If you’ve ever been pregnant, the “geography closest in” gets real strange, fast. Suddenly, you’re someone else’s environment. And everything about how your body moves through the world and is perceived by others is about to change.
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 in Kentish Town. My commute from Finchley Central was only five Tube stops but most days it felt interminable. When I worked a morning shift, my nausea would force me off the train at Archway where I’d stumble to a bench and try to calm my stomach before gingerly re-boarding a new train. Before I was visibly pregnant there was no chance of being offered a seat, no matter how waxy and green my face. This lack of hospitality didn’t improve much even after my belly expanded.
I was determined to be one of those pregnant people who carried on with their normal lives as though nothing had changed. This was long before Serena Williams won a Grand Slam tournament while pregnant but, I was channeling that
kind of spirit. I was a recent women’s studies graduate with my own copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves
. I was prepared to be fierce and stick to my feminist principles in the face of the pathologizing, misogynist medical profession. I soon found that since midwives still dominated pre- and post-natal care in Britain, my anger at the system was a little misdirected. But I wasn’t at all prepared for the way that my place in the city was changing.
I hadn’t yet heard of “feminist geography” but I was certainly a feminist, and my feminist self was bristling at every turn. My body had suddenly turned into public property, available for touching or comment. My body was a big inconvenience to others and they didn’t mind letting me know. My body’s 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.
I didn’t know how much I valued these things until they were gone. They didn’t magically re-appear after my daughter was born, either. Pregnancy and motherhood made the gendered city visible to me in high definition. I’d rarely been so aware of my embodiment. Of course my gender is embodied, but it’s always been there. Pregnancy was new and it made me see the city in new ways. The connection between embodiment and my experience of the city became much more visceral. While I’d experienced street harassment and fear, I had little sense of how deep, how systemic, and how geographical it all was.
As a woman, a complete sense of anonymity or invisibility in the city had never fully existed for me. The constant anticipation of harassment meant that any ability to glide along as one of the crowd was always fleeting. Nonetheless, privileges such as white
skin and able-bodiedness gave me some measure of invisibility. Blending seamlessly into the urban crowd, freely traversing the streets, and engaging in detached but appreciative spectatorship have been held up as true urban ideals since the explosive growth of industrial cities. The figure of the flâneur, emerging prominently in Charles Baudelaire’s writing, is a gentleman who is a “passionate spectator” of the city, seeking to “become one flesh with the crowd,” at the centre of the action and yet invisible.31
The philosopher and writer of urban life Walter Benjamin further crystallized the flâneur as an essential urban character in the modern city, and urban sociologists such as Georg Simmel located traits like a “blasé attitude” and the ability to be anonymous as inherent to the new urban psychology.32
Not surprisingly, given the perspectives of these writers, the flâneur was always imagined as a man, not to mention one who is white and able-bodied.
Could the flâneur be female? Feminist urban writers have been divided here. Some see the model of the flâneur as an exclusionary trope to critique; others, as a figure to be reclaimed. For those who reject the idea, women can never fully escape into invisibility because their gender marks them as objects of the male gaze.33
Others say the female flâneur has always existed. Calling her the flâneuse, these writers point to examples like Virginia Woolf. In Woolf’s 1930 essay “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” the narrator imagines glimpses into strangers’ minds as she walks the streets of London, musing that “to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures.”34
In her own diary, Woolf wrote “to walk alone in London is the greatest rest,” implying that she found a measure of peace and detachment among the surging crowds.35
Geographer Sally Munt proposed the idea of the lesbian flâneur as an urban
character who sidesteps the usual pathway of the heterosexual gaze and finds pleasure in observing other women.36
Lauren Elkin attempts to recover the invisible history of the flâneuse in her book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City
. Elkin argues that women have been simultaneously hyper-visible and invisible in the streets. Always watched, yet written out of accounts of urban life. She describes her own youthful experiences of fl
on the streets of Paris, long before she knew it had a name: “I could walk for hours in Paris and never ‘get’ anywhere, looking at the way the city was put together, glimpsing its unofficial history here and there…. I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings.”37
Elkin insists the reluctance of men like Baudelaire, Benjamin, and Simmel to imagine a female flâneur comes from their inability to notice women acting in ways that didn’t fit their preconceived notions. Women walking in public were more likely to be read as streetwalkers (sex workers) than as women out for another purpose. But Elkin writes, “If we tunnel back, we find there always was a flâneuse passing Baudelaire in the street.”38
I have to wonder though, is the flâneuse ever pregnant or pushing a stroller? Artist and scholar Katerie Gladdys’ video “Stroller Flâneur” plays on the word stroller (a synonym for flâneur) as it depicts her pushing a baby stroller through her Gainesville, Florida neighbourhood. As the mommy flâneuse, she searches for “patterns and narratives in the genealogies of architectural structures and topographies while simultaneously searching for items of interest for [her] son.” Gladdys claims that “the performance of strolling a child is indeed one of the social processes of inhabiting and appropriating the public spaces” of the city. While I agree, and I would argue that moms pushing strollers are invisible in their own way, they’re not usually associated with the classic figure of the flâneur.39
And even the reclaimed flâneuse still inhabits a “normal” body, one able to move in unremarkable ways through the streets. None of the writers who talk about flâneuserie
give mention to the pregnant body. While not all those who experience pregnancy are women (e.g. trans men), it’s certainly a state rife with gendered assumptions. If it was already a stretch to imagine the female version of the flâneur, then the idea of a pregnant flâneur is likely beyond the pale.
It’s impossible to blend in when your body has suddenly become public property. Although women often experience comments on our bodies and uninvited physical contact, pregnancy and motherhood elevate these intrusions to a new level. People read my protruding belly as if it said, “rub here please!” I was expected to cheerfully welcome all manner of unsolicited advice and to express appropriate amounts of shame and remorse for any lapse in following the reams of often contradictory “expert” tips on eating, drinking, vitamins, exercise, work, etc. I was no longer an individual making my own choices. It was like they’d been crowdsourced without my consent.
All of this made me extraordinarily aware of my body, and not in a good way. If the urbanite’s blasé attitude toward others is what allows each of us to maintain some sense of privacy in the crowd, its loss made me feel very public. I was embarrassed by my belly’s showy-ness, tackily thrusting my intimate biology into the civilized public sphere. I didn’t want to glow. I wanted to hide. I wasn’t trying to disguise my pregnancy, but I was overcome with an urge to modesty that no amount of feminist body positivity could shake. My friends loved to tease me about the number of crop tops in my wardrobe, but I could never bring
myself to wear a shirt that exposed my belly even a little while pregnant. Was I trying to put a barrier between myself and the many strangers who felt comfortable commenting on or touching my body? Was it part of my perplexing embarrassment over being such an obviously biological animal? Had I unknowingly embraced the Cartesian mind-body split for so long that my body’s sudden assertiveness made me doubt everything I knew about myself?
Perhaps ironically, strangers’ fascination with my body didn’t translate into much of an uptick in urban courtesy. In fact, I sensed a constant, low-grade reminder that I was now different, Other, and out of place. This was most obvious to me on the Tube, where I was rarely offered a seat during my rush hour commute. Posh businessmen deliberately buried their faces in the broadsheets, pretending not to see me. One time I relinquished my seat to an even more pregnant woman before anyone took notice of either of us. Anna Quindlen tells an identical story about being pregnant in New York, offering her seat to a woman who “looked like she should have been on her way to the hospital.” “I love New York,” Quindlen writes, “but it’s a tough place to be pregnant…. There’s no privacy in New York; everyone is right up against everyone else and they all feel compelled to say what they think.”40
People who have been pregnant share these sorts of stories with a wry chuckle, like old war stories, as if they’re rights of passage when you’re pregnant in the city. As if it’s all to be expected for daring to leave your home with your messy, inconvenient body.
My efforts to reclaim the spirit of the flâneuse resumed after Maddy was born. Maddy would sleep for ages if she was strapped into a baby carrier, snug against my chest. I’d plot a route to a newly opened Starbucks with my trusted London A-Z
and head out for a simple treat: a latté and fresh scenery. These breaks in the exhausting routine of feeding, rocking, bathing, and so on felt like a tiny bit of freedom. I almost remembered what it was to be a young person in the city before having a baby.
Sometimes these outings went well, sometimes not. My attempts to be the mommy flâneuse were continually interrupted by the messy biology of a newborn. 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. It’s hard to play the detached observer when the fleshy, embodied acts of parenthood are on full display. I wanted to be indifferent about it all, believe me. While Maddy snoozed away I could almost pretend that I wasn’t seconds away from a wet disaster. When she woke, hungry or dirty, I scuttled off to the public washroom to ensure that no one had to bear witness to the natural realities of parenting.
I’d never realized how gutsy it was to do things like breastfeed in public. I knew intellectually that I was “allowed” to nurse my baby anywhere, but the thought made me cringe. The weird mix of reactions to my body that I’d experienced while pregnant taught me that I could never predict how I’d be made to feel. It was jarring to be revered and resented in equal measure. I was a divine figure in need of protection, but also out of place and taking up space in ways that make other people uncomfortable. The fact that news items about people being asked to leave public places while breastfeeding pop up on a regular basis—with breastfeeding explicitly protected by human rights laws in Canada—suggests that strong convictions about the proper place of breastfeeding parents remain in place.
When behaving correctly, keeping my inconvenient body contained, and parenting my baby in ways that satisfied dozens
of strangers at once, I received smiles and assistance. The instant my presence became too big, too noisy, too embodied, I met angry glares, snide comments, and sometimes even physical aggression. There was the man who kept shoving me forward while in line at the grocery store. When I asked him to stop he told me to “get my damn stroller out of the way.” There was the woman on the incredibly crowded bus who called me a bad mother because Maddy accidentally stepped on her foot. There was the sales clerk in a Toronto department store who actually told me to wait while she finished serving a customer when I rushed up to the desk because Maddy had toddled off out of sight. Obviously she was found, but only thanks to another mom who rushed into action when she heard the panic in my voice.
This level of rudeness didn’t happen every day, but underlying all of this social hostility was the fact that the city itself, its very form and function, was set up to make my life shockingly difficult. I was accustomed to being aware of my environment in terms of safety, which had a lot more to do with who was in the environment, rather than the environment itself. Now, however, the city was out to get me. Barriers that my able-bodied, youthful self had never encountered were suddenly slamming into me at every turn. The freedom that the city had once represented seemed like a distant memory.
As I tried to navigate an unfamiliar set of everyday routines as a new mom, the city was a physical force I had to constantly struggle against. Wasn’t the city supposed to be the place where women could best juggle the demands of their double and triple days of social reproduction, paid work, school, and myriad other roles? Didn’t my PhD supervisor proclaim that a “woman’s place
is in the city”?41
If that was true, why did every day feel like a fight against an enemy that was invisible yet all around me?
It’s true that I could walk to the grocery store, café, parks, and many other places I needed to access. I could take transit to school and the nearest subway stop was within walking distance. There were community centres and schools with programs for small children. Maddy’s day care was reasonably nearby. I could function without a car. Compared to the suburbs, this kind of urban density offered a lot more ways to manage parenting, grad school, and domestic responsibilities. In fact, what Gerda Wekerle (my supervisor) was responding to when she wrote “a woman’s place is in the city” in the 1980s was the nightmare of suburban living.
There is of course a long history of feminist critiques of the suburbs. Betty Friedan’s 1963 diagnosis of the “problem that has no name” included a scathing indictment of suburban life:
Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’42
From The Stepford Wives to Desperate Housewives, Weeds to Mad Men, suburban life has generated endless stereotypes. The Valium-popping housewife, the overprotective mom, the housewife with a dark secret, etc. And there’s no small amount of things to critique in terms of lifestyle, gender roles, and racial and class inequality. But feminist geographers were also looking at the very material of the suburbs, their form, design, and architecture as foundational sources of the “problem that has no name.”
We take the suburbs largely for granted now as a kind of organic outgrowth of big cities and a result of a natural need for more space and bigger family homes. However, the suburbs are anything but natural. Suburban development fulfilled very specific social and economic agendas. From providing much-needed housing for returning soldiers and their growing families to giving a boost to the post-war manufacturing sector, the suburbs were an essential component of a plan to sustain economic growth, especially after World War II
. In North America, government programs facilitating home ownership turned us into nations of home owners, tying workers to their mortgages in a move that some felt would produce a more conservative, and importantly, anti-communist society. The residential real estate sector grew into one of the most significant components of the twentieth-century econ...