What Would a Feminist City Look Like?

New York’s City Hall encampment provides a model for creating care-centered, inclusive spaces.

Apoorva Tadepalli August 28, 2020

(Illustration by Meredith Miotke)

A woman’s place is in the city,” wrote Ger­da Wek­er­le, an envi­ron­men­tal stud­ies pro­fes­sor at York Uni­ver­si­ty in Toron­to, in the ear­ly 1980s. The city has a sin­gu­lar abil­i­ty, she argued, to sup­port the exis­tence of women in the domes­tic as well as the pub­lic and eco­nom­ic spheres of life. Cul­tur­al­ly and logis­ti­cal­ly, the city offers free­dom and pos­si­bil­i­ty — and the essen­tial pub­lic ser­vices — that women unique­ly need. More than 30 years lat­er, Leslie Kern (Wek­er­le advised Kern on her Ph.D. dis­ser­ta­tion) began writ­ing a book titled Fem­i­nist City: Claim­ing Space in a Man-made World, released in the Unit­ed States in July.

The logistical arrangements in this encampment, perhaps against all odds, slowly inspired and emboldened New Yorkers to participate in a collective project of care, spreading the work of maintaining a living space across many people and making the safety of these citizens a top priority.

In the intro­duc­tion, Kern acknowl­edges the his­to­ry of ide­al­iz­ing the city as an escape for women con­fined to the home with the undue bur­den of domes­tic labor. The 19th-cen­tu­ry con­cept of the fla­neur, strolling through the streets leisure­ly and inhab­it­ing the pub­lic square, became the pic­ture of mod­ern urban life. In much of lit­er­a­ture, the fla­neur fig­ure is a man, though recent works — such as Lau­ren Elkin’s 2016 Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and Lon­don— have attempt­ed to reclaim flâner­ie to describe the unique free­dom cities offer women. As Elkin writes, the city was a place for a woman to seek fame and for­tune or anonymi­ty … to lib­er­ate her­self from oppres­sion … to declare her inde­pen­dence.” Kern acknowl­edges how cities do offer women choic­es unheard of in small towns and rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. Oppor­tu­ni­ties for work. Break­ing free of parochial gen­der norms. … Tak­ing up social and polit­i­cal caus­es. … Par­tic­i­pat­ing in arts, cul­ture and media.” Nev­er­the­less, Kern argues, the city is also a site of oppression.

Kern exam­ines the chal­lenges of mov­ing through urban space as a woman from var­i­ous per­spec­tives — as a preg­nant woman and moth­er, a pro­test­er, a woman in the com­pa­ny of oth­er women. There is infra­struc­tur­al exclu­sion through the pub­lic tran­sit sta­tions and sched­ules designed for the non-dis­abled nine-to-five com­muter who is not preg­nant and does not make stops at the gro­cery store or day­care along the way. Women also incur the pink tax, rely­ing more than men on pub­lic trans­porta­tion and spend­ing more per month on it, espe­cial­ly if they are pri­ma­ry care­givers. And then there’s psy­cho­log­i­cal exclu­sion: Women must fac­tor the fear of being attacked into their dai­ly rou­tine as they move through pub­lic spaces, which takes a men­tal toll (and per­haps an eco­nom­ic one, for the safe­ty of tak­ing a taxi or liv­ing in a build­ing with security).

The city, in oth­er words, is the cen­ter of cap­i­tal­ism and mate­r­i­al inequal­i­ty, and is designed for a par­tic­u­lar type of man — white and cis­gen­der, mid­dle-to-upper class, non-dis­abled. Built envi­ron­ments reflect the soci­eties that con­struct them,” Kern writes. Bul­let­proof vests to kitchen coun­ters, smart­phones to office tem­per­a­tures, [are] set to stan­dards deter­mined by men’s bod­ies and needs.” When women exist in the city, they do so not just because of what the city offers, but in spite of it. So what, Kern asks, would a fem­i­nist city” look like?

Fun­da­men­tal­ly, Kern is try­ing to envi­sion a more inclu­sive city that con­sid­ers the phys­i­cal and cul­tur­al needs of its most mar­gin­al­ized mem­bers. To sym­pa­thize with those who expe­ri­ence long-term vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty on city streets, such as trans and dis­abled peo­ple, Kern draws on her expe­ri­ences of preg­nan­cy and moth­er­hood, describ­ing the bar­ri­ers to access she noticed on the streets, on tran­sit, at protests, at night, in pub­lic restrooms. At times, her self-inter­ro­ga­tion about her white­ness becomes uncom­fort­able. Her obser­va­tions about how cities inspire fear in women, and how she her­self has been social­ized not to trust pub­lic space,” some­times betray her own inter­nal­ized bias­es as a cis white woman — such as when she won­ders, even if it meant cre­at­ing a more inclu­sive and free city, Will I reach out to offer mon­ey or food to some­one expe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness? … Send my kid to a school in a racial­ly diverse neigh­bor­hood?” These may be earnest ques­tions, but Kern’s doubt under­mines her reli­a­bil­i­ty as a nar­ra­tor and as a geo­g­ra­ph­er con­cerned with vic­tims of mate­r­i­al oppression.

Some of Kern’s com­plaints about city life are aspects of an indi­vid­u­al­ist cul­ture that val­ues per­son­al space, which itself is a priv­i­lege. Her fear of eat­ing alone in restau­rants in Chica­go and Atlanta, walk­ing by them mul­ti­ple times and peer­ing through the win­dow in prepa­ra­tion to enter alone, for exam­ple, is uncom­fort­able. Though she doesn’t clar­i­fy what or whom exact­ly she fears, one can imag­ine the inter­rupter as some­one sketchy,” which often means some­one who looks poor or is not white.

While many of Kern’s obser­va­tions and crit­i­cisms are bound up in her indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences, it’s use­ful to note that a real fem­i­nist city — and much of Kern’s descrip­tions of one — is not, by def­i­n­i­tion, one for women in pow­er. Rather, it’s an equi­table and eco­nom­i­cal­ly just city, one where work is bet­ter dis­trib­uted and pub­lic ser­vices are more read­i­ly accessible.

Kern gives exam­ples from Newark, N.J., in the mid-2000s, where Black moth­ers engaged in home­mak­ing” prac­tices that extend­ed out­side their indi­vid­ual homes, prac­tic­ing col­lec­tive moth­er­ing and bring­ing domes­tic­i­ty into the pub­lic sphere, revi­tal­iz­ing cul­tur­al cen­ters and spaces that could nur­ture com­mu­ni­ty. In 1999, Vienna’s tran­sit sys­tem sur­veyed women on their acces­si­bil­i­ty require­ments and sub­se­quent­ly “[redesigned] areas to facil­i­tate pedes­tri­an mobil­i­ty” and cre­at­ed hous­ing devel­op­ments of the sort imag­ined by fem­i­nist design­ers,” with on-site child care and easy access to health ser­vices and tran­sit. In Namib­ia, the Shack Dwellers Fed­er­a­tion offers shared secu­ri­ty of tenure and hous­ing to their mem­bers, there­by improv­ing women’s oppor­tu­ni­ties to get bet­ter pub­lic ser­vices and gen­er­ate income.” Sure­ly, all of these ven­tures would be at home in any equi­table, human-friend­ly city.

There is, as Kern writes, no fixed blue­print” for the fem­i­nist city — it’s a work of active and con­stant cre­ation. But Kern doesn’t explore these solu­tion-ori­ent­ed case stud­ies with the same vig­or as she does the var­i­ous prob­lems women face in pub­lic spaces. One exam­ple that may have been of inter­est in Kern’s study, had she been writ­ing now, is the #Occu­pyC­i­ty­Hall encamp­ment in New York (lat­er renamed Abo­li­tion Park), cre­at­ed in response to the killing of George Floyd.

The ide­ol­o­gy of protest is easy to get on board with; some­times more inter­est­ing is the logis­tics—how peo­ple sus­tain them­selves, what details make peo­ple feel part of a neb­u­lous col­lec­tive some­times well defined and some­times not. The logis­tics of Abo­li­tion Park, formed June 23 to con­vince New York City Coun­cil to defund the city police depart­ment by $1 bil­lion, tran­si­tioned into a broad­er long-stand­ing mes­sage after City Hall passed its (demo­ti­vat­ing) bud­get June 30. Until July 22, when riot police con­duct­ed a pre-dawn raid and evict­ed the res­i­dents, hun­dreds of peo­ple had camped out in City Hall Park for a month, with tents, bicy­cles, food and signs sur­round­ing the Brook­lyn Bridge sub­way sta­tion, which had been cor­doned off by the protesters.

Even if the camp lacked a clear mes­sage about the next steps toward abo­li­tion, I could see — when I stayed there in late June and ear­ly July — a clear under­stand­ing of how to care for oth­er peo­ple and be part of a com­mu­ni­ty try­ing to phys­i­cal­ly orga­nize itself.

In some sense, the squat­ters at City Hall expe­ri­enced vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties sim­i­lar to the ones Kern describes women fac­ing, such as safe­ty needs and an excess bur­den of domes­tic work. A fem­i­nist city must be care-cen­tered, not because women should remain large­ly respon­si­ble for care work but because the city has the poten­tial to spread care more even­ly,” Kern writes. The City Hall squat­ters were a diverse group. Many were minori­ties and peo­ple of col­or, extreme­ly attuned to vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and the col­lec­tive work required to sup­port the camp. Sev­er­al were unhoused New York­ers. Vol­un­teers split up the domes­tic” work, such as food pro­vi­sion and laun­dry, ensur­ing meals were ordered and peo­ple had bed­ding. Des­ig­nat­ed escorts chap­er­oned groups to bath­rooms and show­ers in a stu­dio near­by, mak­ing sure every­one was safe from harass­ment and arrest. In the spir­it of non-dis­crim­i­na­tion, and of resist­ing the frame­work of prop­er­ty rights, the camp fund offered to replace stolen items (like phones and com­put­ers) rather than expel those who stole. Sleep­ing in pub­lic is a sig­nif­i­cant act of sur­ren­der and risk, even if many at City Hall were doing it by choice, and groups kept watch at night while oth­ers slept. Dai­ly col­lec­tive cleanups were orga­nized. In the event of any harass­ment or assault with­in the camp, a com­mit­tee of women assem­bled to coun­sel and pro­tect vic­tims while agree­ing to expel per­pe­tra­tors only once they had acquired the nec­es­sary resources, like mon­ey, bed­ding and food. I wit­nessed no chil­dren in the encamp­ment, but I find it easy to believe child care would have become a seri­ous col­lec­tive pri­or­i­ty if there were.

All these arrange­ments and ges­tures, small as they may seem indi­vid­u­al­ly, worked toward some­thing quite remark­able: a whol­ly new con­cep­tion of what a city could look like, if the needs of the most vul­ner­a­ble were placed at its fore­front. When we occu­py a pub­lic place, we are vul­ner­a­ble: We lie down, we leave our belong­ings around, we are in var­i­ous states of dress and clean­li­ness. The logis­ti­cal arrange­ments in this encamp­ment, per­haps against all odds, slow­ly inspired and embold­ened New York­ers to par­tic­i­pate in a col­lec­tive project of care, spread­ing the work of main­tain­ing a liv­ing space across many peo­ple and mak­ing the safe­ty of these cit­i­zens a top pri­or­i­ty. I like to think this is what a fem­i­nist city might look like, where food, chores, safe­ty and clean­li­ness become even­ly dis­trib­uted pri­or­i­ties, where the well-being of every­one — espe­cial­ly the most mar­gin­al­ized — becomes a col­lec­tive respon­si­bil­i­ty. As with Occu­py Wall Street, this move­ment gen­er­at­ed skep­ti­cism. Wher­ev­er the coher­ence of its ide­o­log­i­cal mes­sage fell short, we might sim­ply appre­ci­ate the active and con­tin­u­ous process of place­mak­ing, of home­mak­ing,” that it exhibited.

Rely­ing heav­i­ly on the state for rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion is a waste of time,” Kern writes. It’s true: the city’s exter­nal envi­ron­ment, design and pol­i­cy can only do so much in mak­ing it a home. The rest, per­haps, is a mat­ter of our own imag­i­na­tion, of con­stant creation.

Apoor­va Tade­pal­li is a free­lance writer from Bom­bay. Her work has appeared in The Point, Guer­ni­ca, Elec­tric Lit­er­a­ture and elsewhere.

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