‘Upward-thrusting buildings ejaculating into the sky’ – do cities have to be so sexist?

Toxic masculinity is built into the fabric of our urban spaces, writes Leslie Kern, author of new book Feminist City. And the results aren’t just divisive – they can be lethal

The original article was published by the Guardian.  Find it here: ‘Upward-thrusting buildings ejaculating into the sky’ – do cities have to be so sexist? | Architecture | The Guardian

Glass ceilings and phallic towers. Mean streets and dark alleys. Road names and statues of men. From the physical to the metaphorical, the city is filled with reminders of masculine power. And yet we rarely talk of the urban landscape as an active participant in gender inequality. A building, no matter how phallic, isn’t actually misogynist, is it? Surely a skyscraper isn’t responsible for sexual harassment, the wage gap, or even the glass ceiling, whether it has a literal one up top or not?

That said, our built environments can still reflect patterns of gender-based discrimination. To imagine the city and its structures as neutral places where complicated human social relations are staged is to ignore the simple fact that people built these places. As the feminist geographer Jane Darke has said: “Our cities are patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.” In other words, cities reflect the norms of the societies that build them. And sexism is a deep-rooted norm.

As far back as 1977, an American poet and professor of architecture named Dolores Hayden wrote an article with the explosive headline “Skyscraper seduction, skyscraper rape”. Hayden tore into the male power fantasies embodied in this celebrated urban form. The office tower, she wrote, is one more addition “to the procession of phallic monuments in history – including poles, obelisks, spires, columns and watchtowers”, where architects un-ironically use the language of “base, shaft and tip” while drawing upward-thrusting buildings ejaculating light into the night sky.

If the sexism of the city began and ended with architectural symbolism, I would’ve happily written a grad school essay about this then turned my attention to more pressing matters. But society’s historical and ongoing ideas about the proper gender roles for men and women (organised along a narrow binary) are built right into our cities – and they still matter. They matter to me as a mother. They matter to me as a busy professor who often finds herself in strange cities, wondering if it’s OK to pop into the neighbourhood pub alone. Ask any woman who’s tried to bring a pram on to a bus, breastfeed in a park, or go for a jog at night. She intuitively understands the message the city sends her: this place is not for you.

Yet the city can be a place of great freedom. The anonymity of urban life breeds possibilities easily stifled in a claustrophobic small town or suburban enclave. Education, work, pleasure, politics: the city broadens our horizons and gives us choices our foremothers never had. Despite its hostilities, it remains our best hope for radical change. This is the paradox that drove me to write a book, rather than a grad school essay. Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World takes on fear, motherhood, friendship and activism, as well as the joys and perils of being alone – to show not only where our cities have failed, but to imagine what they could become.

During the Industrial Revolution, the populations of European cities and many others in the colonised world grew rapidly. They became flashpoints for moral panic about how gender norms were changing. The teeming streets threatened the neatly defined spaces that kept the classes apart, increasing the risk that women, especially, would have their virtue tainted by rubbing shoulders with workers, immigrants, poor people, the “other”.

Echoing department stores and New York’s Ladies’ Mile (a stretch of shops for the well-to-do created at the end of the 19th century), new spaces and entire urban districts were built with the intention of controlling high-status white women’s exposure to the messy public realm. After all, what would be worse than being considered a “public woman”?

At the other end of the spectrum, those who fell into grinding poverty or sex work were also in need of tight control, lest their failings infect others. Working women were blamed for the breakdown of the traditional family and its consequences: namely, men straying into gambling and alcohol addiction. Even Friedrich Engels feared that women working outside the home was too great a disruption to society. Charles Dickens suggested that fallen women should be diverted to the colonies, where their low status could be ignored by the surplus of men in need of wives.

If the disorder of cities was a threat to certain women, and the disorder of certain women a threat to cities, the suburbs could provide a solution. Early ads for the London tube depicted such areas as Golders Green as refuges where women would be safe and conveniently preoccupied with homemaking and child-rearing, while fathers could easily access the city via expanded underground routes.

In the mass suburbanisation of North America in the 1950s, this “fix” for gender norms that had become unstable during the war was quite explicit. “Developers,” says Hayden, “argued that a particular kind of house would help the veteran change from an aggressive air ace to a commuting salesman who mowed the lawn. That house would also help a woman change from Rosie the Riveter to a stay-at-home mom.”

Escape to gender rigidity … a poster showing ‘delightful’ suburbia.
Escape to gender rigidity … a poster showing ‘delightful’ suburbia. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy Stock Photo

Re-establishing these norms was seen as necessary to ensure full access to employment for returning male soldiers. What’s less-often understood is that this would enable access to another, no less vital kind of labour force: the unpaid women whose care work would keep the urban economy running, despite being unappreciated or simply unacknowledged.

Surely this suburban malaise has passed? After all, few women are now full-time homemakers throughout their lives. And few men want to be little more than an emotionally distant breadwinner. But has the responsibility for care work been redistributed equally between men and women? Has it been re-evaluated and properly remunerated? Have we reorganised our cities in ways that would make shared care work visible and convenient?

Hardly. Much of the work has simply shifted to the shoulders of other underpaid women: nannies, personal care workers, cleaners – often recent immigrants and people of colour. Their precarious conditions of employment continue to make their labour mostly invisible. It remains deeply undervalued, in and outside of the home.

The consequences have proved deadly as Covid-19 rampages through our cities. Take the crisis in long-term care homes. Care for elderly and disabled people has been largely privatised in many countries, leaving homes dependent on a low-wage labour force, who must cobble together a living by working at multiple facilities, most likely taking crowded public buses and trains between them. This factor rapidly spread Covid-19, exposing the most vulnerable members of society to a frequently fatal illness. Because cities have failed to prioritise care as a public good, while perpetuating the notion that it is women’s work, employees have risked their lives for pennies, and the elderly have died because staff don’t earn a living wage.

Another deadly consequence is the global rise in domestic violence. If violence against women is ever given any attention in our cities, it is generally along the lines of women facing “stranger danger” in public: having to limit our movements, adjust our clothing, and travel in packs, avoiding dark alleys. Fear-mongering keeps women “in our place” and limits our access to the public realm. It also reinforces the idea that women should seek safety and protection in the nuclear family home – when nothing could be further from the truth.

Masculine monument … the office building of the People’s Daily newspaper, Beijing, which was mocked for its phallic appearance.
Masculine monument … the office building of the People’s Daily newspaper, Beijing, which was mocked for its phallic appearance. Photograph: Imaginechina/Rex Features

The vast majority of violence, including fatal violence, against women and girls worldwide is perpetrated in the home, and lockdowns have exacerbated its every cause. These include stress, financial pressure, isolation, and a lack of interventions from family, friends and colleagues. Women are frightened to access shelter services and have little safe space or time to reach out for help. Not only is it almost impossible to move during the pandemic, loss of employment for many also means they can’t afford to leave anyway.

These problems weren’t created by coronavirus. The pandemic is merely exposing the fact that cities have been content to ignore domestic violence, not seeing it as an urban problem deeply connected to such issues as housing, employment, transportation, childcare, and of course the wage gap. Ultimately, tackling domestic violence may mean unsettling the heterosexual nuclear family in ways that would be deeply disruptive to the status quo – namely, disruptive to the long-standing reliance on the single-family home as a place of unpaid care work, a disruption cities can ill afford given their reluctance to fund childcare, subsidise housing and prevent violence.

The good news is that women haven’t been twiddling our thumbs waiting for city planners or politicians to solve these problems. In fact, women have been coming up with their own designs for cities and homes for well over a century. In 1889, Jane Addams founded Hull House in Chicago, a social settlement for young, unmarried women and immigrants who needed a safe home and a sense of community.

Her legacy echoes through the activism of other women who just won’t wait: the Focus E15 mums, who occupied their hostel in 2013 when faced with sudden evictions by Newham council in London; the Moms 4 Housing group who squatted in a vacant mansion to protest against rampant gentrification in the Bay area of San Francisco; and we shouldn’t forget that Black Lives Matter – perhaps the most transformative movement of our time – was founded by black women.

City planners, architects and politicians can make a difference, if the will is there. In the Aspern district of Vienna, all of the streets and public spaces are named after women. In Tokyo, trains have carriages set aside at particular times for women, disabled people, children and carers. In Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, female street vendors have seen their safety and economic prospects improve with the building of secure, permanent mini-markets that include space for breastfeeding. In Stockholm, snowploughing schedules prioritise residential streets, school zones, public transport and bike lanes. These interventions say to women: “Your contribution matters. Your safety matters. Your mobility matters.”

The current situation offers an unprecedented opportunity for even bigger changes. One possibility comes via the anti-racism protests sweeping the globe: defund the police. Transfer that money to affordable housing, childcare and public transport, all of which would dramatically improve women’s lives in ways that increased policing never has. A second move: all those people suddenly deemed “essential workers” should be paid as if our lives depend on them, because they do. Third: reinvest in the public realm by creating accessible, barrier-free spaces and transport systems that would allow everyone full access to the benefits of city living.

My fourth and by no means final suggestion: seek out, listen to and employ diverse groups of city-dwellers in all areas of urban design, planning, policy-making, politics and architecture. The pandemic has shown us that society can be radically re-organised if necessary. Let’s carry that lesson into creating the non-sexist city.

• Feminist City by Leslie Kern is published by Verso on 7 July, price £12.99.

© Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

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