Leslie Kern’s new book takes stock of the policies and infrastructure of a man-made world. (Dmytro Varavin/iStock)
What would it take for cities to be feminist? Should they: a) Open more public restrooms; b) Install and maintain lighting on dark streets; or c) Build affordable housing closer to transit, living-wage jobs and reliable childcare.
Clearly, the answer is d) All of the above. In her new book published by Verso, Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World, feminist geographer Leslie Kern presents a wide-ranging survey of social inequalities exacerbated by one-size-fits-all urban planning—inequalities ripe for improvement. Snow clearing policies. Sidewalks wide enough for strollers and other mobility devices. What counts as feminist policy or infrastructure is often something that would improve the urban landscape for all types of people.
For readers unfamiliar with her academic discipline, Kern defines geography not as marking spots on a map but rather the human relationship to the environment. But problematically, geography is a discipline built on patriarchal ideas of conquest and imperialism. And in a modern world, continuing to uphold the white, male, able-bodied status quo makes it impossible to create equal access to shared spaces. As a sub-discipline, feminist geography exists to reimagine these foundational principles and focus on the values of inclusive, intersectional urban planning and design.
Kern blends her academic research with personal experience to explore why, as her mentor Gerda Wekerle once declared, “A woman’s place is in the city.” Kern notes that since her earliest years exploring major cities like London, New York and Toronto, her experiences, whether delightful or dangerous, have been “deeply gendered.”
Feminist City enters an ongoing conversation with popular contemporary work that celebrates women’s urban lives, such as Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. As an academic survey of sorts, Kern’s book also explains bedrock policies and theories that make possible nonfiction narratives such as urban walker-thinker Vivian Gornick’s meditation on walkabouts and urban friendship, The Odd Woman and The City.
But Kern’s in-depth primer on urban issues covers far more than walking. “As a woman, the privilege of being able to mind my own business is a rare one,” she writes, outlining the ways built environments cause many women to experience the exhilaration of anonymity and discovery, and the fear of unwanted attention and touch. A number of the universal themes she touches on will no doubt feel deeply personal to those of us in the Bay Area, such as the decline of lesbian spaces like bars and bookstores, a loss many here feel acutely.
Kern writes that after becoming a parent, she found the dearth of accessible bathrooms and places to breastfeed just one example of the “social hostility” with which parents in public regularly contend. She uses her experience to telescope out and consider unhoused folks among the groups who suffer from restricted access to public bathrooms. She also includes personal examples from her own life as a mother, noting how public places enabled her and her friends to spontaneously convene, walk and maybe let their dogs or children run free.
She also spends (occasionally too much) time interrogating actions and movements in which she’s participated, or those from which she’s benefitted, such as labor strikes. Protests like Take Back the Night rallies and SlutWalk marches have often been organized and led by privileged white women, resulting in inherently exclusionary events that don’t fully include perspectives of queer folks, women of color, or people with disabilities. While it’s crucial to acknowledge these shortcomings, debating now-discontinued marches, as Kern does, is well-trodden territory.
Kern’s detailed survey is especially useful as a contemporary timeline. She posits that in-the-streets protests paved the way for digital-first campaigns like #MeToo. She also explores how women’s lived experiences have been mirrored in Gen X and Millennial television shows such as Broad City and Sex and the City, in which the city itself sometimes feels like a character.
Like a pleasant urban hike, the book meanders a bit at times, revisiting known territory, sometimes veering off a linear course, and discovering new vantage points. Alongside ongoing debates about how cities will survive and rebound from COVID-19 and climate change-related economic fallout, Feminist City bolsters what many of us know from history and believe from experience: that cities are resilient, and our experiences as residents of urban spaces can always improve.
Much about our everyday lives feels intolerable right now. Between policy evaluations and prescriptions, Kern rhapsodizes about the spontaneity that cities offer in less tumultuous times. Flâneuses aching to wander aimlessly again will no doubt find plenty of inspiration in Kern’s affectionate descriptions. Most importantly, she encourages those with a desire to make their cities more feminist to be civically engaged, by participating in local politics and protesting in the very streets.
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