Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World
by Leslie Kern
Feminist City is about “feminist geography,” a field that studies the failure of city planners to anticipate the needs of women. Because women do the vast majority of unpaid work (ie child care, elder care, and homemaking) they use the city much more intensively than men. Except on weekends, the latter use city spaces mainly on the way to work.
Historically the first women in public spaces were prostitutes (20% in the early 18th century). As distinctions of rank diminished with new fashions, the desire not to be misconstrued as a “public woman” put great pressure on middle class women to stay at home.
It didn’t help that working class women who came to the city to work in factories and domestic service were condemned (according to Engels) for destroying families. Nor that author Charles Dickens proposed to compel “fallen women” to be sent to colonies with a surplus of men.
According to Kern, the male gender of the vast majority of city planners creates major difficulties for women in paid work, who must also transport children to school, daycare, and after school activities and children and elders to medical appointments. Since only a minority have cars, they must rely on public transportation, which is very poorly designed to accommodate them. Beyond Tube and subway stations inaccessible to women with strollers, most buses and trains accommodate strollers poorly, if at all. Public transport is also far more expensive for women – due to the high number of trips they take and the additional fares they pay for children they can’t leave at home.
Other ways women are disadvantaged in accessing city spaces include
- Inadequate public toilets, a major problem for women managing pregnancy or periods, infants, or toddlers undergoing toilet training.
- Inadequate safety planning for single women fearing potential male violence and microaggression in using public transport at night or in poorly light and/or low traffic areas.
- Inadequate planning for girls’ recreational areas to complement the skate parks,
The most interesting section of the book addresses the threat women pose in a patriarchal system when they opt out of marriage and heterosexual monogamy, seek out female friendships in preference to romantic relationships, exist in public spaces on their own (without an accompanying male) or express themselves as individuals (politically, artistically, journalistically, or on social media).
The default expectation is that a woman alone is presumed to be available to men or craving a relationship. Kern blames this expectation for the persistence of the urban tendency to “punish” solitary women with catcalling, whistling, unwanted touching or, most intrusive of all, being approached by male strangers and told to smile.
With the advent of the Internet, socially prominent women face far worse, with ubiquitous social media threats to injure, rape and kill them. In a few cases, these threats are carried out, as with British MP Jo Cox in 2016