A new book from the American urban geographer interrogates how women experience the barrier-riddled ‘city of men’
Words by John Jervis
There should be more books like this. Ones that put their heads above academic parapets, take those stockpiles of research and cogitation, and transform them into real words that reach real worlds. Leslie Kern’s Feminist City is wide-ranging and sophisticated, brief and engaging. Its basic argument is straightforward and incontrovertible: ‘women still experience the city through a set of barriers – physical, social, economic, and symbolic – that shape their daily lives in ways that are deeply (although not only) gendered’.
In each chapter Kern, an urban geographer, identifies and analyses the repercussions of women’s experience of the city in different areas – motherhood, friendship, personal space, protest and fear – asking why, after so many years of activism, these encumbrances still exist; how women’s lives are impaired as a result; and what could be done about it. Drawing on second-wave feminism, each chapter is rooted in personal experience, not as a means to accessibility but to tease out the lived experience of the ‘city of men’. Current scholarly thinking is woven skilfully throughout, amplifying and contextualising the issues raised.
Most chapters are taut in structure and message. Exploring how ‘the social function of women’s fear is the control of women’, ‘City of Fear’ details the slow, imperfect pursuit of less fearful cities, sometimes through physical interventions, sometimes through technological ones. All too often, such interventions follow some public act of violence against women and are disjointed in conception and operation. They risk complicity in gentrification, penalising vulnerable groups in a racist and classist society. And they fail to tackle the real issues – as Kern puts it, ‘we can’t detach the social world from the built environment’. Or, more pithily, ‘no amount of lighting is going abolish the patriarchy’.
Another chapter, ‘City of One’, explores the experience of being alone, of taking up space, in a patriarchal urban environment with honesty, insight and telling one-liners that ring immediately true: ‘Can you imagine a man telling another man on the street to smile?’
Kern tackles eclectic subjects along the way: the multiple challenges around bathrooms; the defensive role of earbuds; the ‘living collage’ women overlay on city maps; the gentrification of parenting; the ‘pink taxes’ of public transportation; the politics of snow ploughs; the protection and stigma of the stroller; and the flawed promises and layouts of the fortified condo (the subject of her previous book). Some of these are familiar from Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women but serve their own purposes here.
Particularly rich are Kern’s account of her troubled efforts to adopt the role of ‘mommy flâneuse’, revealing the hostility of cities to pregnancy and motherhood, and her exploration of the feminised consumer spaces of the Victorian era, which offered partial freedoms while also reinforcing domesticated identities, anticipating the focus on female leisure and safety in today’s ‘urban revitalisations’.
Certain chapters get lost in personal and particularised histories, without ever quite reaching destinations. This is a risk when structuring arguments around experience – one risks partial results. ‘City of Protest’ is refreshingly candid about the engrained sexism and painful ‘intersectional wake-ups’ that marked the protests of Kern’s youth, and strong in arguing that action offers the only true means to challenge an unjust system. Unfortunately, in Kern’s retelling, the memories and mythologies of these protests eclipse their vital objectives – the right to the city and the overthrow of rape culture.
Similarly, a sometimes moving chapter on female friendship as a way of life lingers long on impressionistic tales of childhood escapades, Elena Ferrante and Sex and the City plots, before finally getting to its key issue – reshaping cities for relationships that heteronormativity dubs frivolous but are frequently the most important – and then ebbs away without exploring how this can be achieved.
Tweaking an academic dissertation is a far simpler creative challenge than the route Kern has chosen – pitching to a diffuse, unknown audience – and occasionally the strain shows. The language of self-help makes appearances; some anecdotes risk alienation; and does she really think her readership needs an explanation of ‘a phenomenon … known as white flight’? She is understandably nervous of paraphrasing scholarly voices on certain topics, thus academic jargon is suddenly, jarringly, foregrounded. And, having been careful to acknowledge that this is a book for the global north – and its wealthier cities at that – she should perhaps have resisted sprinkling brief, tempting fragments from Namibia or Uganda.
But the tight anger in the conclusion, ‘City of Possibility’, wipes away these concerns. The book’s mix of the personal and the structural is epitomised by Kern’s account of her feelings as she watches her daughter embark on those same urban discoveries that marked her youth, with their promise and threat. She reflects, ‘I hate that I’ve been socialised this way … The urge to keep a safe bubble around myself, to exert as much control as possible over my personal space, might mean that I’m less open to other kinds of experiences, relationships, and encounters.’
In consequence, she argues eloquently for the urgent need for intersectionality: ‘We need to recognise that the social control of women through socialisation into fear is part of a system that seeks to enforce other forms of exclusion, segregation, and fear of difference.’
Book reviews often say that a text needed ‘more editing’, showing culpable ignorance of the impoverishment of publishing industry. Yes, in a perfect world this book might have benefitted from another pair of eyes, but the result is brave and rewarding. Moving out from ‘small’ experiences, Kern succeeds in confronting problems that pervade women’s experience of urban life – and thus all experience of urban life – with skill, force and effect. And as stated, engaging with real worlds using real words is what matters.
Header image: The author, Leslie Kern