As a woman, living in a city has always been full of contradictions: There’s the freedom of disappearing into a crowd and exploring the urban space, but that’s usually interrupted by disruptive catcalling, stalking, and harassment. Feminist geographer Leslie Kern’s new book, Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World, which is part ethnography and part cultural criticism, tackles these contradictions and explores the dreams of a feminist, intersectional city. Kern, who’s an associate professor in the geography and environmental department at Mount Allison University in Canada, draws on her personal experience of navigating cities—both as a single person and as a mother. She also examines pop culture representations of women living in cities—including, of course, Sex and the City—to shine a light on how urban spaces are physically built around the needs of white, cisgender, able-bodied, straight men, leaving women and other marginalized people to negotiate spaces that weren’t designed for them.
Charting the physical aspects of the city that work against women, from inefficient public transport to a lack of supportive care networks for working mothers, Kern argues that there are ways to transform the city that would advance the liberation of women and marginalized people. Starting with the difficulties she experienced as a pregnant woman and young mother in Toronto, Kern reflects on her barriers and privileges, interspersing these insights with feminist geographical theory and examples from popular culture. She ultimately reaches the conclusion that applying an intersectional lens to the study of the feminist city is essential. Kern’s analysis seems especially timely as we debate the role of police in our society and how we can better protect marginalized people. Kern spoke to Bitch about negotiating the city as a pregnant woman and a mother, crafting creative and collective modes of survival, and the importance of using an intersectional lens when envisioning a feminist city where all people are safe.
You start your book with the experiences you had both while pregnant and then as a young mother in Toronto. Could you explain your urban feminist awakening and how this embodied experience led you to write this book?
I’d long been a feminist and [was] aware of the way my body, as a young woman, was objectified or sexualized in urban spaces, from cat calling [to being] harassed in public spaces. But it wasn’t until I was pregnant, and then a new mom, that I realized the built environment was also playing a role in that experience of sexism and patriarchy. It wasn’t just men in that space; the space itself was also part of the problem. [When] trying to move a stroller through a downtown urban space—which is set up to provide the maximal efficiency for people going to work and for certain kinds of consumption activities—and you’re moving slowly and need to stop and sit down, the built environment is working against you. It’s sending you this message: “You don’t really belong here.” It was fine when you were able-bodied, walking around unencumbered, but now that you’re a mom and there’s a child in the picture, the urban core isn’t for you.
I found the chapter on female friendships and the city deeply impactful because I saw myself and my friends in many of the situations you described. For women and queer people, having company can mean freedom of expression and exploration in the city. What’s the importance of collectivity and friendship in the feminist city?
Women tend to keep their friendships longer than many men do, though friendship is important to everybody. [Friendship allows us to] imagine how we might organize our care relations in ways that aren’t completely reliant on the traditional heteropatriarchal nuclear family; [we’re able to] recognize that there are other ways in which we can share, redistribute, and find care of all kinds. It’s not just that it feels good or nice; there’s something revolutionary [about friendship] because it’s quite destabilizing to the status quo of the traditional family.
If women, on whose shoulders so much of the responsibility for family [care] falls (especially in COVID-19 times), were to say, “We’re going to organize care differently,” it would shatter our economy. From an urban perspective, focusing on friendship as a way of thinking about alternate [forms] of kinship and care relationships could also destabilize how we design our cities: Are we too focused on the single family home, a particular kind of [housing] unit, or how we organize the home versus work versus school versus consumption versus leisure? If we reimagined kinship relationships, it may allow us to reimagine how the city is set up.
Much of the book is about harnessing creative solutions that have arisen from oppression or survival. You write about women keeping one another safe in urban spaces by safeguarding text messages or with collective childcare. How does the need to survive create solutions to material issues, and how can we harness these solutions to make cities more feminist?
Part of it is just recognizing the ways in which women and other marginalized groups have always had to find their own ways to make the city work for them—so many groups are both implicitly and explicitly excluded from urban space and the benefits of urban living. There have always been a variety of informal, under-the-table, out-of-the-spotlight ways that people organize care for one another and [establish] their own kinds of economic systems of exchange. What we see is only the tip of the iceberg, so part of the aim of the book is to recognize that people have creative ways of doing things, and we don’t need some master plan, feminist or not, to come in and say, “We’ll do the city like this instead.”
When you think about public housing projects for example, of which the majority of tenants are often single mothers, low-income, and minority women, [the occupants have] had to find their own ways of sharing childcare, sharing food, sharing transportation networks, sharing information, and sharing social capital in order to survive. Those things are already there, but they exist among groups that we typically ignore or don’t think are knowledgeable about the economy or cities.
You write about the “right to mind your business” while navigating the city alone, and how people of color don’t have that right. I can’t help but connect this to the current protests to end police violence, which are essentially dissent against the increased surveillance and policing of Black people in public spaces. Within this specific context, what should be done to ensure this is a respected right for Black people? How can we incorporate this goal in a feminist intersectional city?
That’s so important right now. One of the first steps is recognizing that safety isn’t [actually a] reason for the existence of the police; it’s really about surveillance and control. And narratives of urban safety, even those that claim to be about making cities safer for women, have really been stories or fictions layered on top of justifications for the state to do what the state wants to do. [This often manifests as] criminalizing populations that they see as undesirable or excess in some way, as a means of controlling different groups of people and reasserting their right to extrajudicial death and violence.
So the intersectional feminist approach is critical because if we just think, “women’s safety, women’s safety, women’s safety,” we [are only looking through] a very narrow, white feminist or carceral feminist lens, which leads us to think the solution is harsher [and longer] criminal justice sentencing. Admittedly, it’s terrible to see these crimes against women not be taken seriously, but from a much broader perspective, the police and policing don’t deter sexual assault or domestic violence. The police, in fact, are often perpetrators of those things; the criminal justice system and harsh penalties are, again, not deterring from or fixing the problem.
Narratives of urban safety, even those that claim to be about making cities safer for women, have really been stories or fictions layered on top of justifications for the state to do what the state wants to do.
Police have never helped rape and sexual assault victims, and you tackle this in your book. You argue that police often uphold rape culture rather than destroy it. Yet, the argument that police “protect” women is sometimes leveled against those in favor of police abolition. What do women actually need when navigating cities, and how does this notion of “protection” get in the way?
That’s definitely a million-dollar question. I’m not going to be able to say exactly what this should look like, but one thing I think about in my book is the way in which a lot of our discourse around domestic violence happens in one policy arena that tends to address the home and private spaces, while discussions about violence and women’s safety in the public sphere tend to happen separately. Those things aren’t connected in the ways that different agencies, branches of government, and nonprofit sectors are set up to deal with them, when in fact they are, at their root, the same problem. So one thing we could do is think about the fact that domestic and private violence are urban problems as well. That’s something we could think about at the city scale.
Now, in the context of COVID, when people are isolated in their homes and domestic violence is increasing, service agencies are thinking about other ways they can reach women in need—beyond women having to find a way to get to a shelter [and instead] bringing a service to her (like having a mobile response team that’s not the police). How do you reach women and not just show up at the moment something terrible is happening? If we could think about connecting the urban, public sphere to what goes on in the private sphere, that would be one way to generate avenues for addressing violence against women.
In the book, you persuasively argue that women’s fear functions as a form of social control and that it enforces other forms of oppression. That’s the reason a feminist city wouldn’t rely on police to deal with violence against women. You even reject carceral feminism explicitly. Could you explain a little about how you, as a white woman, reached this conclusion?
Thank you for that question. [When] thinking through those issues, the first step is always listening to Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color. [It’s crucial to] think about their experiences with the state with respect to violence against women, and hear their insistence that the police aren’t the solution to these issues. In my own experience with domestic violence, when I attempted to rely on the police to intervene in a dangerous situation, it didn’t make my life better. [Involving the police] didn’t aid my partner at the time in getting better and didn’t aid my daughter in any concrete way.
Though I have a lot of privilege as a white woman who is educated and reasonably middle class, the system was still completely invasive and insensitive to what I was going through. [This was true] even among the well-intentioned parts of that system, like victims advocates. Combining what I’ve learned from people who experience greater kinds of marginalizations than myself, and my own experience [helped me] recognize that the police aren’t a solution. They’re a Band-Aid at best. At worst, the [police are] actually part of the problem.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.