Feminist Geographies: Applications and Theories
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Published: Fri, 06 Jul 2018
Modern feminism began in 1960s in the United States with the Women’s Liberation Movement. This political movement subsequently spread to Europe and initially focussed on equality between men and women. Women saw themselves as ‘subordinate’ and nothing more than “imaginary figures, the objects of another’s desire, made real” (Mackinnon, 1987) and thus tried to raise awareness of the social inequality experienced by women. Social feminist geography (adopting a Marxist ideology) revolved around the question of how best to articulate gender and class analyses, with the theorisation of a ‘sexual division of labour’. Haraway (1991) thus claims “a feminist is one who fights for women as a class and for the disappearance of that class”. From these roots drawing inspiration from women’s movements of the 1960s, feminist geographies have developed considerably and diversely over the last 30 years and now hold, without doubt, a considerable institutional presence. This essay will overview the development and progression of feminism as a ‘critical discourse’ and argue that although scholars such as Bondi, in McDowell and Sharp (eds) (1997), contend “…feminism has never achieved a high profile in geography…” and that the “…potential of feminism is ignored…” this is NOT necessarily the case. I will argue feminist theory has shaped theory and practise in geography through raising the awareness of gender issues, helping remove blatant sexism from academic journals and institutions and contributing hugely to the ‘cultural turn’ within the discipline.
A huge volume of literature has amassed on feminist geographies over recent decades meaning that in the current era there are numerous ‘feminist geographies’ spanning across the discipline. This is clearly apparent in the number of books that have been published on the topic, the formation of the journal Gender Place and Culture in 1994 and the volume of articles that can be found in other contemporary human, cultural and social geography journals. Although feminist perspectives and outlooks vary in theory and content, common concerns cut across them all (Johnston et al., 2000). Developing out of the radical separatist ideas and oppositional politics associated with the ‘global sisterhood’ of the 1960s and 70s, came a more theoretical outlook associated with the ‘cultural turn’. Feminism thus developed as a critical discourse. The discipline of geography itself was criticised for its inherent masculine bias and for “excluding half the human from human geography” (Monk and Hansen, 1982). Haraway (1991) argued that women “do not appear where they should in geographical literature”.
However, as part of the cultural turn, the shift away from grand theories and a concentration on diverse and interconnecting global micro-geographies, gender was understood to interact with race and class and therefore to understand gender, one “had to constantly go beyond gender” (Connell, in McDowell and Sharp, 1997). The massive literature on contemporary feminism thus reflects criticisms that ‘Western feminism’ has played down sexual, racial and class differences. Western feminism had been strongly criticised for being ethnocentric, as it obscured or subordinated all other “Others” (Haraway, in McDowell and Sharp (eds) 1997). Black women argued they were not constituted as ‘women’ as white women were, but instead constituted simultaneously racially and sexually as marked female (animal, sexualised and without rights), but not a women (human, potential wife, conduit for the name of a father). This critique expanded into development studies where it was argued although ‘cultural barriers’ can impede policy progress, many of these barriers may in fact have been magnified and reinforced by Western interventionist ‘gender blind’ development policies, through an ignorance of local traditions (Crewe and Harrison, 1999).
The further development of ‘feminist geographies’ and the attempt to make women visible through ‘geographies of women’ has also resulted in a large literature on feminist methodologies (Moss, 1993; Nast, 1994, Farrow, Moss and Shaw, 1995, Hodge, 1995), including experimental writing and self-reflexivity (Rose, 1997). Work by Rose (1993) criticised geographical fieldwork as being “masculinity in action”, using historical examples such as Tansley’s (1939) ‘Man and Nature’. McDowell (1992) also details sexist biases in research methods, culminating in an absence of statistics about women, for example, detailing their unpaid labour (i.e. housework). In many studies there also seems to be a lack of women that were interviewed. For example, William Whyte’s Street Corner Society (1955), in which he seemed unaware that he had only interviewed men! There has thus been an application of feminist ideas to research and fieldwork. Feminist enquiry now works for an egalitarian research process between the researcher and her ‘subjects’.
A further similarity between ‘feminist geographies’ is that they trace the inter-connections between all aspects of daily life, across sub-disciplinary boundaries of economic, social, political and cultural geography. From Linda McDowell’s extensive research on the feminist geographies of the labour force involving ‘glass ceilings’ and discrimination (McDowell, 1997), to Hoschchild’s (1997) ‘dual role’ women and the ‘second shift’ (women having to be carers and mothers as well as career women). There has also been a huge volume of literature over recent years regarding the rise of women workers in the service industry (for example, call centres) and women as the ‘new proletariat’. Conversely, as part of this new ‘identity politics’, gender is argued by some to be a competitive advantage for women in the current workforce in terms of their roles as ‘emotional managers’ (Hochschild, 1983). McDowell (2001, 2004) has also recently tracked the development of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ associated with the collapse of Fordism, unemployment and a ‘lost generation of males’. Thus, it is argued by some the best ‘man’ for a job is now a woman.
This thorough, multi-disciplinary application of ‘feminist geographies’ at a variety of different scales in various sub-fields of the discipline clearly highlight its impact in shaping modern theory and practise within geography. From its beginnings of liberal feminism and oppositional politics (1960s and 70s), feminist geography has developed through feminist Marxism involving a gender/class interface (late 70s/80s) to feminist geographies of difference (late 80s-present) as part of identity politics and the ‘cultural turn’. Feminist geography now concentrates on gendered identities within a post-structural, post-colonial, cultural theoretical framework, studying gender relations across races, ages, ethnicities, religions, sexualities and nationalities. Most recently of all, the discipline has undergone further internal-critique, calling for more intensive study of relations and equality between women themselves. It is for these reasons I believe ‘feminist geographies’ have had a huge ideological impact on geographical theory and practise over recent decades and will continue to do so for years to come.
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