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Feminist Geography

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Feminist Geography
Works Cited Not Included

Since its conception, geography has been involved in the development
of races and genders, mapping the boundaries that separate and exclude
the world of privilege from the other. The imperial eyes that
facilitated this domination have recently been challenged to nullify
their perpetuation of racial difference, and although existing more
obscurely, to challenge the sexist legacy remaining in geography.

“As part of geography, feminist approaches within our discipline take
the same set of central concepts as their focus as other sub-areas of
geography. Thus over the decade feminist geographers have addressed
three of the central concepts of the discipline – space, place and
nature – and the ways in which these are implicated in the structure
of gender divisions in different societies” (McDowell, 1993).

The above quotation illustrates the fundamental point of feminist
geography; it is no different from geography as a whole in terms of
concepts, only in perspective.

Women have remained invisible throughout most of the history of the
discipline, and where they have been represented, it has been in
subordinate roles, highlighting the world of work as a world for men.
Thus geography has supported the notion of separate public and
domestic spheres, based on the ideological divide that has limited the
access of women to the public field, and obscured our understanding of
gender relations as complex relations of power. The following
definition is also important since it highlights the importance placed
upon gender by feminist geography, instead of women, thus
strengthening their arguments that feminism can also be argued from a
masculine point of view.

“There is also a distinct definition of what feminist geography is, or
rather should be: ‘a geography which explicitly takes into account the
socially created gender structure of society” (Foord & Gregson, 1986)

Feminist geographies have tended to address gender in relation to
class relations, which whilst productive, ignored the question of
racism entirely, serving to indicate how inherited paradigms obscure
new insights into the methodologies of geographical thought.

In order to adequately argue whether feminist geography is more about
feminism or geography, it is important to delve a little deeper into
the tenets of feminist geography. On a basic scale, feminist geography
can be divided into three types, the geography of women, socialist
feminist geography and feminist geographies of difference (Johnston et
al , 2000). The geography of women focuses upon description of the
effects of gender inequality; socialist feminist geography gives
explanations of inequality and relations between capitalism and
patriarchy, whilst feminist geographies of difference concentrate upon
the construction of gendered identities, differences among women,
gender and constructions of nature. It is clear that there are a
variety of subgroups of feminist geography, but the real question we
must address is to what extent each is concerned whether with feminism
or geography.

In order to answer this question one must return to the source of
feminism. “any analysis of the structures which produce the
inequality between men and women would inevitably suggest no more than
that certain structures and practices work to men’s advantage and
women’s disadvantage. Gender inequality would be unable to answer the
feminist question: why are women always disadvantaged” (Foord &
Gregson, 1986)? If one adopts the stance that feminist geography is
simply concerned with the apparent issue of whether women are
disadvantaged, then it means that the question is answered already,
feminist geography is more about the pursuit of feminism than
geography. The above quotation makes no reference to space, place or
nature, or any other geographical concepts, merely that women must be
empowered in the for a of geographical discussion. However, if one
adds a theory for analysis, then the feminist idea becomes part of the
discussion once again.

Numerous arguments concerning feminist geography result from
discussions as to the framework of feminist geography, when some
framework or research methodology is added, the very concept becomes
viable again. It is here that the concept of patriarchy is
introduced; “patriarchy was first used in feminist writing as a
universal term for male dominance; it was only later it became a clear
object of analysis for theoretical work” (Foord & Gregson, 1986). This
idea of understanding patriarchy is integral to the feminist argument
since if it is not understood fully, then the arguments situated from
a feminist viewpoint will not take into account external factors, and
thus objective positionality is flawed. Therefore the point of view is
also important as well as the analytical tool; “if the aim of
feminist, and other critical geographies, is to acknowledge their
partiality, then the particular form of reflexivity that aims, even if
only ideally, at a full understanding of the researcher, the
researched and the research context” (Rose, 1997). Therefore it is
integral that a full understanding is reached before comment is passed
on feminist geography, and this is the reason for my discussion into
the many definitions of feminist geography.

Having looked at patriarchy as a theoretical construct it is also
important to discuss it in relation to our arguments; “the debate has
emphasized the importance of patriarchal relations in defining social
and cultural roles for women in the workplace” (Bartram & Shobrook,
1998). If this is the case, then the patriarchy argument also gives
reason for the under representation of women in the workplace, a
situation that must be rectified in order to solve some of the
problems discussed by feminist geography, problems that are self
evident in geography departments around Britain even in the present
day; “the results of the survey demonstrate that women are
under-represented in physical geography at all levels of the academic
hierarchy and that the majority of female physical geography academic
staff are below forty years of age, and employed at the lecturer level
on permanent contracts” (Bartram & Shobrook, 1998). The
under-representation that occurs at the moment can also be linked to
similar practices occurring in the nineteenth century; “the gendering
of science in the nineteenth century effectively excluded women, both
from science in general and those particular techniques that loosely
constituted physical geography in the years before the
institutionalisation of the discipline” (McEwan, 1998).

This problem is not helped by the situation today that the differences
in numbers of female human and physical geographers is negligible;
“women are almost equally likely to be physical geographers as they
are to be human geographers” (Bartram & Shobrook, 1998). If this is
the case, then feminist geography is definitely less about feminism
and more about geography since we must first strive to explain this
apparent phenomenon and then redress the balance. One explanation
offered through feminist scholarship follows thus; “in particular, for
physical geography, although more women are progressing to further
study in this area, the proportion of women among physical geography
postgraduates has fallen, owing to a corresponding greater increase in
male postgraduates. One possible reason given for this is that
undergraduate physical geography has become less attractive to women,
hence deterring them from pursuing its study further” (McEwan, 1998).
This practice of undergraduate physical geography being seen as less
attractive may have something to do with perception. The physical side
of geography is typically seen as more masculine and fieldwork is seen
as a ‘tough and heroic activity’ (Maguire, 1998). Since this is the
case then feminist geography is instantly justified for the purpose of
understanding the possible effects of change.

The feminist geographer’s claims that feminism is less about geography
than feminism comes from a paper written by McDowell (1986) where she
claims that bearing children is part of the problem of women’s
subordination; “I have isolated biological reproduction of child
bearing as the key element in women’s subordination but, following
Quick and Vogel, I have attempted to demonstrate that women’s
oppression is located in the relationship of child bearing to the
appropriation of surplus labour in class society” (McDowell, 1986).
Since this is the case it is an argument more rooted in biological
feminism rather than feminist geography as it discusses reference to
biological factors which broadly speaking are similar for humans
regardless of place. Thus the initial problem with feminist geography
is outlined.

Continuing on the theme of general feminist arguments rather than ones
that are specifically geographical we can note that “as Hansen et al.
(1995) note, cultural practices and personal attitudes change slowly,
and male ‘control’ of the subject continues” (McEwan, 1998). This is
noted in reference to make dominance in physical geography and whilst
it deals directly with geography, it does not address it from a
geographical perspective, doing so instead from a feminist one.

Further criticism of feminist geography is discussed when looking at
the possibility that feminist geographies simply discuss women’s
inequality rather than relating it to space; “a central strand of the
argument in the paper has been that this lack is indicative of
feminist geographers’ specific concerns with examples of women’s
inequality; with the activities which constitute women’s gender role;
and, to a lesser degree, a partial conceptualisation of gender
relations” (Foord & Gregson, 1986). The gender divisions that feminist
geography is interested in are often rigid and untenable in many
circumstances and it is clear that the rigid gender divisions that can
develop are not always the best theoretical approach, and sometimes a
more flexible method is advisable.

In conclusion, there are some flaws in feminist geography that can
cause the initial questions as to whether feminist geography is more
concerned with feminism than geography. These considerations are
usually quashed however, with the strength of argument focusing on the
fact that this critical geograohy is valid as long as a spatial
dimension is given, and some measure of positionality and reflexivity
discussed. We can examine some of the criticism of feminist
geography, and show how the politics of feminism overrules the
fundamentals of geography in a variety of ways. Feminist geography
remains at an early stage in the development of an ‘autonomous
theoretical content’, that is “a system of statements backed by
epistemological justifications, ontological delimitations and
empirical exemplifications establishing a definite range of positions
that express something approaching a consistent set of viewpoints”
(Peet, 1998). Feminist geography must develop a gendered theory
emerging from critiques of masculine geography if it is to survive in
the current academic field.

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