Wednesday, September 5, 2012


The following is the text of a talk delivered on Gender night at Summer School 2012, which took place in August (of 2012, obviously) at the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library in Berkeley, CA.

            Trying to write a talk on the feminist city, an idea that I seem perpetually to be thinking and talking about even as I can’t fully tell you what it is, has pretty much made me insane. I think this might have to do with the fact that if I really think about it, it’s not really a talk, but rather a long book called something like “The Feminist City and How to Get There,” which I’m at present highly unequipped to write. What would be in that book? What would its table of contents look like? I know there’d be something on the history of feminist designs for the built environment of cities, which is a book that actually does exist, written by Dolores Hayden under the title “The Grand Domestic Revolution.” There’d be a catalog of feminist tactics for and in public space, which would include something on collective responses to street harassment and sexual violence, something about the Fifth Street Women’s building occupation in 1971 (which lasted two weeks), something about the suggestion, which came from Golda Mier of all people, that instead of instituting a curfew for women to prevent them from being raped, that since men were the perpetrators of the rapes, perhaps it’s men that needed to have a curfew. There’d be a lot of other sections in there, but I suppose the “chapter” I want to write right now is the one on the discourse on the public and private spheres, the gendering of those spheres, and the importance and difficulty of breaking down that constructed divide. Everything I’m saying feels tentative—and that’s exciting. It also freaks me out. But with all that said I’m just going to mildly bold and embrace the book title “The Feminist City and How to Get There” and pretend that this talk is part of it, and proceed to write as much as I can on my chosen topic with knowledge so that what I’m sure will be a woefully inadequate stand-in for that book will still go someplace useful in the discussions we might have tonight. So with that in mind I want to talk a little bit on what a feminist city might be like, but I want also to devote more space to thinking about what kinds of changes in our sociospatial practices would help us actual get there. In theory I’m also going to talk about parenting, and while I’m not sure if I’m going to have the space and time to explicitly broach that topic, I will say that my status as a stepparent has everything to do with what I’m talking about tonight, for reasons that’ll hopefully be clear.
Anyway, by way of a little background, my question of what a feminist city might be like comes directly, verbatim almost, from a 1980 essay, also by Dolores Hayden, whose title asks the question “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like?” One can debate the differences in the idea of the “non-sexist city” versus the “feminist city,” but let’s not right now. In any case, Hayden’s essay is one that that I wish would get the revised-and-expanded treatment every year or so, and inevitably it reads a little dated in places, but still the proliferation of writing that riffs off her title suggests that she laid some pretty important groundwork that people are still working off of—I recently came across “What Would a Non-Heterosexist City Be Like?”, for example. I don’t want to take too much time recounting the details of Hayden’s argument here, but her subtitle “Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work” should provide a pretty good clue for where she goes. Hayden, being a geographer and urban planning historian, critiques the ways in which the built environment has been constructed with a certain gender and economic order in mind. The ways she points out will come as no surprise to most people in this room: she discusses the lack of flexible housing options, the ways that the transportation system disproportionately hinders female wage laborers, the expensive commercial solutions that have arisen in the absence of widespread childcare, the ways in which dwelling design hinders more egalitarian divisions of household and other caregiving labor, the ways in which sprawl and zoning laws have been used to shore up a regressive gender order. Running through this critique, and tying it together, is the observation that there exists a dominant discourse on how space is divided, both socially and in the built sense, into public and private spheres and that, as this discourse would have it, public and private are gendered male and female, respectively. A hard divide is placed between these spheres, between who belongs in each realm and what activities and ways of being are appropriate to either of them. Queer and trans folk, of course, are quite absent from the view of that discourse.
That we the people must constantly live with, butt up against, and grapple with this discourse of the spheres isn’t a new concept; really, it’s fundamental to a great deal of feminist analysis. And it’s no surprise that, given Hayden’s place in the urban planning field, the focus of her suggestions of how to effect change center around alterations of the built environment. These ideas, which draw from history, are, I must say, really interesting, taking in variations on co-housing and placement of services like prepared meals and childcare in proximity to housing (as well as de-privatizing the providing of those services). Hayden also ponders the kind of community organizing needed to make these kinds of projects happen. All of this feels particularly trenchant with Occupy sitting just under the surface of my mind at all times, and a big part of me wishes that this talk was actually about interventions in the built environment, because brainstorming with you all about practical designs for feminist utopias, and then, I don’t know, working together to try to get make them happen, and probably failing, but maybe doing something important in the process either way—well, that would just be cool. Something for next year maybe. Still, while this focus on the built environment is absolutely vital to thinking about social change, the fact is that the organization of space is not the sole, rigid determinant of how we live. There are, to make a bit of an understatement, some social patterns that affect us as well. Built space and social practice reshape each other in an ongoing process, which I suppose if we want to be fancy about it we could call a sociospatial dialectic. Therefore, if the goal, and I think it’s a good one, is to dissolve this divide between the so-called private and public spheres, a strategy of simultaneously altering the built environment and social practice seems in order. Now, picking apart the dynamics of that dialectic is another one of those crazymaking processes that’ll have to wait for that book I probably won’t be able to write, but I do want to pause and think about the way our gendered social practices, particularly those centered around speech but more generally as well, are affected by the discourses on space we have to engage with from day to day. I think also that it pertains to what we’re doing here tonight, and to the idea of a feminist city as well.
At risk of belaboring a point that might be obvious to everyone, I want to make really clear what I mean when I'm talking about the relationship between gender, space, and forms of speech. Bear with me on this. When I’m talking about the gendering of space and speech, I'm obviously not saying that the association between women and private space means that a woman's place is in the home, etc., nor am I doing some "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" type of shit where women inherently talk in certain ways and men inherently talk in others and thus it shall forever be, so saith the lord God. Rather, to expand on what I wrote earlier, I'm saying that there's a discourse that associates women with certain spaces (the household, the private sphere) and, to say something I haven’t said yet, associates women with certain kinds of speech (the kind using more lateral thinking, based in dialogue, more tentative, embracing complexity and ambiguity or what some misguided people would call being wishy-washy). Men, in turn, are associated with different spaces (the public sphere, the political sphere) and other kinds of speech (direct, declarative, forceful, the kind of thing you see politicians do all the time). The word “associates” is key here—in real life, anyone of any gender is capable of any mode of speech. Now, to complete the triangle in both cases, certain spaces are therefore associated with certain forms of speech--and from that you get conceptions of the spaces where each gender “belongs,” what kinds of subject matter are appropriate to each space, and in turn, the kind of speech that is appropriate for use in each space. Thus, for example, there's the idea that public space is the realm of men, where they talk about politics using direct, logical argumentation free from the pulls of emotion blah blah blah.
Obviously, this isn't the only discourse on space in play, and plenty of counter-discourses, wielded by actual people, have chipped away at the rigid gendering of various spaces. Thus we have in this era, for example, a more widespread acceptance of the appropriateness of women speaking in the political sphere, and certain subject matter previously considered the purview of the private realm has been brought into public discussion. The classic example here is, I think, intimate partner violence, which as we know was for a long time considered entirely a private matter, something inappropriate for discussion in the political realm. Now, there's still plenty of suppression of discussion of intimate partner violence that goes on, but it is at least nominally on the agenda for public discussion.
Still, all that having been said, there are nonetheless a lot of topics out there, and, in connection to that, a lot of kinds of speech out there, that are deemed by this dominant discourse as inappropriate for the public, political sphere. What kind of topics and speech am I talking about? Well, there’s kind of an endless list, but picture addressing the US Congress or similar group on, like, the body politics of motherhood or giving a speech on anything that doesn’t come to an unambiguous, well-ordered conclusion and you’ll start to get at what I’m talking about. What’s unnerving is that even as we may see ourselves as setting up spheres of opposition to the dominant political public sphere (if such a thing actually exists anymore), we’re not immune to placing value on kinds of speech based on which sphere they’re associated with, nor are we immune to ranking the importance of subject matter based on these same sphere-based criteria. Like, instead of addressing the US Congress, now picture a GA, and picture one person speaking in an inspiring, well-argued, militant fashion about something or other, and then picture another person delivering a thoughtful yet ambivalent and torn exposition on that same something or other. Who gets the bigger cheer? The point is not that one kind of speech is better than another, but rather that that second speech would feel like a breach to many people’s sense of public sphere aesthetics, and the second speaker knowing that might have the effect of dissuading them from speaking, and therefore of suppressing an important topic or voice. And even if we ourselves are able to get past the shame or embarrassment that might be involved in discussing these supposedly private matters, or talking about anything in a way that uses modes of speech or expresses emotions that are perceived as being best kept private, all this still can run the risk of invalidating us in the eyes of the people we're trying to converse with. There are, then, topics and ways of communicating that are associated in this dominant discourse with the private realm, the female-gendered realm, and thus when those things are brought into the so-called public realm, they run great risk of being seen as lesser, debased, secondary to what’s “important.” And it doesn’t take much to reproduce this—just a historical norm and a few fervent, possibly unaware enforcers of it.
It seems to me, then, that if we want to work towards the feminist city, work towards dissolving some of this divide between public and private spheres, that in addition to the kinds of modifications to the built environment that Hayden and others suggest, alterations of this and other sociospatial practices need to also enter the mix. Okay, so that’s what I’ve been getting at this whole time, but the point is that where this kind of work starts, among other spaces, is in giving a good hard look to settings such as the one we’re in now. What are our norms of interaction? What kinds of speech feel acceptable here, and what kinds don’t? What kind of political topics or opinions would you be afraid of bringing up in this space, for fear of being shamed by those around you, being taken less seriously, being seen as less cool? And, more to the point, how can we work to alter the norms of these spaces so that that gendered public/private divide applies less and less? Part of that seems to involve trying to rethink this kind of summer school itself, to dissolve its identity as something that belongs to the public realm, because just as there are topics or ways of speech that the norms of this kind of space might preclude, the space itself, by virtue of location, time of events, aura, etc., precludes the participation of many people. And I suppose that that’s where I could start to talk explicitly about parenting, among other things, but won’t given time constraints. Now, this talk just kind of ends, but ultimately it seems like these are the sorts of questions that need to be tackled when thinking about how to model what a feminist city would be like and how to organize to make it at least a tiny bit more of a reality.

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