Gender in the City

Genie N L Stowers. Handbook of Research on Urban Politics and Policy in the United States. Editor: Ronald K Vogel. ABC-Clio, 1997.

Gender in the City: The Forgotten Variable?

As in most social science and other fields, until recently the importance of women and gender in urban research has been ignored. With the advent of women’s studies and women and feminist scholars in the 1970s and 1980s, this began to change. Still, the consideration of gender as a variable or factor of importance varies widely by subfield in the areas of urban research. In many subfields, gender is still the “forgotten variable,” and in some others, women and gender issues have only experienced the “grafting of a new empirical object of study onto existing disciplinary discourses” (MacKenzie 1988: 14-15). This chapter focuses on the more recent research in this growing field in an attempt to understand the entirety of the field today.

Why Study Gender and Cities?

It is unfortunate that a chapter reviewing research on gender in the city still needs to begin by arguing why the consideration of gender is important for contemporary urban scholars. Stimpson suggests, “The American city has both enhanced and constricted women’s lives; the experience of men and women in American cities is quite significantly different; and, finally, studies of such divergence and their effects are original, suggestive, and necessary” (Stimpson 1981: ix). Others (Freeman 1981; Madigan, Munro, and Smith 1990) define some of the gender differences that make gender and the city an important and critical topic. Not only have cities had disproportionately more women, they have also had more single older women and disproportionately more female-headed households. Women are located in cities due to the concentration of jobs there and the public transportation necessary to get to these jobs. However, women (particularly female-headed households) earn less money than men in similar circumstances, so they are more dependent upon these central city resources. These and other trends have clear policy, political, and economic implications for cities.

Despite the clear implications of these trends, the degree to which women and other scholars are still struggling to have their work on gender seen and accepted suggests that many urban scholars still do not see why gender is important to the study of urban areas, much less why it should be incorporated as a matter of course into their work.

The Field of Gender and Urban Research

The beginning of the field of women or gender in urban research can be traced back to the publication of a special edition of the women’s studies journal Signs, devoted to the role of women in the city and later published in book form (Stimpson, et al. 1981). This and another early work (a special edition of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research in 1978) were both interdisciplinary works, a trait that has characterized this growing field over time as largely women scholars banding together to ensure that women are considered in urban research.

Since that time, much of the field and its theoretical underpinnings have been dominated by scholars in the planning, architectural, geography, history, and sociology fields. An important source of the emerging field was the environment and behavior movement, a multidisciplinary effort stemming from scholars in the planning, architecture, and geography disciplines in both the United States and Canada (Wekerle, Peterson, and Morley 1980). These disciplinary emphases were apparent in the dominant themes of the early development of the field. Early scholarly efforts at incorporating gender into urban theory focused on the differences between the public and private spheres of society, the urban environment and how it influences behavior and urban designs, and women’s equal access to urban services (Wekerle 1981). While these trends are still important, the field has clearly expanded and moved beyond these to empirical studies of new phenomena and explanations of more complex phenomena.

Another development in the field has been the movement beyond consideration of gender itself to the more complex relationships involved in the intersection of gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age. Yet another critical development has been the expansion of gender considerations into other disciplines involved in the study of urban studies, such as political science, economics, and political economy. Thus, the field itself is growing in complexity at the same time it is growing in size and across disciplines.

Changing Theoretical Perspectives

Much of the work by women scholars, no matter what subdiscipline, has called for essential redefinitions of the city and of the urban studies field in order to incorporate gender into urban analysis. One of the central theoretical concepts is the separation of human lives into two dichotomous spheres—the public and the private—work and home life (MacKenzie 1988; Wekerle, Peterson, and Morley 1980). From this dichotomy arises many other theoretical insights, such as the perception of cities as masculine and suburbs as feminine (Saegert 1981). Women are still largely identified with the home and the private sphere; many of these private activities are situated in suburbs, where many would prefer to live and raise their children but where women still tend to be isolated from outside, public activities. Cities, on the other hand, are where much of the activity in the public domain takes place; research has also indicated less satisfaction with urban environments as residential sites. Spain (1992) extends this comparison. She posits that the female is associated with declining cities, and cities are now home to disproportionately more women and more female-headed households that are disproportionately poorer. These declining cities are thus seen as female, while growing, vibrant suburbs are considered male.

Writing later, Appleton also calls for a fundamental and more complex re-conceptualization of the city as the “nexus of three basic institutions that shape patriarchy: the family, the economy, and the state” (Appleton 1995: 45), arguing that discussion of economic and political systems without simultaneous discussion of the family in urban analysis is ludicrous. In this important theoretical article, Appleton also builds upon Stone’s concept of urban regimes by identifying the concept of an urban gender regime, pointing out that different cities have different gender regimes. Appleton (47) defines a gender regime as “the way that gender is shaped by and shapes a particular social institution or, in the case of the city, a confluence of social institutions.” According to her, every city has a gender regime that can be “characterized in terms of the prevailing ideologies of how men and women should act, think, and feel, the availability of cultural and behavioral alternatives to those ideologies, men’s and women’s access to social positions and control and resources, and the relationships between men and women.” These are far-reaching conceptualizations of the city and urban behavior.

Part of the theoretical revisioning that scholars have engaged in is a literal reexamination of how the nonsexist city of the future would look. One major theme of urban gender theorists has been a complete revisioning of a future city without the constraints of a male-dominated and sexist society. Two classic pieces by Dolores Hayden (“What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work” [1981b] and Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life [1984]) feature a revisioning of the nonsexist city; these pieces clearly define and identify the role that gender has played in urban development and functioning. She examines the separation of the single-family home from any communal or shared spaces that could offer opportunities for sharing day care and house care responsibilities. She also notes that today’s suburbs and some neighborhoods isolate women even more and create additional travel time just to get to employment and day care. The essential design of the city creates differences and disadvantages for women. The focus of these classic pieces of scholarship is not just to “add in women and mix”; instead, it is to reenvision what cities and urban spaces would look like if they were designed for women. Some of Hayden’s visions for the redesign of urban areas include ways to reduce the sharp divisions between public and private spaces for women—the real sharing of home responsibilities and the development of housing facilities with common spaces allowing for centralized cooking and child care. Spain (1993a, 1993b) has also examined alternative futures by comparing feminist, utopian, and sustainable visions of cities and concluded that social and design changes such as building common spaces would be necessary to change the urban gender imbalance.

A Lost History

Some of the most important scholarly work on gender in the city is reclaiming the lost contributions of women activists and scholars from earlier periods. Even our understanding of the basis of the field of urban studies itself has been affected by sexism. While Robert Park and Donald Burgess are routinely given credit for the first systematic studies of urban phenomena, and so the creation of the “Chicago School” of urban analysis, there is evidence to suggest (Sibley 1990) that members of the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (mostly women) had already conducted systematic studies and made theoretical contributions earlier than the Park et al. studies. These women included Edith Abbott (the dean of the School), Sophonisba Breckinridge, Jane Addams (of Hull House), and Julia Lathrop. Earlier in this century, they published a series of studies on urban social problems that detailed issues of race, ethnicity, immigration, and housing in Chicago. These studies and the contributions of this group were later “lost,” partly because of the role of male sociologists like Park who refused to acknowledge them.

Dolores Hayden is also responsible for retrieving a critically important contribution of urban women activists, thinkers, and designers from the past. In her 1981 book The Grand Domestic Revolution (1981a), she talked about the work and ideas of thinkers and activists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Melusina Fay Pierce, and Victoria Woodhull—the “materialist feminists.” During the mid-1890s, these materialist feminists were the first to “identify the economic exploitation of women’s domestic labor by men as the most basic cause of women’s inequality. They dared define a ‘grand domestic revolution’ in women’s materials conditions” (1). These women theorized about and redesigned urban dwellings and spaces to optimize the collective spaces and reduce the amount of time women spent cleaning, taking care of children, and cooking. Although much of the written work and record of these early feminists was out of print or forgotten by the 1960s, many of the basic feminist theories of the 1960s had been expressed a century earlier by the material feminists.

Partly due to the very active role of women during these times, the Progressive and reform periods of American history represent a prime area for much work by historians on women and gender. Ethington (1992) argues that women have been left out of much urban history because much of the private sphere (incorporating the household) was itself left out. He and others (Locke 1990; Wolfe and Strachan 1988; Gittell and Shtob 1981; Cranz 1981; Ewen 1981) also argue that women were very active political and economic actors before they had the vote or moved fully into the workplace, particularly during the reform movements of the turn of the century. These findings counter the popular perceptions of politically passive women who worked only in the home prior to World War II and the 1960s.

Spatial Considerations and Implications

Because of the importance of women planners, geographers, architects, and other environment and women scholars, much work has focused on the spatial and design dimensions of women in urban areas. Among these scholars, there is a consensus that urban space does have a gender-specific dimension (Johnston-Anumonwo, McLafferty, and Preston 1995; Turner 1995; Spain 1992, 1995; Michelson 1988; Hayden 1984).

Spain (1992) examines the continued occupational segregation by gender in the contemporary workplace; while men and women now work in the same workplace and are not spatially segregated as they once were, men are still disproportionately managers, while women are still disproportionately clerical and support staff.

Other gender differences in the spatial distribution of the urban workplace exist, particularly in the location of jobs and trip to work patterns (Johnston-Anumonwo, McLafferty, and Preston 1995; Turner 1995; Michelson 1988; Hayden 1984; Cichocki 1980). The spatial patterns of cities make these trips more difficult and time-consuming for women, as homes are separated, by zoning laws and design, from jobs, day care, and schools (Ritzdorf 1993; Spain 1992; Hayden 1981a, 1984). Women tend to work closer to home, and so have shorter commutes, but are also generally responsible for seeing their children to day care or school; therefore, their trips can become home to day care/school to work, extending commutes even further. Women, particularly women of color, are also much more likely to take public transportation; this makes what might be a short trip in geographic terms much longer in terms of time spent in transit (Johnston-Anumonwo, McLafferty, and Preston 1995). In fact, according to Johnston-Anumonwo, McLafferty, and Preston (1995), for minority women, the trip to work can equal minority men’s in length.

Much of urban space has become “gendered” space. Evidence is clear that cities and downtowns, in particular, have disproportionately more female-headed households than cities in general (Turner 1995; Freeman 1981). Downtowns become gendered when women’s choices are not considered and women and female-headed households are more prevalent (Turner 1995). These patterns are reinforced by continued development decisions (Turner 1995) and the lack of political power and political representation of women (MacManus and Bullock 1993, 1995) in urban areas.

Within cities, public housing has also become a gendered space (Spain 1993a, 1993b, 1995):

The effects of public housing eligibility criteria, combined with national changes in household composition trends and fiscal policies affecting housing authorities, transformed public housing from a place in which married couples predominated to a gendered space consisting of poor women. This shift has been accompanied by a decline in the proportion of public housing tenants earning wages and an increase in the proportion receiving welfare. (Spain 1995: 265)

Other gendered patterns also exist but are even less obvious to the casual observer. To date, most of the academic work on lesbian and gay behavior in cities can be found in the examination of spatial patterns of the gay community, particularly the gay male community. Ritzdorf (1993) argues that urban zoning systems reinforce heterosexual values by discouraging nonrelated unmarried persons from living in single-family areas and, in general, by reinforcing those single-family areas.

The work on lesbians and gay men also provides an interesting way to determine if gender differences exist in urban spatial orientations, by allowing an examination of gender differences in urban spatial patterns without the confounding effects of family. This and a basic description of the boundaries of gay male communities within cities have been accomplished by Castells and Murphy (1982) and Adler and Brenner (1992) in their examinations of lesbians and gay men and their spatial distributions in urban neighborhoods. According to Castells (1983), Castells and Murphy (1982), and Adler and Brenner (1992), gay men are located in more readily identifiable and publicly visible territory, while lesbians tend to be more evenly distributed across cities. This pattern is alleviated somewhat by some evidence of concentration in some communities as lesbians attempt to informally live near their friends, although in less publicly identified or visible neighborhoods than the gay male concentrations. Lesbians tend to live in older, less-affluent neighborhoods as a result of their status as women who have less disposable income than gay men.

These spatial patterns, creating definitive gendered spaces, also have repercussions for women’s interactions with the urban political economy.


The restructuring of urban economies has had quite an impact upon women in urban areas over the past decades. Women attained two thirds of all new jobs created in the 56 largest cities from 1970 to 1986 (Clark 1990). This feminization of the urban workforce, begun after World War II and strengthened over the decades, has continued to the present time (Jezierski 1995; Rose and Villeneuve 1988). However, another trend found in the urban economy was the bipolarization of the workforce; more top-level and more bottom-level jobs were being created in cities than any other areas. The result of these two trends was the gendering of the urban workforce, focusing women’s participation disproportionately at the lower end of the spectrum in the lower-paying service industry jobs (Jezierski 1995; Clark 1990; Rose and Villeneuve 1988).

These trends have led to the third important trend involving women in cities: the increased disproportional poverty of women and female-headed households, the so-called feminization of poverty (Pearce 1978). In 1980, 43.5 percent of all female-headed households were in the central city; 47.6 percent of female-headed households in the central city lived in poverty. This compares to the 32.8 percent of female-headed households living in poverty in the suburbs and the 41.2 percent in rural areas (Cautley and Schlesinger 1988). Clearly, the feminization of poverty can be considered an urban phenomenon. The feminization of poverty deepens for elderly and African American women, who experience significantly higher levels of poverty than white women (Worobey and Angel 1990; Franklin 1992). The percentage of female-headed households among the African American community grew from 20.6 to 43.7 from 1960 to 1985, as compared to growing from 8.4 to 12 percent for white families during the same period (Ricketts 1990).

These economic trends make it all the more difficult for women to operate successfully within the traditional political sphere of urban life, in the “public” sphere.

Women and Urban Politics

Due to the traditional separation of the public and private spheres of politics, the focus of political science upon the public sphere, the still-limited movement of women in the public sphere, and a narrow definition of political actors, much of the work on women in urban politics has been limited to a discussion on political elites, organized groups, and “big issues” such as development and growth (Staeheli and Clarke 1995). This has meant that women and their role in the city have been overlooked, since women have tended to be active in neighborhoods and their schools (Rabrenovic 1995; DeSena 1994) and with developing and working within coalitions focusing on service delivery or safety issues (Kathlene 1995). In urban politics, the scholarly focus upon the public versus the private sphere (of the home) has led away from understanding the kind of political involvement in which women have participated. Staeheli and Clarke suggest a movement away from elite and “big issue” focus to citizenship and coalition politics as a way to incorporate gender, race, and ethnicity, place, and politics.

At the elite level, Susan MacManus (1992; MacManus and Bullock 1993, 1995) provides evidence of the still-limited election of women as mayors—14.3 percent in larger cities (MacManus and Bullock 1995). The degree to which this is true differs by region and type of local government; women tend to be more successful in the West and New England and in town meetings, representative town meetings, and district elections (MacManus and Bullock 1993, 1995). However, MacManus and Bullock (1993) report that there are more women mayors and council members than in any time in history, including as mayors of the nation’s largest cities.

Although women council members are slightly more numerous than mayors (18.7 percent) and their numbers are increasing, their numbers are still limited (MacManus and Bullock 1993, 1995). MacManus and Bullock (1993) report that the proportion of female city council members across all cities, 18.7 percent, is not much better than the proportion of women mayors. The proportion of female council members increases with the size of the city, size of the council, and structure of the council. This work shows no gender differences in the proportion of council members selected from partisan versus nonpartisan elections and very few and insignificant differences from at-large versus district elections. This supports the results of earlier research (Bullock and MacManus 1991) that suggested only slight differences in proportion of councilwomen according to electoral structure, but these differences were themselves inconsistent across regions.

One of the main barriers to getting women elected to local office is getting women to run for local office (MacManus 1992). This is not always true in an urban setting, as there is some indication that more female candidates ran for and won office than male candidates in urban-based state legislative seats (Burrell 1990), and certainly school boards have been a traditional site for women candidates to get started in political life (MacManus and Bullock 1995). Other research has indicated that gender differences remain as local women office-holders see themselves differently than their male counterparts—as public servants and neighborhood and issue activists rather than as career politicians using an office as a stepping-stone (MacManus and Bullock 1995; Beck 1990). In some cases, this difference could actually be helping women get elected (MacManus and Bullock 1995). Women candidates who are also women of color have additional burdens placed upon them, as is clear from Randolph and Tate’s (1995) case study examining the intersection of gender, race, and class in an African American city councilwoman’s run for reelection in Richmond and the double standards placed upon her.

At the neighborhood and coalition level, there is a much different story of women’s involvement because of the local association with home and families and the reduced barriers to women’s involvement there (Rabrenovic 1995; Fincher and McQuillen 1989; Boles 1986). Much of women’s involvement in local political activity occurred in voluntary organizations, in informal coalitions, and around local social issues because women were kept out of mainstream political involvement (DeSena 1994; Boles 1986; Gittell and Shtob 1981). In fact, women have typically been extremely active in their local communities, organizing rent strikes (Castells 1983), working on health and safety issues (Lois Gibbs in Love Canal, for instance), working on welfare issues and tenant and housing issues (Young and Christos-Rodgers 1994; Lawson, Barton, and Joselit 1980; Gittell and Schtob 1980), and even working to keep their neighborhoods segregated (DeSena 1994) or more people oriented (Stamp 1980) by serving in a neighborhood guardian role. Some of that local activism has led directly to efforts to provide services to women.

Serving Women in Urban Areas

Much has changed in the way that services are provided to women in urban areas. Most important, scholars have begun to break down the assumptions that women are and behave like men in their needs and desires for services (LeVeen 1994; Santiago 1994; Schoenbaum and Webber 1993; Mansfield, Preston, and Crawford 1988, 1989; Hurst and Zambrana 1981).

Women’s needs differ from men’s in their need for basic health care (LeVeen 1994; Schoenbaum and Webber 1993; Worobey and Angel 1990; Markson and Hess 1981) and shelter (Beck 1995; Birch 1983a, 1983b, 1985; Anderson-Khlief 1981; Card 1981) services. Even among women, there is now a recognition that needs and behaviors differ by residence (Mansfield, Preston, and Crawford 1988, 1989), race and ethnicity (Santiago and Morash 1995; Santiago 1994; Stowers 1994; Miranne 1994; Franklin 1992), age (Miranne 1994; Worobey and Angel 1990; Markson and Hess 1981), disability (Santiago 1994), and sexual orientation (Stowers 1994) in today’s urban areas.

“New” social problems affecting women, like AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) (Schoenbaum and Webber 1993), homelessness (Battle 1990; Kline and Saperstein 1982), domestic violence (Andrew 1995; Stowers 1994; Boles 1986; Schechter 1982; Cools 1980), sexual assault (Kathlene 1995; Gordon et al. 1981), and other crimes (Markson and Hess 1981), have developed (Schoenbaum and Webber 1993), are being reinterpreted as affecting women (Santiago and Morash 1995; Kathlene 1995; Santiago 1994; Stowers 1994; Schoenbaum and Webber 1993; Boles 1986; Schechter 1982), or have finally reached the public policy agenda through the efforts of women (Andrew 1995; Schechter 1982; Boles 1986) and their allies.

And the “old” problems of inadequate housing (Spain 1992, 1993a, 1995; Beck 1995; Miranne 1994; Birch 1983b, 1985; Anderson-Khlief 1981; Card 1981; Cook 1994), inadequate child care (Young and Miranne 1995; Michelson 1981), and lack of employment (Clark 1990; Dabelko and Sheak 1990; Cautley and Schlesinger 1988; Roistacher and Young 1981) still exist for women.

Due to the efforts of social movements, practitioners have been, and are still, recognizing that the traditional models for serving and providing services to women are not adequate or appropriate for many groups in urban areas (Santiago and Morash 1995; Santiago 1994; Stowers 1994). In fact, the recognition of these differences and the need to empower women rather than simply serve them has led in some cases to the use of women’s networks (Thurston 1990; Boles 1986; Steinberg 1981) to develop innovative and creative models of social and health services in cities (Kathlene 1995; Santiago and Morash 1995; Stowers 1994; Boles 1986; Hurst and Zambrana 1981; Schechter 1982).

Research Directions for the Future

It is clear that much more work is needed in the field of gender and the city. Although large strides have been made in the last 15 years, much still needs to be investigated and discussed (Sandercock and Forsyth 1992). First among these is the need for continued work on the differences among the wider community of women. How do urban behaviors, needs, and attitudes differ among women by race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, disability status, immigrant status, and nationality? Scholars are just beginning to acknowledge and examine these differences, and it is important to know more about them as the crucial basis for moving toward solutions for the urban problems that affect women.

In addition, there is much disparity between disciplines in their acknowledgement of the importance (or even reality) of gender in the city. In some disciplines, gender is still the “forgotten” variable. There is much work to do in disciplines like political science and economics to match the strides of geography, planning, and architecture. There is a need for an integration of the findings from all these fields by the scholars involved in these investigations. Most important, it is crucial that the scholars outside these investigations of gendered phenomena in the city start paying attention to gender, acknowledge that gender makes a difference in behavior, attitude, and status, and move to incorporate these findings into their own work (Sandercock and Forsyth 1992). Only then can we be sure that the assumptions of the past are clearly investigated and that women and gender are truly integrated into the urban research of today.