Love in the Feminist City
From Charlotte Brontë to Carrie Bradshaw, via Betty Friedan: Leslie Kern on how urban architecture has expanded and constrained women's freedom to live independently and without men.
In the late 1990s, a condominium construction boom in Toronto began radically remaking the skyline of my hometown. At the same time, according to aggressive marketing from developers, these condos were poised to radically remake women’s relationships to the home and the city, in ways that might mean the end of love – at least the monogamous heterosexual kind.
What was behind this audacious claim? Although it had taken them a few years to realize it, industry insiders finally clued in that young, single women were purchasing condos at a surprising rate. Home ownership levels for single women had always lagged far behind those of married women and single men. Suddenly, something different was in the air, and it wasn’t love. Not the kind of love that led to marriage and a house in the suburbs, anyways.
Women, it seemed, found condos both attractive and affordable. Seizing on this growing purchaser demographic, developers and real estate agents crafted a story of gendered emancipation through condo living. With monthly fees that cover the “common elements” of the property, women would be free from worrying about the set of household responsibilities that have typically fallen to men: repairs, maintenance, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, and, notably, home security and safety. Who needs a boyfriend or husband when you have your twenty-four-seven concierge?
During this time, I’d recently returned to Toronto from a spell in London, with a new baby in tow, and I was keenly aware of the struggle to find decent housing. Certainly, this narrative of liberation intrigued me. But as a feminist I couldn’t let it simply stand as self-evident. I started my doctoral research to find out what women actually wanted out of these shiny new urban spaces. Long story short: the convenience offered by condos was important, but it was the freedom implicit in both financial independence and a life in the city that really inspired women to make the leap. In this, the women I interviewed joined a long line of women throughout history who have cleaved to the city in their search for a life less constrained by the confines of domestic romance.
Even under the strict social norms of Victorian times, where women of higher class were expected to be chaperoned in public and to limit their social lives to the safe and virtue-protecting realm of the home, women experienced, in the bustling, noisy, dirty streets of the industrial city, a newfound aliveness. Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, finds herself alone in London and flooded with new and unfamiliar feelings:
Elation and pleasure were in my heart; to walk alone in London seemed of itself an adventure… Prodigious was the amount of life I lived that morning… I went wandering whither chance might lead, in a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment; and I got—I know not how—into the heart of city life.
Virginia Woolf echoed these lines, writing that “to walk alone in London is the greatest rest,” and musing that in the city, “to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures.” Indeed, as cultural historian Elizabeth Wilson notes in The Sphinx in the City, the confinement of white, bourgeois women to the domestic realm has always been overestimated, while their affinity for public life and the city itself was either dismissed or demonized. In fact, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women’s expanding roles in city life, across all classes, came to be seen as a threat to the foundations of the family and a referendum on the overall moral state of society. Wilson writes that “urban life upturned a symbolic natural order; and the linchpin of this natural order—the family—was the woman.” It was a very slippery slope, it seemed to commentators of the time, from women’s presence on the streets and in the workplace to vice, disease, loss of virtue, promiscuity, disruptive forms of sexuality, and the eventual downfall of the social order.
The bell of urban freedom could not be unrung, however. Women knew that the city was the place where they had the best chance of escaping compulsory heterosexual marriage and childbearing, and where education and careers could be pursued. “Boston marriages”—the cohabitation of two, usually wealthy, women—were much more possible in the city, providing a narrow path forward for lesbian partnerships. The very problems of the rapidly growing city that concerned so many—poverty, vice, prostitution—provided women with arenas of public life in which to expand their influence and make their mark. Fast forward to today, and the city is still the place that provides the most support and opportunities for women, especially single mothers and queer and trans women, who don’t want to, or can’t, conform to expected gender norms, although, as with Boston marriages, this support is more easily found by women with wealth, property, or higher incomes. Perhaps the Victorian morality police were right: women’s affinity for city life would in fact be a threat to the stability of the heteropatriarchal nuclear family.
By the mid-twentieth century, the rapid expansion of family suburban housing provided a stark contrast to the potential freedoms of the independent city. Locating the “problem that has no name” in the suburban home, Betty Friedan wrote:
Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question - ‘Is this all?’
In fact the isolated suburban home was just the thing to restore a natural order in the postwar period. Feminist architect and planning critic Dolores Hayden states it plainly: “Developers 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.” By providing a spatial solution to the temporary widening of women’s horizons during war time, the public-private, paid-unpaid work divide could be “naturally” re-established between the sexes. Over time, suburbia itself would come to be synonymous with traditional gender relations. Even in the early 2000s, the women I interviewed in the condo study characterized their choices as a vehement rejection of lonely suburban life.
"Cities have come to stand, in the cultural imagination, for sex and excitement and power,” writes Rebecca Traister, whose book All the Single Ladies would not have been complete without a chapter on cities. She continues: “That [cities] draw women toward these things makes them a catalyst for women’s liberation, and for a reimagining of what it might mean for women to have full lives.” Specifically, what it might mean for women’s lives to have meaning beyond marriage and motherhood. Indeed, Traister suggests that for some women, the city itself is a more equitable partner than the typical heterosexual mate. Instead of providing cooking, cleaning, and a suite of domestic and relational services to men, women can have these services provided to them by the city, with its plethora of restaurants, delivery services, dry cleaners, and dog walkers. Combine this with the perks of condo life, and no doubt the adage about fish and bicycles will come to mind.
While gaining some freedom from the double shift of paid and unpaid labour is no small thing, city life isn’t just about convenience for women. For many, the city itself is a true love. In the essay Goodbye to All That, Joan Didion reminisced, “I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.” Perhaps the ultimate girls’ valentine to the city, Sex and the Citytook women where Lucy Snowe spent but a moment: into the heart of city life, with the city in their hearts. Yes, heterosexual romance took up a lot of screen time, but what was Mr. Big—powerful, sexy, rich, unknowable—if not an avatar for Manhattan itself, Carrie’s first and most abiding love?
The city, unfortunately, does not always return women’s devotion with equal fervour. Today, the women who historically have had the most to gain from city life in terms of employment, independence, community, and the freedom to be themselves are increasingly being displaced. Gentrification, austerity policies, declining wages, cutbacks to social assistance, and the privatization or demolition of public housing disproportionately affect women in general, but more specifically women of colour, single mothers, queer and trans women, elderly women, disabled women, and recent immigrants. The urban convenience services that some women use to support their independence are, of course, largely provided by other women who cobble together minimum-wage jobs and, increasingly, turn to the exploitative gig economy to make ends meet. Low-income women, women with insecure legal statuses, trans women, and women of colour are priced out of their neighbourhoods as rents rise and real earnings fall. Ironically these changes push many out to the suburbs. When moving isn’t an option, women can remain trapped in abusive or untenable relationships for the sake of a roof over their heads. So much for love.
Even in the whitewashed and wildly-overprivileged world of Sex and the City, the women’s problems with housing provide an instructive fable on the challenges of being a woman in the city. When Carrie’s apartment building goes co-op, she can’t afford the down payment and faces eviction. Charlotte, recently divorced, bails her out with her Tiffany engagement ring. Charlotte herself is locked in a battle to keep her apartment from being reclaimed by her vengeful ex mother-in-law. Miranda is forced to confront the incompatibility of downtown apartment life with her growing family and contemplates a move to Brooklyn—much to the horror and disappointment of her friends.
Without needing to develop too much sympathy for a bunch of wealthy fictional characters, their storylines remind us that housing that supports women’s choices, in career, family, love, and lifestyle, is often a scarce resource, even in the city. For all the freedoms offered, the city still assumes that we take a linear pathway from the childhood home, to temporary singlehood, to partnership and growing family. Zoning restrictions, property laws, and most of all, cost prevent many of us from pursuing the sort of non-traditional household forms, kinship connections, and forms of love that hold the potential for radically altering the status quo.
The Victorian moralists were clearly on to something when they made their frightened proclamations about the effects of the city on women and their relationships. But the ensuing century and a half has not seen things shift as much as they might have feared. The institutions of marriage and monogamy retain a strong hold; capitalist property ownership regimes are thriving; and the colonial underpinnings of this system remain intact. Dakota scholar Kim TallBear speaks about hetero- and even homonormativity as part of the structure of “settler sexuality:” ways of relating that value enforced monogamy, private property, and a particular set of relations with the state, which were imposed on Indigenous peoples and are part of the ongoing process of Indigenous dispossession. Settler sexuality is thus part of the framework that stabilizes and normalizes the colonial state. It also denigrates the value of many other ways of being “in relation,” including friendships, non-monogamy, relationships with the land, and relationships with non-humans. TallBear writes:
I have radical hope that settler relations based on violent hierarchies and concepts of property do not have to be all there is. … We can have radical hope in a narrative that entails not redeeming the state, but caring for one another as relations. How do we live well here together?
The question, how do we live well here together?, where “together” extends far beyond the narrow confines of the monogamous, cohabitating couple, is one that we must continue to ask of our cities. What could love look and feel like in the feminist city, when we reject the atomisation of the condo and the subjugation of the suburb? And, moreover, what might the city look like if we allow it to truly become a place where all kinds of love can flourish?
- This essay is part of a series of pieces that we are running this Valentine's week, looking at love, desire and relationships at the intersection of capitalism, the state, and politics. See them all here.
Leslie Kern is an associate professor of geography and environment and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University. She is the author of Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World and Gentrification Is Inevitable and Other Lies.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
In Feminist City, through history, personal experience and popular culture Leslie Kern exposes what is hidden in plain sight: the social inequalities built into our cities, homes, and neighborhoods. Kern offers an alternative vision of the feminist city. Taking on fear, motherhood, friendship, activism, and the joys and perils of being alone, Kern maps the city from new vantage points, laying out an intersectional feminist approach to urban histories and proposes that the city is perhaps also our best hope for shaping a new urban future. It is time to dismantle what we take for granted about cities and to ask how we can build more just, sustainable, and women-friendly cities together.