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Commentary :: Civil & Human Rights

Sexism on the Sidewalk

Under patriarchy, many women experience themselves as second class citizens. Male priviledge is acted out on the sidewalk when women step aside and make way for men.
Sexism on the Sidewalk

by Jade Angelica

It was the ultimate Fall day in New England, the kind that inspires tourists to travel a thousand miles in Greyhound buses from Iowa and Nebraska. I was walking with a female friend along Memorial Drive in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We walked and talked while enjoying the scenery: the choppy current of the Charles River, the flawless robin egg blue sky, and the golden leaves floating in the blustery wind.

Without consciously shifting my attention, I noticed three men, about one half block away, who were walking toward us. Three abreast on the wide sidewalk, these men looked like a wall of suits and ties and button-down collars. As the wall approached, my friend and I moved instinctively in silent unison, as if performing a perfectly choreographed dance. The men danced toward us with the grace and dignity of a steamroller; and we followed their lead, right off the sidewalk into the gutter of busy Memorial Drive. They didn't bother to even register our presence. But that victorious wall of ties seemed to notice us, waving defiantly as it fluttered past the two stupefied women who were gaping at the men in gutter disbelief.

Most people don't realize it, but the city sidewalk is a place where sexism runs rampant. This insidious sexism first captured my attention in that Memorial Drive gutter, humiliating me, and launching a period of sidewalk research and experimentation. The first phase of my research involved noticing natural sidewalk dynamics, initially paying attention to myself. Being deeply programmed to step aside when a male approached me on the sidewalk, I began a wide circumventing arc about one half block away from him. Then I noticed other women following the same choreography I knew. When I boldly tried out the male dance step - of holding my position on the path - other women made a wide arc around me! As I practiced this new dance step, men adamantly did not move aside for me. They must have sensed my tentativeness, because they kept moving forward without hesitation. To avoid a collision, I often ended up pirouetting off the sidewalk into flower beds and gutters.

As my awareness about sidewalk sexism increased, I began to feel invisible to men on the sidewalk. So, the next phase of my experiment included a vow to NEVER step aside; I would MAKE them see me.

With determination to dance the sidewalk lead with ALL men, I embarked on a three block journey, not realizing how challenging even a short jaunt could be! As I approached the corner by the 7-11, an elderly man - he must have been 85 - doddered around the corner, clutching a huge walker. His eyes were riveted to his feet as he shuffled toward me in slow motion. I instantly canceled my vow, and faced a logistical dilemma. The 7-11 building loomed high on one edge of the sidewalk. On the other edge, parking meters, fire hydrants, sign posts, and bicycle racks cluttered the sidewalk; cars claimed the gutter. How could I respectfully and respectably move out of his way?

There was no rehearsed step for this situation, so I improvised. After dancing backwards for ten clumsy strides, I leapt sideways into the parking lot behind the store. There I stood, a patient statue. The walker finally shuffled by. Its owner didn't even acknowledge the woman with the nervous grin waiting for him to relinquish his claim to the sidewalk.

Given these new circumstances, I altered the vow about NEVER moving aside for men. Male senior citizens with walkers would be an exception. I decided to also move aside for senior women, and selected other women who seemed to be vulnerable or having a bad day or in need of respectful treatment. I would make conscious choices to move aside - or not - and no longer dance like a robot-woman. But changing this automatic behavior was difficult. It required rapt attention and persistence. If my mind wandered for even a second, I defaulted to the programmed female pattern. However, I kept trying to change the dance.

One day, walking to the post office, I noticed a man headed toward me. A quick survey of the terrain revealed a shoulder-high cement wall on the inside edge of the sidewalk. Trees and telephone poles lined the outside edge. The gutter was vacant of parked cars and available if an emergency pirouette was necessary; but cars turning right at the traffic light could make the gutter refuge a dangerous choice. Determined, I held my position on the inside path near the wall. The man, bobbling along, did the same.

The approach progressed: he oblivious, I alert. At about five feet apart, the man showed no signs that he recognized my presence or intended to move out of my way. So I stopped. I just stopped. He was about twelve inches from me when it registered in his brain that there was an unmoving object in his path. He stopped, too. We made eye contact. In his deer-in-the-headlights glaze, I saw that this man was clueless about what to do in the situation: A woman had not moved aside for him! We stood frozen in time staring into each others' eyes. Finally, I broke the spell. I blinked, laughed, and stepped aside for his majesty. He bobbled by me, toward the river. I watched until he disappeared into the sunset.

As I became more comfortable with the lead step in the sidewalk dance, most men did move aside for me. Some, however, overtly expressed their dissatisfaction with the changed step.

One bright day in early spring, I walked along Massachusetts Avenue. The air that day was moist and cool, and crocuses bloomed in muddy front yard flower beds. I walked close to the flowers, enjoying their colorful return.

Because I was distracted by the flowers, I was late in noticing that a tall, handsome, impeccably dressed man, wearing a precisely tailored London Fog raincoat was barreling toward me on his way to his obviously important life. Briefly intimidated, I caught myself, and managed to keep dancing on my path, albeit, slowly. He showed no indications of moving out of my way, and I was poised for an emergency pirouette, when he suddenly swerved. He and his impeccably polished shoes landed in a muddy crocus bed. Without glancing back, I kept dancing toward my important life, leaving him in the mud screaming, "Hey bitch. Give me a break."

My sidewalk experimentation revealed a perilous side.

Men seemed to have difficulty both realizing and accepting that I had changed the customary dance step. Therefore, they usually moved away at the last possible second, not making a wide arc around me, but leaving the bare minimum amount of space needed for me to squeak by. Quite often, they left less than the minimum amount of space, brushing, bumping, or bullying my shoulder in passing.

One January morning, as I walked up a steep city hill, a man bundled in a parka and ski hat abruptly appeared on the scene as he rushed around the corner and down the hill. Barely moving out of my way, he bumped up against my shoulder with enough force to bounce me into the brick wall of the Plow & Stars Pub. I was visibly shaken up; but when I turned to see if the man intended to come to my aid, what I saw was a hit and run walker rushing down the hill. He never looked back.

As I watched him, he became a blur from the tears welling up in my eyes. I crossed the street, sat on a frozen bench in the playground, and cried. Not because I was badly injured, but because this "sidewalk assault" awakened the memory of a painful incident from my adolescence.

The summer before tenth grade, my best friend and I had paused at the corner of a busy street in our hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. We were waiting to cross the street and join our friends who gathered every Saturday night at Sandy's fast food restaurant. Out of nowhere, a car of teenage boys screeched to a stop at the corner where we stood. With whoops and hollers, one boy lunged out of the front seat window, while another boy lunged out of the back seat window. They reached out, grabbing and squeezing our precious blooming breasts. Then they sped away, leaving the roar of boys' laughter lingering in the air. It all happened so fast: the screeching, the whoops, the grabbing, the laughter, the humiliation delivered by the hands of forever anonymous perpetrators.

As my research continued, questions arose. Where, when and how I had learned the sidewalk dance? Was it a tradition that women pass down through the generations? But I don't remember anyone instructing me with this message: "Now Jade, when you see a man or a boy walking toward you on the sidewalk, step aside so he can pass unperturbed. Into the gutter, honey, if you must, but in all circumstances give him room to pass." If the tradition was not passed on verbally, did I learn it by mimicking what I saw happening around me? Or did I learn through my own humiliating experiences as a young girl that the sidewalk is a place where females need to be cautious?

By taking my research into conversation and study, I discovered that the sidewalk dance is neither a new fad, nor confined to American culture.

My friend, Delores, attended graduate school in the 1960s in Beirut, Lebanon. There she learned - quickly - to make that wide arc around all the males she met along the sidewalk, even young boys. "If I did not move away - far away - from them," she said, "they routinely rubbed my thighs and grabbed my buttocks with their hands as I passed by." So, the women's sidewalk dance step could actually be a move of self-protection born in the female collective consciousness.

Or it could be a move of collective subservience. Keith Johnstone, British actor and director, further enlightened me about this dynamic in his book, IMPRO: Improvisation and the Theatre. Johnstone attributes the decision to move aside - or not - to "status." In his extensive observations of this specific interpersonal interaction, he concluded that the two people approaching each other, automatically, unconsciously "scan each other for signs of status." (p.61). According to Johnstone, the person who considers himself or herself to be of lower status will unconsciously decide to move aside. Johnstone noticed this dynamic on the bustling streets of London; he noticed it in Hamburg; he noticed it in Russia.

Johnstone expressed amazement, that on busy city streets, we aren't bumping into each other all the time. It is amazing; and if Johnstone had focused his attention on gender, he would have credited women - who sadly are still considered to be of lower status - for maintaining civility on the city sidewalks as we automatically move aside for men.

Of course, men approach men along the sidewalk; and women approach women. In these scenarios, the choice to make the arc is psychologically more complex, and a subject of research for one interested in status and power between men and men - or between women and women.

From my sidewalk research, I conclude that women AND men have a mandate to wake up and pay attention to our automatic behaviors. We need to raise the collective consciousness about this unrecognized remnant of sexism lingering in our culture, and to take concrete steps to raise the status of women in relationship to men on the sidewalk...and any place else where sexism still lurks. Right here, right now - men and women alike - I invite you to wake up and change the dance!

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Re: Sexism on the Sidewalk

Great article. Thanks for sharing it.

I've noticed a similar dynamic when I'm waiting in public places, especially lines. Although I've seen women try this (and I know some of them specifically try it with men), some men seem to be experts at not seeing other people waiting in line. They engage in pushing or asserting themselves to the front of the line (or deli counter, etc.) This has so annoyed me that I've worked up the courage to start asserting myself by interrupting and letting the clerk (etc.) know that I was next. Usually the man is embarrassed at getting "caught" (an indication that they knew what they were doing!), but some actually get mad. Of those who have gotten mad, it was not because they actually believed they were rightfully ahead of me. It was because they were in a hurry and they felt that somehow their situation was more important than mine!

I agree with Johnstone's theory that we assess each other for "status" when we make the judgement to move or not. Within that context, I think that physical size has a lot to do with this behavior. You see it in the animal kingdom all of the time. Elephants usually don't worry about what is in their path --- but the smaller animals make sure they are not in the elephant's path! Though we are animals, we are also *rational and conscious* creatures and, therefore, can be expected to rise above the behaviors of the animal kingdom.

One thing I've started doing in an effort to help men and women "see" each other is to educate children in play situations. Overwhelmingly, I see boys acting aggressively toward othters, though some girls can be aggressive also. When I see that happening, I let the child know that there is another person there who needs to be treated with respect. (Obviously, I use age-appropriate language.) Some kids look really surprized when I point this out, as if they've not heard it before. Not all of us work with or are around children, but for those who are, I think educating kids is always worth the effort.

Good Advice From a Brilliant Mind

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

-Eleanor Roosevelt

Re: Sexism on the Sidewalk

Jade Angelica wrote : "With whoops and hollers, one boy lunged out of the front seat window, while another boy lunged out of the back seat window. They reached out, grabbing and squeezing our precious blooming breasts. Then they sped away, leaving the roar of boys' laughter lingering in the air. It all happened so fast: the screeching, the whoops, the grabbing, the laughter, the humiliation delivered by the hands of forever anonymous persons."

I experianced a similar insult. As I was jogging along the side of the road, a car load of young male punks roared past me and shouted BITCH! This happened twice.

I guess these gutless weenies need to be safely in cars, insulting a women while speeding away.

We live in a woman hating society where women and girls are regarded with COMTEMPT.

I dont know why women are hated and feared all over the world and why such horrors such as rapes and beatings have been and still are being done to us.

I like Inga Muscio's idea of how to deal with known rapists. In her book CUNT she writes that rapists should be " pilloried, smeared with dogshit, forced to kneel in front of a high-powered microphone on a raised platform and apoligize to the ten thousand women who marched by them."


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