What the book?! | Let’s build a ‘feminist city’ and lace it with misogyny by Leslie Kern

By Syirxh Ami

I hold many places close to my heart – Kuala Lumpur, Bristol and Singapore have all contributed to my worldview in some way. My politics are not shaped solely by reading books and engaging in social media, but also by the physical space around me. No amount of feminist theory against victim-blaming can stop me from subconsciously holding my keys in a fist as a nighttime precaution, but I often feel more secure walking in Bristol’s Clifton than Kuala Lumpur’s Bangsar. 

I’ve always been meaning to read more on feminist geography, especially after organising Bristol’s Reclaim The Night march. While my lived experience necessitates me to be aware of my surroundings, I also needed the language to analyse gendered spaces. Feminist City by Leslie Kern was suggested to me as an introductory piece.

The general plot  /  Feminist City’s the personal is political

Feminist City begins with the self; one’s lived experiences affect how they see the world, and as a cis white Jewish woman, Kern takes off by describing what it is like being pregnant in busy London. 

Second-wave feminists have historically used the slogan “the personal is political” – this is true in Kern’s writing, as the narrative of childcare and pregnancy feature heavily throughout the book. There are some aspects of childcare that I haven’t considered as a young woman who, well, doesn’t have a child. For example, cities are often the centrepieces of protests – just look at how huge the Black Lives Matter marches are in big cities. 

But, the lack of childcare spaces and accessibility issues within such cities play a part in how inclusive a protest is. I’ve recently seen people argue that parents shouldn’t bring their children to protests – but what message do we send to the next generation when our protests are only inclusive to cis men?

In a heterosexual nuclear family, women are the ones to take care of the kids when they are left at home.

Kern and the classes

Kern then flips the issue into a matter of class – who can outsource domestic work?

Middle-class women (often white) can pay nannies, babysitters and domestic workers (often Women of Colour), while they work at a much higher-paid job or go for a relaxing day. The image of a cafe with good lighting, serene background music and wafts of roasted coffee beans plays through my head; middle-class people sit in these, sometimes in gentrified neighbourhoods, while others cannot. Kern herself talks about the peace she felt when writing her research in a cafe, a refuge from being a full-time mother.

As Feminist City is written based on Kern’s experience, inevitably, some experiences are left out. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t try to include them – People of Colour, trans people, queer people, migrants and people in the global South are briefly mentioned in each chapter. But while I’m used to my experiences being mere brief mentions in academia, the style of Kern’s writing makes me wonder who we are building a feminist city for.

When we think of the flâneuse – written by Charles Baudelaire as a “passionate spectator” in cities – we think of a non-disabled cis white man who manages to become invisible, wielding the privilege of blending in. Our physical space was built with them in mind, from badly lit parks to inaccessible tube stations. Street cameras capture the faces of People of Colour and migrants, who face increased violence at the hands of police. Queer people are policed on how they present themselves in public. Trans people end up having to wait until they get home each day to use a bathroom comfortably.

The problem with Kern’s ‘Feminist City’

My problem with Kern’s Feminist City is that she can afford to write about these marginalised communities more.

After the first half of the book, she gets repetitive in using her experiences to depict how exclusive the built city is. Don not get me wrong, I know that cities are difficult to navigate for cis-heterosexual women, but the picture painted by Kern feels unintentionally middle class.

She writes of daycare, “taking back” streets where sex workers work, when walking through streets at night with friends. While she says she is critical of her experiences, this does not negate the fact that 80% of the book revolves around her sole experience. The book isn’t thick – it’s only 176 pages – and thus could’ve further delved into the exclusion faced by marginalised groups.

While she acknowledges that the space she takes up may push other women out – such as by marching through streets where sex workers would have lost their income for the night due to the commotion – her disclaimers are overshadowed by her personal stories.

Just because the personal is political, does not mean the political should only focus on the personal.

“Kern made me feel uncomfortable” / An accidental lack of intersectionality

In a subchapter titled “The Right to be Alone”, Kern writes:

“Walking along a city street or sitting alone in a crowded cafe is an especially delicious kind of alone time for women. There were people all around me, but none of them had a right to demand my emotional labour. In fact, some were even taking care of me: bringing me coffee, cleaning my table.”

These few sentences made me uncomfortable.

The term “emotional labour” was first coined to depict the labour workers go through emotionally to fit the requirements of a job.

Ironically in Kern’s situation, the workers serving coffee and cleaning tables were probably putting up a customer service front; thus taking an emotional toll on them. I personally, organise with workers in service jobs, and they regularly deal with difficult people and practice conflict resolution daily. Middle-class women thus use workers – who are likely underpaid, by the way – as a temporary escape from the reality of the patriarchy.

Appreciating middle class feminism’s problems

The book does mention how middle-class women’s involvement in feminism has caused gentrification and oppression.

The portrayal of childcare as a privatised issue gives way for capitalist solutions, such as luxury apartments with built-in daycare. White women who want safer neighbourhoods may call for increased policing in their areas, adversely affecting Black people who are seen as aggressive in the eyes of the State. I can also recall the online “self-care” trend, where women find relaxation in products like facial masks and hair dye. All of these methods, while easing the emotional strain on some women, can only benefit a limited class of people.

One may argue that I’m taking Feminist City out of context – that Kern has been trying to portray a multifaceted view of the city. But if Kern’s personal is political, so is mine. I read the book as a queer Person of Colour and a migrant. I recognise that the book had incredibly important points; promoting better access to childcare, safer built environments for women and children, more inclusive community areas, to name a few. But I also recognise that other issues seemed like an afterthought, and these issues are those that I experience.

Feminist City makes for good quick reading; it isn’t long and the language it uses is largely accessible. The discussion is relatable for many women – we all face a misogynist culture, fear of assault and the policing of our clothes, for example. A lot of it also leaves some women out. If you’re interested in reading more about feminist geography, this book is a fair starting point, as long as it’s read critically.

Kern doesn’t claim to provide all the solutions, nor does she imply that the book covers everything. Thus I don’t hold it against Feminist City for not having every answer. But I think it’s only right to criticise a work with “feminist” in the title for its narrow view of a systemic issue, especially when it affects marginalised women most. Though I’ll still be sharing the book with my friends, the discussion won’t end there.

Graphic courtesy of Isabel Armitage

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