LESSONS IN SEXISM FROM A BOY ON A BENCH
I was sixteen and had recently started college, one afternoon while I was on campus I saw a couple of boys sitting on a bench outside the building I was about to enter. They were not actually boys, they appeared to be several years older than me and certainly should have been described as men, but their behavior did not afford them this title. I noticed them pointing at a woman a few strides ahead of me and were boisterous as they carried on in conversation with one another, though I couldn't really hear what they had said and it's only in hindsight that my mind captured any of it.
I walked directly past them on my way into class and heard one of them say, while pointing at me, "now that one has potential, she just doesn't know it yet". As I crossed the threshold I heard as they all agreed and then quickly moved on to the next woman that caught their eye, but in an instant my entire mind was rearranged with those eleven words. I felt like a show pony. Or at least one in the making, as my potential was apparently untapped. Ten years later and I can't begin to count the number of times I've recalled that moment. I don't permit his words to hold any power in my life but they seared themselves into my memory in the way that words do.
I'm aware that it's no small grace that I made it to sixteen before encountering such blatant sexism. Oh sure, there was the boy in second grade who teased me relentlessly and the adults just said "it's because he likes you". Or the guy in high school who wouldn't respect my words when I asked him to give me physical space and stop talking to me, in that situation the adults also said "it's because he likes you". Side note, stop teaching girls that boys being mean is a sign they like you. Just stop it. The repercussions are detrimental. Though these had, up until this point, each appeared like a one-off. Perhaps more a matter of personality and less like systemic conduct.
Since that afternoon on campus there have been dozens upon dozens of moments. Whistles and slurs tossed my way as I walk down the sidewalk. Unwelcome and lingering gazes. All serve as relentless reminders that, to many, women are an object to be graded. I've come up against countless people who have made assumptions, expectations, demands, and labels for me based on their interpretation of what it means that I'm a woman, with little regard for the kind of woman that I actually am.
I will never forget that comment from the boy on the bench. He didn't physically abuse me. He didn't thwart my career path or reprimand my ambition. He spoke a few words about how he saw me and the value he thought I had. He taught me about sexism and I wish he hadn't, but he also taught me that words matter and I'm so glad he did. I have a lot of feelings surrounding equality for women and I'm still sorting out what that looks like, for me, on a practical and tangible level. What I do know, beyond any doubt, is that the language here matters. Deplorable actions may or may not always follow but that doesn't negate the significance of the words. I will hold myself, my tribe, and those I vote for to a high standard of respect when it comes to language. We can do this, here and now, with nothing more than our voices, pens, and keyboards. You don't need money or position to effect this change, and having both doesn't excuse you either.
I'm a young, white, American woman with a college degree. I am very aware that for millions of women around the world their stories are filled with far more violence, persecution, and fear. This one is mine, but it isn't over and I hope to fill the pages yet to be written with the words of a woman who championed the stories and lives of other women. A rising tide lifts all boats.
Happy International Women's Day! There's room enough for all of us.