Gender, Identity, and Place:
Understanding Feminist Geographies,
by Linda McDowell, Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1999, 284 pp.
Lorna Q. Israel
University of the Philippines, Philippines
To speak about woman or man is already to place them—on the outside
that is also the public built by men, and into the privacy of the inside that
is also the home built for women. Linda McDowell makes geography
unmistakable for feminists, and gender palpable for geographers. For
those new to gender and geography, Gender, Identity, and Place is where
to start. For McDowell, the book is her attempt to answer the question
“what has gender got to do with geography?” She happily notes that the
offensive undertone in the question is gone, but not the question itself
McDowell surveys the historical, intellectual, and political settings of
feminist geography, which aims to show the mutuality of gender and
geography in place-making. Places are not just physical or spatial surfaces;
they are also about the boundaries that codify women’s and men’s “proper
place.” Additionally, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality or class may
disqualify a man or a woman from a certain place. Thus, one could
become “out of place” (4).
McDowell looks reassuringly at globalising forces, which have raised
Localities, Vol. 5, 2015, pp. 181-186
Lorna Q. Israel
anxiety that they might pave the way for a placeless and meaningless
world. On the contrary, however, globalising phenomena have
repositioned our understanding of where we are. From there, globalisation
can be approached as a “condition” for building or reviving places and
localities, imparting, vice versa, the global with a local sense (3).
Globalisation creates new places and new meanings, including the
meaning of geography itself. From defining place as a fixed cartographic
coordinates, geography now looks at it as “contested, fluid, and uncertain”
(4), and not necessarily “stable and rooted” (5).
McDowell relocates gender in the same coordinates of “contestation,
fluidity and uncertainty.” In a didactic style, she reviews major thinking
and thinkers that contributed to a nuanced and discerning awareness of
gender and geography. One meets the likes of Simone de Beauvoir,
Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler, Michel
Foucault, Neil Smith, Pierre Bourdieu, Doreen Massey and Gillian Rose.
Teasing out the blank from each and filling it up from another, McDowell
assembles a collection of texts without the tone of a moralising rhetorical
authority apparent in politicised analyses. Her exposition is clear, bracing
and amicably provocative. Readers are, therefore, allowed to witness the
changes and changing definition and politics of feminism and geography
from middle to the end of the 20th century.
Gender, Identity, and Place: Understanding Feminist Geographies is
organised in an “ascending spatial scale.” It begins with the ubiquitous yet
overlooked “place,” the Body (Ch. 2). This proceeds to the common but
“very loaded” term, the Home (Ch. 3), then to Community, City and
Locality, where class and ethnicity add another boundary between women
and men (Ch. 4). There is a place outside the home, the “inside” of the
Workplace (Ch. 5), whose “outside” is the streets and other open spaces
for pleasure or pain (Ch. 6). The next two chapters focus on the nation-
state with its power to include and exclude certain women and men (Ch.
7), and how certain groups of women and men are in “transit,” and
Gender, Identity, and Place
therefore “displaced” (Ch. 8).
From class inequality between women and men, gender has shifted to a
“new convergence of interest on language, symbolism, representations
and meanings (7) of exclusion and discrimination, transgression and
ambiguity, consolidation and fragmentation. Feminist theorising moved
gender from biology to culture to discourse to the “performative,” as well
as from sex to sexuality and from a singular focus on women to how men
are also gendered. Upon the collapse of the imagined “international
sisterhood,” it became “impossible to cover one whole womankind” (26);
hence, the imperative of feminist geographies. After all, women are
actually separated and differentiated by places and locations.
McDowell reframes the body as a site geographically inscribed. She
makes us aware that a geography book with hills or valleys as cover is an
ingenuous portrayal of a “naked woman’s body” traceable to women-
nature conflation (45). As a parallel, home is where men are hidden from
the public eye. Home is equally a man’s place; they return there for rest
and recreation (74).
Cities, cosmopolitan and inclusive though they might be, have a narrow
approach to where women should be. Their built environment is typically
marked by women’s absence in structures erected for male power, which
are also closed for lower-class men and those with outlawed sexualities.
The pub, the “public house,” is not really public while the maternity ward
wards off paternity (96). “Public” was supposed to be an encompassing
concept, along with citizenship and human rights. In practice, it becomes
expedient and unquestioned grounds for exclusion.
“Multiple users” in the public implies publics, and this demands a
multiple definition of the term itself (125), which McDowell derives from
literary and cultural studies. Baudelaire’s flâneur, the detached male
observer of the city, was challenged by Elizabeth Wilson’s flâneuse.
Wilson suggested that such a female figure was also present in modern
(Western) cities. The “flâneuse had walked visibly and anonymously on
Lorna Q. Israel
city streets on the way to work. She shopped and gazed at consumables—
just like the male flâneur” (154-155). Thus, the flâneur was reconfigured
into a “feminized male” (156). In Liz Heron’s edited collection of 20th
century fiction, the independent and hardworking women workers
emerged as “masculinised female,” or androgynous figures (155).
McDowell leaves the readers wondering about an androgynous place.
Perhaps commercial spaces purvey androgyneity. Here, “the spectacle of
desiring, fluid and ambiguously gendered subjects” (163) embody the
spirit of consumption.
In rural settings, gender and class ambiguity is also apparent—in
bodies stripped of clothes that usually mark gender and social ranking.
Arguably, McDowell sees place as emanating from bodies that occupy it,
and without bodies, a place is meaningless. Moreover, the body operates
architecturally: it conquers space with gender-bending techniques as its
The nation-state, which Anderson argued arose from a community of
readers of literary fiction and newspapers (198), is the prevailing master
plan for one’s racial or ethnic identity. It is heavily drawn from and
bordered by gender norms; the nation is the female to be protected and
defended by a strong and commanding male state. In the family of nations,
the nation-state is a heterosexual couple. As with the others, McDowell
imagines Anderson’s Imagined Communities with gender variables.
We await Anderson’s revision as he did for the second edition, where
he admits overlooking spaces as “necessary coordinates in thinking about
nationalism.” By that time, he might be imagining several places and
spaces--and genders--brought about by an escalating movement of people
across the globe in recent times. Many of these people “have been forced
to move,” so that their “normal” life is the opposite of settled, fixed and
permanent. Among them are the migrants whose movements are
extensively documented, except for “the journey itself” (203).
Uncovered by feminist historians is the multitude of unknown women
Gender, Identity, and Place
travelers and explorers who reached a “foreign land” as wives, tourists,
paid workers or pilgrims (206). If one accounts for the history of women’s
travels, one might see them outside the home, which is really very public,
for it serves as the “local ground of collective life” (208). This is the
implication of McDowell’s enthusiasm for looking at travel as the locus
of analysis. Travel opens more spaces and locations, but they are
unreachable if one departs from a “static and fixed” sense of place. Travel
foregrounds a locality that is not strictly local; outside boundaries
constitute it, hence the idea of the local with a global sense. A geographer
with such a sense will see the local as also the “articulation of global
processes” (209). In other words, the global localises as much as the local
From a feminist geographical perspective, the local with a sense of the
global creates not an “international sisterhood,” but a “cartography of
struggle” that maps the uneven situation of women around the world, as
well as alliances and linkages (214). This is particularly relevant to third-
world feminists, who are already in the first world where they continue
the politics of equality and identity.
McDowell’s position on travel and all the “fluidity” it implies is
upsetting to those with “fixed and static” predispositions. Calmly and
patiently, she points to its continuing relevance as well as limitations.
Attuned to disparities and inequalities of women and men across and
within places, gender nonetheless constructed a world in binary
opposition. Therefore, she posits a rethinking: that a static analysis
militates against understanding, and that the postmodern vocabularies that
inspired her discussions attempt for the opposite. Postmodernism became
fashionable for its “defiance” of modernity’s mind-set on singularity,
linearity and stability of a subject. McDowell uses it for what it does:
showing the limits of one’s analysis and politics.
The political project of a feminist geographer is not to look for a woman,
or a man, but to discover a plurality of genders in a place multiplied or re-
Lorna Q. Israel
placed by contestation, fluidity and uncertainty. In other words, s/he draws
not one world map, but maps of the world’s genders.