Traveling Sexism by Anjeanette LeBoeuf

This summer I traveled quite a lot domestically. While I was in airports, on trains, waiting in lines, and going about my summer I kept coming across certain patterns and experiences which were becoming all too common and too significant to ignore; a mixture of overt and subtle sexism.

First it started out with one of my airport shuttle drivers wondering why I was traveling alone. While there is always room for small talk, I was struck with how – if I was male – that question would not have been asked. It reached the pinnacle when I was told by an older man to give up my seat for an elderly woman so he didn’t have to give up his seat – this was after he had stared at me for over 10 minutes when I first sat down using his eyes to voice his displeasure over me taking up two seats. Regardless of the fact that he, himself, was taking up 3.

As a woman, I have been trained to be polite. The society I have been raised in has told me it is better to be seen and not heard, and if possible take up as little space as possible. As a feminist and as a woman who was trained in self-defense, I am aware of my surroundings. As a seasoned traveler, I am also highly conscious of my personal belongings. When I travel alone it is one of the tricks to ensure you have a safety ‘bubble’ around you. If there is opportunity, take up two seats for you and your stuff. But it has struck me in my last three months of travel that people seem to be drawn to sitting near me instead of sitting near empty seats by solo men. So why is that…is it because there is an unconscious notion that I would move my stuff to be accommodating and polite? Is it an unconscious self-defense move to avoid the potential danger of the solo man? And what is it which makes society teach men that their body and the spaces it resides in is much more valued? Why is it that men are given the way to take up space, to use their voices and bodies. Male space can be seen in the phenomenon called “manspreading.”

An Instagram account was set up showing how prevalent it is that men seem to automatically take up as much space as possible. Last week I got on an airport shuttle where all of the riders – 3 in total and all men- were taking up almost all of the 10 seats. One man had to awkwardly move so I could sit, but he did not move all the way to the corner which forced me to seat in-between two men, each of which had an empty seat on the other side of them. I was never more aware of the perceived value of space.

I also witnessed how men and women react in the same situation in completely different ways. Ways to which illustrate entitlement and conditioning. The airlines have started to really crack down on the size of carry-ons people are allowed to take on board. Countless times I witnessed airline workers politely ask guests to check their baggage size. All the women who were asked did so without complaint and did so quite efficiently. The four times that men were asked, all of them voiced their distaste, their discomfort, and their displeasure over being inconvenience. Two of which continued to voice their disdain as we boarded the plane.

I bought up some of these experiences to a couple of different people; friends, family, and a fellow solo female traveler. The responses were just as surprising. My friends were quite interested in the correlation of how men and women are taught to function in public, what is expected of us, and how far we can push the limits. My family were thankful that I am seasoned and trained enough to be smart and observant traveler but wondered about if these experiences were concrete examples of sexism and not just the weird things that people do.

The stranger that I befriended while in the dreaded TSA line offered solidarity and humor to what, ‘we as women’ have to endure and she has noticed that since 9/11, it seems like more and more people think they have the license to be rude, unfriendly, and inconsiderate to their fellow travelers. We then started to talk about how with the rise of the feminist consciousness more and more people are pushing back by being rude and inconsiderate to women. She told me about her own experience riding a subway and how she witnessed a man being reprimanded for “manspreading” and his response was that women had been doing it for years with their purses so it gives him every right to take up three seats.

These experiences are just another concrete example of the continue journey ahead. As I was stuck in traffic driving home, I wondered what society would look like when gender is not an issue, when space is space no matter who or what is residing in it. I wondered what travel would look like if men were forced to give up their space. I write this post in hopes that others who have traveled and have experienced similar instances know that they are not alone or even to offer a good laugh over the ridiculousness of it all.


Anjeanette LeBoeuf is a Ph.D Candidate in Women Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University. She is the Queer Advocate for the Western Region of the American Academy of Religion. She is currently a Lecturer of Asian Religions at Whittier College. Anjeanette also writes the for activist blog, Engaged Gaze. Her focuses are divided between South Asian religions and religion and popular culture. She has become focused on exploring the representations of women in all forms of popular culture and how religion plays into them. She is an avid supporter of both soccer and hockey. She is also a television and movie buff which probably takes way too much of her time, but she enjoys every minute of it. Anjeanette has had a love affair with books from a very young age and always finds time in her demanding academic career to crack open a new book.

Categories: General, Power relations, Women's Voices

Tags: , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. How about when the big guy in seat next to you in the airplane takes both arm rests and you have to fold your arms in against your body.

    Liked by 3 people

    • That is a great example Carol of of the perceived value of male bodies and how women are taught to make as little space as possible.

      I had a man decide since I had little legs and wasn’t using all of my foot space – it gave him the go ahead to put one of his legs into bottom chair space on the plane.

      Its maddening really

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Anjanette, this is an interesting topic. I was just thinking of how I, too, was brought up to be polite and unthreatening. It didn’t get me very far, which was why, when my elder son was growing up and turned out to be rather cheeky, I didn’t check his behavior. I thought if he were this cheeky to me, he’d be assertive in his career, too, and he was.

    With respect to career and earnings, he’s done far, far better than I ever did. Sigh. I am heavily involved in my granddaughter’s upbringing, and I hope that she, too, will turn out to be assertive and successful after she grows up.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Unfortunately, I do not think this “manspreading” is ridiculous – i think it’s endemic to the culture we live in, and yes, it is getting much worse – especially in this last year. Men around this area take up space by shooting guns, by exploding fireworks and by riding around in giant trucks, gearing up for the fall kill. I am revolted.

    Yesterday afternoon I was visiting a friend who works all week and then comes home to process enormous amounts of food during her “free” time on weekends. Granted, this is her choice and she and her husband have a magnificent garden. However, it was hot yesterday and she had been gathering onions and placing them in cardboard boxes when her husband arrived home from somewhere and criticized her for not leaving enough space between the onions. “It’s all in the rule book” he said, ” you are not following the rules” as he started to walk away. I started to suggest that husband separate the onions himself when my friend interrupted saying that she had prepared them before (for many years) in the same way without problems. This woman processes food all the way into winter on a yearly basis, and she is still being criticized for not “going by the rules.” WHAT???? Whose rules? This woman, like me, is a seasoned gardener and knows what she is doing…. this training into subservience is a way of life for women… And I am no exception. When I fall into this trap I end up angry with myself – forgetting the almost 73 years of training I have had. Discouraging to say the least.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am, thankfully, retired, and I try hard to avoid interacting with men whenever possible for the reasons mentioned in this blog. The election of our current President has, in my opinion, exacerbated this problem. Patriarchy persists.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Recently, I got to hear the author, Junot Diaz, speak and read from his Pulitzer Prize-winning (2008) novel, THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO. For me, it was a “WOW” experience. One of the things he said was that there are no “good men” in patriarchy, referring to how so often men who lie, cheat, sexually harass, extort, beat their wives/girlfriends etc. are said to be “good men at heart.” No such thing, he reiterated. He also asserted that to be male is to be born privileged. He put himself in that privileged category, noting that he was also “straight” which gave him double privilege. He is also an immigrant (Dominican Republic), Black, and grew up poor–things that don’t put him on the privileged scale. But I felt vindicated (sort of) when he spoke out so strongly about male privilege. Is it because he, being male, gives the assertion of male privilege more weight when he says it? If so, that sucks.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It is quite an experience to hear man voice or come to the realization of the privilege their are inherently given.

      And you also give a great counter point of why it mattered so much to hear a man voice it.

      I would like to believe it isn’t about validation but hopefully about progress – that finally the ones that need to know and realize, might actually get the clue.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I had lots of “gut reactions” to this post Anjeanette! To the cab driver I’d ask: “Now why would you want to know that?” I can picture my mother giving the guys in the pictures “the look”, maybe smacking the knee down and saying “sit up straight” or “stop slouching” or “move over”. I’m now living in a building with some male tenants. Most of them are respectful and kind and caring people. A few need a good smack upside the head. It’s all rather exhausting at times!

    Liked by 3 people

    • It is so interesting cause my gut reaction to the driver was ‘you did not just ask me that, why do you want to know’ and my actual reaction was just to smile and not answer the question.

      It is a constant struggle to not make waves and to have my voice heard. To be polite but to be assertive. It was another reason why I absolutely loved Senator Kamala Harris’s campaign of “Courage not Courtesy”

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Many years ago as the third wave of feminism was emerging in the early 70s, I’d go to consciousness raising groups and hear, “We have to raise our daughters differently.” I, who had sons, (as did some of the other women), said, “We have to raise our SONS differently. I have. Both sons, and grandson, are respectful of women and treat them with equality. All do laundry, cook, clean. Perhaps the way to change the world is to change our sons. My sons, while they tease me, are never “cheeky” or disrespectful. To women or to men. We think “boys will be boys” and yes, they will. But a mother can also teach them loving and respectful actions. The sons’ father was gone most of the 70s, a soldier, so that experience of bringing up the sons alone no doubt had an effect. That marriage didn’t last, but the man who is now my husband was brought up to wash clothes and cook and be respectful, too. Judging men for the way they were raised to be is probably less useful than finding a way to communicate. Years ago, I found the book “The Dance of Relationships” by Harriet Lerner. If you want to be heard, learn that men and women don’t use language in the same way. If I were a woman on a subway or bus and a man were taking up two seats (as I have been several times), I would have said, have said, respectfully, “It would help me if you’d move your leg so I could sit.” And I say it in a neutral tone. The man I’m speaking to has always said, Oh, sure. And moved. Judging another is rarely as effective as trying to understand their behavior. When I asked my husband why men spread their legs, he said, “Well, our crotches get hot. But I wouldn’t do it unless I was alone.” Sorry to go on and on. But I think there’s a way to deal with these issues without getting angry or blaming.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Janet,

      You bring up a good point about raising our boys differently. As well as allowing for differences in physically…there is a reason for men to sit a certain way but that does not mean there can not be room for consideration of others and their space.

      And this post was not intended for blame but a way to discuss, reflect, and move on. So thank you for the reminder that we need to also find space for discussion and progress.


      • I didn’t think you were blaming, far from it. And yes, there needs to be consideration for others always, even walking down the street. I’m big on communication (writer, speaker, thinker, teacher LOL) and one of the things I stress is how to talk to another person so that she/he can hear you. Thanks for hearing me. :)

        Liked by 1 person

    • Both my sons are grown up now and completely involved in bringing up their offspring. Both change diapers, walk the floors at night with crying infants, play games with their children, and read to them. Both are gourmet cooks. Elder Son cooks; his wife prefers to clean, so they split up their chores that way. Younger Son has always been responsible for bathing the two children, as my daughter-in-law does not like doing that.

      I never have to call them to find out how they’re doing; they call or visit me. We text back and forth all week long. Both sons are working together to give my husband and me a 50th anniversary party next month.

      As clueless as my husband and I often felt when our children were small, we must have done something right!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Nicely expressed. And well done. Yes, you did something, lots, actually, right, it sounds like. That’s pretty much how my boys are. We recently had a great-grandson, and my husband, when he told grandson how impressed he was with grandson’s care and attention to the baby, grandson said, “Well, I learned it from you and Grams.” Brought tears to husband’s eyes as he’s not the biological elder.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. I like this post. I think you’re very brace traveling alone. I am definitely not there yet! But I do love to travel, check out my posts :) I think I’ll eventually have to start alone as not enough people want to go away as often as I do!!
    I did however notice this manspreading thing on my recent flight back from Rhodes. I’d pre booked seats with my friend and we were sat next to a little girl who’d been separated from her mum. I switched seats with her mum so that the little girl would be more comfortable to end up sat next to a teenage boy and his girlfriend. On sitting down his elbow was well over the armrest into my personal space. After a few minutes he moved it and I managed to get a bit of arm rest only for him to realise and physically ran is elbow into mind and shove me off the armrest as if it belonged to him?! Spent the rest of the flight in a silent elbow war over the arm rest…thinking about it I don’t know I don’t know why I didn’t just tell him to move :s xx


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: