Before my partner and I moved to Fredericton, we struggled to get a handle on how owning a car registered in the United States might change once we became students living in Canada. The process seemed daunting and not easily navigable. Ultimately, we ended up selling my sturdy, sage-green Subaru and moved to Fredericton sight-unseen and carless.
During our first few months in Fredericton, I was unable to explain the difficulty I was having getting around. Fredericton is a small city. Why did everything seem to be harder, take longer? Grocery runs on foot seemed to take up so much of my time, even though my neighborhood Sobeys was mere blocks away. Walking to campus was an immense chore: with a backpack or canvas tote filled with a computer and books, navigating the hill that begins at the east-west trailing Beaverbrook became a Sisyphean endeavor. I often felt unsafe on my bicycle, cars refusing me the right-of-way and bike lanes relegated to the few streets that make up the city’s downtown. Buses were few, their schedules not easy to follow. And taxis, while omnipresent, gave me quick, sloshy stomachs. Winter made these tasks all the more difficult, with the city plowing the main streets before the sidewalks and other pedestrian trails.
I was reminded of these feelings of alienation as I read through Feminist City by Mount Allison University professor Leslie Kern, published late last year by Between the Lines Press. Writes Kern, “It’s true that I could walk to the grocery store, café, parks, and many other places I needed to access,” but if that was true, “why did every day feel like a fight against an enemy that was invisible yet all around me?” Kern notes that research in the 1970s and ‘80s found that “women use the city more intensively than men” and that “isolation, a lack of people on the streets, and car dependency” are concerns that specifically affect women. My personal difficulty adjusting to life without my trusty Subaru seemed to be the result of moving to a city that prioritized and perpetuated a dependence on cars. It was, perhaps, the first time since growing up in the suburbs of central Montana that I was confronted with a city’s inaccessibility to non-motorists.
Kern, a professor of geography and environment and the director of women’s and gender studies, points to the poet Adrienne Rich in the book’s first chapter of Feminist City, with “the geography closest in.” “Begin with the body,” writes Rich. “Not to transcend the body but to reclaim it.” Feminist City adheres to “a politics of asking women’s questions,” of, as Rich puts it, “trying as women to see from the center.”
The book is marketed as a field guide, and when I spoke with Kern at the end of April, she explained that the reason it’s called a “field guide” is that the first step in considering a city through a feminist lens is “a noticing—in part noticing the built environment, the city around us. The point of the field guide, and the point of so much feminist geography and feminist urban work, is to see the built environment in a different way and to see the ways in which it interacts with those social systems of work, and care, and sexuality, and gender roles, and all of these things, in order to shape our behavior in certain ways, or to encourage certain sorts of social relations to continue to exist.”
And what do women notice?
I noticed a lack of consideration for pedestrians and bicyclists. I spoke with Fredericton city councillor Kate Rogers, who believes a more reliable transit system might become a possibility if it were looked at through a feminist lens. “Nothing is forcing us to make the really difficult decisions,” she said. “There’s not a lack of desire. There’s a much greater awareness of the need for a better transit system, and the conversation has opened up so much in the past eight years, but we’re still not at the point where anyone’s willing to make the really hard political choice: we want to make a better transit system, but if you want to make it better, you make it harder to drive.”
As an example, Rogers told me that, when the Wolastoq (St. John River) flooded in 2018 and 2019—when many of the city’s parking lots were closed due to high water—people began to use the bus. But as soon as the water receded and the parking lots re-opened, things went back to normal: people went back to driving their cars, and bus ridership decreased.
Rogers herself rightfully noticed a lack of gender representation on the council’s many decision-making bodies: she has been the sole woman on the council for the past four years. In 2019, she chaired an ad-hoc gender diversity committee to address gender sensitivity and to implement gender-directed appointment practices—what Kern terms “gender mainstreaming” and what Rogers calls “gender-based analysis.”
“There are not enough women on council,” said Rogers, “and women don’t see themselves in the municipal bodies.”
While the current global crisis surrounding COVID-19 has stalled the council’s initial efforts to implement the committee’s recommended practices, Rogers says she’ll be requesting that the committee’s mission be re-emphasized, particularly during this time. “The city’s response to the pandemic needs be considered from a gendered lens. Our perspective is too narrow, and it needs to be broadened.”
As it moves forward with its re-openings, the city needs to consider not only gender but also the many intersectional components of its public decision-making. Rogers suggested that the city needs to pay close attention to how the pandemic has affected and will continue to affect newcomers to Fredericton. “How are newcomers being affected by social distancing regulations? When you’re reliant on host families and on interactions with citizens, these changes can affect your way of life. Decisions need be made through socio-economic and ethno-cultural lenses, as well.”
Compared to the cities Kern writes about in the book—New York, Toronto, and London—Fredericton (and Kern’s current residence, Sackville) is not urban. New Brunswick is a rural province. But many of the book’s ideas are applicable to small cities like Fredericton and even to our rural spaces, as well. In truly rural pockets of the province, there has always been a severe isolation from public transit and other necessary services. Rural populations are often confronted with the disparities in the province’s municipal support systems.
Kern was quick to point out that rural considerations of transit systems, particularly as they relate to commuting to and from work, are not inherently feminist, either. “There’s still the imposition of traditional gender roles that may be, perhaps, even more difficult to break out of in smaller communities than in a big city.”
About the book’s applicability to smaller cities like Fredericton, Kern told me, “I think smaller cities—cities that haven’t yet embraced these kinds of ideas—are the places where some notions of what a feminist city might look like could really flourish, because of the smaller scale of the infrastructure and the slightly smaller nature of the community.”
“Public space is not designed for women,” proclaims the cover of the book. “The city needs to hear my voice.”
Kern’s voice is, ultimately, many voices. The book, which contains an ample Notes section with cited authors and sources (a recommended reading list for those interested in pursuing this topic further), is a book of women’s voices. “These ideas are not new-fangled, twenty-first century ideas,” said Kern. “In fact, women have been writing about these sorts of urban experiences for a long time and in many different ways. The city has long been a place where women have been able to express themselves in different ways, and a lot of the art and literature and popular culture that has sprung from that is what we can look to for ideas about how the city could be.”
Kern writes in Feminist City, “It’s almost as though we’re all presumed to want or need no access to work, public space, or city services. Best to remain in our homes and institutions, where we belong.” But as Kern has proven, we belong in public. What might a Feminist Fredericton (or a Feminist New Brunswick) actually look like? It would be a place where women—where all people—can see themselves represented: on sidewalks, in city council meetings, in public.
This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.
Lauren R. Korn is a research assistant for The RAVEN Project and recently graduated from the University of New Brunswick with an M.A. in English.