The Rise of the Feminized City
Leslie Kern on Women, Gentrification, and Public Spaces
The notion of women as property and restrictions on women being alone in urban public space have a long history. Elizabeth Wilson discusses the moral panic surrounding women’s increased visibility on the city streets in Victorian London. The term “public woman” is of course an old euphemism for a sex worker. The idea that women of status could somehow be mistaken for poor women or sex workers was cause for much hand-wringing and the reassertion of the need for women to be chaperoned by their husbands, brothers, fathers, or older women.
Women’s increased desire for independence in the city ushered in the era of the department store in Paris in the 1870s, a setting that was literally designed to be an appropriate public space for women. It would limit their contact with the unsavoury elements of the street but also allow them a measure of the freedom they so keenly sought. Émile Zola’s 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) offers a glimpse behind the scenes of a fictional store based on the first department store in Paris. Amidst the intrigues of the shopgirls, the owner’s love life, and the politics of a big business competing against local shops, Zola’s book shows how spectacles of consumption were designed to delight women’s senses. Spaces of shopping were thus amongst the first spaces where women (in the west at least) were permitted to claim public space.
Feminist geographers Liz Bondi and Mona Domosh write about the gendered patterning of city spaces in mid-19th century New York City, drawing on the diary of a middle-class visitor to the city, Sophie Hall. Although always accompanied by a woman friend during her daytime activities, Sophie’s detailed record of her visit illustrates how areas of the city were gendered in ways that allowed for some moderate freedoms for white women. For example, the “Ladies’ Mile” centred along Broadway and Sixth between Tenth and Twenty-third was the “city’s new consumer showpiece,” a public space that was considered “appropriately feminine.” Districts that included museums and art galleries were also part of Sophie’s itinerary. Again, these were activities “sanctioned by Victorian standards” and settings that “had been patterned to make them safe and appropriate for women.”
The late 19th-century industrial order required not only a commitment to production and hard work, it required a commitment to values of consumption. The gendering of “separate spheres” meant that production could be aligned with the world of men and consumption with the world of women. Women’s active participation in consumption activities, however, challenged the notion that their proper place was confined to the home and meant that women would need access to typically masculine spaces of the city in order to fulfill their roles as consumers. Lest this be too disruptive to Victorian norms, this change was “neutralized by the development in the 19th century of ‘feminized’ consumer spaces within the city—if women had to be on the streets of the masculine city, then those streets and stores had to be designed as ‘feminine’.” Importantly, this meant that women’s white bourgeois identities could be safely reinforced through their visibility in these spaces of proper femininity.
These spaces of consumption were open to women because in many ways they didn’t challenge women’s association with the home and the domestic sphere. By shopping for clothing, décor, and art, women were fulfilling their roles as caretakers of the hearth. Still today, a woman alone in these public spaces is properly “tethered” to the home. Even if she’s shopping for herself, or indulging in what we like to call “self-care” activities, her alone-ness doesn’t disrupt the normative gender order. The body, the intimate, self-care, and aesthetics are normatively women’s realms.
While standards for proper femininity have loosened somewhat since Victorian times, the range of places where women can be comfortably alone without seeming “out of place” isn’t so different. Although women today aren’t as restricted as dear Sophie Hall, who wasn’t even allowed to be seen eating or drinking in public, spaces of consumption, culture, and entertainment are still considered the most appropriate venues for women’s public lives. When I studied condominium development in Toronto, I analyzed hundreds of condo advertisements in terms of their gendered imagery. Images of women shopping, eating, drinking, and socializing were much more common than images of women going to work. There was a strong Sex and the City vibe to many of the ads: the excitement of city life for women was cast in terms of their access to the 24/7 leisure-and-consumption-scape of downtown Toronto and other “up and coming” neighborhoods.
Bondi and Domosh compare the freedoms and restrictions experienced by Sophie Hall on her 1879 New York trip to the experiences of Moira MacDonald, a divorced middle-class white woman from Edinburgh whom Bondi interviewed in 1991. While Moira has a professional job, owns her own home, and lives alone in a desirable, gentrifying neighbourhood, she feels constraints on her ability to comfortably access public spaces of the city. Despite a strong belief in gender equality at work and in the home, Moira doesn’t question the gendered norm that unmonitored city spaces (such as parks) are “imbued with a hostile masculinity” and thus are not safe spaces for her to be alone. Moira and Sophie share the need to adapt their behavior to their sense of gendered vulnerability.
Although today women are much more free to move within these spaces in the same ways as men (depending of course on social class and race), women remain acutely aware that to be alone outside of these “sanctioned” spaces is to be made vulnerable to unwanted attention and the threat of violence. As Bondi and Domosh note, “the public spaces of late-20th-century western cities are spaces of commercial consumer activities” that are “surveyed to create environments in which middle-class, feminine identities are fostered and protected,” much as the shopping spaces of the 19th century were. In this context, we can see that the freedom offered to women by contemporary city life is still bound by gendered norms about the proper spaces and roles of women in the city.
The feminization of urban space continues today. As global north cities have transitioned away from economies based on industrial manufacturing to economies based on knowledge and service work (so-called post-industrial economies), the more masculinized features of cities have changed. Spaces such as pubs, once either closed to women or gender segregated, have “softened” many of their more masculine attributes to appeal to women customers. Even donut shops (such as Canada’s Tim Hortons) and fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s have altered their aesthetics to embrace a homey, café quality suitable for families rather than truck drivers. Changes to color schemes, layouts, business names, furniture, and menus (more salads = more women!) alter the atmosphere to make them seem comfortable and safe for women. Geographers have linked these changes with gentrification, observing that working class sports bars and diners are closing and being replaced by “hipper” (and whiter) middle-class spaces without strong gender associations attached.
In one of my old neighborhoods in Toronto—the Junction—I experienced firsthand how a formerly industrial, working class area was gentrifying through the rise of feminized spaces that stood in stark contrast to the traditionally masculine spaces that had once dominated the area. Greasy diners, porn shops, pawn shops, and bars that catered to a mostly male, working class clientele were gradually replaced by yoga studios, nail salons, cafés, and organic grocery stores.
When I first moved to the Junction in early 2000, Dundas Street hosted few places that I’d have ventured into alone to have a coffee or a drink. Not because they were dangerous, but because they were clearly not catering to me as a young woman. And that’s okay—the neighborhood didn’t need to conform to my desires! But the Junction is an interesting example of how cities and neighborhoods use women’s comfort, pleasure, and safety as markers of successful revitalization. Indeed, women’s lack of comfort in certain spaces can be used as justification for a host of problematic interventions that increase danger for others, for example homeless people and people of color, in the pursuit of comfort for middle-class white women. In the Junction, the first sign of this feminization was the opening of a narrow little coffee shop called The Nook that had a small play area for children in the back.
The Nook was a clear example of what urban sociologists have called “a third place.” These are places that are neither home nor work, but are essential informal gathering spaces for communities. In her study of how Canadian urban dwellers understand their own use of specialty coffee shop chains such as Starbucks and Second Cup as urban spaces, sociologist Sonia Bookman notes that some consumers describe these cafés as “home away from home.” With a variety of soft furnishings, fireplaces, bookshelves, small tables for intimate conversation, and a general sense of hospitality, these cafés are quasi-public home spaces for many. It’s perhaps then not surprising that such cafés are places where women out alone feel welcome, comfortable, and reasonably safe. As “third places,” cafés carefully cultivate an environment (and of course a brand) where people can be alone, together. Given the long-standing restrictions on women’s ability to be alone in public, coffee shops are places where women can experience, in relative safety, the psychic pleasures of urban life: being anonymous in a crowd, people watching, taking up space, being alone with your thoughts while surrounded by others.
The increasing numbers of “feminized” quasi-public, quasi-home places like The Nook and the eventual (inevitable?) arrival of a Starbucks in the Junction were clear signs of gentrification. Spaces I’d once avoided—the donut shop with its parking lot full of men sitting on their cars smoking, greasy diners, sports bars—began to close their doors. Parents with expensive strollers ambled along the dirty pavements and soon the sounds of construction filled the air as condo developers found a ripe new market. It’s not lost on me that this transformation was in service of the preferences and desires of women like myself. And the link between a class transformation of city spaces and making them safer for women seems to have been accepted as common sense by developers, planners, and other boosters of “revitalization.” Of course, this assumption has an image of a particular kind of woman at its center: a white, able-bodied, middle-class, cis woman.
In the Junction, the limits of this vision were made clear via the experiences of women who resided for short-to-medium term stays at the Salvation Army’s Evangeline Women’s Shelter. These women experience serious, chronic poverty, even amidst the revitalization of the area. Their presence gradually became more and more out of place on the neighborhood’s sidewalks as gentrification encroached. Often forced to be alone in public by shelter rules that don’t allow them to stay inside all day, these women don’t easily experience the pleasure of being alone in the crowd. Rather than enjoying some people watching, the women from the shelter find themselves watched constantly. Their physical appearance, habits, and occasional expressions of mental illness mark them as “other,” even though the shelter has existed for many years and the Junction has long been home to a wide variety of poor, working class, disabled, or otherwise “different” folks.
In one example of how the simple act of being alone in public was made more difficult for the shelter’s residents, a café next door to the shelter removed an outside bench because customers complained that women from the shelter sat there to smoke. Although the café owner was sympathetic to the women in the shelter and engaged in supportive projects like providing holiday meals, she was pressured by the gentrifiers who frequented the café to “clean up” the space. This eliminated one spot where the women could safely be alone in public. In other cases, outward signs of trauma or mental illness exhibited by women were the subject of nasty diatribes by other community members debating the benefits of gentrification in the neighborhood via online community forums. Terms like “freak show” conveyed the hostility that some demonstrate towards women who don’t always behave in normative ways. These examples are reminders that as much as the freedom for some women to be alone in public has improved, the policing of others and the removal of safe spaces has simultaneously increased.
From Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World by Leslie Kern. Used with permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2020 by Leslie Kern.