It’s like a law of nature that superior coordinates – top, right, front – are associated with the male, and inferior coordinates – bottom, left, back – with the female. These distinctions are near-universal and present in almost all cultures. Before we turn to a host of examples to illustrate these associations between space and gender, note that the distinctions we will discuss (between top and bottom, male and female, public and private, et cetera) all rely on dichotomous thinking. Such thinking reinforces and reproduces the many binaries – the gender binary being the primary example – that shape how we conceive the world.
While we argue that the gender construct is central to how we understand abstract concepts like space, we do not suggest that this is natural. In many places, a binary gender structure was enforced by colonial powers. In North America, where over a hundred tribes recognised more than two genders, some having as many as six, colonisers sought to exterminate these gender structures. Similarly, before colonisation, many African countries did not see gender as a binary in the way that their European colonisers did, where for instance the Dagaaba people (present-day Ghana) were assigned a gender based on energy, not on anatomy.
Many cultures and religions associate the top, or upwardness, with masculinity. Downwardness, by contrast, is feminine. Think of the Greek god Zeus, occupant of the sky where he rules lightning and thunder, in contrast to the idea of ‘mother earth’. For those of us who grew up imagining a (Christian) god as a white man with a long beard living in the sky, the association between masculinity and upwardness and, indeed, divinity likely is deep-wired in the brain. The Atoni, an ethnic group living in Timor (Indonesia), organise space into female, left, below, downward, earth, behind and seaside versus male, right, above, upward, heaven, in front and mountainside. The sea represents the underworld and so comes that femininity is associated with death and sickness, whilst masculinity is associated with life, resulting from a linkage between the mountain and the upperworld. In cultures where the above associations are reversed (for instance, the left being sacred and the right profane, as in ancient Egypt, Mongolese and Chinese society) the superior coordinates are still associated with the male (the left is masculine, the right feminine).
Turning to modern-day Western society, the urban-suburban distinction is a telling example of spatial gender divides. The urban space is predominantly seen as male. This is the public, fast-paced, vivid realm of productivity, where intellectuals gather to solve important real-world issues. The pinnacle of male, urban productivity is the skyscraper. Not just for its phallic shape, but more so for literally reaching into the male sky. The skyscraper is where masculinity, superior status, intellectual labour and power come together, represented in perhaps the single most important spatial status symbol: height. In contrast to the urban space, the suburban space is characterised by tranquillity, passivity and mindlessness. In this private, domestic realm, the motherly figure engages in reproductive labour as she nurtures and raises her family. As such, the urban-suburban divide points to another gendered spatial distinction: between the center as male and the periphery or outwardness as female.
Are linkages between gender and space harmful? Not always, but often they are. Viewing the female as passive and inferior will obviously not benefit women. A final example of harmful gendered associations with space is the idea that women cannot own, occupy or control space – be it in conversation or physically, women are taught to take up little space and punished if they break this norm. The prejudice that women cannot control space also fuels the idea that they are prone to getting lost, and thus that they are not capable of travelling independently and safely getting from A to B. These patterns of thought are forms of oppressive prejudice that we should rid ourselves of.