Episode 101: Feminist City with Leslie Kern 

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Leslie Kern: Women, like anyone else, we hear the messages from politicians about danger, crime, et cetera, et cetera. The seemingly logical solutions include retreating to the suburbs, finding that gated community, buying that bigger and bigger SUV, creating that sort of bubble of protection around yourself so that you minimize your time in public space. And that’s detrimental to women and to society in general in the long term, in terms of everything from increasing the isolation that women feel in suburban environments to, of course, being bad for the planet and maybe ultimately not that safe to always be behind the wheel of a car either.

Sarah Goodyear: This is The War on Cars. I’m Sarah Goodyear. In this episode, I talk with scholar and author Dr. Leslie Kern about her recent book, Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World. Leslie is an associate professor of geography and environment and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. She is also the author of Sex and the Revitalized City and Gentrification Is Inevitable and Other Lies. in Feminist City, Leslie writes, “Women have always been seen as a problem for the modern city. That’s because by their very existence, women living their lives in cities have challenged societal expectations about gender roles. Cities have almost always been designed by men prioritizing men’s needs as defined by the traditional male-female binary.”

Sarah: Leslie’s book explores the idea that a truly feminist city could be, in her words, an ongoing experiment in living differently, living better and living more justly in an urban world. We talked about how gender influences the way we move through our streets, and how adopting a feminist perspective could make our cities more humane and livable for everyone, regardless of gender identity. Here’s my conversation with Leslie Kern.

Sarah: Leslie Kern, welcome to The War on Cars.

Leslie Kern: Thank you.

Sarah: I was thinking about some issues that have to do with gender on the streets of our cities, and I thought I really want to do an episode about these ideas. Who can I talk to who will help me think about them, and you sprang to mind. And so maybe you could talk a little bit about the basic idea that leads the book, which is that women have a relationship with cities that is extraordinarily complex and contradictory in some ways. You say women have always been seen as a problem for the modern city. And I love that idea, and I’d love you to walk us through that.

Leslie Kern: Sure. That notion that women have long been a problem for the modern city, by which I mean cities that developed and grew rapidly through the age of the Industrial Revolution up ’til today, women have been seen as a problem to be contained within the city, because their presence in the public realm was seen as potentially a threat to what we would now call outdated notions of women’s virtue and morality and purity. Of course, this only applied to certain women in society, certainly not everybody. And so there were a variety of strategies, formal and informal rules, to control the way that women moved through and interacted with others in urban space. And the interesting thing is that we can still see echoes of that even in the contemporary city, which we think is oh, so much more free and liberating and progressive, but women still know for themselves which route should I take home? What’s a safe way to go? Where will I feel comfortable and not out of place? So we still see vestiges of those traditional norms impacting women’s everyday lives.

Sarah: Right. And there is this dichotomy that you explore between the freedom that cities have afforded women—especially over the last, say, 150 years. Women have been able to go there and take on different roles than traditional society had afforded them. That wonderful freedom is mixed with threat, fear and harassment, and so that tension between freedom and vulnerability is really powerful, and you explore that in a lot of different ways.

Leslie Kern: Yes, cities have long attracted women because of the different kinds of opportunities that they offer in terms of employment, in terms of independence, the possibility perhaps of not getting married or being in a heterosexual relationship or having children, right? The freedom to explore different ways of living, different kinds of communities, and of course, the potential to be involved in arts, culture, education, politics and all of these things that have, of course, been absolutely essential to women’s empowerment and growth and liberation throughout the ages. And on a personal level, women have long written about the pleasure of being out in the city, and the kind of sense of independence and anonymity that came with it, being outside of the more traditional kinship-based structures of rural communities or small towns.

Leslie Kern: I certainly experienced that in my own life. I grew up in and around the city of Toronto, and the times when I was in the city by myself or with friends, I felt so much more free than I did in the suburban malls of my childhood. But as you say, there is also this dark side where women often feel that we have to maintain at least some level of vigilance around our personal safety. And we also get these stark reminders on an all too regular basis that we are being watched, perhaps objectified and maybe even under threat. This can come in the form of cat calls, unwanted touching in public spaces like public transportation or on the street. And those things are like that little thorn in the side, right? Where just when you’re having a really great time in the city and you feel good and powerful, then something comes along to sort of say, “Oh, no. Actually, you still don’t totally belong here.”

Sarah: And a lot of the time those moments happen in the areas that we at The War on Cars are looking at all the time—the streets, the public transportation system, the whole transportation network, the way that we move around is, I think, perceived very differently. And I—and I understand that it’s good to challenge the binary in a lot of ways, and I think that you do that successfully in your book as well, not just fall into this thing where women see things one way, men see things another. I don’t think it’s that simple. But for women, I think there is an instinctive way of looking at the street, looking at public transportation or ride hail transportation, and seeing that in a fundamentally different way than men do as a place of potential threat. And men just often don’t see it that way.

Leslie Kern: Yeah, absolutely. I think the safety factor is one of those key differences. It’s very sort of persistent in research on women’s and men’s perceptions of urban spaces, public space, transportation. This sense that one of the first things that women think about when they’re considering how they move through a space is safety. And that can involve everything from obvious factors like lighting, but also more social factors like who else is in the space? Is it busy but not too busy? Are there alternative places to go? Are there a variety of people on the street? What are the other cues that the environment is giving me in terms of even something like the advertising? You know, is it sexually objectifying to women? All of these things kind of feed into our perception and the choices that we make on a day-to-day basis of whether it’s safer to walk, to drive, to order a ride hail, to take public transportation, to cycle, safety is a key aspect of those decisions.

Sarah: Right. And because women are also so often the ones who are taking children from place to place, those considerations of the most vulnerable users of the street, I think women are aware of those dangers as well. For instance, when you’re pushing a stroller and you’re going through an intersection, let’s say there’s a stop sign and cars are sort of vying to get through the crosswalk, that child’s head is basically at the bumper level. And it’s all too easy to imagine what if that person just for a moment lost their attention. That’s, to me at least, an added fear that women have to deal with. Obviously, men deal with that, too, but a lot of the time it’s women who are dealing with that.

Leslie Kern: For sure. Women are still in most places more likely to be doing those kind of caregiving and family-related journeys, and to have children with them, to have strollers, packages, what we call “encumbered travel.” They’re more likely to do that on a day-to-day basis. And so issues around traffic, around the size and speed of vehicles, around the distance between the sidewalk and the road, whether there is, you know, buffers like a little grassy area or things like that, sightlines, speed control devices or parts of infrastructure, all of these definitely make a big difference when you’re—I know as a mother myself, the times my daughter would just take off running down the street towards an intersection, and I would suddenly have to sprint to grab her before she went into the street. Those are scary moments for any parent.

Sarah: Right. And there’s that phrase that’s often used in media coverage: if a child gets hit by a driver, the stories often say they “darted out into traffic.” And that “darting,” quote-unquote, is just a natural way for children to move, right. That’s how children move around. They—they dart. [laughs]

Leslie Kern: Absolutely.

Sarah: Yet this environment that we bring them into that is socially sanctioned and organized by huge governmental forces is not a safe place for just the regular way that the children move.

Leslie Kern: Yes. I mean, that phrase that you use, that the child that “darts out,” it’s a reminder that socially we think that public spaces like streets are not places that children belong, right? And that the things that belong there that have the right of way, that are expected and normalized are cars or trucks and other motorized vehicles. And children in those environments, they’ve transgressed a boundary that they shouldn’t have. And so it’s to me, you know, kind of a problematic backwards way of thinking about cities that we’ve prioritized the space and needs of motor vehicles over those of people, including very vulnerable people like children.

Sarah: It’s just part of sort of the general climate of violence and devaluation of life that, at least here in the United States, that’s sort of the baseline, that life is not valued very highly. And you can see that on the street, right?

Leslie Kern: Definitely. The prioritization of cars and trucks illustrates that there is a potent kind of economic priority, that we have to, like, keep the city moving, we have to keep goods and services moving at all costs. And that this kind of economic engine of the city that is fueled through the particular transportation choices that we’ve made is of a much higher priority than the social life of the city, than, you know, caretaking in the city, than community building and all of the other kinds of activities that draw people to cities, but that many of us ultimately find are much harder to accomplish in the kinds of environments that we’ve created.

Sarah: I want to talk much more about the ethics of care or how a city might be built with that kind of framework instead of the ones that we’ve used, but I specifically want to talk about the genesis of this whole episode for me was I was sitting around with a bunch of people who are activists and advocates in the what we tend to call the Livable Streets movement or the Safe Streets movement here in New York City. And they were all men, and they were talking about how they engage on the street as activists sort of in their daily lives, how they try to bring that activism into their daily commutes, right?

Sarah: So they’re riding a bike, somebody impinges on them in a bike lane. And a couple of them described how they would handle that, which was to yell at the person, to castigate them, to have a confrontation. And they all acknowledged that that was dangerous physically for them to do, but you could also sense a sort of excitement in the way that they recounted those things. And it got me thinking about my own evolving attitude toward confrontation on the street, and how different that is for men and for women, because sometimes women have more freedom to confront, right? Because a guy’s not gonna probably punch you in the face the way that he might punch the guy in the face, right? But at the same time, you are societally expected to constantly make yourself small, to make yourself polite, to make yourself as a woman to please other people. And so calling somebody out on really behaving badly on the street is not necessarily something that’s available to you.

Sarah: So I’ve been thinking about all of these issues. And then when I was reading your book, there’s a scene in there where you talk about a demonstration that took place at a traffic circle and the differences in the ways that men and women acted in that space. And I think that the line that really got me—this was the line: “It was the traditional hetero, patriarchal family come to life at an urban intersection.” Maybe you could tell us that story.

Leslie Kern: Sure. In that section, I’m recalling a time when I was on strike with a labor union at the university that I was employed at at the time, and part of the strike action was to slow down the traffic coming into campus. So we were at an intersection with a traffic light, and we would kind of hold cars for a longer period of time with the idea being first to disrupt the normal daily life of campus, but also to chat with the drivers that were coming through to let them know what our issues were, you know, why they should support us, all of those kinds of things. But of course, drivers, as you well know, don’t really like to be slowed down. So we certainly had a lot of aggressive behavior from drivers. And what we often saw was that the men on the picket line, my comrades as I guess we would say in union lingo, were meeting aggression with aggression, right? Or they were jumping into the fray immediately, and yelling back and forth and throwing their bodies in front of cars and so on. And in contrast, the women were either sent in or sent ourselves in to be more like the peacemakers or to have calm and friendly conversations with the drivers, to keep all the tensions low and to kind of like caretake the situation. So, you know, even though my colleagues and I were all on the same side, the way that we approach things, interestingly fell along these pretty traditional gender lines in that daily action.

Sarah: I see that, too. I mean, I’m unusually confrontational on the street for a woman. And I stopped doing confrontation because I did get scared by it. And then I thought, “Oh, I know what I’ll do when I’m riding around and somebody, we have some kind of conflict, I’m just gonna smile at them.” And I did that for a long time, and it worked a lot of the time, right? It actually did defuse conflict. But then I was thinking, “Well, that’s exactly when you’re getting catcalled a lot of the time it’s like,’ Oh, smile, baby. Why aren’t you smiling?'” And then I was like, “Man, I just don’t have a way to win this,” you know?

Leslie Kern: Yeah, absolutely. And I think we unfortunately see that play out to its most disastrous end when we hear stories of women who try to mind their own business or tried to ignore catcalling from somebody, and they end up on the receiving end of sometimes fatal violence from those people, those men who perceived that as rejection and, you know, were unwilling to let that sit. So, you know, what are women supposed to do? You know, people will say, “Oh, just ignore it. Just ignore it.” But that can sometimes be dangerous as well. So it’s a really fine tightrope, I think, that women walk. But again, unless you kind of, you know, have that lived experience, it might not occur to many people that this is the kind of constant narrative running in the background of many women’s minds when they’re out in public space and something is happening. What’s the risk calculation here of speaking up, of smiling, of staying silent, because you don’t actually know.

Sarah: Right. It could—the outcome could be anything. And you know how vulnerable you are.

Leslie Kern: Yes.

Sarah: In the book you talk about the roots of women’s fear, and this idea that the worst thing that most men are worried about is that they’re going to be robbed, whereas women always know that rape is a possibility, and that’s a lot worse.

Leslie Kern: Yeah, exactly. Research again bears out that, you know, the thing that women are afraid of is sexual assault, even though statistically speaking men are more likely to experience violence in public space than women are, most of the violence that women face is in the private realm and from people that they know, right? But ultimately, because sexual assault and sexual violence is so horrific it, you know, leads to this heightened level of fear that seems contradictory to what the statistics would tell us is there, and ultimately it’s an extremely challenging problem to confront. And I think we have, you know, probably centuries, maybe longer of telling women what to do, right? And what we haven’t really tried, either with any success or any sort of sustained effort, is changing the behavior of men.

Sarah: Yeah, that’s—because that just seems like too much to ask, right? So what a lot of women do, and you see this in the political realm all the time in the US, why did all these women vote for Donald Trump? Or, you know, that women sometimes knowing that they’re in a disadvantaged situation societally, will gravitate toward male sources of power and affiliate with them in order to keep themselves safe and to protect their children. And one of the ways that I see this playing out on the street is with cars, right? Cars become a solution to that. I have my car and then I have more control. I’m more protected. It’s like, oh, I live in a gated community. And so these maybe masculinized kind of protections that exist, women gravitate toward them, even though in the long term those things might be antithetical to their interests.

Leslie Kern: Yeah, I think that’s so true. I mean, women like anyone else, we hear the messages from politicians about danger, crime, et cetera, et cetera, usually overblown, obviously. And of course again, ignoring the fact that most violence against women is in the home. But, you know, what are we to do, right? I mean, the seemingly logical solutions include retreating to the suburbs, finding that gated community, buying that bigger and bigger SUV, creating that sort of bubble of protection around yourself so that you minimize your time in public space. And that’s detrimental to women and to society in general in the long term in terms of everything from increasing the isolation that women feel in suburban environments to, of course, being bad for the planet, and maybe ultimately not that safe to always be behind the wheel of a car either.

Sarah: How can we make a city that is based on the idea of caring for each other and building community, rather than on competition, confrontation, this sort of contest for the streets?

Leslie Kern: Yeah. Like, is there a way to engage sometimes in necessary disruptions and confrontations without it being kind of falling into traditional masculinist, aggressive ways of being? And I think the answer is yes, and I think if we look around the world to histories of nonviolent protest, passive activism, collective organizing of activist movements, we can see examples of the ways that groups do things differently. Now, you know, we also have to keep in mind that a lot of the narrative of confrontation comes from the media and the state, who often are the instigators of the confrontation when it comes to protests. So activists don’t always have a lot of choice in how they’re portrayed in that way. Sometimes just holding up a sign can be seen as an act of confrontation, even if it’s quite passive. And of course, damage to property is conceived of as a form of violence, and that narrative is used against protesters as well. So in some ways, you know, it’s hard for—no matter what you do, you can be cast in that very negative light. But ultimately, I think if you look to these long international histories of nonviolent protest and collective forms of organizing, we can see some different models.

Sarah: Yeah. And you have a line in there too, “The feminist city is one you have to be willing to fight for,” right? And so there is a fight going on, and I think it’s disingenuous to pretend that everybody’s gonna feel like a winner at the end of the day. I mean, maybe at the very end of the day everyone will feel like a winner, but there is some stuff that in order to get a more humane city, a more feminist city, that some people are gonna be giving up stuff that they like, right? And we’re gonna have to fight for that.

Leslie Kern: That’s very true. A lot of the things that we’ve become—and I include myself in this—we’ve become quite comfortably reliant on, whether that’s cars, whether that’s a detached single family home, some of these things need to be challenged in order to create different ways of living in different types of communities. And yeah, in the short term I think it will be uncomfortable to make some of these changes. It will require different kinds of sort of time and energy in our day to move through the city differently, to live in different kinds of housing and community environments that kind of challenge things. Not that just we as individuals have grown comfortable with, but that we’ve been told over generations now that make for a good life, that means success, right? That means that you’ve achieved the American dream. So we’re challenging that ideology at the same time.

Sarah: You talk about changes that planners could make both in their ways of thinking and in what they actually do. Could you tell us a little bit about ways that you think planners could make the public spaces of our cities friendlier to women and thereby to all people?

Leslie Kern: The first thing that we’ve touched on it a little bit already is taking into account care work. You know, in my very boring downtime, occasionally I will Google city plans, like, you know, those vision documents for cities. And you can search the document for terms like “care” or “domestic” or “children” or whatever, and almost nothing will ever show up, at least in North American city plans. In many European cities they’re doing better on this. So I think a first step would just be for planners to recognize that care work, everything from getting the kids to school, to buying groceries for the family, to looking after elderly folks, much of that unpaid labor really keeps the city running. You can’t have the economic engine of the city working without that care work that keeps people fed and healthy and alive on a day-to-day basis. You can’t have the city without that.

Leslie Kern: So thinking about do the transportation networks that we have function for caregiving journeys? In most cases no, they don’t. They’re designed around, you know, the commuter, the nine-to-five breadwinner. They’re not designed for people to take the kids to daycare and pick up toilet paper on the way home and check on the elderly parent, you know, in the same journey. So that’s a key question to ask. Looking at public spaces, are there places to rest? I think in a lot of again, North American cities especially, we’ve destroyed any sort of infrastructure of care and rest and relaxation in public space because of fears of everything from crime and loitering to homelessness to, I don’t know, terrorist attack. You know, you can’t find a bench to sit on, right? And so that excludes a lot of people from public space. It excludes seniors, it excludes families. And a lot of people realized this during the pandemic, right? In the early days, months, when government said, “Oh, go outside. Do your socializing outside.” Okay, sure. But, like, is there a bench to sit on? Is there a water fountain? Is there public toilets? Is there space to change a baby? These things have been just literally ripped out of public space. So thinking about what are those basic human needs that we all have? Can we stop assuming that a Starbucks will make up for those basic human needs and actually build them into public infrastructure?

Sarah: Right. The privatization of every comfort and accommodation and service, including just sitting down is really—it’s kind of frightening if you think about it long enough, the idea that literally just being able to sit down is becoming a commodity in so many—in so many places. And I include newer developments in that very, very emphatically because a lot of the building that’s done now is done very explicitly with these gatekeeping features built in that then sort of become invisible, I think, to people. If they’re not personally challenged, they might not even see those things.

Leslie Kern: Yes.

Sarah: And that actually—that brings me to another point that’s really important that you touch on many times in your book is the racialized nature of many, many, many of these issues. And you and I, we have a similar socioeconomic background. We present similarly, and as white women, as cis-gender women, we have an access to space because we are perceived as non-threatening, sort of de facto. And then also in the very, very messed up, you know, social structure that has evolved in the United States in particular, white women are the thing that gets protected, right? And how can we as people who have this privilege, how can we use that privilege for good, and how can we also learn to sit back and get out of the way when people who don’t have those privileges are trying to speak and influence the processes?

Leslie Kern: Yeah, I mean, this is always a conundrum of privilege. Like, when you have it in a certain form, especially something like skin color privilege, you can’t divest yourself of that. It just is the body that you’re in. But I mean, the first step obviously is recognizing it. So recognizing, yes, that for people like you and me, we’re probably gonna get the key to the Starbucks bathroom if we need it, right? We’re not gonna be perceived as a problem, as a threat, as a drug user, as homeless. We’re going to be able to access those simple things that so many people struggle to and will even face violence when they ask for. I think we have to recognize as well that often as white women, we’re in kind of gatekeeper roles. So maybe you are the person who works in that Starbucks, or you’re the manager in the store, or you live in a condominium building, right? And just thinking about in what ways are you kind of perpetuating either active exclusion, not permitting people access to certain spaces, or participating in those kind of microaggressions of challenging people? Or do you actually live here? Why are you in this space? All of those things that make racialized folks, lower income people, people who don’t speak the dominant language, make them constantly feel unwelcome. So realizing that even though, as we’ve discussed, women can face harassment and exclusion in cities, we can also perpetrate it—and we do. So thinking very carefully about how we react in those situations is crucial, yeah.

Sarah: Yeah. And I think that one of the advantages that women can bring to the advocacy conversations about public space is that, as we move through the stages of life, we experience, I think, some pretty dramatic changes in how we are perceived and have access to public space. So like, when you’re a little girl, it’s pretty much like it is for little boys, but then as soon as you hit adolescence, you get this avalanche of unwanted and terrifying male attention all the time. And then if you do become a mother or a caretaker in another way, you have to navigate all of that, and that gives you a different perspective. And then when you’re older, as I am, I’m in my late 50s, and you experience the thing where you disappear and are not even seen in public space, which can be really awesome, but it can also be very, very frustrating and demoralizing, and you can start to feel like you don’t have an identity at all. So, you know, I think that maybe because women have to make those adjustments over the course of a lifetime, maybe we can help other people to see, like, the multidimensional way that cities appear to the diverse range of people who use them.

Leslie Kern: For sure, I often say that, you know, you can’t solve problems that you don’t even know exist. So it’s not that, you know, planners and architects and governments are sitting there tapping their fingers together, going, “Ha ha! How can we, you know, make this environment truly terrible for women?” But if there’s not a lot of women in the room, if there’s not a diverse group of people in general, then you simply don’t know what you’re missing, right? You might not understand, as we discussed safety concerns, what it’s like to move through the city with a stroller, the economic challenges of being a woman or from another disadvantaged group. So yes, having that wide range of perspectives that come with different sorts of life experiences, that come from different backgrounds that people have is absolutely key to making—making a real difference in the kinds of cities that we have.

Sarah: I think that’s a great place to end this. This has been such a great conversation, and I am so grateful that you wrote this book because I think it does help people to see in a different way what the experience is on the street for so many people, and also what it could be, how much better it could be, how much more we could support each other in our lives instead of feeling like we’re in competition with each other for scraps of space and resources.

Leslie Kern: Well, thank you so much for inviting me and for those kind words about the book. I appreciate all the work that you are doing as well with the podcast and your other advocacy.

Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. We’ll include links to Leslie’s work in the show notes. Thanks to our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York, Virginia Baker, Martin Mignon and Mark Hedlund. If you want to be a Patreon supporter, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and sign up to get access to ad-free episodes, as well as exclusive bonus episodes. Plus, we’ll send you stickers.

Sarah: Thanks also to Cleverhood. For 15 percent off the best rain gear for walking and cycling, visit Cleverhood.com/waroncars and enter code CLEVERMARCH at checkout.

Sarah: This episode was edited by me. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Thanks so much for listening. On behalf of my co-hosts, Doug Gordon and Aaron Naparstek, I’m Sarah Goodyear and this is The War on Cars.