Is there a women’s city?
It seems that not only have we failed to win the universal right to take part in the design and the construction of cities, we’ve even failed to win the right to use them, to simply inhabit them. Some cities —Barcelona is certainly one of them— are ceasing to be “home”, a place to live our lives, and are becoming commodities.
From a feminist perspective, cities need to respond to the human need to inhabit, not to accumulate wealth. They need to allow people to live where they were born and to access the type of housing they need at each stage of their lives, and to facilitate interaction, coexistence and a collective bond. It isn’t a question of improving the setting for our lives, it’s about improving life itself.
It’s been 50 years since Henri Lefebvre created the concept of a “right to the city”, which involves much more than just the right to live there; it means that in a democratic society, everyone needs to be able to influence the very nature of the city, its future, how it’s organized and how it operates. In medieval cities, spatial distribution was determined by power. The city layout showed who each person was according to how centrally placed their home was, and each guild and each estate had a well-defined territory. Democratic cities, on the other hand, can’t be based on a preestablished order, because they can’t accept a preestablished, unmovable hierarchy of power. The city needs to be designed and built through a pact between different groups and interests. Everyone needs to be able to participate in its construction, offering their point of view and their varied resources. At the same time, everyone has to point out the needs and demands that may be specific to one group and not another, but to which the democratic city needs to respond nonetheless.
We’re still a good way away from such a city, and such a city has never existed before. No democracy has ever achieved a society based on egalitarian pacts between its different social groups, either. As a matter of fact, it seems that not only are we failing to draw any nearer to it, we’re getting farther and farther away from it each day. The “right to the city” demanded by so many authors is a response to this suspicion: in the mid-20th century, cities became battlegrounds between the desire for gain and the human need to inhabit. Lefebvre reminded us of our right as humans to take part in this battle, to intervene to keep our cities from being devoured by a capitalism that was no longer satisfied with the gains generated through the production of objects. Rather, it was marching on to areas like the savage speculation of real estate or the conversion of housing into one of its juiciest businesses.
50 years later, these trends have continued and have even accelerated in spite of enormous efforts to stop them. It seems that not only have we failed to win the universal right to take part in the design and the construction of cities, we’ve even failed to win the right to use them, to simply inhabit them. The global trend towards urbanization, the appearance of a globalized hierarchy that greatly increases the pull of certain cities and a rise in population all clearly explain the current pressure on urban spaces, especially in the highest-ranking cities in this new global market. Some cities —Barcelona is certainly one of them— are ceasing to be “home”, a place to live our lives, and are becoming commodities. They’re just another product in a market that transforms everything into “brands” that are subject to prices and willing to sacrifice it all for a good spot in a glamorous ranking.
The current expulsion of our young people is good proof of how, when subjected to the devices of capitalism, cities are faced with a series of imbalances that bring about a decadence that can even include a drop in inhabitants. Living in the city is starting to seem like a privilege beyond the reach of many social groups; not just young people, but the unemployed, immigrants or poor workers are all being expelled, even though many were born here.
Still, all of this can’t keep us from demanding our right to the city in full. There’s the basic, unquestionable right to inhabit it: just like the earth, cities are the common heritage of humans, forged over thousands of years of hard work by our ancestors. No one should be able to privatize this heritage. But that’s not all: we need to continue to demand our right to a democratic city that carries the stamp of its entire population, of all its social groups. In a world like ours, dominated by individualism, people are increasingly solitary and family ties are severed. Increasingly, so are the bonds of work: more and more people live alone, work alone; the obligatory social bond —the structural bond, let’s say— weakens. Humans are social by nature; we’ve survived and advanced thanks to the collaborative nature of our efforts and our cultural creations. Still, at this point in history, that community aspect has begun to lose some of its elements: today, the city is the most powerful bond tying us to our common project.
Improving life as a goal
The feminist city isn’t about improving the setting for our lives, it’s about improving life itself (Sara Acuña)
Of the many groups that have long been denied their say in the city, one is especially important. It isn’t a minority, it’s half —or maybe even a little more— of society and of the city itself. As a result, the exclusion of this group is especially shocking. Some would say that as compensation for being denied their right to the city, women have been granted another (domestic) space, where they are supposedly the “queen of the house”. Everyone knows this is false: women have never been able to design their own domestic spaces, and they’ve never had any to themselves.
Virginia Woolf’s great discovery in demanding a room of one’s own is still a powerful cry. Before then, many women had probably longed for a space of their own to take refuge from the constant responsibility of attending to the rest of the family, but they hadn’t dared to express it. A woman’s primary duty is to always be available, according to our gender’s millennia-old commandment, and the room of one’s own requires a separation, something that proves that our commitment to others isn’t total, that a woman still has some part of her life, some space, some moment to herself.
As women we don’t possess space, be it private or public. Not only are we not trained to possess it, to feel that we have the right to use it, we’re taught just the opposite: to give it up, knowing it isn’t ours. Any incursion into public space is, in a certain sense, a punishable transgression. In the ‘60s, musical group Els Setze Jutges sang the Cançó de la taverna, the Tavern Song: “they’re all men, there are no women, they’re afraid to go in.” It may seem like we’ve overcome this, but every rape trial works to convince us that the fault is our own, that if we hadn’t gone out, nothing would’ve happened.
As women, we’re gradually conquering our right to the city as far as the use of public space goes, but only slowly. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken a great deal about what goes on at schools, how playgrounds have been colonized by sports (in other words, by boys), and how girls look on from the fringes. The bottom line is the same, in spite of some undeniable victories. Still, if our right to the city means not only using space but also taking part in designing it, in its symbolic and physical construction, then women are still totally excluded. As the patriarchy is swept away in the laws with which parents once excluded and subjugated women, it becomes more visible elsewhere: in androcentrism. This principle organizes the world, associating the masculine point of view with what is possible, and eliminates the possibility of even imagining other configurations.
I’ve been thinking about it for years: what would a city of women be like? Not a city exclusively for women, mind you; a city for everyone, reflecting the needs and desires of women, in an ideal situation in which female desire hadn’t been nipped in the bud. I’ve spoken with plenty of women; I’ve asked them, I’ve tried to make them feel free enough to express a desire that wasn’t subject to the immediate borders of the dominant reality. What would your city be like if you were a goddess whose wishes became reality? It’s proven a tough question and has gotten only a handful of brief responses defined by what we don’t want, not by possible alternatives: I’d want a safe city with well-lit streets, wide sidewalks where I could walk comfortably, plenty of public transportation, ramps for carts and strollers, with trees, benches… A city where essential things —work, stores— were nearby, where children could play in the streets…and not much else. So far, we can say what upsets us, but we’re unable to imagine a space of our own where we could apply a gynocentric project, let’s say, or at least an androgynous one.
As women we don’t possess space, be it private or public. Not only are we not trained to possess it, to feel that we have the right to use it, we’re taught just the opposite: to give it up, knowing it isn’t ours. Any incursion into public space is, in a certain sense, a punishable transgression.
Right now, I feel like there isn’t a clear design for the city of women. It’s no surprise: the domination of one group over another doesn’t just mean imposing a way of life, but also crushing the capacity to imagine other ways of life. Inequality even manifests itself in the ability to organize things according to our own interests. So far, we don’t even have the utopia of a feminist city, if it’s through feminism that we can conceive of an alternative world. And when I say “alternative”, I really want to insist: I don’t mean inhabited only by women, or made only with women in mind, because the central tenant of feminism is always the struggle for a shared world. When I ask feminist women about all this, they describe the society they wish for, not the city. The city is the embodiment of a specific society within a space and, in the words of Sara Acuña (who I’ve already mentioned), a feminist city isn’t about improving the setting for our lives, it’s about improving life itself. Here, a feminist alternative does exist: egalitarian, androgynous, peaceful, collaborative, that places the value of life before everything else, far from economic value as a way of measuring everything. This is what’s being proposed by the feminist economy, for example, which rejects the current conflict between capitalism and life as opposing forces. This need isn’t specific to women, it’s a general need to which we women, as a result of a series of historical matters regarding our traditional gender, are more sensitive.
Does all this mean that we still can’t help to design cities, to express our needs and desires? Not at all. There are a series of changes that we may consider “reformist”, to put it one way, and that have already been clearly expressed, because they correspond with what we already know we don’t want: an androcentric city. But, beyond all this, we’re starting to gather the materials we need to put together a more ambitious project: a project in which cities respond to the human need to inhabit, not to accumulate wealth. A project that allows people to live where they were born, to access the type of housing they need at each stage in their lives, a project that facilitates interaction, coexistence, and a collective bond.
In cities, the need for freedom becomes solitude, rootlessness, a lack of meaning in life. Our societies long for community at the same time as they destroy it. We need to search for a type of community that doesn’t involve too much social control, that allows us to develop individual abilities without giving up on interaction, our collective project. We need to build our cities according to human needs; and in this, a woman’s criteria is essential.
- Forjar un hombre, moldear una mujerAresta, 2013
- Barcelona: de la necessitat a la llibertat. Les classes socials al tombant del segle XXIEls llibres de l'Avenç, 2012
Marina Subirats is a sociologist specialized in the sociology of education and of women.
From the issue
N109 - Oct 18 Index
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