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.