Women, Men, Cities

Linda M McDowell. Handbook of Urban Studies. Editor: Ronan Paddison. SAGE Publications. 2001.

For our house is the corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the world.

~ GastonBachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1969, p.2

I have a terrible fear of the suburbs: I cannot bear the provinces, and especially the edges of conurbations. Just like home. The safe familiarity of the bay windows, the neat gardens, safety like a trap, ready to ensnare in its enfolding arms.

~ Walkerdine, 1985: 66

The city was the source of enlightenment and the fountain of culture for my parents and their friends who were city born and bred. No shtetls for them. They believed in the city; ‘peasant’ was a word which indicated ignorance, dirt and prejudice. They looked to the city above all for its liberating intelligence, for education, for ideas, as a cultural and political centre.

~ Amirah Inglis, A Tale of Three Cities, 1989, p.79

Introduction: Stockport, London, Cambridge

I was … one of the children of the post war boom, who would leave the safe innocence of the suburbs for the stripped pine promises of the new middle class, for the glamour of the metropolis and the desperate lure of the academy. (Walkerdine, 1985: 63-4)

These are the words of Valerie Walkerdine, born two years before me, in Derby rather than in Stockport where I was born, but her trajectory was mine too. A child of the post-war settlement, a first generation university student, I—like so many of the feminist academics currently teaching in British universities—was a grammar school girl in the 1960s, escaping marriage and motherhood, at least for a while or as a sole pursuit, through a scholarship and later an academic position in an urban university. And now so many of us are urban dwellers, some of those women to whom writers about the city as a liberating arena for women (Wilson, 1991a), or about women’s growing significance as inner area gentrifiers (Bondi, 1992; Butler and Hamnett, 1994; Lyons, 1996; Rose, 1989; Warde, 1991) must have been referring. But these women, like me, are now middle class and have relatively little in common with other women who live in the same inner areas of cities. These women are more likely to be the tenants of private landlords or else to live in increasingly poorly maintained council property, rather than in the gentrified terraces that are our homes. And, in the uncertain urban labour markets of the 1990s and the new century, they are more likely to be unemployed or in poorly paid casual and temporary work than to have permanent well-paid employment as academics (or other professional occupations into which educated women have made successful, if too small, inroads) or to be able to afford the commodified domestic services that keep our lives running smoothly. Indeed, it may be that we meet these women only in our homes as they supplement their incomes by cleaning or ironing for us. Although we are all women, as Virginia Woolf so perceptively argued three-quarters of a century ago, our needs and demands may be very different. Thus at a meeting of the Women’s Cooperative Guild in 1915 Woolf noted that ‘If every reform they demand was granted this very instant it would not touch one hair of my comfortable capitalistic head’ (Woolf, 1929 in Davies, 1977: xxxi). Class divides women as much as gender unites them.

So what exactly, if anything, do women per se and women in cities have in common at the end of the twentieth century rather than at the beginning? Is gender a fundamental axis of urban analysis? Do women as a group have different perceptions of, and experiences in the city from men? Or are the differences among women, divided as they/we are not only by class, but also by race and ethnicity, life-cycle stage, age and fitness, as marked as the similarities between them/us? Certainly having money and health makes a huge difference to the ‘urban experience’. Does this mean that the project that feminists interested in urban divisions have been engaged in since ‘round about 1973’ (Harvey, 1989)—that significant date in the transition to postmoder-nity—has been at best too single-minded, at worst misguided? These are difficult questions to raise as they seem to deny the political significance of feminism, the policy implications of gender needs, and the common cause between women but they have been asked in an increasingly insistent form, both in the political arena and in the academy for the past decade or so. One resolution has been to hold to a form of strategic essentialism (all women are united by their gender) for political purposes (and here I mean far more than party politics for one of the key successes of feminist politics has been to extend the definition of what is political into the everyday, to ‘ordinary’ issues, many of them urban) while at the same time unpicking the differences and diversity that distinguish women from each other.

In this chapter I want to address the significance of the recognition of difference and its implications for urban analyses and policies, while also giving a flavour of the excitement that has stimulated a vast array of studies about gender divisions and the city—as a built form, as a spatial arena, as an artefact and an image—in the twenty and more years since the geographer Pat Burnett published what was probably the first paper in an English language journal about gender and the city, a paper published in Antipode in 1973. In the intervening years, not only has feminist scholarship burgeoned and shifted in its emphasis from a primary focus on material social relations to the inclusion of symbolic meaning and systems of representations (McDowell, 1993a, 1993b, 1999; Rose, 1993; Segal, 1999) but urban planners and the policymakers no longer ignore what are too often referred to as ‘women’s issues’. It is important, however, to establish from the outset that the intersection of gender and urban policy is not solely about women’s issues—men are gendered too and, like women, their experiences in and of the city are affected by their age, ethnicity, class, sexuality and other social characteristics. Indeed the changing position of men in urban areas and the significance of the visible effects of what has been termed a crisis of masculinity is one of the most noticeable shifts in research that focuses on the connections between gender and urban issues (Campbell, 1993). This parallels a wider focus on masculinity in recent scholarship about gender relations (see, for example, Connell, 1995).

While I hope to give some, inevitably brief, history of these debates that have altered—indeed transformed may not be too strong a word -analyses of urban issues and problems in the past two decades, I also want to suggest from the start that it is impossible to discuss gender and urban policy in the abstract, without an idea of the type of society or city that we might be aiming towards. At the most general level, therefore, I want to situate my chapter in the context of a search for urban policies that will result in or at least move us towards a more socially just society. In the particular context of this chapter, of course, the reduction of inequalities based on gender is the principal aim. And here we have to answer some difficult questions about what is meant when or whether we talk about women’s needs, the empowerment of women, gender issues or equal opportunities policies. As I have already intimated, it has become increasingly clear that it is difficult to separate injustices based on gender from those of class, race or ethnicity, age, sexual preference and so on. The overall aim of an urban policy whose goal is greater social justice must be to close the increasing gulf between the powerful and the powerless, the haves and the have-nots in contemporary cities, whether the have-nots are defined by gender, race, age or class or, as is usually the case, positioned by a complex cross-cutting of all these social divisions, and others.

These are large issues: the philosophical literature about social justice, for example, is enormous, and while I can only touch on it in this chapter, I want to end with a consideration of the alternative definitions of justice that inform equal opportunities policies in the urban context—indeed it would be impossible to consider gender relations without such a discussion. Urban policies must be based on some normative notion of what equality between women and men might look like, of how this affects urban form and access to and the distribution of urban goods and resources.

Before I either review the ‘urban studies and gender’ literature or assess alternative conceptions of social justice, however, I want to raise some questions about the press coverage of what might be defined as urban policy and gender in action. It is an example of community action (or is it?) which Observer columnist Melanie Phillips first raised in the summer of 1994 and then again, almost two years later, in the winter of 1996. I found that these were articles and an issue that made me think about the significance and appropriateness of the topic ‘women and cities’ that the editor of this book had asked me to write about.

Balsall Heath, Birmingham: Community Action or Vigilantism?

The inner city suburb of Balsall Heath in Birmingham, in common with many similar areas in British cities, has a history of housing decline, class change and in-migration from different areas of Britain, and, since the Second World War but particularly from the 1970s, from other Commonwealth or former Commonwealth parts of the empire. It is areas like Balsall Heath that Rex and Moore (1967), in their classic study of urban social structure based on research in Birmingham, dubbed ‘twilight areas’ or, after Burgess’s 1920s work on inner Chicago ‘the zone in transition’. But as critics of these classic sociological analyses of urban structure have argued, these areas are also home for many people who have a strong attachment to and pride in their area, who have invested in owner occupation and in a range of improvements and who resent not only the negative labelling of their community but also, more problematically, the shifting population of less fortunate and less-rooted people who also find some sort of a home here. Such areas are thus cut through the social divisions—those of ethnicity, of class, of income, of different types of lifestyle—and with potential conflicts of interest between local residents. In Balsall Heath another form of conflict became an increasing source of tension for the local residents. In the past few years the area had become a place where sex was for sale: for sale in some of the small Victorian houses where women sat under a light in the window, often in a state of semi-undress and, more obviously, for sale on the streets. Groups of women prostitutes, and some young men, would gather each evening, and during the day, on street corners in order to attract the attention of punters who cruised the area in their cars. It was not only moral outrage, but also physical dangers to their children—from the passing cars, from the used condoms and syringes junked in the small front gardens—that stirred the local community into action. Headed by a group of mainly Asian men, a rota was worked out of men who would sit in full visibility on the street corners and patrol the local pavements each evening through into the night in an attempt to shame the punters and destroy the trade for the ‘working girls’.

Now what is the relevance of this? It is, you might think, a fine example of community action, a gesture of gender solidarity between ‘decent’ men and women. Indeed the social commentator Melanie Philips, who seems in her column in the Observer to have set herself up as the voice of middle (class) England, saw it in exactly those terms, declaring that the action was giving people a ‘sense of communal self-respect’. Although she mentioned that insoluble problem of local community action—the displacement of whatever use or activity is disliked from one into another area—and worried about vigilantism in a passing reference, her overall conclusion was that the actions by these Muslim men had ‘pointed social values in a more healthy and realistic direction’ (Observer, 17 July 1994: 12)

I want to suggest that there is a more complicated story to tell here that reveals some of the tensions and divisions between the residents of this area: differences that are based on class and gender lines. Indeed, I think that this story is an exemplary illustration of the way in which feminist scholars and policy-makers have come to recognize over the past decade or so that it is problematic to talk about gender or gender interests per se. We should no longer assume a simple dichotomy or division of interests along gender lines, with men on one side and women on the other, nor that there is a commonality of interests that unites either all women or all residents of a small area. Returning to Balsall Heath illustrates this point.

In an article in The Guardian (23 July 1994: 25) published a few days after Melanie Phillips’s piece, Maggie O’Kane revealed the ways in which ‘the local community’ was divided along ethnic and gender lines. She interviewed several women who lived in the area who told her that they felt intimidated by the gangs of men patrolling the streets. These women included an older white woman who had been verbally abused on returning from a party, and a woman in her twenties who lived opposite a house used for prostitution who explained the effect of the patrols on her attitudes and behaviour: ‘I find it intimidating walking past the vigilantes. They don’t have a perspective on who might or who might not be a prostitute. I used to talk to the girls but now I am even wary of doing that.’ The prostitutes themselves, although more used to verbal abuse, also suffered. One ‘girl’ (actually a woman of 44) queuing in a local shop reported: ‘I was just standing there when a gang of them surrounded me and started shouting at me “Clear out, you slut”.’ The attitudes of Asian women in the area, married or single, young or elderly, were not considered by either of the two reporters. However, as the work of an Asian women’s community action group in London, the Southall Black Sisters, has shown there are often tensions in Muslim families, not only between the generations but also between young men and women who have different attitudes about women’s position in contemporary Britain.

Phillips clearly was not convinced by O’Kane’s journalism nor by the academic feminist literature that increasingly has emphasized the diversity of women’s interests. In February 1996, she wrote a follow-up article in which she revealed the success of the community picket in cleaning up Balsall Heath with the exception of a single housing estate, where, she reported, a new alliance of the housing department, the police and the Muslim-led street watch group was beginning to have success in evicting not only prostitutes, but also drug dealers, pimps and gangsters. Phillips quotes only a single voice against what she terms ‘the people power that cleaned the streets’—a minister of the United Reform Church, David Clark, who is quoted as suggesting: ‘It’s almost fascist; it’s the sort of thing that was done to the Jews and the Gypsies, when the police and local groups get together like this. It’s treating people like objects, like the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.’ His unease clearly did not worry Phillips who wrote, ‘But these “victims” are drug dealers and pimps.’

In the conclusion to her article Phillips raises an interesting issue. She writes: ‘At the root of the controversy is a fundamental collision of values, between those who believe there are absolutes of right and wrong and those who believe that all values are relative and no-one should judge anyone else’ (Observer, 4 February 1996: 7).

I think Phillips is wrong here. While it is perfectly appropriate to make judgements -urban planners and policy-makers do so every day, as do scholars who comment on city questions—we still need to ask ourselves who it is who is making these judgements and on what basis. How are the different interests of women who live in Balsall Health, in Birmingham, or indeed in any other urban area, to be judged against the women who work there, albeit in an occupation that many feel is morally repugnant? How are we positioned as academics or policy-makers? How does our own race, gender or religion influence our arguments? And are the absolutes that Phillips feels are so clear unchangeable or are the views we express about urban problems actually dependent on our own positions or the particular circumstances of a particular city at that time? These are some of the issues that are at the centre of contemporary debates about urban policy and social justice and I shall return to them at the end of the chapter. This recognition of the fragmentation or diversity of interests among women and the acceptance that decisions and even knowledge often is context-dependent or ‘situated’ has, however, been the main change of emphasis in theoretical work on gender issues undertaken over the past two decades. It also raises difficult issues for urban policy and politics that I shall also want to return to.

First, however, and perhaps paradoxically given this claim, I want to establish the extent to which women in Britain today do have certain common interests and face common issues in cities.

From the 1970s to the 1990s: Key Changes in the Position of Women in Britain

These two decades in Britain were ones, of course, dominated by Conservative governments; a period in which, since 1979 and to some extent before, in the words of Brian Robson, ‘urban policy in Britain has been faced with political ambivalence and declining expenditure’ (Robson, 1994: 131).2 There have been cuts not only in earmarked urban budgets, but also in local and central government spending that is most crucial in cities. Direct investment in housing is the most obvious example where expenditure has declined but also in a whole raft of welfare services, both in direct provision such as the health service where there has been a shift of resources away from the cities to the shires, and in financial support for the vulnerable. The abolition of income support for 16-18-year-olds, for example, is visible in the shaming increase of young homeless on city streets. Moreover, the declining real value of unemployment benefit and state pensions, over two decades in which unemployment has affected over three million at any one time and the numbers of the elderly have increased, have condemned many to lives of private desperation, not only in the inner areas of the largest cities which we traditionally regard as areas of deprivation, but also on suburban council estates in smaller towns such as Oxford. The unrest that broke out there on the Blackbird Leys estate in 1991 was a challenge to the too-easy associations between poverty, unrest and the inner areas of large conurbations. Further, as recent research published from the ESRC panel survey and by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (1995) shows, geographic patterns of poverty are changing. Smaller towns and cities in the southeast, Chelmsford as well as Oxford for example, have experienced growing numbers of households in poverty over the 1980s (Green, 1994). While these are not necessarily gender-specific issues, they do have a differential effect on men’s and women’s lives. The elderly poor, for example, are disproportionately female, and single parent mothers are disproportionately represented among the poor (Glendinning and Millar, 1992).

The overall effect of changes over the past two decades has been a marked increase in the extent of inequality between the richest and the poorest members of society. While trends in urban policy have exacerbated, or rather perhaps not alleviated injustices, wider changes, at a national and indeed international level are also part of the explanation of greater inequality. I do not want to labour these points but rather to draw out the implications for women’s positions in society and for changing gender relations, and to examine some of the consequences for urban policy.

Waged Work

Perhaps the most significant change has been in the structure of the economy. The shift to the service sector, common in advanced economies in the past two decades, has been accompanied by a rise in women’s participation in waged labour to such an extent that some commentators argue that we are witnessing a feminization of the economy (Wilkinson, 1994). Whether or not this is so (and see Hakim, 1993,1996, for a dissenting view), it is clear that in Britain there has been the withdrawal of some two million men from the labour force since 1971 and a concomitant increase of a similar number of women workers -although, as is well known, the figures for women’s labour-market participation are notoriously inaccurate. Working-class men have been affected by the decline in skilled manual employment and, more recently middle-class men by so-called downsizing and by the shakeout of middle management. There are several thousand middle-aged men in their forties and fifties who are ‘discouraged’ workers, often ineligible for unemployment benefit by virtue of golden handshakes and redundancy payments and also failing to register for work as little that is appropriate to their age and skills is available. The impact of unemployment on men took a spatially uneven form. In the heavy decline in the male manufacturing industries in the 1970s and 1980s, men in the industrial urban areas of the north of England, Scotland and Wales were most severely affected, whereas in the recession of the early 1990s in which service sector employees also lost their jobs, the urban impacts were more evenly spread both across the regions and between the larger urban conurbations and the smaller cities and towns (Lawless et al., 1996; Martin, 1995; Philo, 1995). The rise of an ‘underclass’ of alienated young men, especially in Britain’s northern cities, who, excluded from the labour market, enact rites of masculine identity through car theft and joy-riding, is a new aspect of gender problems in cities (Campbell, 1993). In long summers (1991,1994) sporadic unrest may turn into ‘riots’, in the most recent of which Asian youth, regarded as less prone to riot than either white or African-Caribbean men, have also been involved in towns such as Bradford and Luton. This urban crisis of masculinity (McDowell, 2000) has parallels in a wider concern about the educational achievements of young men and the gap that is appearing between the results of girls and boys at the statutory school-leaving age. In Britain it seems that girls are now more successful in examinations at 16 than boys. The gap is particularly wide for African-Caribbean young people.

The more than two million women who have entered the labour market are in very different occupations and jobs from the men who have left or who never join. Predominantly in the service sector and in part-time employment, they are low paid and have poor terms and conditions of employment. The net effect has been an overall reduction of the amount and value of paid work being done in the economy, in terms of the number of hours and the total remuneration with the rapid growth of low-paid workers. This casualization or peripheralization of the labour market has been further exacerbated by the privatization of public sector employment, especially under the compulsory competitive tendering programme of the successive conservative governments to 1997. Although the vast majority of women currently in the labour market are both in the service sector and in part-time employment, there are also growing numbers of women who have successfully entered professional and white collar employment, often on equal terms with men, at least in terms of salary levels at particular positions in the hierarchy. (There is still significant occupational segregation, both horizontal and vertical, in the British labour market; Scott, 1994.) Women’s growing possession of educational and professional credentials, however, has opened up class divisions between women that are reflected in a growing income divide between women (McDowell, 1991). White middle-class women in professional occupations, especially those without children (and an increasing number of women are remaining childless) have more in common in terms of their social characteristics, lifestyles and income with men in similar positions in the labour market than with their working-class sisters.

There are also important divisions between women from different ethnic backgrounds in terms of their pattern of labour market participation and their position in the economy. Women from African-Caribbean backgrounds, for example, are both more likely still to work in manufacturing or in the public sector of services and full time than white women. And whereas women from the Asian subcontinent who are Muslim are least likely to be in employment, other women from India and Bangladesh have high participation rates. These differences affect women’s position in the family, their independence and their purchasing power and so place them differentially when urban policies that are ‘gender-sensitive’ are being considered. Despite these class and ethnic differences, however, feminist economist Anne Phillips (1989) has argued that the lives of most women now are amazingly homogeneous in the sense that they are for a considerable period of their life both mothers and waged workers and do their own domestic labour. So in two senses women are the proletariat, the new working class in the labour market and, in the main, domestic labourers in their homes.

While some of the women who have entered the labour market over the past two decades have become the sole income earners in their household, over this period there has been an increase both of dual earning households and of households without a wage earner. Thus there has been a growing gap created between (Nelson and Smith 1999; Pahl, 1984) work-rich and work-poor households. In households headed by a married couple where the man has lost his job, the social security regulations act as a disincentive for women who are in low paid employment and so paradoxically at first sight women may choose to leave the labour market if their husband loses his job. The work-rich households are predominantly middle-class households whom, as Gregson and Lowe (1994) have shown, are increasingly employing what they have termed a new service class of domestic workers—cleaners, housekeepers, nannies and child minders to service their domestic needs—a class composed primarily, of course, of other women. This commodification and privatization of domestic work may be a possible area for future intervention. For the majority of less affluent dual income households, women’s entry into the labour market has entailed a speed-up or intensification of their overall workload, as two people do at least three jobs -two in the labour market and the domestic labour. This speed-up is exacerbated by the declining standards or withdrawal of a range of state-provided services—school meals for children for example, meals on wheels and home helps for elderly dependants, poor and expensive public transport, higher costs and increased waiting times for dental treatment and so on. As research has demonstrated (Sassoon, 1987), it is predominantly women who do not only the domestic labour and care of dependants but who undertake all the organization and transport required to patch together the range of services used by their families but widely distributed across the urban area. For these women, as feminist scholars and activists have long argued, a city designed on the basis of full-time work for men, the separation of so-called non-conforming uses, the home from work, retail from industrial uses, a transport system geared around peak time flows and periphery-centre links ignores the realities of an increasing number of women’s lives. There are clear policy implications here that hardly need spelling out. However, as the implications are, in fact, no less than a redesign of the principles of urban planning as we know them—Hayden published an article questioning whether a non-sexist city is possible almost two decades ago (1984)—the type of planning interventions that come under the heading of gender planning are a lot smaller-scale and somewhat more pragmatic. I shall outline some of them below. We might do well, however, to remind ourselves of research that shows that women who are full-time housewives express greater dissatisfaction with suburban living than employed men who only return to these areas in the evening for R&R (Van Vliet, 1988).

Household Structure and Single Mothers

As well as entry into waged work, perhaps the most significant, or at least most discussed, change of the past two decades had been the rise in the number of single women living without a man, especially unsupported mothers. Indeed in the early 1990s the degree of political hysteria around this was such as to justify the label a ‘moral panic’. A wide range of social ills have been attributed to single mothers, especially but not only by commentators from the radical right of the political spectrum. Few have reached the heights of absurdity of US commentator Charles Murray (1994), who with particular relevance to this chapter seemed to suggest that inner city decline in general, and urban crime in particular, was the sole responsibility of single mothers, if not individually then because of their moral feck-lessness in inadequately socializing the type of wild young men that Campbell (1993) has studied. We might variously add to the list teenage violence, drug-taking and family breakdown, all associated by urban commentators on the right of the political spectrum. While the debate about the causes or consequences of the growing number of unsupported mothers is beyond the scope of this chapter, it is interesting to compare their labour market participation rates with comparable rates for married mothers of the same age. Participation rates are significantly lower for single mothers, many of whose earning capacity does not allow them to purchase the necessary child care, although survey research has found that many single mothers would prefer to be employed than to rely on state benefits (Glendinning and Millar, 1992). Here a number of possible interventions from income support to more specifically urban policies relating training schemes and new job opportunities to child care provision and affordable housing in inner areas and outer urban estates are important.3 In her innovative work in Los Angeles the architect and academic Dolores Hayden designed such a scheme for the inner city. In Britain, the Women’s Design Service in London is involved in the design of a number of projects for women including an Asian women’s centre and housing for single women but these examples are few and far between.

Urban Violence

While I have emphasized both homogeneity and heterogeneity in women’s position in the contemporary city, it is perhaps urban violence, and the threat of it, that most obviously unites women, whatever their circumstances. Interesting work by, among others, Gill Valentine (1989, 1993), has shown how the fear of attack restricts women’s access to certain areas in the city at particular times of the day or night. A smaller proportion of women than men are able to drive, and not all of those with a licence have unrestricted access to a car, although as the 1991 census figures on journey to work reveal, the gender differentials here are now beginning to close. Although more women than men still go to work by bus (15 per cent compared to 6 per cent in 1991 but down from 24 per cent and 11 per cent respectively in 1981), 52 per cent of women compared with 67 per cent of men now go to work by car. (In 1981 the figures were 37 per cent and 58 per cent respectively.) The combination of fear of violence and the problems of a public transport system that is either unsafe (because of, for example, cuts in platform staff on the underground in Greater London, and the increase in single operator buses in many cities) or not available is one reason for the reduction of the gender gap in travel patterns. It is also a reason, in my view, to look sceptically at green urban policies to reduce car usage in city centres. However, this conclusion is directly opposed to the need to reduce pollution levels and to make city streets safer for children. A comparison of the figures for children’s journies to school over the past two decades reveals a staggering reduction in the percentage of children who walk to school—a decline from 91 per cent in 1971 to only 9 per cent in 1991. In the long term, of course, advocating increased car usage by women is merely adding to the spiral of declining public transport and streets empty of pedestrians.

Fear and Delight?

While the city streets are too often places of insecurity and fear for women, and for others too whose appearance might distinguish them from the norm- gay men, people of colour and homeless people are frequent victims of street violence—the urban crowd is also a place of escape and anonymity where conventional boundaries might be transgressed and the familial lifestyle of the suburbs denied (Mort, 1995; Sennett, 1977,1993; Walkowitz, 1992). A growing literature, primarily by and about gay men but latterly including lesbians too, has documented the significance of urban bars and clubs and areas of gay residential gentrification in the establishment of an alternative sexual identity (Adler and Brenner, 1992; Bell and Valentine, 1995; Knopp, 1992; Lauria and Knopp, 1985). While the earliest urban research that was from an explicitly feminist focus tended to emphasize the negative implications of urban living, and especially the disadvantages of current urban land use planning, there is also a strand of feminist research on the city that celebrates the city’s significance for large numbers of women, from the early pioneers of women’s education and employment, for the women involved in the suffrage movement, for lesbians and for women who just want to be independent.

Elizabeth Wilson’s writing on the city—books with such evocative titles as Hallucinations: Life in the Post-modern City (1988) and The Sphinx and the City(1991b)—are good examples of this genre that draws on, and feminizes, the celebration of the city in the work of that great modernist poet and writer, Charles Baudelaire. Writing about mid-nineteenth century Paris, Baudelaire identified as the key urban figure the flâneur, an urban voyeur who, in Baudelaire’s immortal phrase, ‘botanized on the asphalt’, dawdling, gazing and observing the fantastic urban spectacle laid out for his delectation. Although Baudelaire took for granted that the flâneur was a masculine figure, in an interesting exchange with Janet Wolff (1985), Wilson (1991a) has asserted not only the existence of the flâneuse (although George Sand had to adopt male dress to wander Parisian streets at night in the 1870s) but also impugned the very masculinity of the flâneur himself: after all, these men not only did not work—and ‘breadwinning’ has been the key defining characteristic of modern masculinity—but they also enjoyed window shopping!

Wilson convincingly suggests that the anonymity and excitement of the late nineteenth-and twentieth-century city was crucial for the development of feminist politics, as urban living often brought freedom from patriarchal control, in both the literal sense of an escape from the father and in the more general sense. For the ‘New Woman’ of the twentieth century, challenging the Victorian sanctity of hearth and home, the city brought a welcome anonymity. Wilson is on less certain ground, however, in my view, in her arguments that the origins of modern town planning lie in men’s fears of the female urban crowd and so a desire to restrict and restrain women’s activities and keep them in the private sphere. This desire was surely restricted to ‘virtuous’ women, the domestic angel of the hearth of Victorian ideology, whereas the eroto-feminization of the streets, the city as an arena of female sexuality (‘loose’ women of the street; after all street walkers is a common euphemism for female prostitutes), there for the male gaze and for taking, is an all-too-familiar masculine representation of cities (Walkowitz, 1992). The binary construction of the madonna and the whore, the good woman and the bad woman, is a classic division between women. It also seems to me that the fear of the ‘otherness’ of the urban crowd (the mob?) is beyond gender in the sense that it is a long-understood reaction of authority in whatever guise -the police or the town planners—to fears of the lack of control of crowds of all sorts: the working class, poll tax protesters or football fans. It is the city of course, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, that facilitated conglomeration in numbers previously unknown, leading to productive as well as challenging chaos. As Marx recognized, the city was a crucial arena for the forging of class consciousness and class politics.

The Imaginary City: Mean Streets

The association of cities with outsiders, and with public forms of association, has been a dominant theme of representations of urban life in literature and in films. Indeed, the social critic Raymond Williams (1989) has argued that the city itself was the crucible of modernity. In the vast migrations, especially from Europe to North America, that fed the late nineteenth and twentieth century cities of the ‘advanced’ world, writers, painters, musicians were thrown together in a form of creative chaos. Among the products of the modern movement were the great social realist novels that dealt with urban poverty and inequalities, with the consequences of migration and ambition. Dickens in Great Britain, Dreiser and Sinclair in the USA, produced sweeping panoramic visions of the effects of urban life on the men and women of the time. Like the urban sociologists of the time—Simmel, Spengler, later Wirth, Park and Burgess—and of course their predecessor, Baudelaire, these novelists were fascinated by the arcane and the unusual, the outsider and the outlaw. Their novels featured the criminal and the cheat, the drug-takers and lawbreakers, risking their reputations in the anonymity of the city. The urban sociologists tended to ignore women, seduced by the glamour of the male outsider, although Baudelaire recognised the fallen woman as a crucial urban outsider and novelists from Dreiser’s Sister Carrie onwards have seen the city as an arena for women’s seduction and downfall. Donald (1992) has argued that this emphasis on the outsider heralded the classic protagonist of urban fiction -the detective who, with faith in rational science and equally rational but bleak view of the venality of his fellow men and women, was able to pierce the gloom of the urban underworld and restore relative order to urban chaos (see also Willett, 1996). It is significant that this figure, at least until the rise of a feminist genre in the 1980s, is male. Here, in detective fiction, we see a clear distinction between the masculine, public world of the streets and the feminine private world of the home, that feminist scholars have long recognized. Indeed, not only is the detective a man in a male urban world but he is specifically portrayed as unencumbered by the ties of domesticity. He is a loner, single or divorced, forever caught in the bleak internal neon light of the open fridge door, whose empty interior parallels his own interior life.

The fictional female private eye had to wait for the feminist deconstruction and blurring of the binary associations of man/public/city/streets and woman/private/rural/home that ordered not only Western fiction but also the whole of Western social theory from the Enlightenment (see Pateman and Gross, 1987). Similarly, the gaze of modernity—whether in literature, film or painting—was that of the male; women were the object of the gaze rather than the ‘eye’ doing the gazing (Pollock, 1988; Rose, 1993). The female private eye seemed to have to wait too for the development of significant numbers of real ‘material girls’—single, independent and employed. The feminine and feminist heroine of the new genre of hard-boiled fiction is, like her male predecessor, single and unencumbered; she changes her man as often as her gun, has a liking for spirits and is as at home on the mean streets as any men. Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone epitomize these new urban heroines. I have searched in vain for a female detective with children in the literally dozens of female fictional detectives that now exist but I was pleased to welcome Spring’s Laura Principal, with a fictional base in Cambridge, to the list. It is a nice feeling when a favourite female protagonist actually walks down your own mean street! The 1980s also saw the development of a whole range of films starring tough and independent urban women, that the critic Judith Williamson dubbed the SWW genre (single working women). Fatal Attraction (1987) was perhaps the apotheosis of this genre with its central fight for control over a man between the wicked SWW and the good suburban-based wife. Its disturbed central character (played by Glenn Close) lived in inner New York in an area that seemed often to be lit by flames like a charnel house. Her final action that was meant to signify her insane challenge to the domestic virtues of suburbia was to boil the family bunny in a cooking pot!

While female dicks of detective fiction may be the ideal, as well as an idealized, urban character, counterposed to the mad SWW, feminists interested in the urban and in cities have also analysed the significance of the city to women in literature as well as the portrayal of different aspects of urban life in novels and films. Heron’s Streets of Desire (1993) is an excellent example of the first set of analyses. Here she illustrates the central theme of rootlessness and displacement that lies at the heart of city novels by twentieth century women writers, drawing examples from each of the decades of this century. For all women, city fictions are narratives of self-discovery, and as Heron argues, have a special significance for Black women for whom the city is a historical stage where migrants converge and ‘women come into their own voice: the voice that articulates historical experience as urban’ (Heron, 1993: 3). While Heron’s collection is dominated by the great fictional cities of Western literature—Paris, London and New York—a collection by Rieder (1991), Cosmopolis, includes urban stories by women based in cities as diverse as Bombay, Beirut, Beijing, Soweto and Sao Paulo. In many of these stories, women appear as outsiders, city heroines created by women writers who themselves are strangers to the city they are writing about, whose fictional lives reflect alienation and loneliness, as well as opportunities for greater freedom. In Inner Cities, Modjeska (1989) straddles the boundaries of ‘fact’ and fiction in a series of essays by Australian women, the majority of whom are migrants both to the country itself and to Australia’s cities. On another continent, and moving even further towards ‘reality’ from these tales of imaginary and remembered cities, Hayden (1995) has reclaimed the hidden history of migrant women (and in this case men), Black and Asian, in the early urban development of Los Angeles, providing a stimulating example of how to uncover the Power of Place—the title of her book—revealing the significance of women pioneers in urban iconography, street layouts and monuments.

Policy Recommendations and Research Agendas

Turning now specifically to urban policy, and back to Britain, what might be included on a shopping list of urban policies addressed to the changing circumstances of women in contemporary British cities?

A glance at any recent book, article or policy document that takes ‘gender sensitivity’ (the current policy euphemism for inequality or discrimination against women) seriously, reveals a consensus around a number of key issues. The reviews by Little (1993) and Greed (1994) are not atypical of the sort of debates and recommendations that have been common in feminist circles, both among academics and practitioners, for at least a decade and probably longer. For example, Little includes a range of recommendations from women’s representation in a whole number of planning fora from the neighbourhood to the national level to specific policies for transport (increased running times, shelters, ramps, guards, women only parking spaces, arrangements between women students and women taxi drivers in university cities and so on), for shopping (extended opening times, rearrangement of stores), housing (low income provision, mixed development, sheltered accommodation) and so forth. Greed (1994) has identified a similar range of policies, as well as developing work on a more specific issue—namely public conveniences—that bane of life for all women in the city, for those who habitually use urban leisure facilities or shops and, worst of all, for women who are accompanied by a toddler or two on any of their trips. A commendation should be reserved for those few urban planners who have included nappy changing facilities in men’s public lavatories. Despite the so-called crisis of single parenthood, well over 80 per cent of children in this country have two parents and not insignificant numbers of men occasionally take their children shopping. Garber and Turner (1994), in a review of urban research (rather than policy) focused on gender issues also included a similar range of issues. Thus they had chapters on rape programmes, child care provision, refuges for battered women, affordable and public housing, central city redevelopment programmes, as well as chapters on women’s involvement in collective local action and in formal local politics. Here, as with most of the policy literature, gender is used synonymously with ‘women’s issues’.

While I have no argument with the sorts of shopping lists identified in these and similar texts on urban policy and research and can only agree that they would improve the quality of life for many women, I want to conclude by turning to the philosophical foundations of equal opportunities policies, or gender-sensitive practices. When we, as academics, planners, policymakers or politicians, argue for gender-sensitive planning, or for policies to meet women’s needs -and these are now common terms not only in the documents of British urban policy but also in Third World planning—what exactly do we mean? As an aside before pursuing this theme in the context of contemporary Western cities, in the women in development and gender and development (WID/GAD) policy literatures (see Pearson, 1992 for a review) there are two proposals that urban planners might consider: namely that all policy documents should include a gender impact statement and that the evaluation of policies should include a gender audit. It is also interesting to compare the rhetoric of development policy, where women are seen as a resource and serious considerations of measures to increase women’s empowerment are now conventional in national and international policy documents, with at best, the silence about so-called women’s issues, or at worst the construction of women as a problem, that is usual in British urban policy documents.

To return to the more general issue: what vision of a good city lies behind the calls for gender equality; on what conception of social justice, of greater equality between men and women, might it be based? Further, should politicians and practitioners be planning at all to meet policy-defined needs (which so often are based on stereotypical views of women’s primary role as helpmeets, domestic provisioners or temporary workers), or rather should there be an attempt to create a wider range of choices for the diverse groups of people who live in cities? As Robson saw need to remind us, ‘cities are made up of people’ (1994: 132).

In a series of talks on BBC Radio 4 in 1993, David Harvey, then Professor of Geography in Oxford, now at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, made a passionate plea for the reinstatement of a utopian vision of a good city. It is a plea with which I have a great deal of sympathy, as it seems important to hold on to a progressive notion of social change. But whose vision of a good city are we to plan for? The rise of a postmodernist discourse has challenged the rational modernist assumptions on which town planning practice and urban policies are based (Dear, 1986; Watson and Gibson, 1995). It is no longer clear that there is a singular view of ‘the good city’ that Donnison and Soto (1980) were concerned to identify many years ago. Increasingly, urban planning is, or should be, concerned to establish the diversity of interests in contemporary cities.

Diversity and Social Justice

As I argued from the example of Balsall Health at the start of this chapter, it is difficult to conceive of a set of interests that might unite the women who live and work in this small area of a single city, let alone to plan for all women with their diverse interests in the range of cities and towns that make up urban Britain. The recognition of diversity among women is paralleled by contemporary critiques of normative versions of social justice, and indeed by the postmodern critique of what have rather dismissively been lumped together as meta-narratives—whether they are the liberal notion of the individual that lies behind the ideal of equal citizens and conventional equal opportunities policies or the class-based prescriptions of collective interests in Marxist theory. Instead a number of philosophers have argued for a group-based notion of rights, in which the desires and needs of different interests are not compared to a singular norm, whether it be an idealized worker, parent or way to live. As feminists, and more latterly postmodern critics, have pointed out what is set up as a universal norm or an ideal to aim for, whether in legislation or in urban policy, too often embodies masculinist or class-specific assumptions about the way to be or live (England, 1994; Laws, 1994; McDowell, 1994; Pateman, 1988; Phillips, 1987; Young, 1990).

Looking at the specific dilemma that has long faced feminist politics and equal opportunities policies clarifies the general argument. When claims are made about the necessity for women’s equality with men, what exactly is it that is being suggested? As many feminist philosophers have pointed out, feminists are faced with what has become known as the equality/difference dilemma (Phillips, 1987). In the workplace, for example, equal opportunity policies have tended to focus on a liberal notion of equality and to be based on the presumption that strategies should be aimed at women’s equality with men within the existing structures of workplace practices. But this presumption denies the differences between women and men. As Rhode has argued, ‘Women ought not to have to seem just like men to gain equal respect, recognition and economic security’ (Rhode, 1990: 7).

The alternative strategy is to argue for policies based on an acceptance of women’s difference from men—and it is this pole of the dichotomy that has tended to inform urban policy. Women have particular or special needs—for safety, for example, or in relation to their particular responsibilities for dependants. However, the danger of emphasizing, even celebrating as some radical feminists do, women’s differences, resulting as many of them do from the oppressive structures of a patriarchal society, are well known. If women are weaker, or predominantly carers, then it is too easily argued, as many judges do in rape cases for example (Smith, 1989), that they should be restricted to the home, not out on the city streets celebrating their independence. As Jaggar has pointed out, ‘measures apparently designed for women’s special protection may end up by protecting them primarily from the benefits that men enjoy’ (Jagger, 1990: 244). But I have shown above that the city streets, albeit often dangerous, have also been a significant crucible of women’s fight against patriarchal and familial oppression, a place of possibilities to transgress conventional norms of femininity and acceptable female behaviour.

If both equality with or difference from masculinist norms—and it might be added in the context of urban policy particular (white middle class?) ways of living in the city—are unacceptable as the normative basis for urban planning, what then should inform policy? Here I want to return to my initial point about the diversity between women and suggest that the debate about gender must be recast in different terms, emphasizing multiple differences among women (and indeed men) rather than a binary distinction between men and women. Thus there should be an effort to move away from policies based on either women’s similarity to or difference from men, although the problems this raises for a movement based on demands for justice for women should not be minimized.

In attempting to think about the implications for urban policy of multiple differences, about people’s membership of a whole range of diverse and cross-cutting interest groups, some of them spatially or locally based, and others not, the work of Iris Marion Young is extremely provocative. In her 1990 book Justice and the Politics of Difference, she argues for an urban politics based on what she has termed the celebration rather than the hierarchization of differences. ‘Minorities’ of whatever sort should be seen merely as different from each other and not inferior to a (white, male) norm. Young suggests that different interest groups should come together in democratically elected locally based groups to formulate and negotiate their demands which would then be transmitted to a strategic level planning authority that is city-wide. Her ideal is the construction of a locally based community that does not exclude those with whom the majority does not identify, but is open to what she terms ‘unassimilated otherness’, that ‘takes account of and provides voice for the different groups that dwell together in the city’ (Young, 1990: 227) without forming a community in the conventionally understood sense of a unitary interest. Instead of notions of justice being based on a community of rights and entitlements as in liberal theory, what moral philosophers have termed the ‘generalized other’ (Benhabib, 1986), or even ‘the view from nowhere’ (Haraway, 1991), claims for justice must be based on the point of view of the ‘concrete other’, and be secured through complementary reciprocity, that is each person ‘is entitled to expect and to assume from the other forms of behaviour through which the other feels recognized and confirmed as a concrete, individual being, with specific needs, talents and capacities’ (Benhabib, 1986: 341, quoted by Young, 1990: 231).

Thus, in the Balsall Heath case, the community interests would include, rather than exclude, the prostitutes who worked in the area as well as local residents, whose interests anyway, as we have seen, diverge. Lest the question arises of the participation of groups whose membership is based on views that are, for example, based on racist or sexist grounds, Young suggests that who should participate on what grounds and which issues are allowable should be limited by three principles. Individuals and group actions and their consequences must be judged, first, not to do harm to others, secondly, not to inhibit the ability of individuals to develop and exercise their capacities within the limits of mutual respect and cooperation, and finally not to determine the conditions under which other agents are compelled to act (Young, 1990: 251).

Young attempts to distinguish her proposals from the usual interpretation of decentralized decision-making based on local autonomy, which she believes reproduces the problems of exclusion that the ideal of community poses. Instead she insists that local negotiation of needs must be in the context of what she terms ‘democratic empowerment in large-scale regional government’ (1990: 227). It is crucial that a forum exists in which all participating groups acknowledge and are open to listening to others. Thus Young’s view of this wider forum is emphatically not one in which ‘the public’ is conceived as a unity transcending group differences.

Young recognizes that her proposals are at present utopian. Indeed she herself dubs them as ‘laughably utopian’, reminding us that it is in the US cities about which she was writing that social injustice is most visible at the present time: ‘homeless people lying in doorways, rape in parks, and cold-blooded racist murder are the realities of city life’ (1990: 241). But she also reaffirms the alternative view of cities as exciting, as erotic, arenas where strangers meet, where new freedoms are possible. Clearly her vision of the good city has parallels with the work of urban commentators such as Jane Jacobs and Richard Sennett who respectively celebrate or mourn lost urban diversity and the chaos in the streets that has been identified as the key theme of urban literature. The potential for conflict between these diverse urban dwellers when competing to use a single space—Harvey’s (1992) analysis of Tompkins Park in New York is a thought-provoking counter-example—is ignored. Zukin (1995) has shown how middle-class views of diverse urban culture exclude other inner-city users and her analysis of small-scale urban entrepreneurial policies to ‘reclaim’ New York’s parks, for example, reveals the chilling underside of cleaning up that city. The parallels with Balsall Heath are clear even though Zukin’s New York example of ‘community’ action involves businesses and the state authorities rather than local residents as in Birmingham’s inner city.

Rather than pursue these specific cases or Young’s romantic utopian view of cities, I want to conclude this chapter by suggesting that Young’s ideas about local democracy and the structures needed to extend it are worth consideration. Young develops a case for the extension, not only of strategic planning authorities for large cities, but also the introduction of regional governments with mechanisms for representing immediate neighbourhoods and towns, interest groups from a variety of spatial scales. The new Scottish and Welsh parliaments are a beginning. The Labour government, elected in 1997, has also reintroduced a strategic authority for London, headed by Ken Livingstone. Critical to the success of this authority will be its inclusion of community participation.

While this chapter might be seen to have strayed from the brief to look at women and cities, and contemporary urban policies, behind the discussion about social justice lies the belief that gender issues cannot and should not be considered in isolation but are a fundamental aspect of all urban policies. The emphasis on diversity is also a plea to develop more varied and sensitive gender-related policies, not to cast gender off the agenda, as some scholars anxious about the dangers of taking diversity into account seem to fear. Unlike Melanie Phillips, I do not believe that the renouncement of absolute values leads to the slippery path of relativism (McDowell, 1995), but rather that only careful attention to difference will produce urban policies to match the diversity of the late twentieth century urban condition. At the end of the millenium, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population lived in a city: the destination for migrants and exiles, a place of dreams and desires, of hopes and fears, and, in fiction at least, if not in policy, ultimately ungraspable and unknowable in its diversity.