by Jen Graves
on Fri, Sep 14, 2012 at 2:12 PM
(L-R) Sarah Bergmann, Cary Moon, Kim England, Lisa Picard, Barbara Swift, Sandra Jackson-Dumont. Above, all over the walls in waves and waves and waves, the art of Sandra Cinto.
We are embarking on the Season of the Woman in Seattle art (led by this soon-to-open big exhibition), and the very prospect of it makes a part of me feel buried alive under a pile of self-conscious capitalizations, scare quotes, trademark and copyright symbols, and dim memories of patronizing Time magazine cover announcements (Year of the Woman!) and etc.
But another part of me (COULD IT BE THE VAGINA?) is liking the chance just to talk directly about gender and culture-making. Last night in the pavilion of the Olympic Sculpture Park, Sandra Jackson-Dumont of Seattle Art Museum organized a panel on "Women and the Urban Environment." On the panel were a landscape architect (Barbara Swift), an artist (Sarah Bergmann), an organizer/engineer (Cary Moon), a professor of geography (Kim England), a developer/construction-company executive (Lisa Picard), and professor/author of Unbounded Practice: Women and Landscape Architecture in the Early Twentieth Century (Thaisa Way).
Each delivered a small sermon to start. And they were rousing. Cary Moon talked about "paths to courage" for women. That there are many. That we need them at all. Bergmann, who began by saying that after the progress of her forebears she was "offended" by still being asked to talk as a representative of womankind, nevertheless threw out a reminder of what Rebecca Solnit has written: that women "fight twice, once for credibility in the discourse, then in the discourse itself." (The line is from the utterly recommended essay "Men Explain Things to Me".) Bergmann also shared a fact that probably nobody but her knew before last night: Her late mother, a sculptor, once tried for the Betty Bowen Award—the award that Bergmann herself won this week, in a poignant progression of lineage.
England talked about the fact that the State of Washington gave women the right to vote in 1910, a decade before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. That the first waitress union was formed here. That Seattle is the first city to pass a resolution recognizing the importance of care workers. That while this "city is not neutral," Seattle is, comparatively, a place where feminist geography has some roots.
The panelists did not just talk about being women as if there were a single experience implied therein. They made explicit references to race and to class (less to sexual orientation, interestingly), not shying away from the important intra-conflicts of intersectionality. Way, in her closing comments, gave an appealingly broad definition of feminism (a word that, in my mind, is always up for renegotiation but never up for dismissal): "feminism as a matrix of politically conscious social, spatial, and environmental strategies that build on the achievements of previous generations while also reaching out to a broader community of the oppressed, regardless of gender." That's from Despina Stratigakos's blog post "Why Architects Need Feminism" from two days ago on Places. Stratigakos also wrote this good piece (last year): "What I Learned from Architect Barbie."
In sum, there was a healthy lack of consensus at the event, yet cameraderie persisted. A woman in the audience wanted to know what the hell is to be done about the fact that Freeway Park is inherently unfriendly to women by its nook-and-cranny late-night scariness, which triggers specific fears in women. How to "feminize" or "feministize" that geography with overlays now?
Moon responded with a compassionate answer about the utopic attitudes of the park's designer, Lawrence Halprin, working with direction from his wife, dancer Angela Danadjieva, in the things-will-be-different-and-better-soon 1970s. "They had this dream filled with dance and joy," Moon said. "You should see the drawings of what was supposed to happen there, and it just didn't turn out that way."
But Picard piped up with her own very different perspective, a sort of tough-love attitude that would have reminded me of my own fierce mother (if my mother weren't so constantly reminding me to be afraid when I walk anywhere alone basically at any time—this seems her only major concession to fear in her life). Picard said, "I don't walk around by this covenant of unsafetyness. What are the cues that can begin to build trust among people in public spaces? I want to see more about taking ownership of one's feelings rather than projecting something out there as wrong." The part of me that wants to accept my mother's fears without allowing them to determine quite literally the geography of my life was cheering. Nervously.
Jackson-Dumont brought up the question of how to dress and act (stereotypically male in order to fit in? Rebel-femmey? It's a line we walk). Why male bosses who experience the same pressures as women to "have it all" fail to change policies in the companies they own was another topic. And Moon asked, "Will sexism or racism go away if we ignore them?" Way closed with a response to Moon's question, or a proposal for action: In our own lives we need to ignore them, to get done whatever it is we need to get done. We also need to pay close attention to them at the very same time. It felt like wise, conflicted advice.