Exactly 50 years ago, large streams of women filled the streets of New York, Amsterdam, Paris and ninety other cities with their loud voices to propagate a clear message. Advocating for equal social, political, legal, and economic rights, these women shared a feeling of unity which empowered a strong sense of community and generated a straightforward mentality to the movement. What they could never have known is how their collective attempt for change impacted many following generations to this day. It laid the foundation for today’s socio-cultural environment. An environment in which women’s participation in college, graduate school and professions has steadily increased over the past decades. But what is remarkable is that, especially in the academic world of spatial practices, women are still strongly underrepresented, even though enrollment in educational institutions increased to almost an equal representation of men and women. Why is the representation of women still an issue? Could there still be a biased attitude towards minorities, including women, in the profession? And after all, why is there a need for feminist practice in academia to address today’s social topics in the first place?

Inclusivity in the spatial sciences; a world dominated by men

The second feminist wave, initiated in 1970 by the Women’s March, brought the equity issues between men and women to consciousness. Also in the spatial sciences. Positions held within geographical academia have adhered to patriarchal norms. This had its direct effect on geography and spatial planning: they became entirely dominated by the male perspective. Because of that, women questioned whether social inequalities were built into our cities by the way we plan and maintain our cities. According to Leslie Kern, a professor in geography at Mount Allison University, the physical built environment does reflect patterns of gender-based discrimination. In ‘The Feminist City’, written by Kern, she addresses that we are living in “cities that are planned by men for men”, in which women face physical, social, economic and symbolic barriers because their needs were never taken into account.

Back in the ’70s, the Women’s Liberation Movement had its fair share in geography when it involved in a critique of geography. Women’s contribution had up to then been primarily ignored by geographers, and questions of racial and ethnic diversity had received no attention at all. “Feminist Geography”, a new discipline in human geography, arose because of it. The sub-discipline considers the application of feminist theory and methodologies to understanding human geography. Their perspective would incorporate women as equal users of the urban fabric.

But the term “feminism” evolves to carry more meaning than it did during the first feminist wave in the early 1900s or by the time of the Women Liberation Movement in the ’70s. Feminist geographers question to what extent our practices create a sense that to be a geographer implies being physically-able, white and male? The recognition of the importance of diversity, represented in decision-making, is something they find essential for improving the unequal position of minorities in the living environment itself. Their perspective argues that if there are no minorities in decisive positions, little will change effectively. The feminist perspective is more important than ever in addressing today’s topics and actually acting upon them. Awareness only is not enough.

 (The need for) intersectional feminism

If “Covid-19” was not the term dominating the start of the 2020s, the once again reviving or still ongoing “fight for equality” would have. Gender, racial and ethnic injustice gained global attention and sparked social activism worldwide. Looking back, movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, NiUnaMenos and the Women’s Rights Movement are contemporary examples that had a serious impact. At its core, you can agree or disagree with a movement’s message. Still, the fact remains that this is a century where the conversation about social class, racial justice, gender inequality, LGBT rights (especially trans rights), politics, economic and environmental consciousness have become essential parts of our everyday life.

Since we talk about (and with) minorities more than we have ever done before, it could be this feminist intersectional approach that proposes a perspective creating the inclusive space that is demanded. This approach has been theorized by female geographers like Daphne Spain (professor of urban & environmental planning at the University of Virginia) and Leslie Kern, among many others. “Intersectional Feminism” draws attention to how women face different forms of discrimination based on factors, such as race, class, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. But the intersectional approach covers more than only the female perspective. Therefore it is extremely suitable to be used in a comprehensive way.

Maybe it is utopian trying to achieve an inclusive world in such, but we cannot ignore that drastic choices in shaping our physical future will revolve around equality. It seems that if we keep designing and building our cities from a (male-dominant) traditional perspective, inclusivity cannot be expected at all.

An inclusive future on the horizon?

To conclude, there is more need for the feminist perspective in researching human geography and spatially planning cities to represent minorities in the living environment. The city, as it is a socially constructed space, is unmistakable the biggest décor to make a significant change. According to professor Kern, the city may be our best hope for shaping a new, more equal (urban) future. You may say that it is no coincidence that in the veins of the city, women affiliated with the Women’s Liberation Movement stood up for their rights. With the urban fabric as their well-chosen décor, they believed that the city was equally for them a place of opportunities and liberation as it is for men. 

Books to tip

 Do you want to dive deeper into the topic? Then I can suggest you these books:

  1. ‘Feminist City: Claiming Space in the Man-Made World’ (2020) by Leslie Kern
  2. ‘Space Invaders’ (2004) by Nirmal Puwar
  3. ‘Gendered Spaces’ (1992) by Daphne Spain

This article was first published in the December edition: ‘The future is…’ (Year 51 of Girugten – issue 02 –  December 2020).

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