The experience of the city cannot be synthesized in absolute terms, yet urbanism and spatial planning have taken men’s needs as the norm, for centuries. From transportation to housing, to public spaces, cities sustain and reproduce existing dynamics of power. In Feminist City Leslie Kern analyzes what physical, social, and economic barriers women encounter in their everyday urban life and points out alternative scenarios that work for all.
Kern is an associate professor of geography and environment and the director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University, Canada. Her work is rooted in feminist geography, a discipline focusing on how the lived experiences of individuals and groups are influenced by social and spatial locations. With Feminist City Kern suggests a two-word manifesto: looking at cities from a feminist perspective helps to recognize who is being marginalized and to understand how space structures systems of oppression due to gender but also ethnicity, class, ability, and sexuality.
In five short chapters, Kern recalls women’s experiences of motherhood, friendship, self-representation, democracy, and fear in urban contexts, proving that space is not a neutral container. Cities are multiform, physical, and political constructs shaped by social norms. To realize the extent and influence of such norms, one can look at the very presence of women in public spaces. The author recounts how women’s existences outside the domestic sphere have caused moral panic and disorder in the history of modern western cities. Terms like ‘streetwalkers’ and ‘public women’ still read as synonyms for prostitutes. Suburban lifestyles and car-dependent neighborhoods have supported the stay-at-home mom role model. Residential isolation not only affects women’s independence but also contributes to the decay of the public realm, as the famed urban critic Jane Jacobs argued back in the 1960s.
While it is true that the opportunities offered by cities have favored the progressive participation of women in the job market, the struggle to conciliate their double days of paid and unpaid work is still real. As principal caregivers, women’s commutes are interspersed with several stops: bring kids to school and recreational activities, go to work, do the shopping, navigate buses and metro with strollers and packages. On average, women rely on public transport more than men, but they are less served by it and tend to spend more on multiple trips especially when living in the suburbs and having to access different transit systems. Kern argues that women’s resilience should inspire the creation of a fabric of support made of denser neighborhoods with proximity to work and essential services to spread the care work more evenly. Including women – across class, ethnicity, age, ability, and sexuality – into decision-making processes is paramount for such a transformation to occur.
An indicator that speaks volumes about urban space and dynamics of power is the possibility to walk alone in the street. Although the higher risk of violence comes from domestic and work environments, women tend to fear public space and constantly negotiate to apply strategies of self-surveillance. Kern remarks that going out despite the internalized thought of potential harassment, silencing the discomfort caused by the ever-present male gaze, keeping mental maps of places to avoid, asking your loved one to text you when she gets home, are precious examples of resilience and solidarity. But fear takes a long-term toll, making women less willing to explore the unknown, stand up for themselves, and take public roles.
According to the author, the possibility to ‘simply be’ in the public space tells us about who has their right to the city guaranteed, and who is instead considered ‘out of place’. Besides being a gender issue, the right to the city intersects with other forms of discrimination that need to be considered. For instance, increasing police control to improve women’s safety in the streets would probably fail in making a black woman or a homeless person feel safe. The redevelopments of residential and commercial districts would be hypocritical beautification projects if they involved the removal of disadvantaged groups, such as poor, racialized communities, immigrants, sex workers, and whoever symbolizes the disorder.
Kern invites us to discover examples of feminist cities at the margins where communities self-organize to provide means of support and in public spaces where social movements prove how issues of violence, poverty, police brutality, and gentrification all intertwine. Throughout the book, she often doubts whether urban policy can truly serve as a tool for change as she sees the risk of reiterating existing inequalities and the tendency towards privatization. This suggests that forging alliances across communities, activism, and collective action represent the drivers to realize the aspiration of feminist cities. If on one hand, bringing attention to the agency of common people is a powerful concept, on the other it has practical, long-term limitations and Kern – besides suggesting a case-by-case approach – does not delve into how high-level city planning could deconstruct the sedimented social bias and practice inclusion. Nevertheless, Feminist City has the merit of initiating questions about what equality means for cities, using a gender perspective to open up a wider, intersectional discourse. Feminist City is ultimately a reminder that cities are hubs for diversity and that the ideal citizen should rather be replaced with a diverse range of lived urban experiences.
Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World (2020) by Leslie Kern is published by Verso.
Francesca Cocchiara is an architect from Cagliari, Italy. She graduated in Architecture at the University of Cagliari in 2011 and obtained a Master of Science in Human Settlements at the KU Leuven, Belgium, in 2014. Having lived and worked in many international cities, she developed a strong interest in how people shape their own environment and vice versa. She has been living in Athens since 2019, working as a freelance architect on environmentally sustainable designs and collaborating with the office LandmArch on landscape and urban projects. She is also an educator at the Arkki School of Architecture for Children and Youth in Athens.