By Kate Atkinson
As 2019 draws to a close, we are reminded of the potential of the modern global city to spark political resistance and movement-making. This year, huge public protests against austerity, repression, and unchecked environmental devastation have been kindled in places such as Puerto Rico, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria and Iran, just to name a few. In Chile, as part of widespread protests to the devastating legacy of dictatorship and neoliberal policy, thousands of women have performed “Un Violador en Tu Camino (A Rapist in Your Path),” a song that indicts all levels of state power – the judiciary, the police, the military, and elected officials – for pervasive misogyny and violence against women. Videos of these performances have inspired thousands of others to adapt and perform the song in cities across the world, including in London, Mexico City, Paris, and Toronto.
Yet this explicit link between crushing economic policy and violence against women highlights the risks, and not just opportunities, that the city can present to women. Violence against women, a tool that effectively maintains colonial capitalism, remains commonplace. Although women are harmed at greater rates by those they know, the city nevertheless affords the opportunity for horrifying crimes perpetrated in public and by strangers, such as the recent gang rape and burning of a 27-year-old commuter outside Hyderabad, India. Indeed, across Canada, we just observed the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, in which 14 engineering students were separated from their male peers and shot to death on December 6, 1989.
A critical field guide
Feminist geographer Leslie Kern’s Feminist City: A Field Guide therefore arrives at a critical moment in which to examine what modern cities can provide to women and to our social movements in the context of ongoing misogynist violence. Its title invites a question: what is a “field guide” to a feminist city? Field guides help readers identify features of an environment, such as birds, trees, or wildflowers. Bringing an organizing lens to the book, I hoped to encounter an of-the-moment account of where we are and how we can rally around a vision of a decolonial, anticapitalist, and feminist city.
An early problem in the text is that Kern stops short of claiming what a feminist city might be (or even, precisely, what “feminist” means to her). She offers, vaguely, that the feminist city is “the city that values women’s relationships, decentres the nuclear family, and lets women and girls take up space and make relations on their own terms.” To be fair, this is only part of a definition, but it’s one of the only ones available (and other iterations are similarly vague). The book’s aim is to address “women’s questions about the city… [in order] to see the social relations of the city – across gender, race, sexuality, ability, and more – with fresh eyes.” Kern hopes that these questions will allow readers to “imagine and enact different futures” against the backdrop of inequality, violence, nationalism, and climate change that plagues and threatens global urban life. So it seems that our hopes are not so different; where we diverge is on whether the text can do what we want it to.
The book adopts a variety of strategies to explore what constitutes the modern city, and what might constitute the feminist city. In a move she uses throughout the book, Kern “begin[s] with the material” – “[t]he matter of the body” – titling the first chapter “City of Moms” and recalling how conspicuous she became to strangers when she was pregnant while living in London, England. She writes, “The connection between embodiment and my experience of the city became much more visceral … I [had] had little sense of how deep, how systemic, and how geographical it all was.”
The gendered city
Feminist City examines several such uncomfortable aspects of city living for women, often through Kern’s personal anecdotes – harassment in public, fear of “stranger danger,” a lack of public bathrooms, and inaccessible public transit – and links them to research in the field of urban geography.
Some of these individual experiences, such as commuting, are not always framed as gendered in public discourse. But commutes can be longer and more complicated for women than men if they are responsible for dropping off and picking up children from school or childcare as part of their journey to and from work. Kern discusses how even a city’s snowplowing schedules reflect its priorities: in Stockholm, a “gender equal plowing strategy” means that sidewalks, bike lanes, transit lanes, and day care zones are cleared efficiently because women, children, and seniors are more likely to use these paths. This, she explains, is an example of “gender mainstreaming” in urban planning: an approach adopted in parts of Europe to account for ways that women use the city.
Gender mainstreaming has its obvious limitations, which Kern notes: it can reinforce gendered behaviour and related pay gaps, and it neglects to account for other aspects of identity, such as race and class, so it privileges an imagined “ideal” female city user, often coded as white, cis, not disabled, and middle-class. Feminist City does look at how the individual experiences of people of colour and disabled people, for example, reveal the workings of white supremacy and ableist society.
Kern recalls, for instance, the widely reported 2018 incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks in which the manager called the police on two Black men who were sitting at a table and who hadn’t yet ordered; the men were handcuffed and detained for nine hours before being released without charges. Nevertheless, these types of examples are relatively thin in a book dominated by Kern’s own set of experiences, and by her admission, “[s]tarting from [her] own body and [her] own set of experiences means starting from a pretty privileged space” – she is white, cis, and able-bodied, not to mention a tenured academic.
The capitalist city
While women’s individual encounters with infrastructure serve to illustrate a persistent lack of gender analysis in city planning, a more structural view is required to explain just how women are relegated to different strata of urban experience according to factors beyond gender. Although Kern doesn’t usually state this so baldly, it’s clear that capitalism, colonialism, and their outgrowths of discrimination, such as racism, sexism, and classism, are at the root of how women come to inhabit the city so differently.
Summarizing structural factors that shape women’s urban experience is where Kern’s strength as a researcher shines. She traces, for example, some of the ways that economic forces combine with social policy to influence where women find themselves in urban environments.
Kern observes that suburbs, born of post-war conservatism and buttressed by racist fears of the inner city, continue to naturalize the heterosexual nuclear family, tying workers to mortgages and middle-class women to the domestic sphere. But, she adds, the service-rich urban environment and the enticement of balancing professional advancement with home life has also drawn middle-class women back to the city, where they have become drivers of gentrification. And with women working outside the home, demand for outsourced care work among wealthier families has risen, spurring the migration of women from countries such as the Philippines to Canada to work as nannies, housekeepers, and home care workers. This and other analyses of recent history that populate the book help to fill out an understanding of how modern cities have been shaped by economic and social forces.
Aside from frequent personal anecdotes and useful references to history and research in urban geography, Feminist City also deploys pop culture analysis and cites many contemporary examples of initiatives that tackle the problems women face in the city. It’s mostly in these latter two strategies that Kern develops an analysis a little beyond her own experience and priorities. She does offer tidy acknowledgments of the various experiences of Indigenous women, trans women, sex workers, Black women, women with mental health issues, and others marginalized in the city. But despite the large amount of research Kern summons to provide international and North American case studies that reflect diverse experiences, somehow the needs of those who suffer most under capitalism and patriarchy are still not integrated as a prevailing perspective that could imagine the feminist city in Feminist City.
Among a list of examples of global efforts by transit systems to make transit less dangerous and hostile to women is Vancouver’s “Project Global Guardian,” an app which “allows passengers to text police and public transit officers directly.” But Kern recognizes elsewhere that police are extremely dangerous to certain women in the city, as, for example, when a handful of pages later, she writes, “[e]fforts to increase policing, add lighting, and install CCTV are likely to make the streets more dangerous for sex workers.” Although my mentioning this example may seem like cherry-picking, it illustrates a chronic problem in Feminist City: the author is so keen to declare her biases and draw on her embodied life in the city that her own experience and “women’s questions” – limited as they are – become the only thing unifying the disparate material. The book suffers from a lack of focus to its feminism; why offer as an example of a (potentially) feminist intervention a program that could be of direct harm to women?
As it turns out, the women’s questions that Kern poses consistently recentre her: “I have to ask how my desire for safety might lead to increased policing of communities of colour. I have to ask how my need for stroller access can work in solidarity with the needs of disabled people and seniors.” As well-intentioned as they are, these questions are personal questions, not women’s questions. And in a moment calling for the boldest visions we have ever developed to counter Indigenous genocide and land theft, climate catastrophe, ongoing violence against women, and the other consequences of late capitalism, these are not the questions that will help us collectively engender the feminist city.
Empowerment for collective change
Feminist City: A Field Guide is obviously deeply researched and written by a person who feels the pain of sexism, misogyny, and fear in the city and wishes for women to be free of these life-limiting experiences. But a book about feminism, or any politics that seeks justice, can’t only be rich in examples and transparent about being perspective-bound.
As readers, as feminists, and as people who want to uproot a deeply corrupt system, we need resources that empower us as more than individuals who navigate the urban environment. Installing better lighting might appear to help a few of us who fear violence in public places when we walk alone at night, but it does nothing to redress the poisonous system that enables violence against women in the first place. Instead of atomising “women” into our various intersecting identities, we could perhaps look at women as workers, and examine the many ways that the city mediates and defines our relationship to our labour, our bosses, and each other. This is one example of a lens through which a feminist vision for the city could be articulated and developed.
Helpfully, Kern has provided examples that point us to some of the movements that are generating this analysis. She mentions, for instance, the women-led Fight for $15 campaign for the rights of the highly feminized and racialized precarious workforce that has spread to hundreds of U.S. cities and has inspired Ontario’s Fight for $15 and Fairness as well as similar campaigns in other parts of Canada.
I know that what I am suggesting is not the book that Kern wanted to write, so I acknowledge that in doing my own imagining, I’m stepping beyond the bounds of the book under review. Kern unfortunately is somewhat suspicious of approaches that centre economic analysis and remedies. She states, near the end of Feminist City, that “far too much Marxist and ‘critical’ scholarship and activism places gender, race, sexuality, and disability at the margins of the struggle, with the faulty assumption that once the economic side is settled, everything else will sort itself out.”
Kern’s book and ideas deserve to be read and discussed on the Left. I hope that we can build on Kern’s research and analysis to generate a collective, intersectional approach to urban organizing that is clear-eyed about the system within which we labour and is motivated by the wildest imagining of a decolonial, anticapitalist, feminist future.
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