As I walked to my seat at a gathering last week, a male acquaintance grabbed me by the elbow, spilling my coffee.
“Whoa,” I said. “What are you doing?”
“That’s what you get for not saying hello to me,” he said.
“You spilled my coffee,” I said and kept walking.
I could focus on the details here of how I know this person casually and that he has previously told me out of the blue that I’m “intimidating” and that I don’t speak to him as much as he’d like me to. I could get into how I get nervous in groups and how I generally need to locate a safe spot and/or a safe person in the room, and in that process I can skip acknowledging people accidentally. And God knows I probably don’t smile enough at anyone, especially men, based on feedback I’ve gotten whether I’ve asked for it or not.
I can note how I was walking to that safe spot the other night with my too-full coffee when he interrupted me by suddenly grabbing my arm.
I can add that was a terrible waitress for way too long in college, and I’ve never have been very good at serving up conversation on command either.
What I’ve focused on since then, though, and what I think made the primal anger travel straight from my nervous system to my suddenly red cheeks and temples and a sudden shaking in my hands, is this constant, insidious, entirely flawed idea that I got what I deserved. Because that’s what “That’s what you get” means: retribution for not delivering what this man thinks he’s owed — that disconnect between expectation and reward that flies right out of coffee cups onto the floor.
Last week wasn’t great between men and me across the board, honestly. Another man raised his voice to me in a meeting over something I had no idea I was doing wrong, and two more dominated another room and me to the point that I kept uncharacteristically quiet rather than try to talk over them. I shrank back into my seat. Opted out.“I’m not an eyelash batter,” I said to a friend the day after the coffee-spilling incident. “I am fundamentally incapable.”
Please note: Even assertive women can be intimidated. Even women who are not prone to backing down can get the signal that it’s certainly emotionally and perhaps even physically unsafe to keep going. I’m even prone sometimes to rewinding the conversation in my mind for hours after, looking mostly for what I could have done differently to keep things from going off the rails, even feeling some ridiculous programmed shame and guilt for everything said and not said.
At the same time, in this contentious and very loud political season, on the internet the world over, I’ve watched for months as other men explained to some of the most brilliant, politically engaged women I know how primaries work and why Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the experience to be president and why these women don’t understand who they’re voting for, not really, and also about the economy and war.
“I understand the delegate count,” one political strategist friend said to a man who was unnecessarily explaining the delegate count to her. “I’ve been in politics for a long time.”
I dislike the term “mansplaining” as much as I hate the action, and I therefore wish I didn’t encounter so many reasons recently to use it in life and on the internet. I knew exactly what it was five years ago when a man interrupted my basketball conversation in a bar to correct my already-correct statements about three-point shots. I told him I edited a sports blog; he ignored me and kept talking as I backed away from a conversation with someone who was not interested in hearing what I had to say. More recently, I wish I hadn’t had to address a real life friend who followed a trail of my comments to another friend’s Facebook wall — a stranger to him — to leave an unpleasant comment about Senator Clinton. I didn’t want to have to respond to yet another 2016 standard issue, “feel the Bern/Shillary sucks,” thinly-veiled misogynistic statement. I don’t want conflict with my friends or anyone. But I know that not responding is assent, and even though I pick my battles, that does leave some of them to be picked. So I took a deep breath, typed and deleted a few times and asked him respectfully not to use profanity on my colleague’s Facebook wall.
This life as a person who speaks up, who is interested in discourse and who often breaks the gendered social contract can be a real drag. And sometimes it feels futile; like maybe I’m the fool? Like maybe I’d be better off as the flirt or the seen-and-not-heard woman that I am absolutely not designed in any way to be. But more than tiring, maddening or pointless, it feels necessary, especially in these times of Trump and Brock Turner and injustice for Sandra Bland and Facebook threads that call Elizabeth Warren the c-word for not backing a particular presidential candidate.
Raised in a fairly traditional family environment where I nonetheless had the relative freedom to speak my mind, I knew about gender inequality in theory but my idealistic bubble was real. I had several aunts who might make their brothers and husbands dinner, but would go head-to-head with them and with each other in political and social debate at family reunions where everyone was definitely not on the same ideological page. I had uncles who were more like my brothers, who argued politics and pretty much everything else with me for sport. I was just as likely to be asked by a relative about school and what I planned to do for a career as about who I was dating, which is good because I had a lot to say about the former and, more often than not, absolutely nothing of interest to share about the latter. I went to an all-girls high school where whatever limits we had in Catholic rules and regulations were balanced by the fact that young women were the community; we were its student governance, academic achievers and social structures.
I couldn’t name misogyny until I’d lived it — in the workplace, in the street, and in pretty much every social situation. I was motivated in college — just a year or so outside of my bubble — to learn how hard women have had to work to receive basic rights like voting and equal compensation, never mind the right to walk the streets day or night in the outfits of our choosing or to speak confidently to anyone of any gender without fear of verbal and physical assaults. I have become aware of the even harder road that women of color have to travel. I am mindful of all of the work that still needs to be done to get women’s voices heard.
So when I face misogyny in real life, when I feel the literal burn on my face of condescension, of a man tacitly questioning my intelligence or stating in euphemism or sometimes just plain English that my voice and my choice to use it or not is subject to his approval, when I am touched without my invitation or approval by a man who is dissatisfied with my behavior, I don’t know why I am still, naively, stupidly shocked. I should know better by now, but it’s possible that I still just want to believe better — of people and of a culture that isn’t changing fast enough to suit me, I guess. It’s also true that programming runs deep.
“I’m not an eyelash batter,” I said to a friend the day after the coffee-spilling incident. “I am fundamentally incapable.”
“I am,” she said. “Raised that way. And don’t worry — it’s not a better way to be.”
I’m sorry to report that I ever doubt my voice all while I feel constantly compelled to use it, and I’m certain that I always will. I’ll raise it if I have to, although this is not always my preference, at least not in conflict. I know that there will be times when I will wish I could tone it down. When that happens, I should probably try to recall that time when that guy grabbed my arm and spilled my coffee and how I stated for the record that that was not okay with me, got some napkins and wiped up the mess.