- How old am I:
- I'm 47 years old
- Iris color:
- Bright blue
Not long ago, if someone asked me what it feels like to be a woman, I would have thought they wanted to explore metaphysical reality. There is a photo of me at seven or eight-years-old, grinning in my favourite red outfit — short shorts and a crop top with a little tie over my belly button. My skinny kid-legs are tanned by a long summer. When I look at the photo today, I also see the end of childhood looming in the dark spots behind the trees.
What it feels like for a girl
And everything about how your body moves through the world and is perceived by others is about to change.
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I was pregnant with my daughter Maddy over a typically dreary London winter and through what felt like an unusually warm spring and summer. I had a part-time office job only five Tube stops from my home, but most days, it still felt interminable. Before I was visibly pregnant, there was no chance of being offered a seat, no matter how waxy and green my face.
My new shape had taken away my sense of anonymity and invisibility in the city. I could no longer blend in, become part of the crowd, people watch. I was the one being watched. Pregnancy and motherhood made the gendered city visible to me in high definition. What sometimes seems less obvious is the inverse: that once built, our cities continue to shape and influence us.
Right now, as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the world, our cities — dense, reliant on crowded public spaces, and losing wealthier residents to weekend homes and the suburbs— are fundamentally changing. What would a city look like if it was built with the everyday life of a single mother in mind? A minimum-wage worker? A disabled person? If we want our cities to change for the better, we need to start from someplace different.
Although women often experience comments on our bodies and uninvited physical contact, pregnancy and motherhood elevate these intrusions to a new level. Places that used to feel welcoming and comfortable now made me feel like an outsider, an alien with leaking breasts and a loud, smelly baby.
As I tried to navigate an unfamiliar set of everyday routines as a new mom, the city was a physical force I constantly struggled against. If that was true, why did every day feel like a fight against an enemy that was invisible yet all around me?
Relative to the suburbs, cities seemed to offer much better prospects. In the early s, urban planning critic Jane Jacobs challenged the prevailing idea that the suburbs were good places for women and children. She noted isolation, a lack of people on the streets, and car dependency as suburban concerns that particularly affected women while also contributing to the decline of the public realm in general.
Cities are based around the same kinds of assumed social norms as the suburbs. Most urban public transportation systems, for example, are deed to accommodate the typical rush hour commute of a 9-to-5 office worker. What little transit that does exist in the suburbs is deed to carry this commuter in a specific direction at a specific time, a linear trip without detours or multiple stops.
And this has worked pretty well for the usual male commuter.
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A mother with two small children might use the local bus to drop off one child at daycare when it opens at 8, then double back on her journey to leave the other child at school at She then might get on the train, rushing to work at 9. Imagine that on the way home, the journey is reversed, with an extra stop to pick up missing ingredients for dinner and a pack of diapers. Now laden with packages, a stroller, andshe fights her way back onto the crowded bus to finally head home. Many transit systems will force her to pay multiple times for this trip and for the children, too. When I became a mom, I quickly realized that using public transit with a baby stroller in London was a joke.
Although a lot of Tube stations have elevators because the stations are so deep underground, only 50 out of stations are accessible. Curved staircases, random steps, steep escalators, sharp turns, narrow tunnels, and of course thousands of commuters and tourists make navigating the system an adventure. Women have always been seen as a problem for the modern city.
Growing attention to city life made the dire condition of the working class more visible. Who better to blame than women, who had come to cities to find work in factories and domestic service? This has been connected to moral panics over teen pregnancy with their assumptions that teen moms will the rolls of said welfare queens and produce criminally disposed children.
Yet the reality is that women are much more likely to suffer from the structure of the city than their male counterparts. But rape myths also have a geography. This gets embedded into the mental map of safety and danger that every woman carries in her mind. At that bar? Waiting alone for a bus? She also lamented the lack of space on buses for wheelchairs, connecting lack of accessibility for mothers to issues facing seniors and disabled people.
Best to remain in our homes and institutions, where we belong. Feminist geographers, planners, and anti-violence workers have made substantial, if incomplete, progress toward creating safer, less fearful, cities, from pushing for simple changes to urban architectural features like lighting and walkways, to advocating for an overhaul of the entire field of urban planning.
Rape myths, though, are rooted in deeper systems than the physical environment.
Safe and affordable public transit and housing, eliminating the gendered and racialized wage gap, and universal child care would be great places to start. Managing these extra burdens adds yet another shift to our already overburdened days. Every time I got off the bus at a distant stop or took a long and winding route home because I worried I was being followed stole my valuable time and energy.
Ratios of men to women in it
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