Leslie Kern is the author of two books on gender and cities, including Feminist City: Claiming Space in Man-Made World (Verso). She holds a PhD in women’s studies from York University and is currently an currently an associate professor of geography and environment and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University. Leslie writes about gender, gentrification, and feminism and teaches urban, social, and feminist geography. She runs an academic career coaching service and blog at lesliekerncoaching.com and tweets about all things feminist, academic, and urban on Twitter @LellyK.
Lauren R. Korn: I want to start with the current global pandemic. At the time of this interview, much of the world has been told to social distance and shelter-in-place. It seems to me that now more than ever, the anti-feminist nature of urban architecture design and planning will be illuminated in ways we can’t ignore—how cities might be more car-friendly (vs. bike- or pedestrian-friendly, or even public transit-friendly); how business centers are over-crowded; how houses and apartments might favor temporary usage instead of long-term usage (i.e., I imagine many houses and apartment buildings have been built so that rooms aren’t “meant” to be occupied all day everyday—under the assumption that their occupants will be spending much of their time outside the home); and/or that one’s place of living is safe or accessible at all.
In New Brunswick, Premier Blaine Higgs has begun slowly lifting social restrictions and in April implemented a “two-family bubble,” which doesn’t seem to recognize single person homes, non-nuclear family units (some that don’t live together), and other kinship networks. (Indeed, your book stresses the decentralization of the heterosexual nuclear family as a way to move toward feminist city structures.) How has your own shelter-in-place and social distancing illuminated the anti-feminist nature of your current home: Sackville, New Brunswick? Are new and/or nuanced conversations about feminist, urban geography being had right now, in light of the pandemic?
Leslie Kern: Great questions. In terms of my own experience, I’ll repeat a joke—I’m not the first to notice this, but—we’re about to see the death of the open concept home [laughs], which has been popular for decades now, with a recognition that when we are in the home all day, there’s a great need for a wide variety of spaces that are shared, but also spaces of retreat. And I think, when you mentioned the notion of homes as spaces where we’re not meant to spend 24 hours/day in them, and suddenly, we are—and when we say “we,” we’re already excluding a number of people who do spend long periods of time in their homes, and this “we” should be more nuanced than what we generally talk about.
In my own experience (and I’m very privileged to have a pretty big house), my daughter came home from university in mid-March when the pandemic started, and that meant packing up a room that I usually for my work-out and meditation room, which is her bedroom now. And we’re just reconfiguring our normal, day-to-day patterns around who is in what space and when, what works in terms of trying to actually do our work-work, and what works in terms of trying to actually hang out as a family. There are definite limitations on that when you have these kinds of open concept spaces and this juggling of “Now I’m going to use this room for this, and then you’ll use it for that,” and so on. I think having these conversations with friends, and even people who were not on board with my feminist analysis of these spaces—now they’re like, “Oh, yeah. This is a problem. This is not working.”
LRK: So there are people who are not on board with that idea, who don’t agree with you and the ideas you’re laying out in Feminist City?
LKern: Moreso people who would, perhaps, say, “You can’t say that the single family home is anti-feminist or anti-woman. You’re giving too much agency to the house, itself.” And this is one of the points that I try to make in the book: these forms that we have around us—whether it’s the house, whether it’s the urban grid system, whether it’s public transit, or the built environment in general—in a way, they do have agency. They are shaping the way we behave and what our social norms are. This is a moment where people’s norms are disrupted, and certain things become more visible in this moment.
But in a broader sense, speaking to the second half of your question about what this is illuminating about our cities in general, and the ways in which they may be anti-feminist or have not really worked well for women, I think we’re seeing that women’s work (and by work, I mean both paid and unpaid work, and feminized work, the kind of work more typically done by women or has been devalued through its feminization, like nursing and other kinds of care work) has always been an afterthought in cities. Whether it’s the work we do in the home—privatized, family- or community-level care work—or the work we do out in the world—by service workers like grocery store clerks, personal care workers, nurses, food service workers, cleaners, all of this feminized labor—it hasn’t been valued, and our cities have not really been set up to support women doing this kind of work. And, of course, there’s the reality that women do most of this work across paid and unpaid sectors at the same time.
LRK: I’m sure you’ve seen the many, many memes that are being circulated about how society is valuing people’s labor differently now—the labor that’s being relied on right now is not the labor that society—in our day-to-day, or “normal,” lives—previously valued.
LKern: Yeah, people have gone from relatively disposable to, suddenly, essential. Your average grocery store worker, for example, is doing the kind of labor that is seen as easily replaceable: you don’t have to pay them well, you don’t have to protect those workers. That has been the ethos of that sort of work, and now, all of a sudden, these are essential workers, heroes. The question is, will that last past the pandemic?
LRK: Right. We have a pretty short societal memory.
LKern: And of course we tend to ascribe value to jobs not only in terms of what the job is but also in terms of who does it, and if that work continues to be done by a majority of women, young people, recent immigrants, and people of color, then there’s a chance that such work will remain undervalued in the future.
LRK: Compared to the cities you cite in your book—cities like New York, Toronto, and London—New Brunswick, where you and I live, is not urban. In fact, it’s considered a rural province. But I see many of the things you’ve written about being applicable to small cities like Fredericton (where I live), and even to actual rural places in the province, too—there has always been a severe isolation from transit and other necessary services for people living away from our city centers. Is it safe to say that this “field guide” is applicable to any population center, urban, rural, or otherwise? Has living in a rural province, and in Sackville, changed the way you view or go about your work?
LKern: I definitely think there are a lot of insights here that are applicable both to smaller cities and to rural areas. Certainly some of the insights into the nature of housing and the ways in which single family housing has been a factor in the isolation of women and in the devaluing of women’s work—something that is privatized, seen as a biological imperative, care work in terms of children, cleaning, caring for sick people. The nature of the single family home does a lot to make that work invisible and to hide its importance. Again, in this pandemic moment, we are seeing that work rise in the public consciousness, which can only be a good thing. We don’t know what the long-term implications are, but it’s a moment where this work that is so well-hidden by the single family home is suddenly—Oh! It’s right there in your Zoom meeting now.
I think smaller cities (cities like Fredericton, St. John, and Moncton), and these are cities that haven’t yet embraced these kinds of ideas, but these are the places where some notions of what a feminist city might look like could really flourish, because of the smaller scale of the infrastructure and the slightly smaller nature of the community. The scale could really enhance the possibility for some initiatives for greater social caring networks to develop, but that’s probably a broader conversation.
In terms of my own my own experience, going from only having lived in very big cities to moving to Sackville, a town of about five thousand people—it was something that I never thought I would do, and I didn’t think that I could do it for a long period of time. But some of the things that it’s opened up for me, that it’s really driven home, are questions around things like commuting—the fact that I don’t have to commute to work, that I walk to work in less than ten minutes—and the ways in which, when I was living in the city and my daughter was much younger, the travel time from the daycare to my place of work or school was a huge impediment to any kind of smooth transition between my unpaid work as a mother and my partially paid work as a graduate student. Living in a place like Sackville, that’s so much more seamless. It’s so much easier to integrate home and work life in a more balanced way. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily feminist. There’s still the imposition of traditional gender roles that may be, perhaps, even more difficult to break out of in smaller communities than in a big city. But there’s something to be said for being reminded of the ways in which we could and should be decreasing the physical separation of places of home and work (where that’s desirable).
LRK: You raise a good point—that, even though there’s a seamlessness or ease with which you’re able to move between domestic and work spaces, in a smaller community the gender roles might not be as fluid, or that gender role fluidity might not be embedded into the structural foundations of a smaller community like it would be in a much larger city.
LKern: I raise this question a little bit in the book, that when we think about gender friendly cities and spaces, we do talk a lot about making it easier for women to juggle the many roles that they have, but is that the end game? Just to make it easier for women to do all of the extra work that they are overburdened with? Or do we need to think about a more radical re-envisioning and redistribution of all of this work across all sectors? I always want to keep that in mind: in the short term, yes, there have to be ways to lighten the load; but in the long term, we need a much deeper restructuring of how we do things.
LRK: And in the book you talk about community or cooperative spaces, where there might be multiple families living together, and a lot of the domestic work, like cooking and cleaning, is shared by those families. But it also seems like, even in those cooperative spaces, the care work remains on the women, albeit to share. Would you agree with that, or am I presuming that’s the case, reading too deeply (or not deeply enough) into the idea of those spaces?
LKern: No, I think that’s probably a strong possibility of those spaces, where “traditional” roles get reproduced. And partly that’s shaped by these broader structures, and this applies not only to those people living in “alternative” living situations but to all families, really. Because of things like a persistent, gendered wage gap, for example, it makes sense—it’s logical, Lauren—that the person with the higher paying job, who just coincidentally happens to be a man, would devote more of his time to his career. Or that we’d prioritize that job if we’re thinking about moving, or thinking about how and when to have children—and how many children, and who to look after them. So, even in individual families where people think, “Oh, we can do something different. We don’t believe in those traditional gender roles,” things outside are set up to reproduce traditional roles, whether you want to adhere to them or not. Because how many people can really make the decision to have the higher earner go to part-time, or to take time off for parental leave, or, god forbid, to stop working altogether in order to devote more time to care work. It rarely happens.
LRK: How are those “broader structures” changed, then? Apart from your activism—which seems crucial to your knowledge and understanding of the feminist city and is, indeed, a chapter in your book—are you and others in your field working on the ground with city planners and policy-makers? You use the term “gender mainstreaming” in the book. What do those intersections, between urban geographers and those who are implementing these questions and decisions, look like?
LKern: One of the things that I tried to do with the book, and the reason it’s called a “field guide” is that the first step in a lot of this is a noticing—in part noticing the built environment, the city around us. These are things that have existed long before our generation. They’re just there. They’re the water that we swim in, the air that we breathe. We don’t tend to think a lot about why a place is set up the way that it’s set up; or, if we do, we assume that somebody with a lot of wisdom and careful forethought has planned this all out for us in what is surely the most logical and thoughtful and economical way to do so. And the point of the field guide, and the point of so much feminist geography and feminist urban work, is to see the built environment in a different way and to see the ways in which it interacts with those social systems of work, and care, and sexuality, and gender roles, and all of these things, in order to shape our behavior in certain ways, or to encourage certain sorts of social relations to continue to exist.
So, in terms of things like gender mainstreaming and feminist planners, feminist geographers, and feminist urban scholars influencing relations at the level of city politics and city planning, there are a lot of examples of that around the world, but it’s kind of come and gone in waves. It had a moment in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in Canadian cities, for example, but much of that has fallen away, due to each city’s neoliberal or austerity policies that have cut-back on things like a Status of Women Office, or Equity Offices, which used to be the places where some of this work was done. In some European cities, like Vienna, which is often held up as this prime example of gender mainstreaming, they’ve definitely tried harder to imbed in a more permanent way an approach that insists that, basically, every decision that is made, regarding planning, policy, budgeting, etc., has to run through a gender or more broad equity lens, to figure out, “If we do this thing, does it enhance gender equity, or does it work against gender equity? Or is it kind of neutral?” That’s more embedded in their process. We still have a long way to go when thinking about whether every city has a policy like this. In some areas, I think there’s been a greater impact, particularly in areas like safety, where we do have some victories to point to, in terms of getting cities to take women’s safety more seriously. But we still have a long way to go.
LRK: You cite many woman poets and fiction writers in this book, and there seems to be a very distinct connection between literature and how urban geographers engage with their imaginations. Can you talk a little bit about how poets and authors like Adrienne Rich, Charlotte Brontë, Virgina Woolf, and Elena Ferrante operate in the book?
LKern: In some ways, these authors are helpful reminders for me and for my readers that these ideas are not new-fangled, twenty-first century ideas. In fact, women have been writing about these sorts of urban experiences for a long time and in many different ways. In Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, the character of Lucy Snowe is momentarily liberated from small town life and realizes that the city is a place that engenders all of these feelings that she didn’t even know she could have. Or Virginia Woolf, long held up as a feminist icon in a variety of ways, her writing about cities is really interesting—the ways in which she found some of the freedom and independence that we laud her for was also connected to her urban life. And what that urban life actually afforded her has historically and continues to be less available to women living in smaller towns or rural contexts. The city has long been a place where women have been able to express themselves in different ways, and a lot of the art and literature and popular culture that has sprung from that is what we can look to for ideas about how the city could be, how women could experience the city, and, as I’ve said, as a reminder of the fact that people have been talking about this for a long time. We don’t completely have to reinvent it right now.
LRK: You state early on in the book that the lenses through which you wrote Feminist City were those of feminist and urban thinkers and designers, and yet you begin, foundationally, with the body, particularly with the geographic body and its reclamation, as they’re presented by poet Adrienne Rich in her well-known and oft-cited “Notes Toward a Politics of Location.” There is also the understanding that geography as you understand and study it is about “the human relationship to our environment, both human-built and natural.” This is, of course, just as equally a foundational sentiment for environmental studies that intersect with humanities: ecocriticism, eco- and nature-writing. As an urban geographer, how are you engaging with these kinds of texts?
LKern: Good question. In my day job at Mount Allison, and also as a researcher, one of things that I write and teach about is environmental justice, so that’s something that’s very close to my heart, and of course the urban aspects of environmental justice, in terms of environmental injustices, are things I try to be aware of, and I think I probably could have written more about that in the book. I touch on it a tiny bit here and there, noting that with women and children in urban environments, there are a lot of disparities in how people experience those environments—related to health, related to questions of environmental pollution, and environmental exposures.
So, I do take some inspiration from that environmental justice work, because it does remind us (to go back to the earlier part of your question) about the very embodied nature of living in cities, which is something that in some ways the technical, rational, and supposedly objective intellectual pursuit of planning has kind of ignored in favor of thinking about certain kinds of mobilities, and efficiencies, and economic logistics. We’ve kind of forgotten that cities are made up of people—and not just people; the more-than-human environment, as well, but people are bodies, and bodies require certain kinds of care, and space, and safety, and pleasure. These things are actually really important. The environmental connection is one way to remember that, that our interactions with the environment are embodied, sensory interactions. And sometimes those interactions are pleasurable, life-enhancing, and sometimes those interactions are very dangerous. Starting from the geography of the body is a great way to open up bigger questions about things like justice, and equity, and cities, and accessibility—because if we don’t start from the body, we can end up with a city that doesn’t serve us very well.
LRK: You’ve written in the book, “Climate change is bringing serious challenges to questions of where and how we live.” How do you think climate refugee-ism might change the way we envisage and plan our urban—and rural—spaces?
LKern: It seems clear that—and it’s already happening in some places—climate change is coming for us in the global north, as well. People are going to be flocking to certain places and flocking away from others. You don’t have to be an urban geographer to look at a map and know that many of the world’s great cities—its economic powerhouses, its oldest cities—are port cities, cities on shorelines, and these cities are going to be heavily impacted. Where we live, how we live, how our economy is organized—it’s all going to get shifted in a variety of ways. This question of climate refugee-ism, of where people are going—first of all, we need to have wider recognition that climate refugee-ism is a thing. Many places are still in denial that something like climate change can be grounds for something like international refugee status, and we’re still dealing with these things on a crisis-by-crisis basis: “Yearly, this place floods. We’ll just move everyone to a shelter, again.” We’re dealing with it on a rolling contingency basis, rather than thinking about long-term planning.
For me, when thinking about ways climate refugee-ism intersects with ideas of the feminist city, I want to keep in mind that as we think about longer term climate planning, that we don’t ignore the fact that our cities are already very much structured around inequalities of gender, race, class, age, disability, etc. We don’t want to move to a climate-ready future that reproduces those social inequalities or perhaps makes them worse. How can we bring together social justice-related planning with our climate-related planning? I don’t have a precise answer to that question; I just know that they need to be considered together.
LRK: Your book seems to positing that a feminist city necessarily means not only a physically accessible city, but a safe(r) city, a city where women can trust. A chapter in your book on relationships between women, “City of Friends,” seems intrinsic to this idea. Can you speak a little more toward those ideas, how they intersect?
LKern: I like the way you’ve put that, this question of trust. That’s really interesting. There’s a sort of tension that I talk about in the book between women being socialized into seeing the public realm as something fearful or violent, and actually experiencing throughout our lives violence in public spaces that allows that fear to fester and to remain deep-seated. And then on the other hand, the fact that we’re supposed to see the home and heterosexual relationships with men, or patriarchal relationships with our fathers and families, as places of safety. Of course we know that the home is not a place of safety for many, if not most, women at some point in our lives. There’s that kind of tension going on in an urban environment, and those two problems have been seen for so long as separate—that we can attempt to do something about domestic violence over here, and we can attempt to something about public safety and public space over there, and that those two things are not related. But for feminists, I think we know that they are related and that making a dent in one of those problems would necessitate thinking critically about the other, as seeing them as more interrelated.
Thinking about this question of friendship, or relationships among women, or different kinds of kinship networks can be a way of thinking about how we set up our cities, our social relationships, and our social safety nets in ways that don’t rely so heavily on the traditional, hetero-patriarchal family with all of its issues and problems. If we can imagine our cities as places where everybody has a variety of options of family—not just your blood or marital relations, but your friendship-based family, your work-based family, your neighborhood-based family, then the potential for safety in a broad sense is really enhanced by making those relationships more robust and better supported by our cities.
LRK: You cite Georg Simmel when writing about a “blasé attitude” and anonymity being a part of urban psychology. You write, “If the urbanite’s blasé attitude toward others is what allows each of us to maintain some sense of privacy in the crowd, its loss made me feel very public.” If a blasé attitude is a necessary component to the flâneuserie, wouldn’t women and other marginalized bodies be exempt from that, our maneuvering through space rarely carefree? Additionally, motherhood, which biologically can be a possible experience of womanhood, has, in your experience, negated the flâneuse’s indifference: “It’s hard to play the detached observer when the fleshy, embodied acts of parenthood are on full display.” I don’t know if I have a particular or pointed question for you, but I’d love it if you could speak to those ideas as you present them in the book.
LKern: Questions about anonymity, for example, have long been a thread through urban sociology, urban literature, and urban social geography. Anonymity, a sense of invisibility, of being a stranger amongst strangers is something that so many people who live in cities or who move to cities cite as something that they really value—in contrast to small town experiences, where anonymity is much less likely or harder to come by. There’s an idea that anonymity has provided a level of freedom for people to not be so locked into traditional roles—like traditional gender roles, but also gender presentation, sexuality, a critical mass of other people who are more like them, or people who do not want to stand out as much based on their own embodiment (whether that’s racialized, or whether it has to do with ability). The city is a place where difference blends in, because there is more diversity in most cities.
But as you point out, and as I try to make clear in the book, this anonymity is not really evenly distributed, and the ability to kind of enjoy that anonymity can be rudely interrupted for many people. So, whether you are being followed around a store because you’re Indigenous or a person of color, or whether you’re being cat-called on the street because you’re a woman, those moments of anonymity evaporate and are often replaced by fear or a sense of exclusion, not belonging. Paying attention to that nuanced experience is something that we need to do when we think about what it is that people really want and value in cities. There is something kind of magical about millions of strangers living amongst each other with relatively little conflict on a day-to-day basis. Where we do see conflict, what is that arising from? How does that relate to our perceptions of social difference, and our own experiences of that social difference?
LRK: In Feminist City, you cite many female-presenting scholars and geographers; I noticed a lack of male-presenting sources. Was this an intentional leaving-out, or are there so few male feminist scholars and geographers who are doing work relevant to yours?
LKern: It’s definitely a bit of both. Citation practices in academia have been something that are more widely talked about recently—in terms of the ways in which those practices are so crucial to how knowledge is reproduced and transmitted to new generations of scholars, and the ways in which those practices prop up hierarchical power relations that, of course, mimic the power relations of race, class, sexuality in wider society. As a feminist, I’m trying to be really attentive to my citation practices, which means thinking about a level of diversity and what it means to amplify voices that don’t get cited as often in the literature. On the other hand, you’re right; in my area of geography and urban geography, there is a wonderful community of critical geographers or justice-oriented geographers who care very much about inequality, but the work that tends to be done about issues like gender or race or sexuality is often done by scholars who themselves identify with the communities and the issues that they’re writing about. There is not as much done by male-presenting or cis male geographers that is explicitly feminist in the way that I wanted to mobilize those concepts in my book. But a lot of those people are cited endlessly, and so, they’re okay if they’re not cited in my book. They’re doing fine.
LRK: Your answer kind of segues into another question I had. On your website, you have a page dedicated to feminist research methods. The pieces you cited on that page are those you’ve co-authored: one about joy and one about online research. You’re also a career coach. Can you talk a little bit about how urban feminist theory intersects these other parts of your life?
LKern: To be a feminist scholar in any discipline is to always question knowledge production, meaning how we know what we know, how we get the knowledge that we have. For many of us that means really digging into these questions of methodology, which are the links between your theory, your research methods, and how they match up together. This can encompass everything from thinking about your research ethics, your relationships to or among your research participants and with the communities you write about. It has to do with questions like citation, like who is your knowledge coming from and how you’re making use of that knowledge. For me, questions of methodology are always either just underneath the surface or bubbling through the surface of my work, because I want to be attentive always to how I know what I know, and what kind of new knowledge is being produced or being put out into the world in a different way.
In terms of my coaching practice, I definitely try to imbue that with a feminist, anti-oppressive ethos, in thinking about how people’s careers and their work lives are not just structured by their struggles with procrastination or anxiety, but how those are also social issues, how they’re structured by inequalities in academia and inequalities more broadly speaking. So being able to translate that kind of intersectional analysis into how I might facilitate my clients’ ways of thinking differently or doing differently in their work lives is something that I try to be conscious of.
LRK: In the book you write that “women as drivers of gentrification.” Can you speak a little more about how, in a feminist city, that might change?
LKern: Going back to this earlier topic, women struggling to juggle unpaid care responsibilities with work lives and careers, moving back to the city is one way that some households—relatively privileged households—have been able to manage that. Of course, it’s also been a strategy for somewhat less privileged households, like single mother households, because being physically closer to schools, places of employment, social services, and retail and commercial needs can make that juggling just a little bit easier. Although, as I’ve argued, it’s still not seamless or perfect, even in the city. In many cases, often inadvertently, that has driven gentrification, because it can bring an influx of middle class homeowners or people with a lot of cultural capital into lower-income neighborhoods as they’re trying to figure out ways to manage these paradoxes of their daily lives.
A feminist city has to be one that is built around greater levels of housing equality and housing access. In order for gentrification, and displacement that often follows gentrification, not to happen, there has to be affordable housing; there has to be rent control; there has to be accessible housing for people with disabilities and for elderly people; there have to be strong systems in place that protect renters so that displacement is not so easy to achieve. But on the other hand, questions around having things like a nationally-funded childcare program that relieves the burden of all of that unpaid work falling on women’s shoulders, are also connected, because if we have something like that in place, then maybe crowding into certain urban neighborhoods is not the only solution that women feel is available to them.
LRK: Finally, I want to return to Adrienne Rich’s “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” which as you’ve put it, is a “politics of asking women’s questions.” What is a question you’ve wanted to be asked, about Feminist City or otherwise, that you haven’t yet been asked? (I don’t want you to have to do the work of conjuring your own interview question, but I want to give you the space to speak about something you haven’t yet been given the opportunity to speak about.)
LKern: Already you’ve asked some that I haven’t been asked before, about citation and methodology. One thing that I haven’t been asked about and one that I write about in the book is cultures of protest and activism in cities. I really wanted to include that in the book, both because it is a part of my own experiences, and because part of how I come to know what I know and believe what I believe about cities is through moments of activism and protest, through moments of connection with other activists and engaging in different sorts of movements—sometimes by choice, like going to protests; other times not so much, like being on strike. All of those experiences have been incredibly illuminating of social and spatial dynamics that were not previously visible to me, and they serve as a reminder that, as much as I write at various points about the need for city planning to do this or city politics to do that, I don’t have a lot of faith in those structures in waking up and being like, “Let’s be more feminist about this!” Most of these changes, anything that’s been won, have been connected to a social movement that has occasionally taken to the streets and has engaged in various sorts of radical actions to push for what different communities want and need.
Now, as I point out in the book, some of those movements have not been particularly intersectional in their approach and sometimes have been deliberately excluding towards different groups, and that’s something to be really aware and conscious about so that we don’t reproduce either a white feminism or a cis feminism that ends up being harmful to women of color, trans women, queer women, or disabled women. But I do think that the days of protest are not over, and this is something that is going to be an ongoing need—for people to be willing to put themselves physically out there. You know, when we can gather again. Whatever an age of protest looks like in a post-pandemic world. In some ways, we don’t just wait for people to give us things. It’s never worked in the past, and I don’t think it’s something that’s going to start working in the future.