A truckload of firemen young enough to have sprung from my loins whistled and cheered at me as they drove by. I laughed, feeling absurdly complimented. Not bad for a technically middle-aged woman, I thought. It took me to the end of the block to realize that I should’ve been disgusted by their behavior. You must do better, I chided myself. After all, you’re a feminist.
I was reminded of this the other night when I was out with my god-daughter and her friends. Vibrant twenty-somethings, all of them brilliant and funny and talented. At the end of the evening, some ordered Ubers and others opted for public transportation. I’d better go out of my way to see this girl home, I thought, eying a med student in a mini-dress. She really shouldn’t be on that particular subway dressed like that at this hour. I felt ironically maternal until it struck me that I was viewing her wardrobe choice as the primary factor in her physical safety.
When did this happen? When did my instant outrage turn into resignation, acceptance even?
I suppose it was a gradual process, the accumulation of day-to-day life experience as a woman over decades. Don’t get me wrong, I know I am privileged. I grew up in Western democracies with freedom of speech, to a family who encouraged independent thought and higher education and did not marry me off to a suitable candidate against my wishes.
Don’t sit like that, keep your knees together. If you go out looking like that you’re asking for it. When you enter a room, or a train car, or any enclosed space, make sure you’re not the only woman there. If you let him buy you drinks, he may expect more than your phone number in return. What you consider a conversation, he may consider foreplay. When you turn him down, appear grateful for his interest nonetheless so as not to insult him or incite his rage. But also be very clear and firm so as not to send a mixed message. When someone praises your work and immediately asks how much of it was done by a guy, or when a male boss or a colleague makes an inappropriate comment, that’s just the way the world works. They mean it as a compliment, after all.
And somewhere along the way, I got tired. Because let’s face it, it’s exhausting to always be on your guard, to perform regular self-checks monitoring your behavior and appearance. To be constantly aware of your surroundings. To live constantly on the defensive.
And now I watch my god-daughter, and her girlfriends interact with the world around them, sometimes experiencing the same difficulties but more often blithely going through life as if they had every right to do as they please regardless of their gender.
And I wonder, is this brash expectancy of equality a strength or a weakness? Naiveté or progress? Do I warn them or applaud?
Or maybe simply join them. Maybe this old bitch can learn a few new tricks.