The Situationist

The Space & Place (Situation) of Rural Women

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 19, 2008


Lisa Pruitt, Professor of Law at University of California, Davis (and blogger on Legal Ruralism Blog) has posted a fine new paper on SSRN: “Of Spaces and Spheres: What Critical Geography Can Teach Law about Rural Women.” The abstract is as follows:

Like other legal scholars, feminists often think about social change over time, using history as a lens to reveal disadvantage and injustice. They have demonstrated, for example, that the public/private divide and related separate spheres ideology are socially contingent developments based on evolving perceptions of women and gender roles. Shifts in such perceptions have thus informed legal changes, and vice versa.

This Article argues that a more grounded and more nuanced understanding of women’s lived realities requires legal scholars to engage not only history, but also geography. Because spatial aspects of women’s lives implicate inequality and moral agency, they have direct relevance to an array of legal issues. I thus deploy the tools of critical geographers – space, place, and scale – to inform law and policy-making about an overlooked population for whom spatiality can be a profoundly influential force: rural women.

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Here is an excerpt (footnotes omitted) in which Professor Pruitt briefly describes and illustrates what she means by the concepts of space, place, and scale.

* * *

In this Article, I argue that a better understanding of women’s lived realities, including their encounters with the law, requires legal scholars to engage not only history, but also geography. Because spatial aspects of women’s lives implicate inequality and moral agency, they are directly relevant to an array of legal issues. Like feminists in other disciplines, I deploy the tools of critical geographers – space, place, and scale, but I do so with a view toward informing law and policy-making about a frequently overlooked population: rural women.

While historical analysis relies on the vector of time, geographic analysis uses the complementary vector of space. “Space” is an abstract concept that refers both to the familiar idea of physical surroundings (physical space) and to the impact that particular spatial configurations have on many aspects of life, from social relationships to economic opportunity (social space). Attending to rurality seems an obvious aspect of the “space” part of critical geography given the literal, physical isolation of rural residents and rural communities from one another, as well as the influence of this reality on how rural spaces and places are socially constructed. “Place” is a more concrete subset of space. Analysis based on place considers particular locales, taking into account the range of characteristics that distinguish one place from another. “Scale” is a unit of measure of space and place, e.g., the household, the region, the globe.

These spatial concepts are illustrated by a brief example based largely upon an empirical study of gender in rural Appalachia in which changes at a global scale are shown to have material consequences at regional and local scales, even at the micro-sites of household and body. Global economic forces cause a mine closure, leaving many local miners unemployed.

Viewing available service jobs as beneath them, the male miners move into private or quasi-public spaces, away from the formal market. They resort to the informal economy (e.g., car repair, cutting and hauling firewood) to help make ends meet. At the same time, many of the miners’ wives move from the domestic and private spaces of the home into the public spaces of the market by taking paid work to supplement family coffers.

Their newfound status as earners confers some power on the women. This alters the division of reproductive labor in the private space of the household, while also endowing women with greater power in the various public spaces of the wider community. Shifts thus occur at multiple scales. Changes may reverberate across even higher scales as women take on leadership roles in local and regional political movements. At the same time, agitation about shifting gender roles and the stress of economic hardship can lead to intimate abuse, which implicates lower scales, such as the body.

Law and legal actors also have roles in these socio-spatial phenomena playing out in real places. These roles include, for example, global trade agreements that lead to rural economic restructuring and federal and state laws that govern employment law. At the other end of the causal chain, they include local law enforcement responses to intimate abuse and other “lower” scale consequences.

As this scenario illustrates, critical geography can bring “the rural” into scholarly view and presents expansive opportunities for legal scholarship. Unlike rural sociology and rural economics, which seem to thrive as disciplines, legal scholars and critical geographers ignore the rural/urban axis. I am thus challenging the often implicit scholarly association of both critical geography and law with that which is urban.

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To access the entire paper, which includes a primer on critical geography, click here

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