Women's Right to the City

Women's Right to the City

How Women are Changing Cities, and Cities are Changing Women

By Kate Nelischer

A quiet scene in the 2006 French film Paris, Je T’aime follows the morning routine of a young immigrant woman. She wakes before the sun rises to drop her baby off at a dreary daycare, whispering a Spanish lullaby before she leaves to travel across the city on multiple trains and buses to her job as a nanny in an affluent central arrondissement. When she arrives at the sprawling apartment of her employers, she enters their nursery and sings the same Spanish lullaby to their child. The heart-wrenching scene illustrates the reality of many women’s daily lives in cities. It speaks to the promise of urban prosperity that attracts immigrant women, the challenges they face in accessing opportunities, and their common relegation to low paying service and care jobs. It also depicts the growing inequality between women based on class and race, the lack of sufficient social services (such as universal daycare) to support working women, and the increasing unaffordability of the inner city that forces low-earning women to live in distant suburbs that are poorly served by transit. The city is a place of both opportunity and oppression for women as urbanization offers new freedoms and new challenges.

Over 50% of the world’s population lives in cities and 70% of worldwide gross domestic product comes from cities—and both figures are growing. (1) As cities are transforming in the postindustrial age, so are the women who live in them. There are now more young women in U.S. cities than young men, the number of women of all ages in cities around the world is growing, and the number of households headed by women in cities is increasing. (2) These changes are happening alongside the feminization of the labour market. (3) Women in North America are also graduating from university at higher rates, and there is a corresponding delay of marriage and motherhood for women in cities. (4) Added up, these factors should mean that women have a competitive edge in the city—the female advantage. Hanna Rosin details this advantage in The End of Men: And the Rise of Women and predicts a resulting fall of patriarchy. However, urban gender inequalities persist.

In an age when cities are growing, and prospering, largely because of women’s roles in paid and unpaid work, women themselves aren’t necessarily benefiting from this prosperity. “Women are benefitting less from agglomeration even as they are advantageously endowed with the skills rewarded in agglomeration,” notes economics professor Marigee Bacolod. (5) The urban feminist ideal views the city as liberating for women, as offering greater employment, social, and cultural opportunities and greater access to services (including childcare) that allow for easier management of work and home responsibilities.  But as we will see, that is not the current reality. Women are shaping cities, but cities are also shaping women—for better and for worse.


Women cross the street in New York City. Photograph by Christopher Burns ( Unsplash )

Women cross the street in New York City. Photograph by Christopher Burns (Unsplash)

Urban Gender Inequality

Today's urban growth and prosperity is also marked by increasing urban inequality, including in income, housing, and citizenship—all of which are felt more deeply by women than by men. Although more women in cities are employed, they more often fulfill the low-paying jobs that support the lives of highly paid workers in professional and managerial jobs, as shown in the film scene described above. Approximately 65% of service-sector employees are women, and more than 45% of working Canadian women are employed in low-paying service occupations, such as retail sales. (6) Women across sectors continue to experience the gender pay gap, which is heightened for women of colour. Women also provide the majority of unpaid reproductive labour, including caregiving to children and elderly family members and household work, when combined with paid employment means women are increasingly responsible for double workloads. London School of Economics professor Sylvia Chant calls this the “feminization of responsibility,” building on the “feminization of poverty” which identifies women as more deeply affected by growing economic disparity than men. (7)

Along with gender inequality, there are also inequalities between women in cities. Opportunities for greater prosperity in the postindustrial city are only available to some women, while others are marginalized based on race, class, education, sexuality, and other factors. An intersectional lens is necessary to understand how women have been theorized differently within the city and how their experiences in the city vary. As noted earlier, cities are conceptualized as emancipatory for women. Connected and mixed-use neighbourhoods make services, transit, and workplaces more easily accessible from home, allowing women to more easily balance work within and outside of the home. Additionally, dense neighbourhoods with animated retail on ground floors allow for greater casual street surveillance, making women feel safer and more confident in public spaces. Within this vision, urbanism and feminism are correlated. However, with the increasing unaffordability of cities, only wealthy women are able to fully benefit from increased density and connectedness of downtown neighbourhoods. Poorer women who are most in need of these supports to manage childcare, work, and other aspects of their lives are restricted from accessing them.

Within the existing neoliberal structure of urban competition and minimized social services, women’s professional gains can also contribute to the exploitation of other women. As more women in cities pursue knowledge-based careers, the demand increases for low-paid service and care workers to fulfill the social reproductive responsibilities that professional women no longer have time for or choose to outsource. In this way, the rise of women in urban labour markets coincides with growing economic and social disparity among women. This reality stems from women’s historic responsibility for social reproductive work, a responsibility that remains even as more and more women work outside the home. When a woman makes a decision to hire service and care workers, she is seen as solving a problem she created by choosing to work outside the home. When speaking of her novel Lullaby, which explores relationships between working mothers and nannies, French author Leila Slimani uses the analogy of Russian nesting dolls to describe the responsibility for social reproductive work that is passed from women to women—and more accurately, from wealthier women to poorer (and often immigrant) women: “Inside a woman you have another woman, and then another woman.” (8) This deflects attention away from a larger societal responsibility to provide services and care that enable both women and men to manage work and domestic life and to facilitate economic redistribution to minimize income inequality.

Both gender inequalities and inequalities between women appear differently in different cities. While postindustrial cities have lower gender inequality than cities with mainly manufacturing economies, they also have higher inequality between low- and high-earning women. Therefore, the supposed female advantage associated with women’s growing prominence in the knowledge economy is conditional upon geography. This spatial lens for understanding women’s experiences across cities is especially relevant today as cities grow, shrink, and are revitalized. It is also relevant to considering the impacts of various urban environments on women’s lives.


Women in Public Space

“New York City is, like most cities, a manscape,” writes author Rebecca Solnit in Nonstop Metropolis as she considers some of the daily social and spatial reminders that women do not enjoy the same freedoms as men in the city. “Walking down the city streets, young women get harassed in ways that tell them that this is not their world, their city, their street; that their freedom of movement and association is liable to be undermined at any time; and that a lot of strangers expect obedience and attention from them."(9) (see image 2)

Women in shorts cause car to “crash” into pole, Toronto, 1937. Photograph by Alexandra Studio

Women in shorts cause car to “crash” into pole, Toronto, 1937. Photograph by Alexandra Studio

The first Slut Walk protest in Toronto, April 2, 2011. Photograph by Anton Bielousov

The first Slut Walk protest in Toronto, April 2, 2011. Photograph by Anton Bielousov

Public space is a contested, gendered, and racialized zone. As such, it is often a site of protest. Marches led by the suffrage, civil rights, and LGBTQ movements, and more recently Take Back the Night, SlutWalks, and Black Lives Matter, make political statements through the occupation of public space by those who are often excluded from it (see image 3). The confinement of women to the domestic sphere is a vestige of the exclusionary nature of the “public” realm dating back to the Athenian agora. A central public space and market in the Greek capitol, the agora was meant to be accessible to all citizens as a site of conversation and decision-making. However, women, slaves, and immigrants did not qualify as citizens and so they were barred from this space. Voting rights in Canada were originally reserved for property owning men, and even though some women were allowed to own (but not sell) property beginning in 1859, this still did not grant them voting rights. It wasn’t until 1918 that women gained the vote across the country with the Women’s Franchise Act, and First Nations women were not enfranchised until 1960, the last of a series of amendments that extended voting rights towards previously excluded groups including Asian and Indigenous voters. (10) Today, the urban built environment is still largely designed and programmed to uphold traditional masculine dominance by failing to facilitate women’s many different roles at work and at home. For example, women are far more likely than men to engage in “trip chaining,” meaning visiting multiple locations instead of commuting solely to and from work in order to meet caring responsibilities (such as dropping children off at school, shopping for groceries, etc., see images 4 and 5). (11) Social services and urban policies are vital to supporting women’s lives in the city, but designing public spaces to accommodate women’s different needs and travel patterns is also essential. 


Child in stroller on Bombardier train. Photograph by Oran Viriyincy

Child in stroller on Bombardier train. Photograph by Oran Viriyincy

Woman on subway escalator, New York City. Photography by Steven Pisano

Woman on subway escalator, New York City. Photography by Steven Pisano

Violence and fear of violence in public spaces is also highly gendered and racialized. Like many groups theorized as “others” in the city, women are subjected to more harassment in the city’s public spaces, and many feel especially vulnerable at night. In order to address violence and the fear of violence, some cities have begun dedicating spaces for women-only, such as Tokyo has done with specific subway cars (see image 6). Additionally, public spaces are increasingly under surveillance by police and private corporations. This trend is shaping the physical and social city and visible surveillance (such as CCTV) has become a key symbol of urban regeneration as it is conceived as a marker of safety. But technology tends to depict women as either victims or subjects—as needing protection through surveillance, or as a subject to be watched. Because women are more often the subjects of surveillance than in positions to oversee surveillance, CCTV can be understood as an extension of the male gaze. Women are also the most common victims of stalking, the practice of which is aided by new digital surveillance tools and the growing “internet of things.” Additionally, digital surveillance and CCTV have not proven to be effective in reducing gender-based violence, such as sexual harassment and verbal assault. Due to these combined factors, it is easy to understand why many women feel a greater sense of discomfort with surveillance in public spaces rather than feeling protected by it. Jasminah Beebeejaun from the Bartlett School of Planning connects gendered surveillance with urban planning practice, admonishing the profession’s regulation of women’s lives in the city: “The securitization of the city is in turn a process of masculinization with a focus on technological fixes and militarization of the city […] this focus on securitization of the city within popular discourse and policy has negative impacts upon women.”(12)


Women’s car on the Keio Line at Shinjuku Station, Tokyo. Wiki commons

Women’s car on the Keio Line at Shinjuku Station, Tokyo. Wiki commons


Women and Gentrification

Women’s fear of public space is often cited by real estate developers as justification for gentrification. Toronto’s condominium boom started in the mid-1990s and continues today; between 2009 and 2012, 56,444 new condo units were developed within the city. A 2012 Globe and Mail headline read “Single ladies hooking up with homes.”(13) A 2013 article in the same newspaper titled “How single women—and what they want—are shaping the new housing market” noted that Toronto’s largest condo developer, Tridel, reported that one-third of all new units produced by the company were purchased by single women. (14) The real estate sector has dubbed the growing number of single women buyers the “pink mortgage” sector. (15) These and other media reports have covered how developers are now targeting single women through design decisions and marketing campaigns. Mount Allison University professor Leslie Kern, whose research addresses this trend in the housing market, argues that developers capitalize on women’s fears of the city and commodify safety by building exclusive condos to provide women with access to the heart of the city, but within a controlled environment. (16) Condos in gentrifying downtown neighbourhoods marketed to women prioritize the new and privileged inhabitants by adding security features to keep “others" out (the same “others” that are often responsible for developing the culture of the neighbourhoods that initially attracted the developers and buyers). The new condos provide protected spaces for some women in the city while further stigmatizing and restricting marginalized others.

But women aren't only the consumers of gentrification, they are also active gentrifiers themselves.  Damaris Rose's 1989 study of gentrification in Montreal revealed that professional women in the public sector were drawn to inner-city neighbourhoods by lower housing prices, greater proximity between home and work to support their roles as mothers and caregivers, and a tendency of these neighbourhoods to be more accepting of alternative lifestyles (such as women living alone, or single mothers). (17) Thus these women led the charge in gentrifying downtown Montreal neighbourhoods through their desire to solve some of the gendered challenges they faced in the city. Going further to support a gendered understanding of gentrification, Alan Warde suggests that gentrification actually originates in gender and offers five gendered characteristics of gentrification to support this theory: there are more women, more single and young women, more professional women, more dual earner households (both with and without children), and more delays of marriage and childbearing in gentrifying neighbourhoods. (18) Looking at these attributes, gentrification can be viewed as liberating for women, just as the larger city can be. However, this ignores the fact that gentrification is very closely tied to wealth, power, and race.

The benefits that wealthy women enjoy in gentrified downtown neighbourhoods—private property ownership, proximity to services and amenities, and access to transit and jobs—are not equally available to all women. Gentrification and the corresponding increases in housing prices often result in the exclusion of poor and racialized women from the neighbourhoods they once called home, leaving them no option but to move to outer neighbourhoods that are less dense, less connected, and less safe. This shift of poorer communities from inner-city neighbourhoods to suburban areas has redefined women’s suburban entrapment, a theory initially developed to describe the reinforcement of traditional gender roles after the Second World War when dispersed suburbanism ran rampant and women were encouraged to return back to domestic duties. Today, that entrapment is increasingly structured by income inequality rather than social norms. During a 2010 study of walkability in Toronto’s suburban tower neighbourhoods, the University of Toronto’s Paul Hess and Jane Farrow found that low rates of car ownership amongst residents of these communities (many of whom are new immigrants) means that they rely on walking and transit, which is often sparse and unreliable in these neighbourhoods. (19) Women’s mobility in particular is affected as a minority of female respondents reported holding driver’s licenses.


The Right to the City for Women

For French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, the right to the city is achieved by living in the city and having access to two components of everyday life: the right to use urban space, and the right to create it. The right to create stems from Lefebvre’s understanding of cities as oeuvres that all citizens contribute to. Peter Marcuse expands Lefebvre’s definition to highlight the struggle that is inherent to the right to the city, noting that it is “for those who do not now have it."(20) As evidenced through the gender pay gap, more women in low-paying service sector jobs, higher rates of sexual harassment, and restricted mobility in the city, among other inequities explored in this article, women do not now have it.

Women are excluded from the right to the city, and therefore from various forms of citizenship. Condo advertisements often depict images of self-sufficient urban career women accessing local shops, restaurants, and gyms as the ideal urban condo owners. These images reinforce connections between private property, wealth, and the right to the city, further entrenching the relationship between women’s consumerism and their citizenship. By linking private property ownership to citizenship, they suggest that urban living enables women’s freedom—but only if they can afford it.

Women may not currently have the right to the city—but there may be opportunity to gain it. As women’s participation in the labour market grows, they are in increasingly influential positions to demand a feminist approach to economic redistribution, enhanced social services, and more thoughtful design of public space. The right to the city for women must be achieved collectively. Aside from the intersectional feminist argument for women with varying interests to act together to achieve justice, minimizing inequality is also more economically sustainable, as noted in Richard Florida’s newest book The New Urban Crisis. Renowned planning theorist David Harvey argues that the right to the city can only be achieved through collective action because it is a human right, and all human rights require collective action. Women’s rights (including women’s right to the city) are human rights, and thus also require collective action by women united as a gender.

The right to the city is also defined by greater powers for the city and its citizens to create their own oeuvre. With urbanization comes sector clustering, the growing importance of cities within international markets, and the deepening of unique and defining characteristics of cities, including the different faces of inequality that persist in different regions. Moreover, as seen in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, cities are increasingly ideologically disconnected from their surrounding regions. This results in a more relevant definition of citizenship as linked to the city instead of the nation or region. Cities are becoming entities unto themselves and should be able to put in place the policies and programs that respond to their local populations and economies, including their unique income, gender, and racial inequalities. Greater power for cities presents opportunities to reframe governance structures and redistribute wealth, and thus allows cities to redefine their own prosperity. The concurrent rise of women’s influence and the powers of municipal governments presents the opportunity to create more just and feminist cities.


The New Urban Feminist Ideal

The UN-Habitat's 2013 State of Women in Cities report calls for a broader characterization of prosperity beyond wealth to reflect the right to the city for everyone, encompassing equity, equality, participation, productivity, infrastructure development, quality of life, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. In The New Urban Crisis, Florida proposes a series of solutions for urban inequality, including reinvesting in urban schools, adjusting land use regulations, introducing land value taxes, investing in transit, raising the minimum wage, and turning service jobs into middle-class work, among others. (21) Florida does not identify the gendered characteristics of these inequalities or the possible gendered outcomes of his proposed solutions, but based on the fact that more women are in low-paying jobs, women are the majority transit users, and women are the minority landowners, it follows that these proposals may have the potential to help minimize gender inequality in addition to economic inequality. Other scholars have proposed complete economic restructuring and redistribution, the overthrowing of neoliberalism, and new policies for recognizing diversity. All of the solutions outlined here require government leadership, citizen action, and private enterprise involvement. They all show potential to implement meaningful change, which could be heightened when multiple solutions are applied. Greater autonomy of cities to implement their own policies and plans is at the root of many solutions to urban economic and gender inequality. Perhaps, then, advocacy work should focus on minimizing the nation-state and empowering the city?

Although women are changing cities for the better, we have seen that they are still largely prevented from changing their own circumstances due to the deep economic and gender inequality in cities and the physical urban inadequacies that hinder women’s full use and enjoyment of public space. “Women’s contributions to economic growth and recovery are often made possible precisely because of their marginalized position in the economy” notes the 2016 Making Women Count report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. (22) Women are good for urban economic growth, but urban economic growth is not necessarily good for women—and certainly not good for all women.

Women will not have the right to the city until their contributions to the urban prosperity also result in contributions to their own prosperity. A new urban feminist ideal must include a vision of prosperity for all women.


(1) UN-Habitat. State of Women in Cities 2012-2013: Gender and the Prosperity of Cities.. Nairobi, Kenya: 2013.

(2) Lena Edlund, “Sex and the City,” Journal of Economics 107, no. 1 (2005): 25–44.

(3) Chinhui Juhn and Simon Potter, “Changes in Labor Force Participation in the United States,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 20, no. 3 (2006): 27–46.

(4) Statistics Canada, “Portrait of Canada’s Labour Force,” 2011, accessed January 28, 2018, http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-012-x/99-012-x2011002-eng.cfm#a5; Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016).

(5) Marigee Bacolod,“Skills, the gender wage gap, and cities,” Journal of Regional Science 00, no.0 (2016): 1–29.

(6) Richard Florida, “Race, Gender, and the Creative Class,” CityLab, June 2012, accessed November 9, 2017, https://www.citylab.com/life/2012/06/race-gender-and-creative-class/2225/; Statistics Canada. .Portrait of Canada’s Labour Force: National Household Survey 2011. Statistics Canada Catalogue No. 99-012-X2011002. Ottawa, Ontario: 2013.

(7) Sylvia Chant, “Re-thinking the ‘Feminization of Poverty’ in Relation to Aggregate Gender Indices,” Journal of Human Development 7, no. 2 (2006): 201–220.

(8) Leila Slimani, interview on The High Low Podcast, hosted by Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes, January 17, 2018.

(9) Rebecca Solnit, “City of Women,” The New Yorker, October 11, 2016, accessed October 12, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/city-of-women.

(10) The Federal Women’s Franchise Act passed in 1918, granting Canadian women over 21 the same voting rights as Canadian men. It was not until Quebec amended its legislation in 1940 that all provinces allowed women to vote in provincial elections. However, restrictions on the rights of Asian and Indigenous Canadians meant that women (as well as men) in these groups were excluded from these changes. The enfranchisement of Japanese Canadians in 1948 extended voting rights to all members of the former group. As for the latter, Inuit enfranchisement in 1950, followed by the uncoupling of voting rights from status as defined under the Indian Act in 1960, ended restrictions on Indigenous suffrage. The 1958 Canadian Bill of Human Rights emphasized equal rights for all Canadians, and in response amendments were made to the Canadian Elections Act in 1960 to grant all citizens the right to vote. The 1962 elections were the first to actively extend these rights by providing voting infrastructure to Arctic communities.

(11) Martha Bianco and Catherine Lawson, “Trip Chaining, Childcare, and Personal Safety,” Women’s Travel Issues, Proceedings from the Second National Conference, U.S. Department of Transportation, (1996): 124–142

(12) Yasmeen Beebeejaun, “Making safer places: Gender and the right to the city,” Security Journal 22, (2009): 219–229.

(13) Kerry Gold, “Single ladies hooking up with homes,” The Globe and Mail, June 8, 2012, accessed November 6, 2016, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/real-estate/single-ladies-hooking-up-with-homes/article4243449/.

(14) Dave McGinn, “How single women—and what they want—are shaping  the new housing market,” The Globe and Mail, January 16, 2013, accessed November 1, 2016, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/real-estate/how-single-women-and-what-they-want-are-shaping-the-new-housing-market/article7442398/.

(15) Ephraim Vecina, “Single women emerging as a potent market force,” Mortgage Broker News, May 9, 2015, accessed November 1 2016, http://www.mortgagebrokernews.ca/news/single-women-emerging-as-a-potent-market-force-207011.aspx.

(16) Leslie Kern, Sex and the Revitalized City (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).

(17) Demaris Rose, “A feminist perspective of employment restructure and gentrification: the case of Montreal,” in The Power of Geography: How Territory Shapes Social Life, Jennifer Wolch and Michael Dear, eds.  (New York: Routledge, 1989), 118–135.

(18) Alan Warde, "Gentrification as Consumption: Issues of Class and Gender," Environment and Planning 9, no.2 (1991): 223–232.

(19) Paul Hess and Jane Farrow. Toronto Community Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Walkability in Toronto’s High-Rise Neighbourhoods,. Toronto, Ontario: 2010.

(20) Peter Marcuse, “From Critical Urban Theory to the Right to the City,” City 13, no. 2 (2009): 185–197.

(21) Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis (New York: Basic Books, 2017).

(22) Kate McInturff and Brittany Lambert. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Oxfam Canada. Making Women Count: The unequal economics of women’s work, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Oxfam Canada. Ottawa, Ontario: 2016.