Theory and the City

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Non-Sexist City?

In Dolores Hayden's article What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? she points out how modern homes serve to uphold patriarchy and suppress women. Most of her critique is based on the American Dream of suburban living, with the male breadwinner leaving the home in his car and the wife staying at home to care for it and the children. As an alternative Hayden proposes cooperative living in which resources are held in common and men and women partake equally in work associated with the cooperative such as childcare and cooking. This would undermine the role of the traditional housewife and give women the opportunity to be in the workforce on more equal ground as well as providing easier access to many of the social and material needs of being a parent.

Hayden's work is also interesting from an environmental perspective as she criticizes the excess of resources inherent in a non-cooperative society. Does every family really need its own electric lawnmower, washing machines etc. Sharing many resources cooperatively would reduce the cost and need for many items as well as being able to pool resources into things that might be hard to come by individually such as a bicycle co-op or art studio.

Hayden thus lays out a plan to rebuild traditional suburban blocks. However, this seems like a difficult process in that it needs a fundamental review and commitment to a new lifestyle by those already living in suburbia as well as in many cases a political process of rezoning. If people live in these suburban homes they most likely do so because they want to live in that traditional way and may not want to change (However, there may be exceptions and I would encourage neighbors to try to change their living patterns). It appears that many of the benefits that Hayden sees in cooperative living can be found in larger cities, where people have greater access to public transportation (in traditional suburbia the man has the car and women and children are "landlocked" to the home) and social services, as well as laundromats etc. Perhaps in answering Hayden's questions from her title, a non-sexist city would be precisely that, a city. A city where single mothers (or fathers) are not at a disadvantage but have the possibilities to find easy access to the services they need. However, sexism, as we have seen, does not disappear in cities. While Hayden's work may make things better, sexism is so thoroughly ingrained in our culture that it will take a long time for there to be gender equality. So to answer the question posed by this journal entry, the answer is no; the city is not non-sexist, but it may be less so than the suburb due to its less traditional character and the opportunities and independence it presents.

Another issues that needs to be raised is that in Hayden's cooperative scheme some people would work full time in the cooperative as cooks or launderers etc. What worries me is this will create a class system within the cooperative where those who work outside of it feel more important that then women and men tied to cooperative as the modern "housewife". A better solution might be to rotate duties as is done in some co-housing schemes in Sweden, where each night a few members cook dinner, so that each person only has to cook dinner once a month for example, and there can be a communal laundry room but each household can do their own laundry (just make sure that men do it as often as women).

Referenced text: Hayden, Dolores, "What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design and Human Work", Signs, Vol. 5 (3) pp. S170-S187.

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