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Feminist geographer Leslie Kern has faith in cities.

Kern, an associate professor of geography and environment and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University in Sackville, Canada, believes cities’ histories as bastions of social progress prove they can be transformative places for women and other people who have been, and remain, socially and politically oppressed.

Leslie Kern (Mitchel Raphael); (Courtesy of Verso Books)
Leslie Kern (Mitchel Raphael); (Courtesy of Verso Books)

But in her new book, “Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World,” Kern argues that despite their potential, cities have also long failed — and continue to fail — women, and specifically women of color and women with disabilities. Kern spoke to The Lily about how she believes feminist cities could stymie domestic violence and better support parents, why urban planners should read feminist theory and what the coronavirus pandemic reveals about how cities need to change to be more equitable places for all their inhabitants.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for length.

Julianne McShane: I first want to ask a question that’s probably on a lot of readers’ minds: What makes a city feminist?

Leslie Kern: A feminist city would be one that prioritizes care work — the work that we all do to take care of one another and to survive as human beings — rather than mostly prioritizing the economic work of the city. So there’s lots of ways that can play out, whether it’s in housing, transportation, food, child care, all of these realms, but to me that is one of the core principles that would underlie a feminist city.

JM: I want to look at one of the elements that you highlight in the book that’s particularly relevant right now with the pandemic, and that’s domestic violence. We’ve seen reported instances of domestic violence increase around the world, due in part to the pandemic, and the majority of victims are women. I’m wondering what you think this moment in time reveals about both how cities are designed for nuclear families and how they often fail to protect the women within those families?

LK: So much of the housing in urban environments is still designed around a rather outdated notion of a traditional nuclear family, and there are not a lot of other options available for how people might want to live and to structure their households. And I think underlying that is the assumption that the single family home is kind of the basic building block of society, and also the assumption that building block is this space of privacy where the state shouldn’t intrude. We know it was a huge fight to have domestic violence considered a crime by governments, and still the privacy of the single-family home maintains a lot of invisibility. But when we think about violence against women, when we think about fear, we imagine stranger violence, public violence, these sensationalized crimes or serial killers, when in reality the most dangerous places for women and children are inside the home. We have for so long divided public safety and domestic violence, but we won’t think about the ways those two things actually meet and the ways in which we could come up with interventions that would in some ways address both, or at least recognize that they’re interconnected.

JM: One of the interventions that you explore in the book as it relates to the broader issue of gender inequity within cities is how alternative forms of community networks can help share some of the burdens of the care work that disproportionately falls on women. In particular, you explore the power of women’s friendships to help women feel safer in cities. Do you think designing cities around these stronger community networks that center on women could play a part in stymieing domestic violence?

LK: Absolutely, for several reasons — one of which is that domestic violence thrives in privacy, when it is hidden within the nuclear family home, when there’s nobody else to see and hear what’s going on. So if we have other sorts of living arrangements, where there’s possibilities for other sorts of bystander intervention, or for other people to just simply notice what’s happening, that invisibility — that extreme privacy — is taken away.

But it also reduces that reliance on one person as your everything — your emotional support, your financial support — in ways that we know are contributing factors to domestic violence, and one of the reasons that women don’t leave, or feel they can’t leave, because they are put into a position of dependency. So if you broaden those networks — whether it’s through friendships, intergenerational living, communal living or cohousing — you’re diffusing that dependency, where we’re all more interdependent on one another rather than this dangerous dependency on a potential abuser.

JM: You also write about how cities aren’t organized around respecting or prioritizing care work. Perhaps the most prevalent type of care work that women engage in is motherhood, which has become especially clear recently, as many people are confined at home juggling parenting with sometimes both paid and unpaid work. In the book you speak to your own experience managing your responsibilities as a new, sometimes single mother and a graduate student in both London and Toronto. How did your cities fail to accommodate and recognize your pregnant body?

LK: For me, it was really visceral on public transportation, when suddenly you are that person who might want or need that special seat, yet very few people pay attention to the other people who are around them — that sort of urban indifference. So there wasn’t a lot of care or attention given to my body or probably to many other bodies that require different sorts of assistance or help.

Your mobility changes when you’re pregnant, and especially when you have a small child, and you realize the city is set up for an able-bodied, unencumbered, fairly young person to move around smoothly. But if you’re carrying a child, you have a lot of packages, you’re elderly, you have a chronic illness, the city is not really going to facilitate your being, your ease of movement, of work, of enjoying public space.

JM: How much, if anything, does this have to do with the fact that urban planning is a male-dominated profession?

LK: I think that has a huge amount to do with it. I think people know their own experience; whether they’re being intentionally biased or not is kind of beside the point, it’s more that their priorities in many ways reflect their own reality, as in the way so much of how city movement is organized is around a fairly linear journey from home to work, and everything else is an afterthought. It’s also kind of ironic because women tend to be the majority of transit users, they tend to have less car access than men, and they’re the people who are doing more of these nonlinear, more complicated, more encumbered journeys.

JM: So should urban planners be reading feminist theory?

LK: Yes, it would be great if they were reading some feminist theory, because there’s no reason men can’t adopt these perspectives — they’re available to everybody, and people have been talking about it for a really long time. One person that comes to mind is Dolores Hayden, who is a famous feminist architect and planning critic; she’s very well-known for critiquing the suburbs as a form of both gendered ideology and of spatial structure, and the ways in which suburban development has been a real killer for potentially a lot of feminist interventions into urban space, so that’s a great place to start.

JM: You write about how domestic work is associated with gentrification, which as you note has a history of displacing lower-income people and people of color. And the majority of domestic workers in the U.S. are women of color. How can we understand the relationship between the two?

LK: Gentrification has been, in many ways, a solution for particularly privileged women for some of the problems of the suburbs and for juggling the multiple roles of both unpaid and paid work, so living in the city can facilitate that. But at the same time, living in the city doesn’t automatically grant you child care — there’s still a lot of care shortcomings in the city. So the ability to pay someone to do what would normally be unpaid women’s labor is a marker of success and a way that privileged women can “solve” those contradictions for themselves, because our societies are not taking care of it — so we’ve privatized it through unpaid labor in the home, or through underpaid, outsourced labor that draws workers from many corners of the globe to take on the work that women working in the paid economy can’t manage.

JM: What role do cities have to play in the solution here? Is there a place for domestic work in a feminist city, or is the very idea of women relegating domestic duties to other women incompatible with gender equity and with your conception of what constitutes a feminist city?

LK: Like any industry with exploitative elements, it’s not that the work itself is inherently bad or devalued — in fact, that kind of work should be highly valued, in my opinion. If we consider it skilled, valued labor, we have to renumerate that labor in line with that value, and we have to remove some of the policies and structures that allow it to be exploitative, whether it’s immigration policies that don’t allow a path to citizenship, or that force domestic workers to be live-in caregivers, potentially putting them in abusive situation. There’s ways in which we could revalue that labor such that where it is needed it’s part of the overall economy but is not this hive of potential abuse and exploitation.

JM: To cap things off, and going back to the topic of questions raised by the pandemic, what do you think the pandemic reveals about how cities should change to be feminist? How do you hope these changes occur?

LK: The pandemic reveals that we rely on a poorly supported layer of unpaid and underpaid care labor to keep us healthy, clean, fed and safe. To be more feminist, cities have to recognize this work, make it visible, pay a living wage for it, and set up the infrastructure to support it. I hope this change occurs through movements to consider this work essential and to raise wages in the women- and minority-dominated service and care sectors.

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