The narrative of a westerner travelling to the East to find enlightenment – and a sense of spiritual calm and…
Have you ever fallen in love with a city? Has your pulse quickened with desire as the kaleidoscope of urban life whooshes past you – the terraces, abandoned factories, flowers bursting from drainpipes, serpentine streets, skyscrapers, and urban blight? Have you delighted in the anonymity of dark, swarming crowds; or fantasised about the liquid red dangers of nightly worlds – bars spooked by criminals and bohemia; or thrilled to the freedom of communities of choice – the city’s gift to its residents of self-invention?
As someone who moved from Moonbi – a sleepy Australian country town – to Sydney, then Paris, then Rome, and then Sydney again, I still experience the tingling joys of the city. In Paris, it was the city’s devotion to pleasure that captivated me; in Rome it was the sepia-tinted palimpsest of history, and in Sydney it’s the glittery water and abundant, overripe nature. It’s a feeling close to falling in love, which probably explains why it stings so much when it fails us.
If you’re a lover of cities, then you’re also probably more critical of their faults. How do we incorporate the western city’s mindless worship of cars and consumerism into our romance with urbanity? How do I reconcile the fear that I feel walking down shadowy streets in the early hours with my love of loitering? What do we make of the city’s hostility towards women with children in public spaces? Must a woman’s relationship to the urban always be one of ambivalent love?
When I set out to research the causes of our cities’ woes, I thought I’d start with 1950s car culture, but historian Elizabeth Wilson argues that we need to go further back. If you’re interested in how cities have historically excluded women then we should begin with the 19th century. It all goes back to the Victorian doctrine of separate spheres: western cities were redesigned by the urban planning movement around the idea of the public sphere as an exclusively masculine domain. Where women were to be angels in the house fluttering softly from room to room, radiating sentiment and piety to their family, men were to inhabit the ordered, rational world of commerce and public affairs.
The thing is, this cultural division between male/female; commerce/love and nature/culture had very tangible geographic effects. Stark boundaries were drawn between the residential and the commercial or the public and the private. Men could inhabit both worlds, but a woman in the public sphere was a site of sexual disorder. This is why the word for “prostitute” in the nineteenth century was a “public woman”. Outside the authority of family and husband, she was a figure of vice – subject to repressive legal and social control. In short, the city was imagined and built around ideas of women’s appropriate (domestic) sphere and it punished them when they transgressed it.
Why does this matter today? Because the same logic lies behind our society’s hostility towards mothers and children in public places, and it explains why there are so few basic amenities like change rooms, seats to rest on, or even lifts for prams in the central business districts of western cities. Like unruly women in the 19th century, it’s as though today’s urban mothers are really just women who have stepped beyond their socially appropriate sphere. They’re performing supposedly private, invisible and mostly unpaid labour in a very public fashion. They and their children are occupying the same public spaces that traditionally excluded them. And there seem to be a lot of people who don’t like it.
All over the western world the “mummy wars” are carried out in inner-city cafés and communal spaces. In Berlin, there are cafés with stone bollards out the front bearing pictures of prams with a cross through them; a recent Start4Life poll in Britain found that six out of ten British mothers choose to hide their breastfeeding in public because they are “embarrassed”; and in Australia the newspapers are filled almost daily with people complaining about mothers who are “rude and undeserving”, “not contributing to the workforce”, or in some instances just plain gross: one online commenter once saw a mother changing her child’s nappy “on a footpath bench, facing the traffic, on a busy strip”.
The fact that women with children are demanding a right to public life is translated as them being ‘too empowered’, too entitled, too pushy, too selfish. It also reveals the fact that our society still doesn’t consider parenting to be ‘real work’. The central business district and its cafés are a place for male workers who perform ‘productive’ labour in office buildings. ‘Reproductive labour’ on the other hand – a labour of love, not money – has no place in a commercial zone. The very term ‘working mother’ is the most obvious example of our disregard for the labour of care.
Mothers are caught in a catch-22. If they are seen calming screaming babies or changing nappies, then they are damned for making visible what was traditionally private labour. But if a well-behaved child gives them respite to chat with friends then they’re condemned for being idle. The fact that we voice these concerns almost exclusively when mothers are seen in public spaces suggests that this is a problem of urban imaginings as much as a problem of gender.
Of course, our cities are not just the product of Victorian-era values – they also sprawled in the bloated affluence of the post-war world. Yet this too bears the imprint of the doctrine of separate spheres. Like the 19th century city, suburbia was built around ideas of the ‘proper’ role of women, only it turned the division between the public and the private into a chasmic divide of manicured lawns bridged by groaning highways. 1950s fantasies of home, family and bored housewives found architectural expression in brick-veneer fortresses, paranoid fences, agoraphobic backyards, car-choked highways, and gardens blithely indifferent to nature. If this was bad for women, it was catastrophic for the environment. To access food, work and pleasure, residents now needed a car.
If you’ve ever spent time in a European city, with decent public transport, cycleways and a medieval centre ruled by pedestrians, you’ll know the misery of returning to the roaring stupidity of a culture devoted to cars. In America, theorists tend to blame car-culture and the corresponding lack of public transport on what Kirker and Kuntham refer to as “an irresistible coalition of lobbying interests” that emerged in the 1950s: “the combined might of the auto, trucking, oil, tire, asphalt, cement, lumber, and construction industries and their unions”. It wasn’t simply a case of people ‘choosing’ to drive cars. Rather, massive federal subsidies built an interstate highway system, refused to fund public transport and so left little option than to buy a car. The result has been a nation of isolated, unhappy drivers living in unwalkable suburbs with dirty air.
But blaming a cabal between government and automobile lobbyists is only really half the story. Before this, we needed to have the very idea of suburbia as a ‘good’ in the first place. And this is something we can attribute to middle-class desires to flee working-class areas and to contain women in weather-proof suburban boxes. And before even this, according to philosopher Henri Lefebvre, we needed to have a vision of urban planning as something that serves the interest of a small group of speculators, builders, and automobile industrialists, rather than a democratic process serving the many. Lefebvre refers to this as a vision of the city based on “exchange-value” rather than “use-value”, by which he means that the city becomes a space to be bartered off to the highest bidder. The result is that a disembodied, geometric language suited to market dealings is imposed on the smells, tastes, textures, and memories that in fact constitute urban space. We don’t describe the city in terms of ambience or sensation – instead we talk about roads, pipes, wires, networks, and buildings that are unilaterally imposed by bureaucratic or corporate interests on a passive disenfranchised population. It’s a language of control and order that has no capacity to fathom the human need for play, sensuality, creativity and joy.
If we never think that we own our cities then we will accept the rules, regulations, and decisions that are forced upon us. But as the guerilla gardening movement, the “lactivist” community, the squatting movement, or even those neighbourhoods that come together to save a tree or an historic building show, we can take back control over the spaces that we inhabit. By encouraging political organisations and social affiliations, cities have an extraordinary utopian potential. And they also carry boundless opportunities for women by providing communities outside of the strictures of familial or patriarchal authority. Must we always have an ambivalent relationship to the city? I don’t think so. I think we need to begin by thinking of cities as our own and to reshape them to house our bodies, desires, creativity and, more than anything, our dreams of equality.
From the ‘Caribbean’ edition of Womankind – you can buy a copy from our online store.
Artwork by Aida Nayeban.