create a culture that finds out from women themselves what they want and how they think we can attract their counterparts. It’s not a bunch of blokes sat around a table making assumptions on why we think women don’t want to work in construction. We are finding out the true obstacles so that we can we try to overcome them”.

Cellar grate under front doorstep, Antwerp. Photo: meganix 2013.

Cellar grate under front doorstep, Antwerp. Photo: meganix 2013.


Back to manhole covers, then. Baden Eunson tells us that ‘manhole’ is a restricting name that reinforces traditional gender roles. Such terms are examples of the ways in which the English language reinforces patriarchy. Other examples include spotlighting (male nurse, career woman); dimunitivisation (actress, waitress); differential naming (Mr Smith and the girls from Accounting); and featurism (Prime Minister Julia Gillard wore a little black dress and a collarless blazer with olive green sleeves when she gave her farewell speech). Eunson’s article on ‘Gender-neutral communication: how to do it’ was published in a recent issue of The Conversation.

Amongst speakers (or writers) who persist with masculinely-loaded language, some do so because they are openly opposed to all this feminist nonsense and what they think it stands for. As for the rest, some are fuddy-duddies who do not want to put effort into changing old habits. Others do not want to sound conspicuous amongst peers who normally use non-inclusive language. Of course, even amongst these people, I think there are those whose resistance to gender-neutral language is really an indicator of their resistance to gender equality, even if they won’t admit it to themselves.

Where does that leave me and manhole covers? Down amongst the fuddy-duddies, I suppose. Since I intend to go on photographing these enduring items of street furniture, it is up to me to find a term for them that I can use consistently and comfortably – ‘cast iron street covers’, perhaps. But I will probably still include ‘manhole covers’ in the list of tags and keywords for relevant posts, in the needy hope that this will bring some extra hits and likes.

Last resting place for cast iron service covers -- Sydney Water's Movable Heritage Store, Potts Hill (Sydney). Photo: meganix 2015.

Last resting place for cast iron service covers — Sydney Water’s Movable Heritage Store, Potts Hill (Sydney). Photo: meganix 2015.


Melnick, Mimi & Robert Melnick, Manhole covers, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1994.

Body outlines

The 1950-60s television courtroom drama, Perry Mason, is said to have been the first detective show to feature either a tape or a chalk outline to mark the spot where a murder victim’s body had been found. The body outline made its first appearance in the episode ‘The case of the perjured parrot’. The writer of the show, Erle Stanley Gardner, had actually used this idea much earlier in the book, ‘Double or quits, which he wrote in 1941 under the pen name A.A.Fair (see Perry Mason TV series).

Ever since then the body outline has not only been used regularly in murder stories and television shows, but it is very often adaptively reused in illustrations alluding to all sorts of crime and fatality. It is a symbol — based on a fiction —  that is continually modified, re-invented and re-purposed. We recognise it in newspaper cartoons, TV commercials and political protests and we understand what is meant.

In New York I came across two instances of the symbolic body outline, both associated with the New York Public Library. The first was in an exhibition, Why we fight: remembering AIDS activism, which recently opened at  the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. One of the exhibits was this poster from the library’s archives. It was produced in 1988 by ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a deliberately confrontational organisation that was formed to challenge government inaction over AIDS.


The other body outline was on one of the plaques along the section of 41st Street known as Library Way. These sidewalk plaques carry inspirational quotes about reading, writing, and literature. The one I photographed reads:

… a great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it. William Styron (1935 –  ), Writers at Work.

To me, the embossed illustration on the plaque seems very odd. The reader of the book looks, not exhausted, but dead (presumably in a hiatus between two of those ‘several lives’).



Tax Wall Street

On 42nd Street, near the New York Public Library, I spotted fresh chalk notices. Of course I had to photograph them even though I didn’t get a chance to read them properly because it was the evening rush hour and the sidewalks were crowded with people on their way home from work.


Then I noticed there were more police about than usual and suddenly I realised there was a protest march coming down the avenue, timed to disrupt the maximum number of people. Marchers were confined to the sidewalk and were accompanied by a phalanx of police motor cycles in the kerbside traffic lane. It was quite a sight.

The issue was the ‘Robin Hood Tax’ or, more properly, a Financial Speculation (or Transaction) Tax. Supporters of such a tax maintain it is a way to raise funds to meet human needs, like protecting public services, tackling poverty and dealing with climate change. The date was 17 September, the two-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.


It was good to see a strong showing from Occupy Wall Street. The previous weekend a small group claiming to be Occupy Wall Street was occupying space amongst all the weekend goings-on in Union Square. Their presence was not very impressive.


Chalk power. Part 2.

Chalked tributes to Canadian politician Jack Layton in August 2011. Randy Risling/ Toronto Star.

In July, when I launched my Pavement Appreciation website, many people emailed to tell me about their own work, suggest references, or alert me to websites and pavement occurrences. My thanks to you all. A number of you told me about recent events where acts of defiance or public memorialization had been accompanied by pavement chalking.

For example, in July Occupy L.A. used the popular Downtown L.A. Art Walk as a stage for their own ‘Chalk Walk’ but things got out of hand the moment the first chalker was arrested.

Some weeks later Los Angeles artist Alex Schaefer deliberately chose to chalk protests against the collusion between banks and the state as an act of civil disobedience, and ended up in handcuffs.

Such events reminded Jacob Miller of the time in 2009 when he was arrested for protesting about the commercialization of higher education by chalking on University of Arizona sidewalks where he was a graduate student.

A quite different event occurred in Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, after the death of Jack Layton, well-respected and much-liked leader of the left-leaning federal National Democratic Party in August 2011. What began with a single chalked tribute on a wall became a spontaneous outpouring of public grief.

And in an act of memorialization, on 25 March each year in New York volunteers fan out across the city to inscribe in chalk the names and ages of the 146 victims of the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in front of their former homes.