Appropriating urban publics : spatial politics and women's collective action in Milan (1968-2008)

Vacchelli, Elena (2009). Appropriating urban publics : spatial politics and women's collective action in Milan (1968-2008). PhD thesis The Open University.



This work is a contribution to the body of literature on city and gender and has been informed by contemporary debates within the academic field of geography. It merges feminist literature with studies of social movements and collective action, and theorises the political practices that involved the use of space of the Milanese women’s movement. Urban publics are defined here as both institutional and physical space, including the bounded spaces that, during the 1970s, feminist activists have appropriated through their collective struggles. While the first appropriated sites of the women’s movement in Milan were anti-institutional, contemporary women’s organizations are described as extra-institutional, unbounded, non-hierarchical social actors networking in a space which is understood topologically. Separatism and the theory of sexual difference are offered as a resource in order to understand the space-orientated political practices of the Milanese women’s movement. This work makes use of ethnographic methods which include reflexivity - as conceptualised in feminist geography - participant observation, archive research and semi-structured interviews.

The evolution of the feminist political subjectivity over the last 40 years in Milan has been mapped according to the politics of location and the idea that situated knowledges stem from a material positioning that involves narration and the body - according to an Arendtian definition of the political as public exposure in a collective arena. The shift from the domestic sphere (atopia) to the public sphere (topia) occurred, for the majority of Italian women, during the 1970s, which caused one sphere to contaminate the other. A second shift that this thesis takes into account is the one from a centralized form of government to urban governance. This coincides with a change in spatial practices within the women’s movement, which increasingly became horizontally networked, project-orientated and based on the “everyday of women’s relationality”, which is a legacy of the feminist movement. Because of the extra-institutional status of Milanese women’s organization, their collective action opens up innovative spaces for a reconfiguration of the political outside traditional paths of political representation and accountability.

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