A woman’s place is in the home.
We’ve all heard the phrase. What does it mean, really? Most of the time, people are using the phrase to speak of women’s place in a metaphorical sense – “place” means women’s roles, the tasks they are expected to perform, their characteristics, the type of work they do.
But of course, all these tasks don’t take place in an abstract etheric realm. They take place in the physical, 3-D spaces in which we move around. This is something that I wish more activists and philosophers would take into account. My belief in atheism and naturalism tells me that the 3-D world is the place that matters, because that’s where people live their lives.
So that’s why I’m interested in geography and municipal planning. The assumptions about the respective roles of men and women manifest in the physical world in specific ways. We take the built environment that forms the majority of our experience with the physical world for granted most of the time. We should keep in mind that we are moving through the physical manifestations of the thoughts of planners and builders who lived generations before us. Mostly, in the USA (I live there and am most familiar with the history of planning there), these planners and builders were white men. Bet you never saw that one coming.
Planning is a relatively young profession – it only got started about 100 – 120 years ago, and it really came into its own as an academic and professional discipline right in the middle of the 20th century, just as the mythology of the nuclear Leave-It-To-Beaver 2.5 kids and a picket fence was reaching its ascendency. It is not a coincidence that this era can also be considered the zenith of America’s love affair with the automobile. This was an era when Christianity, heterosexuality, and strict gender roles were strictly enforced and questioned only in small radical pockets of nascent resistance to the status quo. A woman’s place was, quite literally, in the home. A man’s place was in the public world, in government, in academia, in medicine, science, etc. These strict divisions of labor were reflected in the designs chosen by the planners of the time: the suburb. Residential areas were strictly separated from offices or industrial parks. Streets were planned and built with one purpose in mind: to quickly move large numbers of automobiles from homes to workplaces and back. Sidewalks were an afterthought.
While this design was convenient for the men who had to traverse physical space only twice a day, when going to and from work, it was less so for the women and caretakers who had to find ways to physically transport their children to and from school, fetch groceries, perhaps care for elderly relatives, and so on. The physical separation of suburban housing from centers of civic power, workplaces, retail, and other outlets for communal activities was in fact a driving force behind the housewife’s malaise that Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique.
Today, the assumption of rigidly divided roles between male/public and female/private are being eroded. And while governments have passed laws outlawing gender discrimination in the workplace, and private companies have undertaken measures to make it easier for their employees to balance the demands of career and parenting, all measures which contribute to women’s equality by giving them more opportunity to participate in public life, the physical layout of our cities and towns is a significant obstacle to achieving those goals. The intensification of sprawl since the postwar era has brought a drastic increase in commuting times, which translates into increased difficulty for the people who are charged with caring for and transporting children and elderly relatives to and from school, extracurricular activities, and doctors’ appointments – tasks which still disproportionately fall on the shoulders of women.
Feminist critique of urban planning is one contributing factor to the dramatic shifts that have taken place in the discipline of urban planning during the past few decades. This critique dovetails a lot of the time with critiques offered by environmentalists, environmental justice advocates, and sustainability advocates. Today, the urban planner is no longer a visionary in his ivory tower, passing down inspired visions to be stamped upon the landscape – rather, the planner is a communicator, a facilitator, bringing together various stakeholders in the community, listening to their needs, and trying to find a balance among all of them. The strict division between private and public life is no longer taken as a given – planners, city officials, and architects are seeing the value of “mixed-use” communities, that is, communities where housing, retail, office space, schools, nursing homes, and, to a certain extent, manufacturing are in relatively close proximity to each other. This sort of spatial design clears the path to participation in public life by women, the elderly, and children – all groups whose needs were severely neglected by the previous generations of planners.
I do not believe any movement for social change can succeed without changing the physical layout of the communities in which they are trying to create change – fortunately, influencing policy on the municipal level is far easier than influencing policy on the national or even state level. I urge any activist who wants to create real change to consider how their ideas can be implemented at the municipal, town, or village level, because it’s at that scale that small actions, such as painting an intersection can have big impacts, like decreasing traffic fatalities and fighting urban blight.
The physical dimensions of justice and injustice are too rarely discussed in most activist circles, but knowledge of the physical layout of your community is absolutely essential to succeeding in any activist or political campaign. And challenging the status quo often entails taking control and altering physical spaces, as we saw with the Occupy movement last year. If society fully adopts the feminist belief that a woman’s place is anywhere in the world, then our streets, public squares, government buildings, homes, and workplaces will eventually look very different from what we are accustomed to. Feminism will physically, literally transform the world.