What Would a Feminist City Look Like? Talking with Leslie Kern

“What we build and how we build influences the kinds of families and relationships that we can have or can even imagine.”

What might the feminist city look like? Recent events, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the murder of George Floyd, have added urgency to that question. The gendered dynamics of following shelter-in-place orders, for example, have meant many women now must take on additional care work. At the same time, calls for police abolition also demand inclusive urban imaginaries that might reconfigure the city in radical, more just ways. As generations of feminist urban scholarship has demonstrated, the city can be both an exciting and an enervating space to enact alternative modes of belonging, but may also foreclose possibilities of gender equality. From shopping malls to surveillance, policing to parks, feminism must contend with a host of practices that define our urban environments.

In her timely new book, Feminist City, Leslie Kern confronts many of these urban practices, revealing their gendered implications. Drawing on her previous work analyzing real estate’s reliance on feminized tropes, she introduces readers to a number of different ways the city is at once emancipatory and endangering. She deploys an intersectional lens to explore such themes as mobility, protest, adolescence, and friendship, weaving together an impressive array of sources from academic writings and popular culture (Doreen Massey appears alongside Two Dope Queens). Kern is professor of geography and environment and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University. She recently sat down with Sophie Gonick, professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU and urbanism editor of Public Books.

Sophie Gonick (SG): Feminist City is coming out in a moment that is unprecedented, and the book speaks to some of the questions around COVID and also around protest and Black Lives Matter. But I want to think about how this notion of “the feminist city” interacts with the experience of lockdown, which has so clearly been gendered, in addition to being inflected by race and class.


Leslie Kern (LK): In Feminist City, I write about how care work has been an afterthought in cities, and how women’s underpaid and unpaid work has been made invisible by so many aspects of how our cities and suburbs are set up. This work is becoming much more visible now. The pandemic and the lockdown have revealed a reliance on what we’ve now come to call “essential workers,” many of whom are underpaid people doing “women’s work” or feminized work in the care industry and the service sector.

These are not new problems for the city, but what the pandemic is doing for a lot of people is pulling back the curtain on a system that has been relying on unpaid or underpaid women’s labor for time immemorial. Feminized labor and increasingly racialized labor, many have realized, are required to literally keep the city functioning—to literally keep the urban economy, the national economy, and the global economy ticking along. It’s like one of those shaky 3-D puzzles, where if you start to pull some of the pieces out—whether it’s child care, people working in nursing homes, or the schooling system—then the whole thing is going to come crumbling down.



SG: One of the things that I write about in my work on Madrid is how immigrant women working as home help enabled the entire Spanish urban boom to take place. But one of the things that’s so interesting about that vocabulary of “the essential worker” is that it strips bare how so much work is not essential: like, we don’t need the hedge funder, but we do need the bus driver and the garbage person, the delivery worker.


LK: Yeah. I think too about the home: how those who are in power and make policies imagine that the home is just a neat, self-sustaining, individualized unit. They don’t recognize that home work relies on public and private services: child care being an obvious one, and schooling, but even cleaners and personal care workers. When those services are no longer able to function, then the home itself becomes barely sustainable as a unit of society. We often don’t like to think about that. But now that we’ve all been crammed back into our homes, the limitations become clear. And then, of course, there is the more serious issue of violence in the home, which is exploding during the pandemic, according to worldwide accounts.


Building a Society that Values Care

By Kathryn Cai

SG: It’s interesting that this question of the home is at the center of your book, even while it’s not explicitly discussed.


LK: That’s a great observation. One of the points that I keep coming back to is how the home and housing really have to underpin any thinking about the feminist city.

So on the one hand, there’s affordable housing, which to me is one of the absolute cornerstones of any concept of the feminist city. But I’m also thinking about exploding even further the traditional nuclear family home, which remains an assumed norm despite characterizing a minority of households in many cities around the world.

So in the chapter on friendship, I talk about other kinds of kinship networks and how we might support those spatially. What changes could we imagine in our cities that would allow us to deepen our relationships beyond romantic intimate relationships, which now seem like the cornerstone of society?


SG: You point out that friendship is not central to a lot of discussions about cities. In reading about your own teenage friendships, I was thinking about how my early teenage years exploring my native city are so foundational to how I understand and still think about San Francisco, even though the city now is really different.

Can you speak to the influence of women’s friendships on cities?


LK: I was partly inspired to include that section by other feminist writing about friendships: in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and in Erin Wunker’s book Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. First of all, thinking about girls’ urban interventions is a very, very tiny subfield of urban geography. We don’t tend to think of girls as making urban space or being active participants in urban space in the same way that we can more easily imagine boys’ and male youths’ activity in urban space. Sometimes we imagine it quite problematically, but at least we can imagine it, right? So I wanted to talk about the ways that girls, especially through their friendships, find space in the city.

That feeds into this bigger question of how we imagine kinship in the city. Friendship is your whole world when you’re a child and a teenager, and then its level of importance in your life starts to diminish as a greater focus on a romantic partnership and children tends to take all of your interpersonal energy. And we’re made to believe that that’s just the way it should be.

SG: As you allude to in the book, there are numerous ways that we all for a long time have been engaged in informal networks in order to do care work. In the neighborhood in San Francisco where I grew up, which was just on the cusp of gentrification, we had a babysitting co-op. That relates to the housing question, where there are new models of creating community. What do you think about these alternative structures?


LK: In terms of the babysitting co-op, we know the phenomenon of other-mothering in communities of color, Black communities where people will share mothering responsibilities in a more communal way. There’s an informal reliance on other women in neighborhoods, housing projects, and apartment buildings to create a kind of safety net for you and your children. But there might be a racial bias against even seeing that phenomenon, because it’s maybe not as common in upper-income or white communities, and we just don’t pay much attention to it.

Of course, it’s important to recognize that just because we don’t culturally value friendship doesn’t mean that women don’t make their own networks. But what if we didn’t devalue friendship over the course of our lives? What would that allow for in cities?


SG: On the topic of kinship ties and new structures of homemaking, the questions are also very global. The anthropologist Teresa Caldeira has written recently about some of the neighborhoods that she’s worked in for decades, where she’s charted the emergence of new arrangements like two single women raising their children together. This is partly a response to gender violence, a way of escaping situations of spousal abuse.

In a “feminist city,” how do you imagine new types of kinship relations that we can enter into?


LK: When you start to untangle that a bit, you start to see how our property legislation regimes, taxation regimes, and family law all interweave with one another to make something like what you just described—two women joining households and raising their children together—really difficult in many places.

In Canada, there was a landmark case in 2017 concerning two women, Natasha Bahkt and Lynda Collins, who were not in a romantic relationship but who were best friends. Natasha became a single mother to Elaan, a baby boy with disabilities requiring a lot of care and coordination. The courts allowed Collins to become an adoptive parent to Natasha’s son, Elaan, in recognition of the fact that Lynda was effectively Elaan’s second mother, despite the fact that they weren’t conjugal partners. That’s very rare, but it sets a precedent that hopefully can be expanded. Those questions about legal guardianship are so deeply entrenched in all our systems, as are questions about who can pick the kids up from school, who can take them to a doctor appointment and get them vaccinated, and whose name is on the title to a property or on a lease.


Mother Courage

By Annamarie Jagose et al.

SG: Some of the housing movements in the North Atlantic, like the Spanish Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH—Platform for People Affected by Mortgages), which I write about, are pushing for all sorts of new and exciting ways of living together. The issue with those efforts is that a lot of people do just want to live within the heteronormative nuclear family model. How do we undo or remake that structure?


LK: Different cultural norms around privacy, noise, communal space, communal access to resources—these are hard norms to shift. Living in those kinds of situations, you also don’t immediately destroy gender norms that exist in a culture. So all of those power relations can just get reestablished in different ways.


SG: In a city like New York, there is also a growing number of people who are not going the marriage-and-children route—or are at least delaying it significantly. I’m thinking of Rebecca Traister’s book All the Single Ladies. Your book made me think of the ways alternative kinship structures are so important.


LK: In my previous research on gender and condos in the city of Toronto, I found that developers recognized that young women were a prime market for their condos. But the developers imagined it as just a life stage that women would move through before eventually moving on to a single-family home, a marriage, and children.

So it’s interesting how those ideas take urban form—they take root in glass and steel and brick in our cities. What we build and how we build then influences the kinds of families and relationships that we can have or can even imagine.

SG: In relation to your work on the neoliberal cooptation of urban space, I’m wondering whether you know about the social club the Wing or have come across it?


LK: No, I don’t think so.


SG: It was started by Audrey Gelman, who is kind of an It girl in New York, as an alternative social club for women that you have to pay for, and everything’s pink. The Wing is now all over the world, and they’re very successful but have also faced accusations of racism. I’ve been surprised that there are feminist writers who are members and who post about it on Twitter.

But these are spaces that are, in a certain way, very self-consciously “feminist” but also reinforce class and racial hierarchies. So much corporate urban feminism these days operates that way. How does that trend fit into your concept of the feminist city?


LK: In the book, I talk about this very easy slippage among “feminist” spaces, or women’s empowerment and women claiming space in the city, and gentrification practices. If we’re not careful, they really will dovetail together.

One could say that it is a legitimate feminist concern for women to ask for certain things—whether it’s safety for women in cities, or access to different kinds of spaces that women have been excluded from both explicitly and implicitly in cities over time, or even the access that mothers have to urban spaces. Too often, the accommodations that might make spaces comfortable and safe and welcoming for women are also straight-up gentrification tactics, which align really neatly with corporate visions of the city, developer visions of the city, and pro-growth visions of the city meant to eliminate signs of disorder.

As you were mentioning a minute ago, all of these visions are fully inflected with race, class, and national cultural identity. So the kinds of spaces and social organizations that get created, they tend to look very much like an urban revitalization vision.

SG: The book contains a section on protest, where you reflect on the idea of protesting in the streets in a very poignant and personal way. Could you talk about the feminist city in relation to this moment of protest?


LK: At this moment, we see a continual need for people to re-up the question of police violence against Black women. There is a need for people to be constantly reminded to listen to the voices of Black women, and from what I can see there are so many Black women who are leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.

But we also have to ask questions like, “Who is the media talking to?” “Whose faces and voices get censored, and who is left to the side?”

In the book I talk a little bit about Black Lives Matter Toronto shutting down the 2016 Pride Parade, which at the time caused so much controversy but now seems so ahead of its time. What they were pushing for was no police in Pride and not censoring Black and Indigenous groups’ voices. They were pointing out the disproportionate harm that policing does to those communities and the problems within the broader, corporatized Pride movement. So I think there is already a lot of work on the ground to put women’s voices, queer voices, trans voices at the front of a lot of this protest.


SG: Through the lens of the feminist city, what would this question of policing look like?


LK: That’s a great question. In the book, I talk about how a feminist city can’t rely on the police as a source of protection because there is just too much harm that comes from policing. I wish I had stated even more forcefully an abolitionist vision, which was implicit in my own mind; but now I feel that I really need to be clear about this.

That’s one of the tensions around an idea of a feminist city: acknowledging these immense amounts of violence against women that occur primarily in the home and private spaces, but that also occur or are threatened against women on a regular basis on public streets. That is not something that is going to melt away.

Thinking about those questions in relation to policing can raise, for some people, this really uncomfortable question of whether we just ignore all of that violence against women. But we have to take a step back and ask what increased policing has actually done to ameliorate violence against women, both in the home and in public places. We know that reported violence is but a tiny tip of the iceberg, and then convictions for crimes against women are just snowflakes on top of the iceberg. So, you know, the criminal justice system hasn’t been the answer.


Bleached Atmospheres of Dread

By Alecia Simmonds

SG: Yeah. I’ve had conversations with a friend of mine who works in criminal defense who’s hugely in favor of restorative justice processes. I know that there are experiments in restorative justice occurring in some places—like methods to address domestic violence. But that is a very difficult topic, because this gets to the question of actually dismantling the white heterosexist patriarchy. Where do you even begin?


LK: Exactly, because the ideal is not just how do we address violence after it happens, right? We want to be thinking about: How do you absolutely minimize the amount of violence in society? Those are questions that relate to radical change in how we do everything, from education to child rearing to antipoverty. It’s amazing to me that we can even have a conversation about defunding the police or abolishing the police. That’s a huge step, but people are emphasizing that it’s not just about yanking the police out of society or shutting down every prison immediately. It’s also about a radical transformation from the ground up. The question is not “What do you do with the criminals?” It’s “How do you not create criminals in the first place?”


SG: I don’t know if you saw this clip that went viral of a Black woman teacher who was interviewed at one of the protests, and she gives this beautiful response to one of the questions, saying that one of the reasons she’s out there is her son. This was when we had a curfew here in New York, and the interviewer asked her whether she was going to observe the curfew. And she said, “Of course I’m going to observe the curfew. I have to go home and take care of my son.” There have been all these slogans like “Protest is not a luxury,” but it actually sometimes is a luxury, you know? Who actually can be in the streets? Who can risk being arrested? Who can be on the front lines?


LK: That is an important question about women and mothers being involved in protests, especially for Black or Indigenous women of color, knowing that the state is always just a heartbeat away from trying to take your kids into foster care. That would be, I think, a really terrifying damper on your ability to be on the streets, to risk getting arrested, to go out after curfew.

When we think about structural violence and state violence, the conversation has shifted toward sending social workers in lieu of police. But some people are pointing out that social workers are often a really problematic arm of white supremacy that’s a bit like the white woman arm of the police. For so many communities of color and Indigenous communities, that’s not necessarily the answer, because deploying social workers has been a way for the state to enforce white supremacist power over families.

That’s part of this gender question that we sometimes ignore when we, not without cause, focus on the public violence of the police against individuals, particularly Black men. There’s also this less visible, day-to-day violence that permeates the home.


From the Archive: Police Brutality

By The Editorial Staff

SG: And there are huge amounts of domestic violence among the ranks of the police.


LK: Well, exactly. Again, this is especially recognized against women of color, Black women, Indigenous women: when they do call the police because of a domestic violence incident, they’re sometimes arrested because of an old warrant or just because, so they are criminalized in their search for help. Certainly that has always happened to sex workers as well, who at times reach out to the police for help, and it doesn’t result in any great outcomes for them.

So there’s no easy answer. But it’s clear that policing has not been the answer to questions about violence against women.


SG: One of the things that I think is so impressive about this book is your citation practice. You are clearly citing a wide swath of authors, but also a lot of women, a lot of women of color and a lot of Indigenous women. What are your thoughts on that?


LK: I did make an effort to be conscious of that. I did actually go through my initial footnote list and try to count in terms of gender balance and racial balance. And then that made me go back and think about places where I could try to do better. So it’s a process. As an academic, it’s a struggle to change citation practices because of the expectations in the field. The people whose names you expect to see again and again often are the same white men. Even if you’re trying not to censor their work, there’s just an expectation that it will be there. I’ve even had other women ask why I didn’t talk about certain people—almost assuming that I don’t know their work. It’s not that their work is necessarily bad, but they don’t need any more publicity. They’re fine.


This article was commissioned by Sophie Gonickicon

Featured image: Leslie Kern. Photograph by Mitchel Raphael. Used with permission