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Theories of Feminist Geography

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Does a feminist geography need be primarily concerned with the lives of women?

In relation to the essay title, according to Dias et al (2008), Hesse- Biber (2012) and McDowell (1992), there are significant diversity and heterogeneity among feminist geography and its research, with no single methodology or epistemology. Therefore, instead of viewing feminist geography as a static sub-discipline, feminist geography should be examined by looking at a wide range of work produced by feminist geographers addressing the issues found in different contexts, with varying research aims. By examining existing studies, this essay aims to demonstrate the fact that some aspects of feminist geography have, in fact, been primarily concerned with lives of women in a socio- spatial context. Subsequently, this essay also aims to demonstrate that feminist geography did not engage exclusively with the lives of women; by examining practices within the geography discipline, associated with the discipline’s exclusion of female, feminist geographer have offered important insights for geographers in understanding gender bias embedded in geography, and has facilitated the re-evaluation of geographic knowledge and practices among scholars.

According to Dixon et al (2014), feminist geography is primarily concerned with improving women’s lives by identifying, and to develop an understanding of the sources of women’s oppression, as well as the dynamics and spatiality of the oppression. This description of feminist geography is mirrored by work produced by feminist geographers that has adapted Marxist theory in examining the relations among economic development, space and gender under capitalism (Pratt, 1994). These feminist geographers were focusing on the social- spatial exclusion of suburban households’ female members from paid employment, which was an important element in reproduction of labour power, and has provided insights to how traditional gender relations in capitalistic societies are continued and preserved (Pratt, 1994; Mackenzie et al, 1983; Hawkesworth 2006; Seccombe 1974; Beechey 1977; Eisenstein 1979; Nelson, 1986; Massey, 1984; Chant et al, 1995; Hanson et al, 1995; Gerstein, 1973). Feminist geographers have argued that the isolation of women from employment a strategy that is vital to manage the effects of capitalist economy; it reproduces the dominant- subordinate that is essential to the operations of capitalist production (Hawkesworth 2006; Eisenstein 1979; Beechey 1977; Pratt, 1994). The isolation also facilitates daily and generational reproduction of labour power, plus it leads to the creation of a labour force, which consists of women who are willing to be working for less than substantive wages (Mackenzie et al, 1983; Pratt, 1994; Seccombe 1974; Hawkesworth 2006; Beechey 1977; Nelson 1986; Eisenstein 1979; Massey, 1984; Chant et al, 1995; Hanson et al, 1995; Pearson, 1986). This was demonstrated in Nelson’s (1986) and Hawkesworth’s (2006) study, as he mentioned that in 1970s, capitalist in the United States had relocated to suburban locations in aiming to employ, or further exploit, according to Marxist perspectives, housewives who are more inclined to work despite the less than substantive wages. It has also been revealed that governmental policies, working-class household strategies, as well as traditional male power exercised in both families and trade unions are interplaying factors facilitate the isolation of women as housewives to inhibit or minimize employment opportunities available to women (Mackenzie et al, 1983; Hawkesworth 2006; Seccombe 1974; Eisenstein 1979; Nelson 1986; Pratt, 1994; Massey, 1984; Hanson et al, 1995; Gerstein, 1973). These literatures by feminist geographers are fundamentally linked to the lives of women (Johnson, 2007; Pratt, 1994; Hanson et al, 1995; Seccombe, 1974). By using women’s lives as point of departure, they have identify the consequences of the exclusion of women from employment; creation of female labour that are more prone to be subjected to capitalistic exploitation, enabled by traditional gender and social relations which constitute capitalism, in conjunction with patriarchal gender relations, which have contributed to the redefining of the spatial distribution of women’s social and economic activities in urban areas.

However, feminist geographers did not engage exclusively with the lives of women. Feminist geographers are also concerned with development of geography, in relation to the exclusion and isolation of female scholars from the discipline, and how this has affected geographic research and thought. As Morin (1995: 1) has described, the theme of these studies is ‘“gender of geography” rather that the “geography of gender” ’. Under this theme, feminist geographers have highlighted the fact that geography is a male- dominated discipline (Rose, 1993; Dixon et al, 2006; LeVasseur, 1993). As suggested by Dixon et al (2006), women have been excluded from higher education from late nineteenth to early twentieth century; early universities mainly consists of upper- class white men. During that period of time, female are mainly found in the field of teaching and helping professions, and are mostly absent in the disciplines and institutions that have contributed to the establishment of modern geography, such as geology and “expert” societies, such as Royal Geographical Society (Rose, 1993; Dixon et al, 2006). These “expert” societies were heavily involved with the establishment of geography as a discrete academic discipline, by defining geography’s investigation agenda and methodologies, as well as establishing programs in university (Dixon et al, 2006). Since these societies had entry requirements based on peer nomination and work assessment, it was difficult for women to join such societies, as their works are often dismissed as non- scholarly (Dixon et al, 2006). As a result, these institutions had a disproportionately large numbers of male members (Rose, 1993; Dixon et al, 2006). As female are not able to negotiate in this field of study due to institutional discrimination , white men were able to almost exclusively define what constitute as the norm in the discipline, which has allowed masculinist thinking to thrive and flourish in geography (Rose, 1993; Dixon et al, 2006).

A number of scholars have pointed out as men have associated themselves with attributes or descriptions in their studies on landscape, such as culture, intellectualism, practicality and mobility (Rose, 1993; Pile, 1994; Berg, 1994). The adaptation of dualistic worldview that was assumed to be objective and scientifically sound has meant that women are therefore associated with nature, body and emotionalism (Rose, 1993; Berg, 1994; Lloyd, 1984). Further, masculinist thinking believes that men are capable of rational thought, whereas women are not, as “female-ness” was thought of as the lack of “maleness” (Jay, 1981; Massey, 1998; Longhurst, 2000; Lloyd, 1984; Bordo, 1986; Berg, 1994). Together, these beliefs have helped to establish a hierarchical, binary opposition between mind and body; culture and nature; men and women, with the latter assumed to be inferior and less important (Pile, 1994; Rose, 1993; Berg, 1994; Lloyd, 1984). Dualistic world views have also meant that, according to masculinist thinking, men are traditionally associated with public spaces, due to their association with waged work, which requires mobility and intelligence (Dixon et al, 2006; Rose, 1993; Longhurst, 2000; Berg, 1994). Therefore in contrast, women are typically associated with private spaces due to their traditionally assigned role as care- taker at home (Dixon et al, 2006; Rose, 1993; Longhurst, 2000; Bordo, 1986). Men self- proclaimed attributes, facilitated by dualistic world views have facilitated the formation of a hierarchy in geography in relation to gender (Rose, 1993). The hierarchical opposition signifies that spaces that are typically associated with female, reproduction activities are deemed as less important and less valued when comparing to spaces that are associated with men and their waged production activities (Dixon et al, 2006). Dixon et al (2006) has demonstrated that geographer has thus focus their studies on male productive activities, such as steel manufacturing, rather than investigating reproductive activities that are traditionally associated with women, such as day care for example. As stated by Dixon et al (2006), this bias is reproduced in the discipline across multiple research area. This argument demonstrates the problems underlying geography; the focus on production relative to reproduction within geography signifies the existence of a knowledge gap within the discipline, in regard to areas associated with female economic and social activities. Furthermore, this can discourage scholars, who aim to examine or carry out research in fields associated with female activities, to engage with geography due to concerns over the research prioritization mentioned above, and turn to other disciplines that they feel their research will be valued (Dixon et al, 2006). Together, these diminish the scope of geographic investigation, further reducing any potential knowledge that would have been produced and incorporated within the discipline of geography, which lead to the diminishing of the academic significance of geography, and this urges the re-thinking of geographic practices, in order to minimize bias due to the discipline’s masculinist legacy (Dixon et al, 2006; Pile, 1994; Monk et al, 1982).

In conclusion, the works of feminist geographers examined in this essay have all shared a common theme- the exclusion of women and the consequences, in different contexts or settings. In some aspects of feminist geography, feminist geographers have directly engaged with the lives of women; studies have attempt to undercover ways in which women are oppressed under capitalism, and to demonstrate how women’s lives, in regards to their economic opportunities, are limited as a result of the exclusion from employment. However, this essay has also demonstrated that there are existing studies in which the primary concern is the development of discipline, under the influence of limited female participation. They have highlighted that the discipline’s lack of female involvement, which has facilitated the flourishing of traditional masculine thinking as dominant discourse in geography, has in turn lead to the production of biased knowledge and skewed research approaches that constitute geography- this remained to be an internal, innate problem that results in the narrowing of the scope of study, and has imposed limits on the production of geographic knowledge. The problems highlight above, by feminist geographers, can perhaps urge geographers to rethink their research priorities and focuses, to avoid the induction, or reproduction of masculine- orientated bias in geography, to overcome the legacy of male- domination in order to facilitate wider, more depth understanding of space/ place and social relations and activities. Together, these studies have confirmed that there is significant diversity among feminist geography; feminist geographers have addressed a range of issue or concerns that relate to gender bias or inequality in different contexts. Thus it can be said that the “primary concern” cannot therefore be generalized into one subject of concern.

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