In Women’s Design Service: Feminist Resources for Urban Environments by Authors Lynne Walker and Sue Cavanagh, they use information and resources from the ‘Women’s Design Service’ to discuss the issues surrounding women navigating urban environments. Surveys initiated by feminist politicals in the Greater London Council explored women’s concerns pertaining to ‘poor public amenities, lack of facilities for children, inadequate public transport, and fears about personal safety - and outlined planning principles that would take women’s needs into account.’  This is thought to be due to women’s needs often being over looked or simply unacknowledged in the designing of the built environment.

 

Cavanaugh and Walker explore the necessity of identifying women as the social group most needing these issues to be addressed:

 

‘“Why women?” is an inevitable question. Women, the WDS point out make up a large proportion of many disadvantaged groups, such as the elderly, carers, and single parents. Women hold many of the least secure and safe jobs; they are also among the more poorly paid workers. Partly for these reasons, women as a group in Britain depend more on public housing and public transportation; they are subject to violence both within and outside the home.’  

 

Considering women’s safety within urban environments is a colossal and complicated topic. I think it’s interesting note that women are encouraged always to consider themselves as vulnerable and being in danger; we are warned not to go to certain places or be outside at certain hours of the day - even in our own neighbourhoods - due to the reality of danger imposed by men. This prey mentality I believe is frustratingly necessary; offences violence against women such as rape within urban environments perpetrated by men still being so numerous. This language and perspective does also however engender an attitude of acceptance for these issues, where victim is asked to change their daily patterns or behaviour instead of targeting the symptoms of violence or sexism itself. 

 

Walker and Cavanaugh however make important notes about the problematic nature with the potential presumptions this research relies on. Whilst addressing gender based issues is hugely important, they also note that ‘the category “women” is not monolithic: women’s needs are diverse.’ 

 

This suggests therefore that it is important therefore not to tar all women and their experience with the same brush, as to create assumptions of struggle and oppression based simply on gender - here being female - and therefore project these assumptions onto the manifestations of femininity is to be dangerously dismissive and minimising. 

 The category of ‘women’ is so broad - especially in application to cross cultural environments - that in many ways using this term to explore issues of oppression, needs, experience and desire is minimising and detrimental to understanding problems or initiating progression.

 

Walker and Cavanaugh write:

 

‘When arguments are made that women use the environment differently because their daily patterns of activity are shaped by caring or domestic responsibilities, gender stereotypes of women as domestically based carers are unintentionally reproduced. Similarly, highlighting problems of women’s safety in cities can reinforce notions of women as timid victims.’ 

 

This implies the paradoxical problem that identifying areas that women tend to be constrained to such as the domestic, or roles they often fulfil such as the care-giver or house-wife perhaps does less to challenge said status-quo than reinforce it. 

This is a huge problem we face: how do you navigate inadvertent reinforcement or generalising when exploring gender issues, when in order to discuss and challenge instances of stereotyping or sexism they must first be identified? Within the context of my project, I have found this hard to navigate as I have relied on a lot of classic gender stereotypes in order to create work from and in some cases am perhaps doing less to challenge them than gratuitously borrow from them. 

 

Such example of this is said labelling of women as ‘timid victims.’ This presents a difficult issue as whilst this characterisation might well reinforce them as the weaker, secondary and oppressed sex in society, similarly disregarding the mass of violence perpetrated by men against women compared to women against men would do nothing to protest or rectify this problem and simply endanger more women. 

 

Cavanaugh and Walker discuss this further noting: 

 

‘Focusing on women’s experience and requirements, however, has created dilemma for the WDS and for others concerned with gender issues. Identifying “women” as a subject and topic of research and concern can project a homogeneous image or, even more detrimentally, foster the idea of biologically determined “women.”’ 

 

This is an interesting point in consideration of how we approach issues of gender and sexism, and in regard to my project, this has helped highlight to me some of the major flaws in my research; the women I have spoken to have entirely been biologically assigned thus, so it is not completely un-representative of the other realities our society offers of women such as gender fluid or transgender women.

The feminist perspective I have employed throughout my work only really acknowledges a very limited perspective of ‘woman.’  Being a white, middle-class women living in Britain affords me some elements of privilege I will never fully understand. I do not think this discounts the integrity of my work or lessens my personal feelings of commitment or importance towards my project, as it is reflective of my own context and experiences. I do believe however that it is important to account for every woman’s experience in order to shift our drastically patriarchal culture and I do not believe my project has been success at doing that. I think perhaps my work is currently concerned with the obstacles of the group of women who already benefit from the most emancipation and opportunity - white middle class biologically determined women. 

 

The research I have collected to inspire my material practice is based my own personal experiences and those of other women around me, or self-reported data from platforms such as ‘The Everyday Sexism Project’ to identify, highlight or offer solutions to the social gender discriminatory issues we face. I have also used a lot of feminist theory and literature to explore issues of sexism, particularly within contemporary society. I think there is also a subversive reliance of heteronormativity, and a lack of intersectionality within my feminism that is important to note and something I hope to perhaps address in further work. 

 

Another element that I have struggled to convey in my work is my belief that naturally not all men are sexist pigs. Something of note considering this is the hashtag #notallmen that is used on internet platforms by both men and women to counter the negative generalisations of men’s behaviour. My intent is not to vilify or alienate men, but instead to comment on incidences of sexism perpetrated by individuals that I believe pay into a more insidious culture of oppression against women, and to discuss how this might contribute to the structures of our patriarchal society.   

 

I have tried to convey these ideas in the project ‘Broad Brush Strokes.’ This is a popular phrase used to allude to make sweeping generalising statements that may not necessarily give necessary acknowledgement to singular experience or perspective, something I have noted as an issue both in the methodologies of my feminist research and my project.  I have therefore made a set of broad brushes, to afford this metaphor a physicality and tangibility. 

 

Footnotes 

 

   Lynne Walker and Sue Cavanagh, ‘Women’s Design Service: Feminist Resources for Urban Environments,’ Design and Feminism: Re-visioning Spaces, Places and Everyday Things, eds. Joan Rothschild (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1999) 149.

   Walker and Cavanagh, “Women’s Design Service,” 150. 

   Walker and Cavanagh, “Women’s Design Service,” 150. 

   Walker and Cavanagh, “Women’s Design Service,” 150. 

 

Walker, Lynne and Sue Cavanagh. “Women’s Design Service: Feminist Resources for Urban Environments.” Design and Feminism: Re-Visioning Spaces, Places, and Everyday Things. Ed. Joan Rothschild. New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press, 1999. Print.