Feminist City: A Field Guide

By Leslie Kern
Between the Lines, January 1, 2019, 22.06

Ask a woman about her daily experiences navigating the city, as a worker, a mother, a partner, a public service user, and she will recount the barriers, physical and interpersonal, she faces in a city which is designed and operating without her in mind. Feminist geographer Leslie Kern remarks that “the primary decision-makers in cities, who are still mostly men, are making choices about everything from urban economic policy to housing design, school placement to bus seating, policing to snow removal with no knowledge, let alone concern for, how these decisions affect women.” 

Kern’s latest book, Feminist City: A Field Guide, is an introductory text on the female urban experience. From early ages, through instinct and often forced lessons, women develop a sense of how and how not to move, behave, dress, hold ourselves and interact within the city. Feminist City: A Field Guide examines these realities and critiques the foundations of our urban spaces; the built, social and natural environment, which has largely been constructed for and by men.

This 200-page handbook details the historical and contemporary experiences of women in the city and the individual, grassroots, institutional and governmental responses which form the patchwork path towards a feminist city. A brief field guide indeed, the book allows readers to dip their toes into the field of feminist geography, weaving together academic research and social critique with Kern’s personal anecdotes. Divided into seven sections, the first half focuses on the individual and collective perspective, while the second half speaks to our interactions and engagement with urban spaces.

Kern, an associate professor of geography and environment and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University, is quick to emphasize the need for an intersectional approach when analyzing a woman’s experience in the city. A researcher of gentrification, Kern notes that the limited scope of governmental action towards improving cities has focused on the cis, able-bodied, white woman. 

Identifying as all those things, Kern admits that her body “reads as a marker of successful ‘renewal,’ signifying that a space is respectable, safe, middle-class, and desirable.” Making a city or neighbourhood desirable for a privileged demographic often displaces women of colour, single mothers, and low income earners. Thus Kern argues that a feminist city must also be an intersectional one. Throughout the book, Kern dissects the city with an intersectional lens and expliclity prioritizes the perspective of diverse women and girls in Toronto and other cities across the globe.

Where else for the book to begin than with the woman’s body itself? Women are made aware of their bodies from a young age, through the media, glances, commentary and harassment in private and public spaces. In Kern’s experience, her “urban feminist consciousness” bloomed when she became pregnant in London, U.K.. The freedom the city gives to a woman, the opportunity to be a flaneur — “at the centre of the action and yet invisible” — is lost when one is pregnant. This is because the visibility of a pregnant belly and society’s obsession with pregnant women becomes a silent invitation for unwanted and unsolicited touch, critique and advice.

During urban expansion after the Second World War, suburban neighbourhoods were built for the heteronormative nuclear family, which can be oppressive to women who do not want or fit into that societal standard. Kern writes that the city can and has provided a venue for lesbian and queer women to build siginficant communities and friendships. In cities, queer women who may have been rejected by their families have built friendships which take on “the roles of care, support, celebration, and so on that are typically assumed by family of origin.”

The city is a paradox for women. It’s a place of seemingly endless opportunity, where we can engage with our neighbours, find jobs, and importantly, Kern notes, break free from the gender norms and conformity expected of us through home life. The notion of the home as a public space and the street and city as private space, studied by geographer Gill Valentine, suggests that women and girls have a sense of agency to carve out their own identity in the city, outside the gendered expectations of the home. And although urban spaces provide a setting where women can feel safe to be themselves and think independently, they are also designed to uphold proper femininity and female consumption as it relates to domesticity and maintaining the home. 

Although we romanticize a time before modern technology — we imagine vibrant streets with spontaneous human interactions and decry people looking at their phones or using earphones — we ignore that for many women, closing oneself off is a means of defence. It can be a legitimate way to avoid sexist and frightening interactions. In response to this idea, the words “F*ck off, I’m reading” are boldly written on book’s back jacket flap. A cheeky tool for female readers to flip open when navigating cities that continue to support the harasssment and discrimination of women.

The author’s personal anecdotes caused me to reflect on my own choices (both conscious and subconscious) in the city. I often sit near other women on public transit. I find myself clutching the safety whistle on my keychain or walking on the side of the street without parked cars to ensure clear sightlines. But until now, I have largely accepted the urban anatomy which motivates these behaviours. An urban planner myself, I cringe at the lack of feminist perspective in both my education and daily work.

Yet, having read this field guide, I have not gained specific points of practice which I can incorporate in my work as a planner — a profession that Kern explicitly calls to action throughout her book. The role of the planner largely focuses on the development and implementation of policy, at the direction of elected officials, and we are quite limited by current politics and the legislation which governs the field. Reflecting from this perspective, this book reinforces the notion of a gap which exists between theory and practice.

Feminist City exposes the oppressive, heteronormative and colonialist structures which form the layered foundations of most cities. Although Kern writes that there is no blueprint for a feminist city, she has provided us with a field guide to be critical of and protest our cities, which, as put by Jane Darke, are “patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.”

Allison Smith is a city planner living in Toronto, with Albertan and Quebecois roots.

Image: Ivaan Kotulsky/Wikimedia Commons