Book Review: Feminist City by Leslie Kern

By Louie Bell, Third Year Geography and Ellen O’Donnell, Second Year Geography

In her recent book, Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World (2019), Leslie Kern takes us to visit seven cities. These are no ordinary cities, these are cities at the forefront of tension, reimagining and repurposing – they are the city of Men, city of Moms, City of Friends, of One, of Protest, of Fear – and finally: City of Possibility. The seven chapters that make up the book trace the lived experience of women in the city, deconstructing the entrained biases, oppression and discrimination that women face not only from others in the city, but the very space and construction of the city itself.

The book offers a fresh and readily accessible perspective on feminism and urban theory, proving to be an excellent introductory text to the vast and revolutionary work that is done by feminist geographers. The book feels especially relevant to the present, as the world mourns the tragic death of Sarah Everard, and women across the globe are reminded that the way they interact with their urban spaces is profoundly gendered. 

Feminist City is built on what Kern describes as a ‘backbone’ of feminist urban theory dating back to the 1970s whereby the role of space in reproducing patriarchal discourse and oppression began to challenge the presumptions of human geographers. Kern draws extensive links between such theory and contemporary geographical thought, especially the understanding of the city as itself being a product, and productive, of gendered social discourse.

This idea resurges in full strength as Kern explores the seven conceptual cities through which gendered divisions emerge at – almost literally – every street corner, but permeate through to the social constructions and interactions that construct the city as an experience.

By frequently referring to the limits of relying on her own white, cisgendered, able-bodied experience of the city, any of the reader’s privileges are similarly called to account

Perhaps most remarkably is the effectiveness of drawing on Kern’s own experience of the city, and that of her friends and family. This grounds feminist thought in everyday experience of the city, welding together theory and reality in a way that facilitates accessibility but never sacrifices complexity. 

Drawing on any personal experience to relate complex theory always runs the risk of excluding those whose experiences are unlike one’s own, but Kern turns this on its head, instead using the opportunity to scrutinise her own perspective and the limitations of it. By frequently referring to the limits of relying on her own white, cisgendered, able-bodied experience of the city, any of the reader’s privileges are similarly called to account. This serves not to set boundaries to the reader’s understanding of the issues at hand, rather it emphasises the role of subjectivity in the perception and experience of the city.

It is true to say that a limitation (and one she readily acknowledges) of weaving Kern’s own experiences into her exploration of feminist geography are such that the most in-depth analysis mainly falls on a typically ‘western’ city, often in her home country of Canada, rather than constructing a broader number of case studies across the rest of the world.

This is not to say that some unifying theory of ‘feminist urbanism’ could ever be reached. Instead, Kern argues that a truly ‘feminist city’ would be one that grows out of the historical, cultural and social contextualities and adapts to the lived experience of all women in the city.

This is where Kern’s argument really takes form, by clearly and accessibly arguing for an approach to cities that goes beyond the search for universal solutions to issues facing women in the city. Instead, she puts forth a clear manifesto for future policy design and implementation, one that is female-led and driven by appropriate data collection with respect to distinctly gendered issues.

Mehdi Najjar // Unsplash

“Kern explores the historical exclusion of issues that disabled, transgender women and women of colour have faced and continue to face when approaching feminist geography”

Like the feminist urban geography that has preceded it, Feminist City challenges the assumptions that the city as a space, concept and built environment has no role in the exclusionary processes acting against women. Kern returns several times to a quote from Jane Darke: “Any settlement is an inscription in space of the social relations in the society that built it… Our cities are patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.” (Darke, 1996:88). Kern’s argument emerges from the tension between any ideology that seeks to understand space and infrastructure as constructive of gendered discourse, and one that renders it incidental to the female life in the city.

Feminist geography has by no means remained unchanged since its establishment in Geography departments across the world. Indeed, it has consistently been engaged in discussions around postmodernism, race and queer theory. Kern explores the historical exclusion of issues that disabled, transgender women and women of colour have faced and continue to face when approaching feminist geography. Kern argues for greater recognition of a wider variety of female perspectives both within academic practice and policy formation. 

Kern begins by deconstructing the field of feminist geography, briefly tracing its rich history. Introducing understandings of space, infrastructure, architecture and urban policy as distinctly gendered in both its design and effect on women, she reasserts that ‘physical spaces like cities matter when we want to think about social change.’ (Kern, 2020:16, original emphasis). 

Kern also traces the ‘rocky terrain’ that feminist geography faced as feminist theory gained prominence. She notes that despite the intentions of feminist geographers to account for and reconstruct spatial theory around women, understandings of class, race, sexuality and disability were ‘lacking’ with the theory of gender relations. The importance of this history cannot be understated, indeed it helps form the bulk of intersectional feminist geography for which Kern advocates throughout her subsequent analyses. Acknowledging the work of geographers such as Valentine, Pulido, Kobayashi, McKittrick and Hunt in deconstructing the discriminatory attitudes that continue to re-emerge in geographical discourse today, Kern asserts that ‘asking “women’s questions” means asking about so much more than gender.’ (Kern, 2020:17).

To understand women’s experience in the city, Kern argues, one must understand how women’s bodies are excluded by the city. Kern relates her own experience of traveling in London whilst pregnant as the key revelatory experience that demonstrated how her concern had previously regarded ‘who was in the environment, rather than the environment itself’ (Kern, 2020:29, original emphasis). Kern identifies the social and physical constructions that limit women in both the suburbs and cities, given that they are built on the same gendered roles and assumptions that pervade through urban design of transport networks, living areas and workspaces.

Kern points out that such design is built around the white middle-class male, who in his well-trodden route through the city may not fathom how it is constructed both for and by men like him. Kern draws on the extensive literature that points to working women being subject to an extra ‘shift’ of unpaid childcare and domestic work that goes totally unvalued by society. Moreover, when childcare moves out into the city, it becomes more readily apparent that mobility through the city is distinctly unfavourable for pregnant women and new mums who face a more complex navigation of fast-paced travel, unsuitable seating and the stigma of breastfeeding in public places.

One of the most interesting sections of Feminist City explores the ‘City of Friends’ that Kern attributes to how female friendship in the city embodies a distinct, shared understanding of the environment. In particular she centres on the supportive and strengthening networks of a shared sisterhood in the city, built fundamentally on their shared experience of gender dynamics. By detailing her own experience of the city as a ‘private’ space where identities can be free from the social restraints at home, Kern’s tales of nights out with her friends bring the contradictions and unfolding possibility of the ‘city of friends’ to life in a way not always reflected by the mainstream media we consume. 

This on-screen experience is not left behind either, as Kern dissects the representation of female friendship in the city, which often fails to represent how women’s shared experience of the city strengthens the bonds between them. Kern introduces the reader to Wunker’s notions of ‘female friendship as a way of life’ and ‘world-making’. Above all, Kern argues, the patriarchal embodiment of the city can be ‘re-cast as a space of possibility’ (Kern, 2020:69). 

Gemma Evans // Unsplash

This national display of female solidarity, both on the streets and on social media timelines, highlighted the scope of the female ‘web of connection’ and the persistent threats to safety women are subjected to on the streets of their own cities

But women also carry an understanding of the city as a place of danger, resulting in a tension with this possibility, which Kern explains is highly influential in forging female friendships. She draws on Kayleen Schaeffer’s (2018) examination of safety and solidarity in the city carried by the phrase ‘Text Me When You Get Home’, and how this represents a mutual understanding of the dangers women face in the city, and facilitates a ‘web of connection’ when a member of the friendship group faces a threat to her safety (Kern, 2020:71). But this ‘web of connection’ extends beyond the friendship group, as women across the world are connected by their gendered experiences of cities. Recently, 33-year-old Sarah Everard was killed by a male Metropolitan Police officer whilst walking home in South London. This tragic event resulted in women coming together to mourn the passing of Sarah Everard, whilst also re-igniting discussions surrounding the ways women are forced to interact with the city. This national display of female solidarity, both on the streets and on social media timelines, highlighted the scope of the female ‘web of connection’ and the persistent threats to safety women are subjected to on the streets of their own cities. 

The chapters described above are only some of the cities that Kern accompanied us to on her  journey through the literature, her experience, and discussion of pressing contemporary issues. The book is a rallying cry for the wider appreciation of feminist geography as a discipline and as a governing mentality to the way we approach, experience and begin to understand the modern city. The book reaches out to the reader and invites them to consider the possibility of their own privileges and daily experience of the urban world – and how this may differ from others. As we begin to restart our lives in the wake of empty streets and the acute, eerie silence of the urban world without people, Feminist City may prove more relevant than ever. If in lockdown such urban environments were emptied of ‘city life’, and yet still posed a real-life threat to female safety, then more than ever it makes sense to rethinkthe city as a distinctly ‘lived space’. As we as a society process the untimely death of Sarah Everard, understanding Leslie Kern’s analysis means understanding that we need to to return to feminist cities.

Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World is published by Verso Books and available at: https://www.versobooks.com/books/3227-feminist-city

References

Kern, L. Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World. Verso. 2019

Darke, J. “The man-shaped Cityin Changing Places: Women’s Lives in the city. Eds. Chris Booth, Jane Darke and Sue Yeandle. (London: Sage, 1996), 88

Wunker, E. Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. (Toronto: Book*hug, 2017), 117.

Schaefer, K. Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship. (Dutton, 2018).

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