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Gender and the city: intergenerational spatial practices and women’s collective action in Milan

Elena Vacchelli

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1Throughout the 1970s Milan was a laboratory for social and political practices. In Milan, before other Italian cities, the 1968 students and workers movement had attempted to subvert local institutions by challenging them through protest and other forms of action. Revolutionary neighbourhood committees and anti-authoritarian schools were self-managed by activists themselves ; like in other Italian cities such as Turin, in Milan factories were the key place of this struggle consisting of strike actions and demonstrations. These actions were often ending up in dangerous street guerrilla where the level of social conflict was increasingly rising up until 1977, when a stark police repression concurred to push several members of the student and workers movement to act under cover. The late 1970s were also the years when the student and worker movement underwent a further radicalisation of their political strategies and part of the movement embraced armed struggle (Pozzi, 2007). The feminist movement took shape in this climate of general contestation and started its battle against wo- men’s socio-spatial segregation in the domestic sphere, against the family as an oppressive environment for women and other institutio- nal discriminations rooted in the Italian legal and political system. In order to achieve these changes the feminist movement in Milan adop- ted a specific rationale, that of « sexual difference », a version of French feminism conceptualized by the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, which proved fruitful in creating vanguard social practices. Although the feminist movement in Milan can by no means be identified as a single, cohesive actor and was indeed composed by different groups and strands within it, the theory of sexual difference became the prevailing paradigm in feminist discourses and practices (Martucci, 2008), despite some disagreement and internal frictions (Melandri, 2000).  

2New feminist social practices were aimed at generating changes in the political subjectivity of the participants and ultimately impacted on the ways in which women appropriate and use urban space. Examples of these practices include consciousness-raising and separatism as discussed extensively in Vacchelli (2011), however insights on these practices in conjunction with « sexual difference » fall outside the scope of this article. What is important here is that the outcome of these transformative practices resulted in the integration of the personal sphere, such as sexuality and other multiple sources of oppression, in the political sphere and played a central role in the implementation of legal frameworks in the field of divorce, abortion and domestic violence to include marital rape and honour killing. Despite the specificities of Milan with regards to original routes to achieve similar aims, overall in Italy, but mainly in medium to large cities such as Turin, Bologna, Rome and Naples a combination of mainly white, middle-class and working class women started fighting for a new social identity that would have allowed them to become collective actors and to gain a first-time access to Italian political institutions. These newly conceived institutions would have had to reflect personal dimensions of women’s life to include the family, relationship between men and women, their role as mothers and many other personal domains where they felt oppressed.

3This article looks at two main shifts in space appropriation which are specific to the feminist movement in Milan. The first shift is the one which made it possible for women to get organized and collectively appropriate public space in the city. The second shift refers to the consolidation of these achievements and the social transformations involved in the definition of contemporary women’s organizations in Milan as heterotopia spaces. This article is situated theoretically in the field of gender and urban studies (Bassanini, 2001, Bondi, 2002, Greed, 1994, 2005 ; Hubbard and Saunders, 2003 ; McDowell, 1999, Nash and Bain, 2007 ; Spain, 1992, 2001 ; Terlinden, 2003, Watson, 2002, Wilson, 1991) and combines a Lefebvrian with a Foucaultian framework to illustrate specific feminist strategies of space production and appropriation (Lefebvre [1975] 1997, 2003 ; Doderer, 2003 ; Johnson, 2006 ; Foucault, 1970, 1986). The originality of the proposed approach lies in its innovative reading of the shifts in space appropriation operated by feminist movements in advanced capitalist cities.

4The ways in which feminist politics mobilizes space highlight aspects of continuity and difference between two generations of feminist space appropriation. In Milan women’s collective action has been particularly motivated by space appropriation as is evident by the progressive opening of women-only bookshops, cafes, restaurants and autonomous nurseries (Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, 1990, Martucci, 2008, Melandri, 2000, Muraro, 1993). As this article demonstrates, this strategy gradually changed as also the spaces to appropriate become more stratified and diversified reflecting an increased institutional complexity. Daphne Spain (1992) argues that women’s status is lower in societies in which housing is sexually se- gregated and institutions tend to reflect the degree of gender segregation across cultures and over time. « Spatial segregation does more than creating a physical distance : it also affects the distribution of knowledge women could use to change their position in society » (p. 3). Institutionalized segregation is both an outcome and a cause, contributing to reproduce gender stratification. A modification of spatial arrangements is deemed necessary in order to break this vicious circle and create a workable social change (Spain, 2001).

5By drawing on Lefebvre’s theory of space appropriation this article shows how feminists from the 1970s onwards were able to deconstruct the domestic borders of their homes and make them public. Hybrid forms of separatist private-public environments were considered essential in order to define their social identity and shape their novel political subjectivity as feminists (Vacchelli, 2011). However both separatist practices and rigid separations between public and private spheres have changed ; so has the level of ideological cohesion across two generations of feminism.

6From a methodological point of view, the article makes selective use of 40 semi-structured interviews with women’s organizations leaders, activists and ex-activists across two generations interviewed in Milan between 2006 and 2008. The set of qualitative data presented here is also based on participant observation and archive work at the Fondazione Badaracco over two years. Empirical data gathered during fieldwork in Milan confirm that, despite conflicting strands and intergenerational differences in contemporary feminism, urban space appropriation has played a key role in the definition of political practices for women’s collective action.

Space appropriation

7(Social) space is a (social) product

8Henri Lefebvre

9To widen the imagination of space and interpret it as dynamic and as a key sphere for exploring power relations and material/symbolic boundaries in society, it is fundamental to understand how space is appropriated and used. Feminist work has looked at space in terms of spatial relations that are continually produced and contended within cities and has used the work of Henri Lefebvre ([1975] 1997, 2003) to engage with daily practices that produce space (Marston and Smith, 2001, Simonsen, 2005) despite the fact that Lefebvre himself had neglected a specifically gendered perspective in his theorizations. These feminist scholars have shared the understanding that, for Henri Lefebvre (1975), social space is essentially a social product, sugges- ting that the production of space is not about the production of material objects and goods, but a series of relations that are created by production forces, social practices, different technologies and products of knowledge, as well as social structures and institutions. Space is not, therefore, just the resulting effect of its production, such as monuments and goods, but also, and fundamentally, the result of a production process as an experience of the accumulation of knowledges  exemplified by the work of production and reproduction. Production for Lefebvre clearly refers back to Marx and Engels in relating to modes of production, goods and work. Ed Soja (1996) reminds us that the space thus produced serves as a power base for certain actions : « [I]n addition to being a means of production [space] is also a means of control, and hence domination, of power » (p. 26).

10Space is for Lefebvre a product, but at the same time it is not an object in a physical sense nor a pure abstraction. Instead, the term space is always employed to mean a social space. People do not stand in front of or close to social space like an exhibition or a picture, but they assume that space as it is constituted (Doderer, 2003). This dialectical relation is constitutive of spatial practices that have to be understood as social and political practices.

11The Production of Space, first published in 1975 and translated into English in 1991, constitutes an attempt to combine all possible forms of space production and appropriation, from abstract to material ones, and represents Lefebvre’s effort to theorize space deliberately adopting a Western European and capitalist perspective.

12Spatial practices are the formal aspect of production (and reproduction) of space, are situated in the everyday and can be both subjective and collective. Routes, networks and other patterns of interaction lin- king places to each other make spatial practices possible. Spaces of representation refer to the function of space more than its formal aspects ; it is about conceptual space which is imagined by professionals and technocrats such as planners, developers, architects who give shape to material representations and are inspired by ideologies which are inscribed in certain contexts of power and knowledge. Finally, spaces of imagination refer to the actual construction of space and all the appropriation strategies which oppose existing power relations. They represent the counter-cultural, underground, clandestine sides of social life and they are particularly appropriate to explain women’s groups and their battle against the patriarchal society in which they are situated.     

13Appropriation of urban space happens at every level of the triadic construction developed by Lefebvre (1997). In terms of the third case (spaces of imagination), Lefebvre includes in his construction the appropriation of countercultural spaces. Lefebvre refers to spaces as topoi (singular form of the Greek topos) and describes isotopia spaces as analogous spaces, heterotopia as contrasting and different spaces and utopia as places of that which no longer has a place. In this article we add that the shift from a-topia (literally, lacking a place) to topia (having a place) describes the process of space appropriation by feminist movements in advanced capitalist societies, which allowed for women’s access to the political sphere. This perspective integrates Lefebvre’s analysis of social space by offering a new category of spaces aimed at including sexual difference in the horizon of the already delineated isotopic, heterotopic and utopic spaces.

14Lefebvre discusses heterotopia in The Urban Revolution (2003) and defines it as « the place of the other » or marginal space, referring to something that takes place outside the city but is still interwoven with the city itself (such as exchange and trade outside the 16th century city walls). « Heteropic » parts of the medieval city were inhabited by outcasts and other marginal or dangerous people. However Lefebvre concentrates on the potential for utopic space, a paradoxical, contradictory non-place, opposite to the everyday to cut through capitalist spatializations and resist homogeneity to break up the rigorous ratio- nalization of time and space (such as holidays, festivals and celebrations) (Johnson, 2006).

15Although not systematically theorized, Foucault (1970, 1986) provides a definition of heterotopia which is more fruitful for analysing women’s groups and organizations in Milan, as they are real spaces as opposed to utopic spaces which create spatial and temporal disruptions and interrogate and undermine certain formulations of utopia. For Foucault therefore heterotopia is about conceiving space outside, or against, any utopian framework or impulse (Johnson, 2006) and its reality embodied and emplaced onto the Milan map will be further addressed in the discussion of contemporary Milan and the role of women’s organizations.

16Appropriation does not only refer to a natural occupation of goods in a Marxian sense but to an activity which is first and foremost spatial, taking place in space and with space. As a reflection on the contested nature of urban space, the feminist movement in Milan started to collectively appropriate milieus of everyday life in which to live, organize and participate in political meetings and build up feminist struggles. New spatialities aimed at contesting previously set and exclusionary boundaries were created to enhance and promote a culture of the feminist project through women’s centres and organizations. Space appropriation provides the starting point and the theoretical background to discuss the shift from topia to atopia and the hybrid nature of women’s spaces (heterotopia). This will be useful in exa- mining the specifically gendered processes at stake in the subversion of urban public space operated by women’s collective action from the 1970s onwards.

Towards the polis

17Paradoxically, the starting point for the appropriation of public spaces in Italian cities took place in the submerged and unspecific space of the home as it happened in other international contexts such as the US, the UK and Germany (Bowlby, Mc Kie and Gregory, 1999, Hayden, 1981, Rose, 2003, Terlinden, 1980). Domestic space was for too long defined as a « natural » space for women (Wilson, 1991, Terlineden, 2003, Landes, 1995), within the rigid patriarchal order of Italian society. In other words, domestic space was, for Italian feminists, the starting point for the subversion of social space and relations, an area to re-appropriate through deconstructing its boundaries and challenging its traditional order (Fare’, 1992). As argued in Bassanini (1990), Fare’ (1992), Muntoni (1982) and Sarti (1995), the house in Italy as in other patriarchal societies was a space in which women were expected to contribute to the continuous care of the other (generally male but also the youth, the elderly and the sick). The domesticity of the home came to be associated to a museum, as the li- ving space had to be kept tidy, clean with a high symbolic value for the family’s economic and social status. It has, over time, also been compared to a symbolic « prison » for women. Ida Fare’ (1992) describes the need for incessant and cyclical cleaning and nurturing using the image of the invisible woman who, in the domestic sphere, keeps cancelling her own footsteps to remain invisible. In this perspective, domestic subversion of the strict gender roles within the domestic sphere represented the first rupture with the Italian cultural establishment operated by the Italian feminist movement. To untidy the home, re-organize it according to a new use-value, inhabit it with different and new criteria, eliminating sofas and chairs, and adding carpets and cushions also meant freeing bodily postures and eliminating barriers between different spaces in the house. This also meant enriching it with new meanings, bringing the political within domestic walls and creating the polis through house meetings of feminist collectives (Fichera, 1996, unpublished source).

18Making the domestic sphere public thus breaking the rigid boundaries between the two spheres was the first step towards the re-appropriation of denied public spaces. The ghost of the home as a prison was eliminated and the new home became a primary place that was to be inhabited differently. In this sense, the space of the home became a porous place for new political synergies where feminist collectives could meet or where independent feminist magazines, such as for instance Lapis, were discussed and produced as Lea Melandri, leading figure of  Milan’s feminism, recounts during an interview with the author (June 2007). This disruption of the fixed borders between internal/external, public and private, by bringing public life within domestic walls suggests a radical change in the use value of the home and a re-appropriation of its spaces.

19From the late 1960s onwards, the hybridization of space through innovative spatial practices informed by feminist theory suggested a radically new social use of urban space. As a result, space itself underwent a transformation assuming new values and meanings. As Fraire (1996) argues, the strengths that allowed for the transformation of the public/private spheres started from inhabiting the body diffe-     rently as a primary space to then change the private space of the home and subsequently the public space of the polis. In order to change the way in which women inhabit their body, feminist activists during the 1970s felt the need to experiment with social practices by artificially separating from the male gaze whilst in search for their novel political subjectivity (Vacchelli, 2011). This separation was firstly experimen- ted within the social practice of separatism, according to which the body of the participants was perceived and experienced differently when situated away from the male gaze and discursive hegemony. One of the main aims of separatism in fact was re-creating an environment where women were able to represent themselves outside of the male hegemonic discourse and create their own discursive order. The relationship among women in the context of separatist feminist politics paved the way to a re-territorializing of the borders between inside and outside, internal/external, private/public. Lea adds :  

«We went to dig into the least political area, far from institutions, from public life. This also included the creation of new political practices such as consciousness raising i.e. working with the sub-conscious and in the pre-history of personal lives. »  

20Practices such as consciousness raising necessarily required separatist spaces in order to successfully enable a reflection on women’s oppression and envisage shared political strategies in order to overcome it. The use of space, until then mainly limited to a restricted horizon — i.e. the atopic sphere of the home — changed, as the body itself became a new space able to inhabit the polis.

From separatism to heterotopia : transforming the polis

21In contrast with a-topic space of the home, separatist groups and collectives were positioned in specific locations which have a particular meaning in the socio-political mapping of Milan. In order to read Milan’s maps, it is important to understand that Italian cities are usually depicted in terms of centre and periphery (Foot, 2001, Martinotti, 1999). While the former is a privileged site, the latter is commonly boundless and is often affected by poverty and social exclusion. « Regardless of whether it captures some elements of reality, this powerful yet contrived dichotomy inevitably reifies the spatial relations that are continually produced and contended within cities » (Dines, 2012, p. 15).

22Feminists’ experience of place is difficult to re-construct, since it is only known through oral history and is seldom written down. Wo- men’s unwritten genealogy is usually reconstructed through narrations, direct experiences of some places, sometimes indirect experience, pieces of lived life, thoughts, militant slogans, pictures and objects that would have allowed for a reconstruction of this particular story. Personal paths intertwined with collective trajectories of the feminist movement made it possible to increasingly acquire political visibility by occupying material space in the city. The redefinition of women’s political subjectivity would only have been possible in separatist places which were located outside of the mainstream cultural traditions of the public sphere, until then organized by men in the Italian society. This meant creating counter-cultural political spaces (Fraser, 1990, Lefebvre, [1975] 1997) or « spaces of imagination » to use Lefebvre’s phrase, opposing existing power relations and representing underground, oppositional and clandestine sides of social life, which, in the case of feminism, took the shape of feminist cafes, libraries, independent bookshops and self-organized nurseries, anti-authoritarian groups and collectives in work places.

23Separatism is a central aspect of feminist political practices that however needs to be understood in the context of temporary identity building whose outcome could be defined as « selective topia »: the imagined spaces appropriated in the 1970s generation can only be accessed by women and the artificial boundaries delimiting this separation would soon be dismantled1.  


Map on contemporary women organizations

25Contemporary women’s groups are the legacy of the kind of public spaces that the feminist movement produced in 1970s Milan and re- present, in this article, the second generation of collective space appropriation by the women’s movement. There are 103 such groups and organizations scattered in contemporary Milan and they are distributed unevenly across the Milanese territory, with a higher concentration in the city centre and fewer in the second and third rings around it. As it is visible from the map, the Corso di Porta Nuova address is of particular significance for the women’s and feminist movement in Milan as several groups are based there today. Historically, the elegant Corso di Porta Nuova buildings were the headquarter of the Unione Femminile Nazionale, an early 1900s group of upper class intellectual women concerned with women’s work and political representation. Milanese suffragists also donated a women’s library in the same location which is still operative today.

26Contemporary women’s centres and organizations are, in part, a legacy of the previous generation and in part represent new stances within the movement2. Approximately one third of these organizations define themselves as feminists, yet they are mainly left wing and there is no right wing groups represented among the women’s organisation mapped in Milan. While definitional boundaries of the feminist movement are easier to identify in the 1970s, in contemporary Milan these definitional boundaries are more blurred. I therefore chose to represent women-only civil society groups which include service providers, single-issue and multiple-issues independent groups and movement organizations. These groups target in some instances the entire society and in other instances a group’s own constituency. The so called « professionalization » of the women’s movement and the shift from feminist movement to « diffused feminism » as defined by Calabro’ and Grasso (2004) from the 1980s onwards contributed to fragment general feminist concerns into single-issue (such as violence against women, or women’s health) and project orientated groups.       

27Within contemporary women’sgroups based in Milan, professio- nals coming from different sectors collaborate transversally with private and public institutions locally, nationally and at European level. The often individual and diversified experience of women organizations in Milan can be classified in three stands of activity that provide a broad goal-oriented framework to identify women-only organizations in Milan : 1. organisations with a gender mainstreaming goal aimed at transforming  political institutions from within through training and mainstreaming gender by promoting projects to do with employment, 2. organizations that mainly focus on services such as hel- ping with integration of migrants, providing support for women who are trapped in violent relationships, provide focussed health support for women and family related matters, assist elderly, housewives and other socially excluded women and 3. movement organisations which are usually more overtly anti-institutional. These frameworks at times overlap and new organizations are constantly being set up. Despite recent synergies mobilized in opposition to Berlusconi’s government, contemporary voices of feminism in Milan do not share the same views if compared with the more homogeneous strategies of the previous generation and tend to have different ideas with regards to the usefulness of separatist politics. So speaks one of the members of a movement organization :

« (…) we are not separatist strictly speaking but claim for a separatist space for political theorization. We realized that before mixing up with the world it is fundamental to have a moment of consultation just among women because it’s different. For instance we do invite men to our initiatives but they cannot participate in our group’s mee- tings. »  

28Intergenerational views on separatism are different as shown in the quote above. Today spatial practices such as separatism are used selectively in the light of the previous generation’s achievements.

The younger feminists

29The so-called « younger feminists », a network of women in their thirties, mainly academics, have recently defined the positions of   contemporary feminism in Milan3. The central aspect of their activism revolves around conditions of temporary work that Western European youth is experiencing in the current socio-economic cleavage. Accor- ding to the younger feminists interviewed in Milan, older feminists fail to fully comprehend the impact that precarity has on several aspects of younger women’s lives. In their analysis, precarious work conditions from being a merely economic category addressing new forms of occupation and labour relations is turned into an instrument of struggle. Over the last ten years, four networks of young feminists (Sconvegno, Prec@s, A/matrix and Sexyshock) have appropriated precariousness, sometimes inverting its connotations and looking at it positively in a provocative manner and inspired to queer theories (Fantone, 2007). These aspects in particular reflect the « diversification of the spaces » according to Foucault’s definition of heterotopia « as spatial and temporal disruptions that interrogate and undermine certain formulations of utopia » (Johnson, 2006, p. 1).

« The more you meet the people involved in the movement the more you find out that there are squabbles among groups, you find out what the main focuses of each person are as of course you get to know them personally — so my own position is that of great respect for the struggles these women did [interviewee refers to women of the previous generation] and for their theoretical approaches. However there is also an individual positioning, so to say, a space which is autonomous. I am increasingly realizing that, if compared to our specific experiences, they don’t have a mental space to be able to really comprehend our experiences. »    

30Interestingly the interviewee traces a line between « us » and « them » and clearly declares the incomprehension that characterizes two different generations within the movement. These disagreements are not just between groups but mainly intergenerational. The follo- wing quote better clarifies the statement :

« For instance on precarity of work and life we have had several debates and it makes you realize that they haven’t had these experiences and this makes our positions difficult to understand. We do use their knowledges and we do make use of these fruitful debates however we want to own our communication and be active in promoting our own messages… with many prominent feminists there is this kind of relation… this is because they are extremely intelligent women they are curious and they have recognized our specificity in the context of work and relationships… so they respect us… we think that — okay — they have done their amazing struggle now there are different kind of struggles which they don’t really understand however they are as legitimate. »

31The positioning of the younger feminists is that of setting up an imaginary spatial field which is not separate from the consolidated environment of women’s organizations and civil society actors in contemporary Milan ; it just goes against the grain and offers lines of flight without any logic of contradiction with the previous generation. The heterotopic spaces that the younger feminists describe are rooted in a changed socio-political and economic context if compared with the 1970s and devise different battles to fight at a time when women as collective actors have achieved a consolidated position in the institutional realm of the polis.    

« Our analysis starts from work however we realize how this precarity in reality is pervading every sphere of life, relations which are anyway transformed by time of work and even by your way of living your own home — where there is your laptop is your office and hence even your own home magically become your office so we start from this kind of argument and we expand from this anyway yeah, we start from this. »

32The current condition of temporary work for younger generations conflates with the use value of domestic space and the home becomes an office as long as a laptop is there. This particular aspect also reflects the concept of heterotopia as explained by Johnson’s (2006) : « heterotopias are fundamentally disturbing places » (p. 84), because they « alter to different degrees what might be described as everyday existence » (ibid.) and « challenge the space in which we might feel at home ». Like in the example where the home becomes conflated with the office so long as a laptop is there, heterotopias do not exist in pure form and can only function in relation to each other, in a way that clash and create the « spatio-temporal disturbances » that Foucault refers to. Differently from Lefebvre however, according to Foucault there is no inevitable relationship between heterotopias and spaces of hope and utopia. On the contrary, Foucault’s heterotopias are about conceiving space which is situated in the everyday hence outside, or against, any utopian framework or impulse.

« Our group is made of 5 people and from the onset it was evident that we are not interested in the intergenerational discourse as such. We are more interested in what it means to perceive oneself a feminist subjectivity today. An intergenerational confrontation among women does not have to necessarily exclude men and one of our aims has always  been  to  go  beyond the  boundaries  of  lesbo  and  heterosexuality. »

33Clearly not only the use of separatism has changed, as it is beco- ming more strategic and aimed at a women-only leadership of strategies and projects, but the focus of the feminist enquiry has changed. The main focus has become « what does it mean to perceive oneself as a feminist subjectivity today » hence the intergenerational perspective tends to lose importance and feminist debates can now include men. The previous boundaries such as women versus men, public versus private are being re-written to include the boundaries between homosexuality and heterosexuality, as in the quote above, although the queer feminism strand was still underdeveloped at the time of the interviews and the queer argument was subsumed under the precarity argument.  

34Spatial practices inaugurated by the feminist movement in Milan from the 1970s onwards have been read in the context of space appropriation. In particular, the abolition of imposed boundaries (women’s socio-spatial segregation) and the erection of new and voluntarily established boundaries (separatism) had a fundamental importance in the phase of identity building for the women’s movement and contri- buted to shape feminist subjectivity through separatism. Spatial practices played a relevant role in the contestation of the private and public divide and were deployed to create different divisions, such as separatism, considered useful for feminist strategies. The appropriation of separatist spaces contributed to make these new, re-designed boundaries visible and the material presence of women’s cafes, shelters, bookshops and collectives in the city made women’s political claims become a starting point on which discursively and materially build their political project.

35This article offers an intergenerational reading of space appropriation by the feminist movement in Milan and the women-led civil   society sector which resulted from it. In the case of women’s groups in Milan, urban transformation processes reflected the ambivalences of public and private and set up novel ways to inhabit the public sphere which can be understood as heterotopia according to Foucault’s definition of the term.

36By looking at two generations of women’s countercultural and  civil society groups, this article shows that space organization is    central to how political relations and strategies are negotiated. More- over, changes in social and economic cleavages are necessarily reflected in the ways in which space is used.  From the interview      extracts it emerges that, for the new generation of women’s groups, the domestic sphere no longer represents a limit to full citizenship and active participation in the life of the polis, and offers a basis to a politics where women are no longer excluded and can make a difference. Separatism is still used selectively in order to disrupt the everyday and challenge its hegemonic status.

37Women’s collective action in the 1970s inaugurated the progressive blurring of the boundaries between domestic and public spheres and pioneered ways to disrupt this dichotomy. These « disturbing spaces » and the spatio-temporal disturbances they represent are not just aimed at understanding the gender-related implications of the flexibilisation of the labour market. They are also trying to challenge the alleged continuity between intergenerational feminist practices and affirm the specificity of the current socio-economic cleavage in the West.  This is substantially different from the 1970s and the 1980s and creates different priorities and the need for different strategies. However these heterotopia spaces could not exist without the work of the previous generation. The legacy of feminist spatial practices inaugurated in the 1970s has been welcomed and further developed by contemporary women’s groups in Milan and represent a potential thre- shold for the necessary transformation of institutional politics today.

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1  Separatism produced a collective female subject separate from men. However in a second phase of the movement it further developed into « relational practice » among women. Differently from separatism, this phase recognized and asserted differences among women as a positive value (see Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, 1990).

2 The map was created from the data found in a Milan council publication which lists existing women’s organizations, associations and centres in 2005-2006.

3  To this regard, see the special issue of Feminist Review in 2007 entirely dedicated to Italian feminism.

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Elena Vacchelli (Social Policy Research Centre, Middlesex University).

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Elena Vacchelli, « Gender and the city: intergenerational spatial practices and women’s collective action in Milan »Les cahiers du CEDREF [En ligne], 21 | 2014, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2015, consulté le 01 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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