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Can a City Be Feminist?

Upon the release today of her new book Feminist City, Leslie Kern catches up with Metropolis on how cities can be more equitable for all genders.

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Leslie Kern’s new book Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World releases on July 7. Courtesy Verso Books

Defunding the police is a feminist issue. Accessibility in transit systems is a feminist issue. Gentrification is a feminist issue. The availability of public restrooms is a feminist issue. Yet, women’s voices and bodies have been historically—and continue to be—largely disregarded in the design of our cities. In Leslie Kern‘s new book, Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World, the professor of geography and environment and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University, provides an intersectional analysis of our urban environments through a combination of personal narrative, theory, and pop culture analysis.

Upon its United States release, Kern catches up with Metropolis on how cities can be more equitable for people of all genders.


So, you’re a feminist geographer. What is feminist geography and how can it be used to reimagine our cities?

For me, feminist geography is about looking at the spaces around us—our human-made environments, our natural environments—and seeing the ways in which they have been shaped by ideas of gender and power relations. So, we’re always thinking about how power and society interact. In terms of the city, using that gender lens means looking at spaces that we might take for granted and how our city is organized in terms of transportation and consumption, asking: Whose lives were these built to reflect? Who’s being included in city building and who has been excluded? And how do those things continue to affect the lives of different groups of people?

In the book you quote Jane Darke, who said, “Our cities are patriarchy written in stone.” What are some ways our cities continue to marginalize women?

You can look at it on many different levels. On one superficial level, we’ve been seeing a lot in the news right now about toppling the monuments and statues of enslavers and colonizers. That’s one aspect of looking at the city: Who are places named for? Who is memorialized in cities? Who are the heroes? We can see that women and other marginalized groups are rarely included in that.

On a deeper level, we can look at the organization or separation of work and home and we can see how the city has really been set up to facilitate the lives and journeys of the male “breadwinner,” who commutes in one direction at one time of day and then commutes back at another time. Cities haven’t really reflected the ways in which women continue to be responsible for juggling domestic unpaid care responsibilities as well as paid work. That makes their urban lives and the ways that they move through the city a lot more complicated.

You write that women’s bodies are often seen as a sign of urban problems. How does that show up?

In the book, I write historically about how Victorian women emerging into urban public spaces were seen as a threat to purity and class status. A lot of efforts were made to control women’s movement and to create spaces that are “safe” in terms of protecting the virtue of high-status white women.

But even today—yes, we’re a long way from that Victorian norm, but we can still look at the ways in which sex workers are regulated and over-regulated and criminalized, and over-policed. Agency over their bodies and sexuality is seen as always problematic and dangerous in the city. We see racist tropes such as the “welfare queen” that suggest that urban communities and in particular, black women, are a source of problematic behavior. So often women stand in for other sorts of urban problems, whether they’re problems of poverty, racism, segregation, sexuality, and so on.

So much of it seems to be about fear. In the book you talk a lot about urban developments—such as gentrification—that prioritize the safety and comfort of white women.

In some ways living in the city has been put forward as a solution to managing the multiple roles that women take on. In contrast to the suburbs, urban areas would seem to offer closer proximity of services, schools, childcare, work, and consumption.

But what we’ve been seeing over the last several decades is the movement of middle-class hotels and businesses into working class and minority areas. So, we end up with a situation where some women are able to take advantage of some of the benefits of urban life and others are pushed to the margins, where access to transportation and safety decreases.

Yet, we’ve come to see gentrification as this victory for women, like: “Oh, cities are cleaner and safer,” but we always have to ask, “For which women?” Interestingly, we have other observers who see young white mothers as harbingers of gentrification. Sure, we can sometimes notice signs of change, but overall, we have to look upwards to see what is really propelling it. It’s probably not just the mom with a stroller, but a variety of urban systems and the powerful actors that are shaping that process.

Kern Femcity1
The author, geographer, and coach Leslie Kern Courtesy Mitchel Raphael

In the book, you make a point that women need to resist the socialization of fear and the impulses of “safety” maintained by these systems—driving a car, getting a new condo with increased security. How do we break down these systems?

That’s a great question. First is recognizing that women are socialized in all sorts of ways: our families, the news media that sensationalizes public acts of violence against women, and popular culture. We’re really socialized into believing that there is constant danger lurking in dark alleys and amongst people who we don’t know, or who don’t look like us. This propels a fear that can lead to or feed into other kinds of processes such as race and class segregation. They are an implicit or explicit support for increased policing and surveillance activities that we may have been socialized to believe makes women safer in cities.

It involves a bigger conversation, and this is one that is getting more publicity right now with Black Lives Matter—recognizing that increased policing does not deter violence against women. Very little in the way of sexual assault or domestic violence actually makes its way through the courts. Over-policing makes many people much less safe in cities.

You have a whole chapter on protest and activist spaces. It seems, one of the biggest feminist movements affecting our cities right now is Black Lives Matter. Conversations like defunding the police and allocating resources elsewhere appear to be a tangible solution to many of the issues you bring up in your book. In light of recent events, how are you thinking about spaces of protest?

One of the things that I find heartening is that the current movement is showing that protest works. I’m also really heartened by the ways in which so many of these conversations are very intersectional. It’s not just Black Lives Matter over here, Pride over here, and then women’s movement over here—but recognizing that these struggles are totally interconnected and that you’re not going to make progress in one without paying attention to the others.

Similarly, things that Black Lives Matter is calling for are actually potentially making a huge, positive difference in terms of queer life and women’s lives in cities. If we defund the police, what could we fund instead? Those are fundamentally feminist questions. If you can fund affordable housing and childcare, those are actually things that could make a dent in domestic violence. It could have a much greater impact than more policing.

Are there any feminist cities out there?

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that there are explicitly feminist cities out there. In in any city, we could probably look around and see ways in which feminist values are being enacted in informal ways, neighborhood-level ways, and community-level ways.

One of the things that I hope the book helps people do is to be able to look around and say, “Oh, okay. There’s a babysitting co-op that’s operating.” That’s an example of people coming together to collectivize care. Or take the care monitoring that people are doing in COVID times—setting up systems of food delivery and checking in on seniors and disabled people. These are examples of what I would call feminist cities.

Who do you hope reads the book and what do you want them to take away from it?

I would certainly love it if urban planners, policy makers, and politicians pick up the book because I think it would encourage them to take up a feminist lens as one way of evaluating the kinds of missions that they want to make in cities.

But I also think just for your everyday city dweller, the book can be useful, and this is some of the feedback that I’ve gotten when the book first launched: People notice things that they didn’t notice before. So when they’re sitting on the subway and they notice somebody with a stroller and a toddler, it makes them think, “Oh, is this train accessible to this person? How are they going to get to their next destination? Where’s the nearest public bathroom?” Hopefully, it makes some of those gendered elements of city life more visible to people.

You may also enjoy “Queer Spaces: LGBTQ Voices and Resources for Architects and Designers

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