Hypatia 17.1 (2002) 219-222
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Gender, Place, and Identity:
Understanding Feminist Geographies
Gender, Place, and Identity: Understanding Feminist Geographies. By LINDA MCDOWELL. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Linda McDowell's Gender, Place, and Identity is an introduction to feminist geographies. It is a careful and detailed response to one who, like the professor interviewing McDowell years ago, might ask, "So what is all this stuff about women and geography?" Modernism's recent demise and transnational capitalism's simultaneous ascent have been generating a growing interest in boundaries and--somewhat paradoxically--in the detailed particularities of social and geographical locations and the power relations that sustain them. These currents have contributed to nothing less than the reinvigoration of [End Page 219] geography as a social science. What also makes this into an important area in feminist studies is the central contention held by feminist geographers that "both people and places are gendered and so social and spatial relationships are mutually constituted" (30).
McDowell opens with a helpful overview of some of the important work in feminist theory. This sets the theoretical scene for the subsequent waves of analysis of the gendered spaces in which we all live. Locating her work in a constructivist context enables McDowell to carve out a wide set of rhetorical spaces in which she can illuminate how these social constructions of identity--which she characterizes as both "sets of material social relations" and "sets of multiple symbolic meanings and representations"--vary across space and time.
McDowell begins her exposition by reminding us of the important truism that, despite globalization, real people live still their lives in a number of distinctive and scaled locales. The main body of the book is comprised of a journey through a number of the most significant scales at which identities are forged. McDowell illuminates how these scales have consistently been gendered. Despite the cartographic language of scaling, McDowell is at pains to stress that the gendered spaces are constituted more by "connections and movement" than by physical territories that might be fixed on a map. She also insists that all the boundaries between these scales remain fluid. This accords with her claim that in contemporary human geography places are "no longer defined as bounded or categorical but instead as the combination and coincidence of a set of socio-spatial relations" (97).
The first gendered space that McDowell describes is perhaps the biggest surprise in a book on geography. It is the body. McDowell's interests here lie not in the material realities of bodies but in their "attributes of flexibility, presentation, and the occupation of space" (34). It is these attributes that are most manifestly gendered. The centrality of the body reflects McDowell's belief that "questions of the sexed body--its differential construction, regulation, and representation--are absolutely essential to an understanding of gender relations at every spatial scale" (68). Human geography is, after all, an "embodied geography."
McDowell then moves with eloquence and some rapidity through successive scales of place including the home, the community locality, workplaces, the street and spaces of pleasure, and the nation state. Each chapter opens with some theoretical analysis of how gendered structures pervades these places and then details a number of cleverly selected case studies that serve to problematize and destabilize these structures. The chapter on the home, for example, includes a case study of homelessness and the chapter on community, city, and locality includes a case study on the connections between gentrification and sexuality in the gendered spaces of urban America. [End Page 220]
The penultimate chapter, titled "Displacements," though grounded primarily in questions of globalization, travel, and migration, serves to gather up many of the themes of fluidity and permeability that had been cropping up so frequently in the earlier chapters. In this chapter, McDowell reveals the potential for a feminist analysis that replaces emphasis on identity or difference with emphasis on "hybridity," "diaspora," and "translation" required for identities that are "translocal." She calls these translocal identities "new genders" (221) that, through their emphasis on transformation and translation, are potentially...