My mom was quite a looker. Not just the run-of-the-mill pleasant-looking woman in the 50s, but a tiny, blazing-blue-eyed fiery redhead who made her own perfectly fitted suits (no pants for that lady, strictly skirts) and wore 4″ spectator pumps to work in the city every day. She worked at the Daily News, one of the big papers in Chicago, as the secretary to an editor (on this my memory is cloudy). In those days before computers, when everything was hand delivered, her job entailed lots and lots of walking.
One of her daily routes took her through an overpass over Canal Street, between the old Daily News Building and the train station, the one now known as Ogilvie Transportation Center.
When she was working in the Daily News Building, that overpass was lined with benches where the men in the building would sit and eat their sack lunches and comment loudly on the women passing by. My mother, never an admitted feminist, but I suspect a defiant and independent enough individual to have qualified, despite her protests about the movement, did not suffer this insult gladly. One day, walking through the overpass with her arms full of files, she heard the catcalls from the men lining the halls, and she’d had enough. Stopping dead in her tracks, she set –probably slammed, if I know my mother — down the stack of folders, spun on her 4″ heels, crossed her arms (God, I remember that pose) and glared directly at the crotches of the guilty parties. She didn’t say a word, just stared them down, eyeball to balls, until they were squirming in their seats. Once she was satisfied that they got the message, she picked up her folders and went on her way.
I’ve been thinking about this story a lot these days, ever since the video of the woman walking around New York started getting passed around. It’s frustrating to hear people respond with such disdain to evidence of the distressing amount of unsolicited and unwanted remarks made to women largely about their appearance. Most of the time, the complaints are framed this way, “Can’t you take a compliment?” or “I was just trying to be nice!”
There has been plenty of discussion about the video, but for me, what it comes down to is this: every one of us is dealing with *something* every minute of the day. What catcalling apologists don’t understand is that most women they are “complimenting” are dealing with the fact that the moment we leave our houses, we feel like targets, bombarded by comments and judgement and stares from strangers (and sometimes, worse). We can’t simply BE, we also have to field distracting and sometimes demeaning input from people we’ve never met, from people we don’t know and, therefore, don’t know if we can trust to be kind and not harmful.
Some days, taking shots peppered our direction is no big deal, but some days, when we’re ALSO dealing with other things — sick child in the hospital, bad feedback from a boss, wondering how to afford the next car payment — it’s untenable. To be human is to be burdened with worry, but street harassment puts women in a different category; in addition to our human concerns, we also have to be constantly on guard for the potentially dangerous, threatening malcontent among those offering “compliments”. And let’s be frank; some men wouldn’t think twice about aggressively pursuing and threatening some women on the street. Some men wouldn’t think twice about much, much worse.
In the same way *you* have no idea whether we are dealing with something oppressive, WE have no idea whether you are a danger. So every day, every time we leave the house, we have to be prepared for that particular battle. Every single damned day. On TOP of the rest of the stuff we’re dealing with. And we don’t have a choice; this barrage takes place simply because we exist in a public space, because we are a collection of body parts men find attractive, because men can’t marshal their desires enough to keep their own mouths shut.
So the next time you open your mouth to say “oh, what’s the big deal?” think about what you’re fighting for. Is it so important that you have the right to shout “hey, baby! looking good mama!” at a woman you’ve never met? Is that so incredibly important to you?
If it is, if you have really looked deep within yourself and think that your catcalling right is more important than building a society in which every single person feels safe when they’re just walking from A to B, then…well, then you are a gormless, pathetic knuckle-dragger whose ignorance is an affront to humanity. My only hope is in the fact that your stupidity will be defeated by evolution, and your kind will soon die out.
I’d rather that death take place as a public stoning, with stilettos taking the place of the stones. And I wish my mother could cast the first shoe.