Feminism in American Planning

Bri Gauger

Amidst the upheaval of 1960s and ’70s America, social movement struggles propelled a profession previously known for urban renewal projects toward an advocacy role. Bruised by the very public failures of top-down modernist urban renewal, planning was forced to pay more attention to process, engagement, and equity for marginalized and underserved communities, and planners began to acknowledge their profession’s complicity in race, class, and gender oppression. As social movements opened planning to considering new normative goals and tasks for planners to engage with, affirmative action measures and federal funding for community-scale research on urban issues provided opportunities for women’s education and academic careers in planning.

It was in this context of possibility for social change that women began entering the planning academy in the 1970s, just after the professional field of planning began institutionalizing as an academic discipline. While women came from many disciplines, those from architecture backgrounds were particularly drawn to planning because it seemed more open to considering social aspects of the built environment. Before entering the academy, these women were politically active across a spectrum of social movements, from the civil rights and antiwar movements to environmental justice and labor organizing. A feminist consciousness about gendered power relations and knowledge production cut across their activisms. For many, this mind-set arose not only out of shared feminist practices such as consciousness-raising, but as a direct result of extensive advocacy in areas like public housing and community development. These backgrounds enabled them to link social and human struggles to oppressive structures and systems through the physical form of the built environment and the political process of planning.

While postwar planning’s top-down rational model left little room for attention to social issues and scale, early feminist planners argued that power operates through social norms in the built environment. By the early 1980s, when the first group of women to become prominent planning scholars were settling into tenure-track jobs, they gathered extensive experience working in areas like housing and community development that were previously excluded from mainstream planning.1 They leveraged their organizing backgrounds to advocate for attention to social issues and scales through their scholarship, teaching, and academic careers.

The “gender lens” introduced in early feminist scholarship held that social and political relationships, language and discourse, and the built environment all structure (and are structured by) gendered identities, relations, and expectations. It called for recognition that women’s experiences of the built environment differed from those of men, exposing, for example, that while municipal zoning laws are often viewed as technical planning mechanisms, zoning is in fact a system laden with values. These ideological orientations produce negative effects for women, such as increased time and economic pressure by zoning childcare out of suburban neighborhoods or designing transportation systems around male commuting patterns.

As an institution, the academy posed many challenges for women. Spread in planning departments across the US and Canada, the first generation of feminist planning scholars were often the only women in otherwise male departments and faced age and experience gaps with their new colleagues. Male colleagues took credit for their ideas, shut out their perspectives entirely, and boycotted their scholarship by refusing to cite women’s work. In order to put gender on the agenda in planning, feminist planners collaborated closely with those working toward similar goals in other environmental design professions. Planners turned to other women within their institutions to participate in informal activities, such as interdisciplinary feminist writing and reading groups. In addition to participating in education and advocacy collectives like Women in Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Planning (WALAP) and the Women’s School of Planning and Architecture (WSPA, covered in more detail elsewhere in this exhibition), feminists built community across the US and Canada by hosting a number of conferences specifically devoted to gender and the built environment and by organizing panels on women’s issues at more mainstream conferences.2

Sometimes these activities generated edited volumes that would prove instrumental in helping to define research on women and the built environment, as well as linking gender to concerns over racism and poverty.3 As part of a concerted effort to raise the profile of environmental design and spatial disciplines among feminists in the broader sphere, planning scholars were involved alongside members of the emerging Women’s Studies movement in emerging feminist publications like Signs, Quest, and Heresies. The 1980 publication of a Signs issue devoted to the role of women in urban politics and community organizations was a watershed moment for many, as planners helped to frame early academic discussions about space and feminism. Women shared bibliographies and syllabi with each other as they sought to form a canon of feminist literature in planning, as well as formed their own publications when faced with pushback against publishing gender research in mainstream journals.

In addition to working outside of the academic planning establishment, feminist planners organized for change within the planning academy. When several women convened an informal discussion at the 1986 Associated Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) annual meeting to discuss challenges to publishing feminist planning literature, the twenty-one women in attendance represented nearly all of the female planning professors in the United States (the vast majority of whom were junior scholars without tenure). Within a year, the Faculty Women’s Interest Group (FWIG) obtained formal recognition from ACSP and FWIG members built a support and mentoring network for women scholars, dispensing practical advice about academia and the tenure process, and advocating for ACSP diversity efforts around recruitment and retention of minority students and faculty.

By banding together as a marginalized group, women made space to develop and debate ideas when the establishment did not have room for them, growing a intellectual network in planning and across allied disciplines. As the first special interest group within ACSP, FWIG charted a course for women’s representation and equal treatment in the planning academy that would later serve as an organizational model for planners of color and LGBTQ planners in the academy. As diversity efforts became further institutionalized in this way over the next few decades, however, debates about gender and who had claims to feminism fizzled. Even though the number of women in the academy has risen dramatically over the last four decades, institutional gains in the academy continue to be unevenly distributed, and critical feminist concepts like intersectionality remain largely unexamined in planning literature and education. Once again, it is time to organize across disciplines and creatively apply pressure from outside and within the academy, shifting the needle toward equity.

1 The debate over which activities count as planning has always been deeply gendered. Female settlement housing advocates helped plan the first city planning conference in 1909, but at the second conference male architects and engineers (led by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr.) successfully shut the “housers” out, setting an institutional precedent that excluded women from city planning for decades to follow. For more, see Susan Marie Wirka, “The City Social Movement: Progressive Women Reformers and Early Social Planning,” in Planning the Twentieth-Century American City, edited by Mary Corbin. Sies and Christopher Silver (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 55–75. xiv, 594.

2 With help from WALAP, Harvard students at the Graduate School of Design organized a 1973 “Women in Housing” conference; the Feminist Planners and Designers (FPD) at UCLA hosted annual conferences for nearly a decade, beginning in 1979 with “Planning and Designing a Non-Sexist City”.

3 Such as Gerda R. Wekerle, Rebecca. Peterson, and David Morley, eds., New Space for Women, Westview Special Studies on Women in Contemporary Society (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1980); Eugenie Ladner. Birch, ed., The Unsheltered Woman: Women and Housing in the 80s (New Brunswick, N.J.: Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers University, 1985).

Bri Gauger is a PhD candidate in urban planning and graduate certificate student in women’s studies at the University of Michigan. Her dissertation traces the history of feminist thought and activism in the urban planning academy since 1965, incorporating oral histories from several generations of women planning scholars. bgauger@umich.edu