Feminist city

In Conversation with Leslie Kern by Valentina Pigmei

I hadn’t read such a visionary and at the same time necessary, topical and balanced study for a long time. Full of surprising reflections, but also ideas to put into practice, this book answered all my questions on the city and feminism and brought up other unexplored ones too. It might be because Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World by Leslie Kern is not just a book, but a map. The essays that fascinate me most are the ones that set off from a place, from the future and not the past. It’s so rare for geography and not history to be the starting point, and at times the point of arrival, of a contemporary essay. Feminist City is an ideal map, an atlas of possibility, compiled by a Canadian feminist geographer. Kern starts from herself and her experience as a mother between Toronto, London and the small Canadian town where she teaches today, to tell us what a city suited to women should and could be like, a city where women are finally welcomed, facilitated and supported by an urban and social fabric which – it seems so obvious! – takes them into account. One of the most interesting chapters is called “City of Possibility”, giving examples of new alternative urban spaces, little feminist cities that pop up around the different neighbourhoods. All we need to do, Kern says, is to learn to spot them and cultivate them. “Feminist City is an ongoing experiment in living differently, living better, and living more justly in an urban world.” If you think there’s no need for feminism or safe places for women, you’re wrong. 

VP: Today it’s a sad day for women in Italy: in 24 hours four women were killed by their partners or husbands. An Italian politician (female) comments: this is a “defeat of a Nation”. From the north to the south of Italy, it seems a real catastrophe. Obviously these are horrible days for Afghan women as well. Whose responsability is it? Politics? Other women?

LK: I would say that a global, patriarchal system is responsible (and of course, sometimes women uphold this system, too). Around the world, women face daily threats of domestic violence, and they’re the most vulnerable, the first to be harmed when there is war, conflict or other disasters. What I’m sure of is that violence against women is still not taken as seriously as it should be, either at home or globally. 

You wrote your book before the pandemic exploded. What has it taught us? 

The pandemic has made some of the conditions that contribute to violence against women worse: isolation in the home, economic uncertainty, job loss and stress. The pandemic has been a reminder that for many people, women and children especially, the home is not a safe place. I hope the pandemic has taught us one thing: that the isolation of the single-family household is not beneficial to women, both because of violence but also because of the expectation that women will do most of the unpaid care labour in the home. I think many women were forced out of paid work because of this expectation and this is an immense setback that it will take decades to recover from.

“When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities”, wrote Elena Ferrante, in My Brilliant Friend, the story of two friends as they grow up to become women, and a city, Naples. Is love an essential element for the Feminist City? 

I love this quote. And yes, I think it’s an essential element, in that we all require love and care, and our cities could and should be places where relationships among people – romantic, familial, friendship and so on – are fostered and nurtured. We can do this in cities by creating joyful, accessible, safe public spaces for people to meet and share time together.

Poet and essay writer Adrienne Rich has said that women’s bodies are our “closest geography”. It’s often said that if women were in control, there’d be less violence, less pollution and more services for children. Why is it so important to start from our bodies’ experiences?

It’s important to acknowledge that we all experience through our bodies, and that not all bodies are the same. City politicians and planners are typically very focused on the economy and often forget that real humans with real bodies have to be able to live in and enjoy the city too.

Not just women but men can also live a better life in the feminist city! As you explain in your book, if we could reduce commuting and there were more services for mums, cities would be less polluted and that would benefit everyone.  

A classic example is the “15-minute city”, a town planning model in which all the services you need are no more than 15 minutes away on foot or by bike. Yes, there are a lot of similarities between the 15-minute city idea and feminist ideas about the need to integrate spaces of home, work, school, services, public transit and green areas. When these different places are closely connected, it becomes much easier to manage the worlds of work and the home.

In 2019 I founded a social association called “La città delle donne”. Seeing as we live in Gubbio, a medieval town, we took the name from a book called Cité des Dames by Christine de Pizan which dates from 1405. Pizan wrote about an imaginary city that was a space of independence and freedom for virtuous women…She was a protofeminist geographer! 

Thank you for sharing the story about this pioneering feminist…Women have been imagining, designing and even building their own homes, neighbourhoods and communities for centuries. We can learn a lot from those “old” ideas. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several women put forward (and in some cases actually built) houses and communities that were meant to relieve women of domestic burdens. For example, women proposed “kitchen-less houses” and utopian communities where care work was done collectively or by well-paid workers.

“I read; I travel; I become” wrote the poet Derek Walcott. Do you think travel really is essential for women?

In many cultures, travel is seen as a path towards self-actualization, so I’d certainly say that it’s very important for women to have equal access to the ability to travel safely and with enjoyment. However, not all women have this privilege. There are many ways to grow and learn and travel is just one of them.

Instead, as Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities, “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” What would you ask a city?

I’d ask “whose do you want to be?”

In the book you speak about transfeminism and intersectionality a lot…so much that I wonder why you didn’t call it the Transfeminist City.

I think that title would suggest that I was an expert on trans issues or that I felt I could speak for trans people, which, as a cisgender woman, I can’t. However, I did want to make it very clear in the book that the inclusion, safety and rights of transgender people are part of my vision of what the feminist city should be.

Continuing in this vein, I’d like to tell you a story, a real one, that happened a few weeks ago in Rome. A group of feminists from the Lucha y Siesta centre carried out what I think was a really successful act of subversion: they put together some “fake news”, with so much as a website and social media pages, about a new (inexistent) “pink” bus route through all the crucial feminist places in the city: women’s shelters, anti-violence centres, consultants, associations, feminist bookshops. The route linked the symbolic places in the fight against gender violence. In short, they drew an ideal, made-to-measure map of Rome for women as an act of rebellion against the municipality of Rome’s plans to auction off the Lucha y Siesta centre premises (atac-lineafuxia.com). 

I don’t know Italy, unfortunately. But I suspect that as in most places, cities were not built with women’s daily lives, responsibilities and needs in mind. I love the idea of the feminist bus route, because it highlights how transportation networks often fail women, since they don’t do a good job of connecting spaces of care to spaces of paid work, and they don’t take into account the fact that women’s journeys often look different than men’s on a day-to-day basis.

Anyway, in the end the women at Lucha y Siesta won and the women’s centre remained open. 

That is good news!

Talking of large cities like Rome, in your book you quote the feminist geographer Gerda Wekerle who wrote: “A woman’s place is in the city.” I disagree with this. I personally left Rome when I got pregnant to go and live somewhere outside the city. I don’t think that Italian cities are easy to live in either for women or, even less so, for mothers.  

As someone who lives in a small town myself, I agree that cities aren’t the only place for women, and that sometimes they’re too hostile, too expensive and too hard to navigate for all women’s responsibilities of home and work. The disadvantages to living in a small town include a lack of anonymity and a greater prevalence of more traditional views on family, marriage and sexuality. There’s less likely to be public transportation and sometimes services like health care are far away and difficult to access.