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date: 26 November 2022

Advances in Feminist Geographyfree

Advances in Feminist Geographyfree

  • Nicole Laliberte, Nicole LaliberteDepartment of Geography, University of Toronto Mississauga
  • Kate Driscoll DericksonKate Driscoll DericksonDepartment of Geography, Environment & Society, University of Minnesota
  •  and Lorraine DowlerLorraine DowlerDepartment of Geography, Pennsylvania State University


Geography and international studies are both deeply rooted in masculinist, imperialist, and patriarchal ways of viewing the world. However, over the past 20 years, the increase in the number of women within these fields has planted the seeds for the introduction of feminist intervention. Feminist geography is primarily concerned with the real experiences of individuals and groups in their own localities. It can be viewed as the study of "situated knowledges derived from the lives and experiences of women in different social and geographic locations." Feminist geographers consistently seek out techniques which are in line with their feminist philosophies. Although much of the work will be categorized as qualitative, such as ethnographic fieldwork, feminist geographers recognize the need for feminist approaches in quantitative analysis, and techniques alone do not render the project feminist. Rather, feminists in geography argue that all types of data collection must recognize the power relationship between the researcher and the researched. Feminist geography also operates at the local scale and crosses to the global. This is illustrated by geographers who not only study the daily lives of women in a refugee camp but also construct theoretical arguments focused on global forces such as climate change or war in relation to the international migration of women.


  • Political Geography
  • Politics and Sexuality and Gender


The purpose of this essay is to examine how feminist thought has evolved and informed global studies through the disciplinary insights of geography and international studies. Having said that, all the authors identify as feminist geographers and, given that other authors in the Compendium can clearly offer more nuanced accounts of the impact of feminist theory to international studies, it is our hope to offer some insights into the specific contributions feminist geography has made to understanding the gendering of global processes.

Following a brief introduction to feminist geography, we have divided this essay into three areas of mutual inquiry in feminist geography and international studies: governance, urban studies, and development. These three sections are not meant to be an exhaustive review of feminist geography’s contributions to international studies. Full essays could be written on the feminist contributions from the geographical subfields of political, economic, historical, cultural, health, environmental, as well as many other areas of geography. We have chosen, however, to use the three areas mentioned above as themes through which we can explore the contributions made in many of these subfields. Although separated in the organization of this essay, we stress that these are not mutually exclusive areas given that political dissent and violence are viewed as part of a hegemonic development process in both rural as well as urban environments (McIlwaine 1999b). Having said that, we would argue that governance as it pertains to issues of citizenship, nationalism, territoriality, conflict – and power and identity more broadly – is an area of scholarship in which feminist geography has had significant impact in terms of international studies. Likewise, urban studies and development studies, as they relate to globalization, migration, global economy, environmental praxis, neoliberalism, and practices of resistance are areas that have been of special interest to feminist international studies. In this context, this review focuses on the examination of “gender” as an epistemological shift rather than the empirical study of “women.” This epistemological shift has brought an increased awareness of how gender intersects with race, sexuality, class, and other hierarchical power relations. We do not have the space to examine all of these intersections thoroughly, but we have tried to show how, by researching the perspectives of women and the construction of gender, these other relationships come to the fore. Finally, although we do not deal with masculinity as individual experience directly in this essay, we do look at the ways in which it functions as part of the institutional frameworks we are examining. In the conclusion of this essay, we offer possible directions for future research and activism that build upon the insights brought to international studies through the conceptual tools of feminist geography.

Feminist Geography

Geography and international studies were/are both deeply rooted in masculinist, imperialist, and patriarchal ways of viewing the world. As a consequence of this, they have both come to feminist ways of thinking later than other disciplines. The increase of women within these fields in the past 20 years has planted the seeds for the introduction of feminist intervention. Interestingly, we have seen a somewhat unequal diffusion of feminist thought within our subdisciplines. For example, feminist interventions in the area of development studies have been swift, and yet interventions in international relations and political geography have been slower coming. As we shall discuss throughout this essay, this unequal diffusion of feminist thought not only highlights established power structures, it also provides a framework for future feminist interventions.

This is a critical moment for feminists in both geography and international studies. Given that both disciplines’ feminist interventions are more recent, we can literally compare and contrast subfields to examine what subject matters need a stronger engagement with feminist theory. For both fields of study, the period of the 1980s translated into a commitment to understand how empowerment, oppression, and exclusion operate through regimes of difference. This translated in geography as a focus on the ways in which space and place are implicated in the structural processes and everyday practices that promote marginality and difference (Nagar and Swarr 2005). Feminist geography has its roots in North America and the United Kingdom and was part of a broader radical movement in geography which was highly influenced by interdisciplinary paradigms such as cultural, postcolonial, subaltern, and gender studies. The aim was to move geography toward the examination of locations, subjectivities, and experiences of groups that at one time had been ignored in traditional scholarship.

Although feminist geography has blossomed in the last 20 years, it was heavily influenced by previous interdisciplinary feminist studies and thereby crosscuts all the human geography subdisciplines, such as political, cultural, historical, nature and society, economic, urban, etc. While this expansion and development is exciting, it results in making feminist geography that much more difficult to define. Although a troublesome task, it would be useful to put forth a description of the processes of feminist geography. First, we would emphasize what it is not! It is not simply the study of women in different places around the world. It is not a means of simply cataloguing the lives of women around the world. Rather, feminist geography is often considered an approach which focuses on gender to explore spatial phenomena. Originally developed at a time when scholars were interested in writing women back into academic scholarship, feminist geography followed much feminist scholarship in arguing that the experiences of women were often ignored in traditional academic studies. Feminist geographers were interested in how sexual differentiation was impacted by spatial norms, such as identifying women with private space over public, thereby ignoring them in traditional types of data collection. Feminist scholarship in geography has evolved from the influences of the early feminist movement to embracing critical interdisciplinary paradigms, stemming from cultural, postcolonial, subaltern, sexuality, and gender studies, feminist scholars are now moving past disciplinary boundaries and engaging in discussions of both the locations and perspectives of groups that at one time had been roundly ignored in traditional scholarship (Dowler et al. 2005). In other words, we would argue that feminist geography is practiced both within and outside of the discipline of geography.

Feminist geography is not primarily concerned with the development of conceptual theory but rather focuses on the real experiences of individuals and groups in their own localities. Although it is true that feminist geographers are interested in how “theory plays out” on the ground, it is important to think of feminist geography as the study of “situated knowledges that are derived from the lives and experiences of women in different social and geographic locations” (Staeheli et al. 2004:1–2). McDowell and Sharp argue that despite the multiple ways of practicing feminist geography, there is a common focus to this type of scholarship which they concisely state as: “gender relations are both affected and reflected in the spatial structure of societies” (1997:4). Most importantly, they argue there is a direct relationship between theory and the methods used to investigate theory (McDowell and Sharp 1997). As there is no one feminist practice of geography there is no universally accepted feminist methodology. Feminist geographers are consistent in that they seek out techniques which are in line with their feminist philosophies. Although much of the work in feminist geography would be categorized as qualitative, such as ethnographic fieldwork, feminist geographers also recognize the need for feminist approaches in quantitative analysis, and techniques alone do not render the project feminist. Rather, feminists in geography argue that all types of data collection must recognize the power relationship between the researcher and the researched (Dowler 1999). Heidi Nast (1994), Cindi Katz (1994), Lynn Staeheli and Vicki Lawson (1995) warn us that we need to interrogate the positionality of the researcher, whether in the field, archives, or inputting a large data set.

Nelson and Seager (2005:1) argue that “it is ‘the body’ and the multidimensionality of embodied experience(s) that continue to anchor feminist geography at the dawn of the twenty-first century.” The study of embodied experience(s) focuses on a concrete (while acknowledging it is a subjective) experience of the world rather than abstract perceptions. By keeping feminist theory grounded in the experience of individuals, therefore, the body is the linchpin of feminist theory. However, the body within feminist theory (Judith Butler, Susan Bordo, Elizabeth Grosz) is theorized in the absence of scale. Feminist geography is “anchored in the body, moves across scale, linking the personal and quotidian to urban cultural landscapes, deforestation, ethno-nationalist struggles, and global political economies” (Nelson and Seager 2005:2), and thus not only situates the embodied experiences of women in the real world but provides a much needed theoretical framework of the spaces, places, and landscapes of women’s bodies. So, although influenced by feminist theory, feminist geography questions and theorizes the construction and maintenance of ideological values as they intersect with space. To this end, gender and geographical forces such as industrial restructuring, deforestation, urbanization, and migration, just to name a few, are inexorably linked (Nelson and Seager 2005). For this reason, feminist geography operates at the local scale and crosses to the global. This is illustrated by geographers who not only study the everyday lives of women in a refugee camp but also construct theoretical arguments focused on global forces such as climate change or war in relation to the international migration of women.

The Language of Feminist Geography

As part of this examination we will utilize a vocabulary that is not unique to geography but is important to our understanding of the direct linkages of space with gender. It is important to state that all of these terms have been the focus of long debates in the discipline, and to understand the evolution of these spatial units we would recommend reading A Feminist Glossary of Human Geography by Linda McDowell and Joanne Sharp. The following is a brief overview of how feminist geographers interpret the key concepts of space, place, scale, and the public/private binary. When used from a feminist perspective, these concepts contribute to our understanding of power relations and our subsequent potential to destabilize them.

Gillian Rose understands that one of the distinct differences in feminist understandings of space is the increased interest in space as a set of concepts embodying notions of difference. She points to the work of Foucault in moving the discipline away from more traditional and universalizing narratives which were grounded in time and location toward understanding space as a system of power relations. It is important to state that feminist geographers also differ on the meaning of space, although Rose points to a general agreement among feminists that we are all interested in how space is gendered. Rose outlines three interventions by feminists in our understanding of how space is gendered. Earlier feminist intervention examined how women utilize space differently than men. The second intervention highlighted that gendered relations are expressed in space. An important aspect of this intervention was the discussion of the gendering of public and private space. The concept of public and private space will be discussed in more detail later in this essay. However, suffice to say that early engagement with issues of public and private space encouraged a spatial dichotomy whereby public space was analyzed through the lens of production, power, and politics. Private space, on the other hand, was associated more with domestic spaces. A woman who transgressed the arena of public space would be viewed as “out of place.” The third intervention examines space as a fluid process and would argue that previous definitions of gendered space fall into Western and masculinist understandings of space (Rose 1999).

Sharp argues that the concept of place, not unlike space, was first viewed as a “bounded piece of space or territory,” which is imbued with certain characteristics which make it unique compared to the surrounding space. In this context, feminist geographers are interested in the ways certain places promote uneven power relationships (Sharp 1999). For example, calling upon Rose’s example, women can often feel “out of place” when they enter certain spaces. An apt example of this could be a female firefighter working in an all male firehouse. Although she has had the same training as the men, she is disempowered in that she doesn’t share in the masculine culture of the place. The power relationships inherent to places are of course also affected by other identity markers such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, able-bodiedness, etc.

As part of examining the power relationships of places, Doreen Massey in her analysis of “sense of place” adds another dimension to feminist understandings of space, that of scale. She argues that the connection of the everyday practices of women can be linked to societal relationships, at which point these experiences can be “stretched out” and understood in a local, regional, and sometimes global context (Massey 1994). Significant work has been done to demystify the ways in which scale is implicated in social and political projects (e.g. Delaney and Leitner 1997; Marston 2000). Feminist geographers argue that an examination of scale can in fact uncover transnational processes which cross the boundaries of the nation-state, thereby uniting women across national boundaries. Feminist geographers often think about this type of global spatial fluidity as jumping scale. In their edited volume Geographies of Power: Placing Scale, Herod and Wright (2002) challenge the traditional geographic conception of a hierarchy of distinct scales (i.e. local, regional, global). Instead, many of the contributors to this volume view scale as nonlinear and consisting of relationships that are generated through malleable processes and connections that trouble the traditional separation of scales. Scale is a key concept for geographers, but, as noted here, its critical applications tend to focus on the fluidity of scales and their constructed nature.

Related to the concept of scale is the public/private dualism. As Bowlby (1999) points out, this dualism has been articulated in multiple ways ranging from the distinction between the private sector (e.g. industry) and the public sector (e.g. welfare) to a more Habermasian distinction between public space (where political debates occur) and private space (where the family is located). Feminist scholars have shown how these binaries are gendered and lead to institutionalized disempowerment across the intersections of gender, race, class, sexuality, disability, and other hierarchical power relationships. Feminist geographers have contributed to this work by showing how these power relations are created and reinforced through the use of space and creation of place. Having identified ways in which public/private dualisms are realized, current work seeks to denaturalize the concepts of public and private in order to illuminate their role in unequal power relations (see the section on Urban Studies for more on the private/public binary).

There are a multitude of spatial concepts which are open for feminist critique but for the purposes of this essay we have focused on some spatial concepts which we feel feminists have had significant engagement with. This section of the essay was designed as a brief introduction to feminist treatments of space, place, and scale, and these concepts will be discussed in more detail when we engage with issues of governance, politics, and development.


Cynthia Enloe, one of the most prominent scholars in the field of feminist international relations and geography, argues that gendered stereotypes are the framework for the safeguarding of the international system (Enloe 1990; 2007). She suggests that in a global economy, despite the contributions of women, there continues a relatively rigid gender division of labor, between paid and unpaid work. She argues that although women have gained the vote in most countries, they continue to be underrepresented in governments, and around the world men continue to predominate in international security and the actions of war. To this end, gender has been constructed in ways to enable security practices, global capitalism, and power politics. In other words, gender enables contemporary global power dynamics (Thornburn 2000).

It is no wonder, therefore, that the study of governance is of particular interest to feminist scholars in both geography and international studies. Governance is the embodiment of power relations; it is a system that defines expectations and performance. Power in this context is often conceptualized as the capacity to control or shape an event, person, or process and is associated with control, authority, or the ability to govern or rule. Most importantly, those that govern have the ability to impose their belief, thereby creating politicized subjects who are included or excluded from the body politic. Through their examination of the gendered variations of power and politics in different spaces and at different scales, feminist political geographers have contributed significantly to the study of governance.

One area of analysis which has been critical to our understanding of governance is the examination of public and private space. Although important to feminist understandings of our world, scholars of both international relations and geography warn that this spatial dichotomy is both conceptually and politically problematic. Thinking of space as a binary tends to render thinking that is “static, reductionist and stunted,” limiting an analysis to just two opposing alternatives, rather than examining the fluidity of possible alternatives (Peterson 2000). More importantly, our understanding of what is public is born out of Western thought and if, as many feminists have argued, all social life is gendered then “the dichotomy of masculine–feminine orders not only our subjective identities but also the concepts that structure our thought” (Peterson 2000).

The examination of public and private space has been both useful and contested in geography; however, more recently feminist political geographers have incorporated scale as an important spatial unit for analysis, not necessarily to replace discussions of public and private space but to expand our understandings of the spatial contributions to constructing gender norms. As Staeheli and Kofman (2004:2) argue, “belonging and exclusion are contested terms. They are terms that have particular resonance for political geographers at the beginning of the twenty-first century because they speak to the processes of democratization and the incorporation of political subjects as citizens.” Staeheli and Kofman contend that feminist perspectives on political geography contribute to a broader understanding of political processes and the scales that they crosscut. As Sharp argues, certain geographic lenses play a significant role in international studies, such as distance, proximity, and location, and are understood to influence political processes. Geographical relationships, however, are specific to historical and cultural circumstances, which are most certainly gendered. Concepts such as location, landscape, place, and space are thereby rendered political (Sharp 1999). Invoking the work of Enloe, Sharp argues that feminist geographers write the experiences of women back into the international study of such international phenomena, which are geographically fluid, for example women as cheap transnational workers and sex workers in the tourist industry. Conceptualized as such, international politics is no longer simply the story of confrontations between powerful states (Sharp 1999). Rather, the scale of activities is examined and new actors emerge in (and through?) the everyday geographies of gender relations.

As part of an analysis of scale, feminist geographers have not abandoned issues of public and private space. They argue that a “critical scale” of analysis for issues of governance is the problematic relationship between public and private space and highlight the fluidity of the spheres. In 1990, Kofman and Peake conceptualized politics as an activity relevant to all spheres of public and private life. They argue it is manifested in activities of cooperation, negotiation, and struggle over the reproduction and distribution of resources, and it involves the transformative capacity of social agents and institutions (Staeheli et al. 2004). This feminist perspective on the political involves a topical focus on formal political sphere and spaces. In addition to an expansive approach to political issues, processes, and relationships, it includes normative visions of social change to combat exclusion, oppression, and marginalization.

The tendency in geography and international relations historically to conduct macro-level analysis has made it difficult to construct nuanced understandings of the ways in which what are traditionally considered “micro”-scale relations and processes (households, families, and the body) are implicated in the development of hegemonic conceptions of space and the spatialization of politics.

Feminist geographers have been instrumental in breaking down dichotomies between formal and informal politics and the public/private divide. They argue that conceptualizing women’s activism of various forms as informal and as located in the private sphere, or as occurring mainly in private spaces serves to further marginalize women’s political acts. Meghan Cope (2004) suggests three strategies for creating a framework to understand gender, political acts, and space. First, we need to examine ways in which women have actively created new or different spaces for political action which can enable them to engage directly with mechanisms of oppression and provide a base from which to directly interest the state. Second, we need to consider ways in which women have used socially embedded codes of specific places to highlight their grievances and strengthen their political efforts. Third, we need to examine how some women’s politics have “jumped scale,” that is, how political action that draws on everyday life and local resistance can have impacts that jump to broader levels such as the national and global.

Cope’s framework stems from her study of women in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and examines the ways in which “everyday acts of resistance can demonstrate a way in which experiences of the social relations of production condition and form the spaces of protest” (Cope 1996:180). As such, she explores relations of space, power, and identity. Drawing on Massey’s conception of a “progressive sense of place,” Cope proposes a progressive sense of identity, or what she calls “identity-in-place.” Identity-in-place is “generated by a personal constellation of power relations, the complexity of everyday life [and] multiple roles and identities,” all of which, she argues, can be apprehended by rich empirical work on urban spaces. By exploring the spatiality of everyday life, Cope argues, we can arrive at a richer understanding of urban politics that understands politics as enacted against and through a constellation of power relations inscribed and encoded in spaces and spatial practices. Further, Cope points to the ways in which the public/private dichotomy is profoundly blurred in people’s everyday practices.

In a similar vein the work of Anna Secor demonstrates how traditional geopolitical ways of thinking privilege the global scale as the center of spatialized power relations. Secor puts forth a feminist counter-geopolitics that focuses on how Muslim Turkish women’s political practices can be read in everyday urban spaces. By examining political activity by way of formal voting and informal associational activities, her study examines women’s actions within both formal and informal urban political spaces and reveals some ways in which women partake in the daily production and resistance of Islamist politics in Istanbul (Secor 2001). In the same way, Fiona Smith, when examining post-unification Germany, explores the dominant neoliberal narratives of post–Cold War restructuring by interrogating the cross-scale interactions of the state, nation, economy, polity, family, and gendered subject. As a result Smith is able to examine what she refers to as the “small transformations” of the everyday lives of formerly East German women. These transformations occurred when they mobilized through community participation in a planning process for housing estates that fell into dire need of repair under the former government. Smith argues that although at a national scale all of Germany was now democratic and embraced a market economy, local women/activists now had to create a participatory civil society which did not exist under the previous communist regime. Women had to imagine their community as a civil space in order to rebuild their homes (Smith 2001:214).

Along the same lines, Dowler and Sharp (2001) point out the potential problems associated with seeing politics everywhere in that it can lead to a downplaying of immediate and perhaps more important issues of material conditions. And while they argue that critical geopolitics has led to important approaches to deconstruction, they are concerned with the tendency in post-structuralist approaches in general, and critical geopolitics in particular, to retain an ability to identify a location from which to enact radical politics. “Where,” they ask, “as an intellectual and political project, can critical geopolitics go from here?” (Dowler and Sharp 2001:165). The failure of critical geopolitics, and critical geopoliticians, to situate themselves and their critiques leads to a disembodied analysis that fails to attend to or appreciate the ways in which women’s embodied experiences are caught up in and constructed through international relations. Instead, feminist political geographers advocate for a critical geopolitics that is attuned to discourse not merely as a representational practice, but as an embodied and material practice. Conceptualized as such, they argue, a feminist geopolitics “offers a lens through which the everyday experiences of the disenfranchised can become more visible” and everyday practices can be understood as sites of politics (Dowler and Sharp 2001).

Although the practices of feminist geography came later than in other subdisciplines such as cultural, urban, and economic geography, feminist perspectives of political phenomena were more common throughout the discipline, and this aided in the establishment of feminist political geography. However, most of these studies were qualitative in nature and had little to no impact on larger-scale discussion in the area of such geopolitics.

Expanding what “counts” as political has been a feminist project since at least the beginning of the second wave that characterized feminist activism both within and outside the academy (England 2003). As such, one would expect a natural affinity between political and feminist geography, or at the very least an influence of the subdiscipline by feminist geographers. And yet, in spite of the vibrancy of feminist scholarship in many other corners of the discipline, little progress has been made in imbuing work considered “political geography” with a particularly feminist perspective (Dowler and Sharp 2001; Staeheli 2001; England 2003). At the same time, or perhaps instead, feminist geographic perspectives on urban spaces, processes, and, most notably, politics have abounded (Bondi and Rose 2003). The difference between a feminist political geography and these other types of feminist geographic perspectives on politics has to do with training and the ability to provide feminist perspectives on the things that typically fall under the auspices of “political geography” (i.e. geopolitics, political boundaries, the geography of state politics, etc.). For example, it has been noted (England 2003) that political geography is predominately concerned with large scales and, with some limited exceptions, it remains “relatively untouched by questions of the politics of difference, body politics, and political subjectivities that are energizing many other subdisciplines of human geographies” (England 2003:61). This has not gone uncontested, however. Feminist political geographers, few though they might be, have challenged political geography to engage with scales “coarser and finer” than the state (Hyndman 2001:210). In so doing, England argues, political geography would have a reckoning with “the ongoing implications of the space/place tensions associated with the public–private divide, the politics of difference, body politics, and political subjectivities” (England 2003:613). Though sympathetic, feminist geographers in general have paid far too little attention to the state as a site of power and politics, and England argues in favor of a feminist political geography that does not replicate that oversight.

Recent developments in political geography are somewhat more compatible with feminist concerns, as Dowler and Sharp argue; however, this has largely been attributed to the “cultural turn” rather than an acknowledgment of the “feminist insistence that ‘the personal is political’” (Dowler and Sharp 2001:165). Whatever its impetus, this “turn” has influenced political geography and “broadened the scope of research so highlighting the hidden and mundane acts of power that structure identities, interpolate citizen-subjects and therefore create and recreate political communities and agency” (p. 167). Out of this engagement, they argue, emerged a critical geopolitics which emphasized “the entangled nature of power and knowledge,” attention to which represents “a widening of the realm of the political to include the often mundane worlds of hegemonic culture in the realm of the public but also in ideas and discourses that comprise the public realm” (p. 167).

The analysis by Dowler and Sharp suggests that a feminist approach to political geography would need to be attuned to finer grained scales, such as those of the body, the household and the city (this is, of course, not to imply or suggest that either they, or we, would promote an understanding of these finer scales in isolation from larger scale processes). Many geographers, Dowler and Sharp argue, “are producing work that is primarily concerned with the politicization of the world around us, whether the politicization of leisure, the body, or knowledge about people and places around the world. This has required a reconceptualization of the political – something which political geographers would benefit from an engagement with” (p. 167).

While the extent to which a feminist approach to critical geopolitics will be adopted by the larger political geographic community is unclear, what is clear is the intersections between a feminist geopolitics as conceptualized by Dowler and Sharp and feminist approaches to urban geography. Indeed, urban geography has become an important and promising location for feminist geography, especially as it is concerned with the complexity of the relationship between discourse and materiality, embodied experiences, and the intersection of political economy and cultural politics. Along these lines, a host of themes have emerged through the last 25 years of feminist urban geography. These include an exploration of the ways in which space, place, and scale are socially constructed and implicated in identity construction; an exploration of the possibilities of micropolitics in, through, and against this nexus of social, political, cultural, and (less so) economic practices at the urban scale; and a problematizing, as we saw in political geography, of the concepts of the “public” as well as the “private.”

Urban Studies

Once the dichotomous conception of public and private space is critically interrogated and a greater appreciation for the interrelation of macro- and micro-scale processes is articulated, the relationship between urban processes and international studies becomes clear. As geographers, feminist and otherwise, have argued convincingly, multi-scalar processes function in a mutually constitutive relationship. Thus, the local is the global, and vice versa. And while feminist urban geographic scholarship has focused on social relations and power dynamics unique to urban spaces, they have also used the study of “urban” processes to develop a sophisticated theorization of the micropolitics of the “local” and its relationship to the “global.” Conceptualized as such, feminist urban geography has developed theoretical tools useful, and arguably necessary, for international studies.

Early feminist urban geographic research emphasized the spatial division of labor and the layouts of cities and suburbs as the spatial manifestation of patriarchy and the embodiment of public/private distinctions. The urban scale was understood by early feminist urban geographers as “a key spatial scale through which gender is experienced and constituted, and as a conceptual framework within which social and economic aspects of human life could be analyzed together” (Bondi and Rose 2003:265). Quite early on in the development of feminist urban geography, cities, their built environments, and their spatial arrangements were understood as critical dimensions of the context of women’s everyday lives (see, for example, Hanson and Pratt 1996; Gilbert 1998). Early feminist geographic work showed that women were, as a whole, disadvantaged in cities compared to men. These disadvantages were manifested through the market, public policy, access to services, and violence (Bondi 1998).

By addressing the everyday practices of women in their survival strategies, commuting and work patterns, and visceral experiences of the city, feminist urban geographers were able to critique the capitalist city as sexist. Early socialist-feminist work concentrating on social reproduction explored the public and private spaces of cities and suburbs (Mackenzie and Rose 1983; Bondi and Rose 2003). Emblematic of such work is urbanist, architect, and planner Dolores Hayden, who explored questions of what a non-sexist city would look like (Hayden 1980). In so doing, she problematized spatial arrangements and their implications for women’s experiences of the city. As Bondi and Rose (2003) argue, however, this work privileged the heterosexual nuclear family in its analysis and failed to adequately theorize the possibilities for resistance and liberation that cities could potentially offer women.

An engagement with post-structuralist thought and an interest in understanding difference in relation to structural inequality outlined by early feminist urban geographic research led to an exploration of everyday practices not merely as survival strategies, but as potential sites of politics. This occurred concurrently with the so-called “cultural turn” in the social sciences discussed above. Some (see for example Harvey 1989), have argued that this turn was produced by, and in service to, capital’s changing regime of accumulation, or ways of knowing promoted by the academy that would mask class processes (Hennessy 2000). But feminist urbanists, including urban geographers, have argued, like Dowler and Sharp above, that agency must be attributed to feminists for producing postmodern accounts of the city through intellectual and rigorous theoretical analysis (Deutsche 1991; Morris 1992; Massey 1994). This expansion of the political and exploration of difference occurred largely through an exploration of the three themes mentioned above: the implication of space, place, and scale in intersectional understandings of identity construction and difference; micropolitics and resistance; and troubling the conceptions of public/private space.

Bondi and Rose argue (2003) that the theme of “difference” has “substantially enriched and complicated the agenda(s) and trajectory(ies) of feminist urban studies” (Bondi and Rose 2003:231). The first issue of Gender, Place, and Culture featured an article by Susan Hanson and Geraldine Pratt, which argued that difference is always constructed through lived experience of geography and space (Pratt and Hanson 1994). “This means that axes of identity such as those of race, class, sexuality, age and gender never operate aspatially but are inextricably bound up with the particular spaces within which, and in relation to which, people live” (Bondi and Rose 2003:232).

As such, feminist urban geographers began to study “how gender interacts with other structures or relations of inequality in shaping urban processes and daily life in cities” (Gilbert 1997). Responding to critiques by feminists of color, feminist urban geographers turned their attention to the diversity of women’s experiences in cities. Mirroring the trajectory in much other Western feminist thought, feminist urban geographers began with rather simplistic conceptions of the relationship between race, class, and patriarchy (adopting the dual systems approach in some cases), but this eventually evolved into an intersectional approach to gender, race, class, and sexuality as either an “interlocking matrix of power relations” (Ruddick 1996:138), or as Knopp (1994) argued, mutually constitutive categories.

Feminist urban geography has also paid close attention to the interaction between urban space, the subjectivities of women, and urban politics. In so doing, Gilbert (1997:173) argues, they have shown that “space is not merely a container for social actions, but rather that identity and difference are constructed, fixed, and contested through space and places.” Work by Peake (1993) and Knopp (1994) demonstrate the need for concrete analyses of the relationship between urban space and different experiences of gender, sexuality, class, and race, as opposed to ahistorical and universal conceptions.

Linda Peake’s (1997) study of difference along racial lines of women’s experience of urban poverty was an early move in this direction. Peake asks: “how can race and gender be understood as sites for the mediation of structure and agency in processes of production and reproduction in urban neighborhoods?” (Peake 1997:336). She intentionally looks at these processes at the scale of the neighborhood, as she argues that the emphasis on macro-structural forces in the literature on the feminization of poverty has tended toward “explanations that preset it as a monolithic unity as opposed to a process that results in a variety of experiences of female poverties that differ across place according to localized patterns of family structure, state economies, and city welfare policies” (Peake 1997:336). Her study shows that the racialized nature of economic, political, and social forces exacerbates African American women’s experiences of poverty. “The recognition that women in the same place experience poverty differently reduces the tendency to generalize and essentialize women’s experiences” (Peake 1997:358). Thus, Peake’s work demonstrates the need to interrogate everyday practices at the scale of the household in order to better understand what are often cast as macro-structural processes, such as the feminization of poverty. In this analysis we hear echoes of Dowler and Sharp’s point that women’s lives are profoundly caught up in what are often understood as processes often studied at larger scales (see also Gilbert 1998).

Susan Ruddick’s work explores the relationship between public space, identity, and the social construction of scale. “Social identities,” she argues, “and new meanings of public space are seen to be constructed together” (Ruddick 1996:135). Inspired by work outside of geography that explores the intersectionality of race, gender, class, and sexuality as mutually transforming and gendered, Ruddick uses the case of a stabbing in Toronto to theorize the ways in which public space works with and through these “interlocking systems of oppression” (Ruddick 1996). Through her analysis, she is able to show that public space and the construction of scale is a critical moment in the process of othering and the construction of “insiders” and “outsiders.”

This work on urban geography and identity has also pushed through the separation of urban and rural by showing the ways in which political identities are created through the movement between types of spaces. For example, Askew (1998) explores the ways in which identities for sex workers in Bangkok are created through an oscillation between urban and rural spaces. Migration is a key topic evidenced by Secor’s (2003) examination of identity and gender in relation to Turkish labor migration while Fan (2004) explores the state’s role in constructing identity in the rural household and urban labor market in her study of Chinese migrant workers. Hovorka (2005) continues this work on urban labor markets by looking at the gendered nature of urban food markets in Botswana. In all of these cases, and many more, the understanding of urban geographies is intricately connected to the study of identity.

Evolving understandings of cities as a nexus of social, cultural, and economic reltions enabled feminist urban geographers to rescale their conception of political practice to develop an analysis of the micropolitics of resistance. These micropolitics, they argue, work in and through sociocultural norms to transgress them in “polite” but pointed ways. Mona Domosh provides case studies of “how social norms were embodied in the everyday, public actions of the people on the streets” but, in so doing, shows that these norms “were never completely hegemonic.” By looking at what she calls the “hidden codes of social performance” she conceptualizes the streets of nineteenth-century New York City as “sites of political and social transgressions” (Domosh 1998:210). Drawing on feminist philosophy, Domosh argues that “we need to reconceptualize our understandings of agency so that it incorporates the complexity and situatedness of everyday life” (p. 211). Such a conception, she argues, allows for an understanding of politics not as a collective, unified group action in opposition to a unified opponent, but rather as constructed in and through multiple and complex identities. Conceptualized as such, politics are everywhere, and everyday acts, when grounded in the material world, can be understood as important sites of power relations.

Exploring the material and discursive implications has been a third theme in recent feminist urban geography. This has been a particularly important development for overcoming what has been identified as a polarity in views of urban space as either constraining or enabling for women (Bondi and Rose 2003). These explorations have included an interrogation of both the binary of public/private, as well as a critical assessment of who, exactly, is and is not the “public.” “From this perspective, public space is understood to be constituted by impositions, negotiations and contestations over which groups comprise the public that has access to these spaces, for what purposes these spaces are used, and what visions of society urban public space embraces, enforces, produces and promotes” (Bondi and Rose 2003:235). Feminist geographic work in this regard has seen the social construction of propriety, acceptability, and societal norms as a template within which a micropolitics of the everyday can be enacted and played out. As such, these analyses explode the divide in which city life is understood as either enabling or constraining for women.

An early feminist exploration into the social construction of space worked to expose what was previously understood as an empirical description of the urban/suburban, public/private, male/female dichotomies as ideals rather than reality, and began to investigate the ways in which women negotiated them in their lived experiences of the everyday. Recognizing this as an ideal-type construction does not undermine its power in shaping material lives. Rather, as feminist geographers have convincingly argued, “the notion of separate spheres for women and men has operated as a powerful influence within urban planning, creating an environment that circumscribes women’s use of space and thereby reinforces associations between femininity, privacy, and suburban space” (Bondi 1998).

In her 1998 study, Bondi seeks to construct a knowledge and politics of the city that challenges spaces as public and private, masculine and feminine. Rather than seek to revalorize spaces coded as feminine, as some feminist urban political praxis has suggested, Bondi questions whether holding on to such dualisms can ever result in an empancipatory praxis. Instead, she sets out to trouble the neat dichotomies of public/private space, and inspire a new feminist urban political praxis dedicated to deconstructing and dismantling dichotomies. To address this project empirically, she evaluates contemporary landscapes to examine the extent to which they reinforce gender conceptions of public/private space, or can be (re)interpreted outside of such binaries. In so doing, she develops a scalesensitive practice of reading public and private space that refuses stark distinctions and either/or conceptions. For example, porches or back yards are not either public or private, but public to some degree (family, close friends, etc.), whereas property lines represent a different scale at which public and private spaces are differentiated. The most important implication of this reading practice, she argues, is the ability to understand the neighborhood as exclusive to nonresidential land uses and people unable to buy homes. Though her results are inconclusive, her article challenges the usefulness of maintaining public/private dichotomies in our practices of interpreting landscapes and, in so doing, makes an important contribution to feminist urban geography.

Ruddick also usefully explores the construction of public and private space in her analysis (referenced above) of the media coverage and traveling discourses about public space in the wake of a Toronto murder. In so doing, she demonstrates that “public” spaces are not, as the popular imagination suggests, equally open to all. Valentine (1996) also explores the way in which so called “public” space functions in exclusionary ways and is coded in heterosexual ways. She strategically uses the word “street” instead of “public” to trouble the assumption that public space is equally available to all. Valentine, like Domosh and Cope, argues that these heteronormative spaces open up possibilities for political transgression by lesbians through particular modes of inhabiting the “streets” (Valentine 1996).

As these conceptions of public and private are expanded, there are simultaneous pushes from other parts of the globe to examine the ways in which urban geographic models, developed predominately in the United States and Europe, are ethnocentric. Contemporary feminist scholarship is therefore pushing back on models of public and private spaces. Yasmeen (1996), for example, uses a study of gendered urban food strategies in Bangkok to challenge urban models that are based in historically particular experiences of Western cities. She shows how femininity and masculinity in Bangkok are being reworked in a postmodern scenario specific to their context.

Thus, by bringing various strands of feminist thought to bear on studies of cities and urban space, Bondi and Rose argue that feminist urban geographers have influenced both urban studies and women’s studies (Bondi and Rose 2003). Feminist urban geography has been established as a central concept in thinking about cities and has demonstrated the ways in which cities actively construct gender, and are not mere backdrops. “For example, feminist urban geography has repeatedly shown how difference in local contexts of employment and neighborhood are crucial to understanding the ways that gender identities, performances, and relations are negotiated and reshaped in the domestic sphere” (Bondi and Rose 2003:232).

In addition to conducting specifically feminist analyses of urban micropolitics, feminists have critiqued traditional conceptions of urban politics. Non-feminist urban geographers have suggested an integration of two modes of traditional political economic analysis – the regulation approach and the urban growth machine approach – as a starting point for understanding structure, agency, and urban politics. But as feminists (Jenson 1990; Clark et al. 1995; Gibson-Graham 1996; Gilbert 1999) and postmodernists (Swanstrom 1993) have argued, the introduction of the regulation approach would not be sufficient to address the shortcomings of the urban growth machine thesis. First, the overemphasis on political economy in both the urban growth machine thesis and the regulation approach fails to conceptualize the role of politics in shaping social and economic change. As Jenson (1990) argues, the political economic emphasis of both theories fails to consider the ways in which cultural and political relationships function to uphold, support, and shape economic relations. Further, the overly economistic nature of the urban growth machine thesis makes it incapable of accounting for other modes of stratification in the city, such as race or gender (Clark et al. 1995) and cannot address the experiences and activism of those, such as poor women, who are often not directly engaged with growth machine politics (Gilbert 1999). Gilbert argues that, by conceptualizing agency only in so far as it relates to urban growth machine politics, the thesis cannot account for agency in everyday life. Finally, Swanstrom (1993) and Clarke et al. (1995) make the normative argument that identity politics and the politics of recognition must be considered and taken seriously in any effort to put forth a vision of a just and political economy of cities. Thus, despite a growing awareness of the complex and interlocking relationships between gender, race, class, and sexuality, feminist urban geographers have worked to retain gender as a salient category of analysis, while “examining at a concrete level how different structures and relations of inequality are mutually and spatially constituted” (Gilbert 1999:98). This exploration, Gilbert argues, has often required a reconceptualization of urban theory and politics.

Through grappling with the complex questions of the relationship between urban, or local processes, and macro/global processes, feminist urban geographers have provided a rich theoretical framework and foundation for retheorizing what “counts” as politics. The implications of more traditional spheres of politics and political economy are not ignored or downplayed in this framework, but neither are everyday, localized, and micro practices and processes irrelevant to the “bigger picture.” Rather, feminist urban geographic scholarship has argued that it is in and through these micro-scale processes that what are understood as “macro” social relationships are produced, enforced, and reified.


The contributions of feminist geography in the fields of governance and urban studies are intimately connected to those in development studies. The importance of embodied experience, the fluidity of scale and the constructed nature of place and space are all central to feminist geography’s study of development. Before we are able to discuss specific contributions, however, we must begin with a clarification of the controversial term “development.” For the purposes of this discussion, we turn to McIlwaine, who defines development as “a highly contested term broadly referring to economic, social, and cultural change, particularly among developing countries” (1999a:56). She goes on to speak of the ways in which it has been embedded in the binary and hierarchical relations between first world/third world, developed/developing or underdeveloped. The assumed superiority of Western industrial countries was used as a model for the rest of the world. This formulation of “development” has been challenged from an “anti-development” perspective (Escobar, in McIlwaine 1999a) as well as feminists. Feminist theory and research has been used to critique a variety of tenets of hegemonic development discourses including the marginalization of women, the lack of consideration for reproductive labor, the negation of women’s roles as agents of change, and the essentialist categorizations of women and women’s roles that ignored differences between women and their specific contexts.

In the introduction to their book Different Places, Different Voices: Gender and Development in Africa, Asia and Latin America (1993), Momsen and Kinnaird make clear the degree to which “development” is fundamental to feminist geography at the same time as it is complicated by the geography of feminist geographers. They argue:

From the perspective of African, Asian or Latin American feminist geographers it is clear that, “gender and geography” and “gender and development” are one and the same concerns: a perspective somewhat different from Western geographers’ scholarly appreciation of “gender and development” as a subset of feminist geography. (1993:4)

While feminist geographers’ research and analysis have typically been critical of the masculinist processes of development, there has been a constant struggle to interact with postcolonial discourses without reinscribing the dominant discourses of patriarchal and hegemonic Western scholarship. Appropriately, it is a greater appreciation for the importance of place and access to processes of knowledge production and dissemination that has shaped contemporary feminist geography and thus informed its contribution to development studies.

Feminist geographers’ initial contributions to the study of development in the 1980s followed feminist insights from other disciplines. Economist Ester Boserup, for example, published an influential work in 1970 that provided evidence not only of women’s participation in agriculture, but of their greater contribution than men to combined farming labor – a gap that she showed to be increasing. This, plus the evidence that women’s working days were lengthening, made women and women’s work a legitimate focus of development theory and practice. Although Boserup’s work has been critiqued for ignoring class structures and processes of capital accumulation (e.g. Beneria 1995) and encouraging women to join the workforce rather than explore the connections between productive and reproductive labor (Afonja 1981), she did succeed, in conjunction with the work of others such as Barbara Roger’s The Domestication of Women (1981), in getting women and gender on the development agenda. Women were championed as a category that warranted study – an idea novel in the developmental discourses that had previously held them as either identical to men or impediments to development (Momsen and Kinnaird 1993).

Feminist geographers entered into these discussions by identifying the previously ignored gendered and spatialized inequalities inherent in the masculinist development policies. Research focused on the gendered nature of resource distribution, livelihood rights and responsibilities, and other sociospatial disparities (see Momsen and Townsend 1987; Brydon and Chant 1989; Carney and Watts 1990; Momsen 1991; Momsen and Kinnaird 1993). At the same time that “women” as a category was novel to the broader developmental discourses, there was a push within feminist geography to make sure that place was prioritized. There were calls for the regional study of women so as to avoid universalistic claims that denied the place-based specificity of the experience of women around the world (Brydon and Chant 1989; Townsend 1991).

Momsen and Kinnaird (1993) sought to begin answering this call by compiling research by an international collection of feminist geographers about regions historically within the British Commonwealth. In so doing, they not only highlighted the colonial history of the contemporary development discourse, they also illustrated diversity of regional development and its research. For example, geographical research on gender and development in Africa tended to focus on questions of gender and the environment such as women’s roles in agriculture, environmental resource utilization and management, demography, and employment of women (Ardayfio-Schandorf 1993). In South Asia, the focus was on “identifying patterns of literacy, work participation, fertility, sex rations and migration” (Raju 1993:78). In Latin America, on the other hand, even though there was a strong presence of women in geography departments, there was not a significant amount of work done on gender. Momsen attributes this to “geography’s strategic link with the military in many Latin American states and the political barriers to the introduction of radical ideas in universities until recently” (1993:227).

Feminist geographers, along with researchers and activists in other fields, began documenting the gendered disparities of development to attract attention to the indicated areas where policy interventions were needed (Ardayfio-Schandorf 1993). As findings on the gendered disparities of development mounted, feminist activists increased pressure on policy makers to begin looking seriously at “the gender question.” Dominant development discourses shifted in the mid-1990s to incorporate gender mainstreaming, the idea that a gender perspective should be taken in the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of policies and programs (United Nations 1997).

Even before the official move to gender mainstreaming by the UN and other institutions of development, there were concerns about the ways in which UN style development statistics hampered geographic research and feminist agendas. Mohanty (1991), for example, argued that while such statistics could be useful, they constructed gender differences as a division between women and men. At a time when Butler’s (1990) contributions to feminist theory were questioning the very basis of gender differences, UN style development statistics made rendering an analysis of the particulars of gender in a locality from both contemporary and historical perspectives very difficult (Momsen and Kinnaird 1993:5). It was the necessity of this analysis of “particulars of locality” and the ways in which they interacted with contemporary and historical structures and discourses at multiple scales that would push feminist geography forward in the next decade.

In the remainder of this section, we focus on recent work by feminist geographers that exhibit their uses of the key geographic tools/concepts discussed throughout this essay such as scale, spatial networks of relations, space and place, as well as the links between nature and society. It is through the combination of these analytic tools/concepts and feminist theory that feminist geographers have brought new light to the ways in which processes of development interact with other multiscalar discourses to create disparities in the lived experiences of women and men around the world. Globalization, migration, global economy, environmental praxis, neoliberalism, and practices of resistance are all areas that have been of special interest to feminist geographers studying development. However, because of the tendency for geographers to seek the spatial and scalar relationships between a multitude of processes, we have chosen not to create distinct categories for discussion but, rather, to show the ways in which these concepts and studies weave together.

While the ubiquitous use of the terms “local” and “global” in development discourses brings attention to the importance of scale, it also serves to separate the processes and discourses that occur at these scales. As stated at the beginning of this essay, feminist geographers have focused on the flexible, constructed, and multilayered nature of scales to investigate complex processes such as those at work in development programs and studies. Through her analysis of what she calls “the global assembly line,” for example, Cravey (2005) exposes the socially constructed nature of geographic scales. The fact that production is thought of as a global process while social reproduction is increasingly localized exposes neoliberal constructions of scale that separate production and reproduction.

Maintaining this division of scales, the development institution has acknowledged the importance of women through their implementation of gender mainstreaming, but these policies are focused on local practices and not their connections with larger scales. Summarizing critiques of gender mainstreaming, George (2007) acknowledges a growing concern not only with the wide variety of forms of gender mainstreaming (Walby 2005) and the difficulties of implementing them (Moser 2005), but also with “the ways in which a superficial application might support neoliberal governance over social transformation or reproduce pre-existing gender inequalities if deployed in a watered-down, de-politicized fashion” (Angeles 2003; Cornwall 2003, in George 2007:608). As many authors have pointed out (e.g. Elias and Carney 2005; Nagar and Swarr 2005; Raju 2005), a major problem with women in development schemes that create separate spaces for the empowerment of women is that they do not address the systematic disempowerment of women that occurs outside of these spaces through processes working at various scales. It is debated whether the alternative practices in such spaces “push-out” on the larger community (Pigg 1992) or tend to reinforce traditional roles due to their inability to transform interpersonal relationships with those not involved in the activities of the development spaces (Raju 2005:293).

By focusing on women instead of gender, these schemes tend to ignore the context of poverty in which they are operating, leading to a propensity for gender conflict whereby women’s initiatives are usurped by men and/or the workload of women is increased (Elias and Carney 2005:375). Clearly, not all such projects are the same, but in order to be successful, ways must be found to address men without jeopardizing women’s interests (for suggestions, see Raju and Leonard 2000; Nagar and Raju 2003). Additionally, we must weave together a sensitivity to the specifics of location as well as “the creative and often contradictory place-based strategies of local and national organizations, [...] the impact of global institutional strategies, and critiques emerging from the margins of the global ‘south’” (Nagar and Swarr 2005:293).

In her work on HIV/AIDS in Africa, Agot (2005) brings us back to the body in development and how the local and global geographies of medicine and epidemiology interact in productive and counterproductive topographies of health and disease. Examining how local and global discourses interact in specific locales and on specific bodies is essential for “teasing out the complex effects of health policy interventions on a global scale” (Agot 2005:375). These arguments build upon previous work by Craddock (2000) which argues that the assessment of vulnerability and the creation of effective disease prevention strategies depend upon a combination of structural and discursive analysis in order to understand the social, economic, political, and cultural contexts of HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Alison Jaggar (2003) connects these arguments to international economic policies through her work showing how structural adjustment and debt in the global South have exacerbated the deterioration of women’s health.

Under the neoliberal regime, responsibility for social welfare development programs, such as healthcare, is increasingly falling upon civil society and, in particular, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), as state-supported programs have been cut back if not entirely discontinued. NGOs, however, have come under increasing scrutiny in the past decade (see McIlwaine 1998; Townsend and Townsend 2004; McIlwaine 2007; Ruwanpura 2007). There are many international NGOs that are based in “developed” countries and have the intention of aiding “developing” nations. The colonial roots of this geography of aid are undeniable. Uncritical development discourses herald NGOs as facilitators of social transformation through their position between the state and the local population. Ruwanpura (2007) and others dispute this claim, arguing instead that there are many of these NGOs that “primarily execute development-oriented projects without considering the ethno-nationalist and gender politics [of development] are culpable of the violence of development” (2007:317).

The violence of development is also visible in the processes of capital accumulation and the associated increases in inequality between the rich and the poor. The study of globalization by feminist political economists is showing how it is “‘remapping’ political and social relations creating new networks and connections in contradictory and unequal ways” (Cohen and Brodie 2007). Geographers have built upon this work by economists to show how these networks and connections are spatialized and embedded in other processes. For example, by studying the interconnectedness of spatial practices, economic strategies and gendered symbols of status, Rankin (2003) shows how the “best practices” in contemporary economic development planning maintain gendered ideologies that structure material opportunities differentially for men and women. This connection between economic practices, ideology, and lived experience is particularly striking in Wright’s (2006) investigation into the life of the maquiladoras on the US/Mexico border, where capitalist and patriarchal ideologies converge to create the myth of disposable women that condones the exploitation and murder of women. Wright’s work is part of a larger literature exploring the feminization of labor under neoliberal capitalism (Pratt 1988; Lawson 1995; Gibson-Graham 2005).

Starting from the lives and efforts of women in the shanty towns around Lima, Peru, Hays-Mitchell (2002) explores the gendered and spatialized impact of neoliberal structural adjustment programs in Latin America. She shows not only how this neoliberal reform is changing women’s status in society, but also the ways in which they are actively working to mitigate the negative effects of these changes through local strategies such as community kitchens and village banks. Localized resistance to hegemonic global economic discourses exposes the relationships between embodied material experiences, ideologies, and shifting networks of connections that create gender inequalities as well as the possibilities for action and social change.

The movement of documented and undocumented people in the context of neoliberal globalization has been of particular interest to feminist geographers. Migrant workers must contend with ideologies and material realities that construct their lives in their homeland (e.g. Gibson et al. 2001) and in their current temporary or permanent home (e.g. Tyner 1994; Pratt 2005). By showing how the motivations for and experiences of migration are gendered, feminist geographers have been able to explore the constraints and opportunities of new geographies of connection and networks of transnationalism that are occurring through the labor-oriented migration of people around the world (Bailey et al. 2002; Silvey 2005).

It is impossible to speak of the contributions of feminist geography in development studies without including the work of feminist political ecology. From the social sciences to policy circles to grassroots groups, feminist political ecology has reshaped the ways people think about gender, development and the environment (Nelson and Seager 2005). It has challenged the nature/culture binary through a framework that examines the “dialectic relationships between social and power relations, cultural beliefs and practices and ecological processes” (Nightingale 2003:527). By connecting societal and ecological processes, feminist political ecology has shown the ways in which gender inequalities are inscribed in the landscape and reinforced through political and cultural means (Rocheleau 1996a). These inequalities are embodied through livelihoods, activities, and the everyday practices of men and women around the world (e.g. Nightingale 2006). The use of resources, and the ways in which access to those resources are determined, is a key focus of political ecology (e.g. O’Reilly 2006; Davidson and Stratford 2007). By examining how these embodied practices interact with political and ecological processes at multiple scales, new areas of opportunity for resistance and social change have been identified to challenge destructive and constraining dominant discourses and practices (for examples, see Rocheleau 1996a).

Finally, we return to the conception of scale presented by Herod and Wright (2002) earlier in this essay. The ability to conceive of scales as non-hierarchical, malleable, and constantly shifting allows for the creative identification of sites of agency for the types of social change advocated by feminists. Through an examination of transnational development collaborations between variously scaled and sited organizations, Angeles (2003) argues that the blurring of lines between global and local, state and civil, can lead simultaneously to better understandings as well as new tensions. These potentialities can be harnessed for social change by looking at the contradictions between discourses and the ways in which these discourses and their associated embodied practices move through space (e.g. Katz 1991; Gibson et al. 2001; Pratt 2004; 2005). It is here that we find sites for alliances and social change that do not romanticize place (the local) but, rather, are situated in a politics of space and spatial relations that provide the opportunity for social transformation (Massey 2005).

Future Directions

Throughout this essay, we have sought to demonstrate not only the breadth of feminist geography’s contributions to international studies but also the unevenness of the incorporation of feminist critiques into the subdisciplines of geography. Development and urban studies within geography, as we have shown, are much more engaged with contemporary feminist critiques than political geography. The challenge, as we see it, is to mobilize the strong feminisms present in some subdisciplines to enhance the feminist critiques in the subdisciplines that are still predominantly masculinist.

For this final section, we wish to continue the idea of themes as a way of understanding how feminist geography can contribute to international studies in the future. Current work being done in the areas of globalization, militarism, and environmental justice by feminist geographers may lead to new avenues for the work in international studies. We believe there is significant potential in these and many other research agendas to further unravel the connections between place, space and scale, and the manifestations and justifications of power relations.

In this final section, we have chosen to focus on one particular area of study that brings us back to how we understand the public and private, the politics of care. In her 2007 presidential address to the Association of American Geographers, Victoria Lawson (2007) continued the feminist tradition of complicating our understandings of public and private space when she called for geographers to focus their attention on the politics of care both in the world at large and in their own research. She argues that the neoliberal shift in political and economic structures is creating new geographies of poverty and inequality around the world, which has redefined who needs care and how it is provided. She builds on Jaggar’s (2003) argument that neoliberal globalization has exacerbated women’s poverty, making them more vulnerable to health concerns while simultaneously making them responsible for social welfare as state-supported programs are discontinued. Just as Jaggar argues that the global South’s heavy burden of debts is not morally binding due to the coercive historical conditions under which the debts were created, Lawson (2007) challenges the TINA (there is no alternative) claim of classical economics by focusing on a critical ethics of care and responsibility. She cites Gibson-Graham’s (2005) work on alternative economic practices that have been devalued in postcolonial Philippines and Susan Smith’s (2005) reframing of market relations as ways of creating a practiced and embodied ethics of care. Through these examples, she argues that there are alternatives and that we must work to identify and implement them through a critical ethics of care and responsibility.

Care ethics, according to Lawson’s vision, is about a new way of theorizing politics that is “concerned with structuring relationships in ways that enhance mutuality and well-being” (Staeheli and Lawson 2005). It is in this conception of geographies of care and responsibility and the ways in which it views care as multisited (in public institutions and personal networks) and multiscalar that we see the future of feminist geography’s contributions to international studies. While some have argued that care ethics is only applicable on the local, Lawson does not consider the idea of distance as a constraining factor to an ethics of care. She addresses the critiques that care ethics is only applicable for the “local” by drawing upon Massey’s geographies of responsibility (Massey 2004; 2005). Massey argues that the spatiality of our relations (geographies of connection as well as of difference and inequality) is “the product of ‘actively and continually practiced social relations’ occurring now, simultaneously at home and afar” (Massey 2000, in Lawson 2007). It is therefore necessary to ground an ethics of care in a nonlinear representation of scale and public and private space that allows for a multitude of networks and flexible connections around the world.

We believe that Lawson’s vision of new geographies of care and responsibility offers useful directions for future research and action in the international studies of governance, and urban and rural development. By tying together research in urban, political, development, and nature and society subfields, care ethics provides a way through which feminist geographers can strengthen feminist critiques across the subdisciplines of geography as well as enhance their contributions to international studies through a focus on the ways in which scaled relations, uneven geographies of connection, and spatial processes shape how we care and are cared for as well as diverse geographies of responsibility.


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Links to Digital Materials

Gendersite: Gender and the Built Environment Database. At, accessed Jul. 2009. “Gendersite provides a route to all the information needed to gain a better understanding of gender issues in the built environment. The site lists books, bibliographies, broadcasts, conference papers, journals, reports, unpublished PhDs and more.”

Gender in Geography Bibliography. At, accessed Jul. 2009. This bibliography is an ongoing cooperative effort of members of the Discussion List for Feminism in Geography.