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Sexism and Feminist Geography

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 imposing eyes that facilitated this domination have recently been challenged to quash 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 viewpoint. 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.

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“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” (Ford & 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” (Ford & Gregson, 1986)? If one adopts the stance that feminist geography is simply concerned with the apparent issue of whether women are disadvantaged, and then it means that the question is answered already, feminist geography is more about the pursuit of feminism than geography. 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 institutionalization 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 labor 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 conceptualization of gender relations” (Ford & 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 geography 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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Sexism and Feminist Geography. (2016, Dec 02). Retrieved from

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