A few weeks ago, I was riding my bike to work. It was a cool summer pre-dawn ride, and the number of other road users was scant. As a bike-rider, I’m quite lucky: there’s a green bike path running almost the length of my commute. But there’s one section that’s shared with other road users. A single-lane suburban street with resident cars parked along its edge. It’s only about 100m long, but on this particular morning that didn’t stop the agitated driver of a white 4WD overtaking me.
The car bumped my bicycle as it overtook me. Only lightly, not enough to hurt me or even to push me from my bike, but enough to scare me. Enough to make me feel unsafe. And it got me thinking: this isn’t the first time another commuter has thought it okay to put my body in jeopardy to make their commute slightly more convenient, comfortable, speedy. Moreover, it’s not just my body that’s considered expendable.
Since at least the 1970s, writing on the experience of women in cities has focused on the ways in which the built environment acts as an expression of or enabler for the violence enacted upon women’s bodies: sexual assault and other violent crime, and the spatial separation of supposedly ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ space – that harmful dichotomy of public and private dividing the home from the street and workplace. However, the masculine gendering of the urban environment also impacts women’s bodies and experiences in subtle though dangerous ways.
Feminist intellectuals such as Dolores Hayden, Cindi Katz, Gillian Rose, and the late Doreen Massey (who passed away a few weeks ago) have driven the debate in the English-speaking world. The original project of these writers, often operating in the academic field of feminist geography, was to show that spaces in the city were not neutral but always gendered, reflecting and shaping power relations in broader society.
In Space, Place, and Gender, Massey used the tenets of Marxism to highlight two of the most obvious of these spaces: spaces of reproduction (associated with the home and women), and spaces of production (associated with the workplace and men). In this way, Massey shows us that the city is not simply a collection of built environments, but rather a mélange of physical objects and social, political, and economic ideals whose relationships are not always obvious. Importantly, Massey suggests that urban space is never static. We produce fixed and fleeting abstract space with our bodies as we move through the city.
One place where these gendered spatial and power relationships are not obvious but nevertheless present is during an almost daily activity: the home <to> work commute.
The origins of the daily commute are found in the nineteenth century. Train travel (thanks to the proliferation of train lines) enabled male workers to cross larger distances in shorter amounts of time, allowing them to travel each morning to the city for work, while leaving women and children behind in the burgeoning suburbs. Here, we see a physical, built environment (a train and train line) enabling the enactment and further entrenchment of social, political, and economic ideals (the man with work, the woman with child-rearing; the man with freedom of movement, the woman with confinement to a localised selection of streets and daily activities). The act of the daily commute, therefore, produces a gendered space.
From the twentieth century onwards, women’s absorption into the work force shifted the physicality of the morning and evening commute (no longer solely a collection of man bodies), even though the concept is victim to the social, political, and economic ideals of a previous time. Today, women’s bodies travel through the city in greater numbers than before; women’s bodies – as productive bodies on their way to work – are expected on trains and trams, on bikes and foot, in cars and buses.
Despite this proliferation, women’s bodies remain subject to different treatment during the daily commute than men’s – and those feminist writers I mentioned earlier can help us to understand why this is so. Judith Butler argued we must appreciate that gender is socially, historically, and contextually produced – that is, a set of learned behaviours and gestures. This understanding allowed those writers to explore the ways in which women’s bodies become public property.
Women’s bodies are subjected – daily – to harassment, violence, groping, and objectification. This is not merely misogyny, but socially, politically and economically condoned behaviour that reads the woman body as solely useful in the sphere of reproduction. As the daily commute is not a sphere of reproduction but of production (of masculinised work), there is a clash in understanding the presence of the woman body as social body in masculine urban space. Unable to be understood outside of its sexualised aspect, the woman body triggers a shift in the daily commute from a space of masculine production to one of ambiguous sexualisation.
As an object treated as expendable public property, women are not considered the rightful owners of their bodies. In the space of the daily commute, this takes physicalisation in the way in which women are expected to take up less physical space than men, and in experiences of groping on trains, trams, buses, or of cat-calling on bikes or while walking.
Entering the masculine space of the daily commute, women become alienated from their bodies and crossing the city therefore becomes a dangerous activity.
Examining the experience of ‘women’ is not to discount other aspects of experience related to class, ethnicity and other external markers of identity. Rather it explains one of the means by which broader social, political, and economic ideals are unthinkingly harnessed during such seemingly innocuous and frivolous daily interactions and activities to marginalise, alienate, and dominate bodies that are deemed powerless, expendable or unimportant.
It is not a leap to relate that experience to the broader issue of violence against women that Australia is currently facing; it’s barely a step.
The attitude that saw my body on a bicycle as expendable enough to dangerously overtake has its root in the understanding of the woman body as nothing other than a conduit for the reproduction of productive male workers. Of the woman body as an object for ownership and control by (masculine patriarchal) society. Of the woman body not as an individual with a right to enter the urban sphere, but as an interloper in the masculine city.