Dhaka, Bangladesh
Rebecca Solnit: if I were a man

Rebecca Solnit: if I were a man

(From previous yesterday's issue) In the 1990s the artist Ann Hamilton gave her students lightweight 4ft by 8ft sheets of plywood to carry around everywhere they went for a week. The exercise made them conscious of navigating space; they were awkward, forever at risk of bumping into people and things, probably offering up a lot of excuses. Success sometimes seems like that for women, an awkwardly large thing that is supposed to be in other people's way and for which you might need to apologise periodically. The phrases sometimes used for men who partner with successful women - taking it in his stride, not put out by, OK with, dealing with, cool with - are reminders that female success can be regarded as some kind of intrusion or inappropriate behaviour. What would it feel like to have a success that does not in any way contain failure, that is not awkward or grounds for apology, something that you don't need to downplay, to have power that enhances rather than detracts from your attractiveness? (The very idea that powerlessness is attractive is appalling - and real.) Ann Hamilton has had a tremendous career, and some of it came from the sheer scale and ambition of her work from the outset, which seemed exceptional when she appeared on the art scene in the late 1980s. I remember all the women art students I met in that era, who made tiny, furtive things that expressed something about their condition, including the lack of room they felt free to occupy. How do you think big when you're supposed to not get in the way, not overstep your welcome, not overshadow or intimidate? Ann wrote to me when I asked about that plywood assignment long ago: "I am still trying to break the habit of apologising for myself - even though I have little hesitation in asking for help on projects - asking for myself brings out the old, 'Please excuse me.'" I know things are changing, and younger women have different experiences, but women older than me have horrifying stories to tell, and we are not out from under that shadow. Supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says of her arrival at law school in the 1950s, "The dean then asked each of us in turn to say what we were doing at the law school, occupying a seat that could be held by a man." Hillary Clinton told an interviewer a few years ago about meeting with similar opposition in the 1960s, from the young men who'd shown up to take the law school admissions test at Harvard when she did. One even accused her of being homicidal in her ambitions: "If you take my spot, I'll get drafted, and I'll go to Vietnam, and I'll die." He didn't imagine she had a right to compete; or that the place that neither had yet won was no more his than hers. It's not just trouble at the top: women plumbers, electricians and mechanics have told me about being treated as incompetent, intrusive or both in their field. This year Silicon Valley has been haemorrhaging workers' stories of sexual harassment and discrimination It isn't hard to find contemporary horror stories of women who can't wedge a word in edgewise at meetings, have their ideas taken up by others, don't get promoted as they might if they were men, who get harassed and groped or, in the white-collar world, not invited to the executive bonding sessions. This year Silicon Valley has been haemorrhaging workers' stories of sexual harassment and discrimination, and the gist of many is that the tech companies tolerate harassment more than they tolerate people who report it. Even this month a Google employee, in a now infamous screed, insisted that the deeply unequal landscape of Silicon Valley's white-collar jobs is due to nothing more or less than men's superior capacity. We still have a long way to go. A young woman enrolled at a women's college told me this summer she was thrilled to be in an intellectual habitat where no shining young men were going to dominate the classroom conversations the way they had in her high school; walking home across campus at 3am without thinking about safety was another pleasure. (Women do engage in sexual assault, but in numbers that are minute compared to those of men.) Women are targets in the online world, too; in a little experiment on Twitter last year, the journalist Summer Brenner borrowed her brother's profile picture and turned her first name into initials - the harassment she had experienced online dropped to almost nothing. Women may aspire to be men just to be free from persecution by them. If I were a man… I didn't want to be someone else so much as I wanted, from time to time, to be treated as someone else, or left alone as I would be if I was something else. In particular, I've wanted to be able to walk around alone, in cities, on mountains, unmolested. You can't wander lonely as a cloud when you're always checking to see whether you're being followed, or bracing yourself in case the person passing grabs you. I've been insulted, threatened, spat on, attacked, groped, harassed, followed; women I know have been stalked so ferociously they had to go into hiding, sometimes for years; other women I know have been kidnapped, raped, tortured, stabbed, beaten with rocks, left for dead. It impacts on your sense of freedom to say the least. A small part of my consciousness is perpetually occupied by these survival questions whenever I'm outdoors alone, though there are a few places I've been - Iceland, Japan, extremely remote wildernesses where bears were the only menace - where I felt I didn't have to think about it. Solitary walking is where a lot of writers - Wordsworth, Rousseau, Thoreau, Gary Snyder - got a lot of their thinking and composing done; I have, too, but it got interrupted both from outside and from this internal monitor, always thinking about my safety. I know that my whiteness tips the balance the other way with this; it lets me go places that a black person can't, and the short answer to what my life might be like had I been born black would be: different in nearly every imaginable respect. There are many stories of people cross-dressing not as self-expression, but for practical purposes, just as there are of people of colour passing as white. Deborah Samson and Anna Maria Lane are among the women who fought against the British in the revolutionary war dressed as men, and more women did the same in the Union Army during the civil war. The novelist George Sand used a man's name to traverse the literary world of 19th-century France and then men's clothes to traverse Paris. She wasn't just hiding out from harassment, but putting away the treacherous shoes and yards of fabric that made it hard to walk through a city that was rough-surfaced and filthy. She traded those fragile things in for solid boots and sturdy clothes in which she could roam confidently in all weathers and times of day and night, and loved it. Sylvia Plath, born a century later, wrote in her journal when she was 19 that, "Being born a woman is my awful tragedy. Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night." Not a little of the stuff women wore, and still wear, is an impediment and a confinement. Some women evacuating the World Trade Center on September 11 did so barefoot, lacerating their feet because their shoes impaired their mobility. What is it like to spend a lot of your life in shoes in which you're less steady and swift than the people around you? Some women wear tight clothes that hamper free movement, fragile clothes, clothes you can trip over. These garments can be fun and glamorous, but as an everyday uniform they're often incapacitating. Trans people have been remarkable witnesses to how differently the world treats them when they transition. I have read many stories of a woman finding that she no longer has the right of way but will be bumped into on the street; a man finding that he is no longer interrupted. Gender shapes the spaces - social, conversational, professional, as well as literal - that we are given to occupy. Who we are, I realised as I co-created an atlas of New York City, is even built into the landscape, in which many things are named after men, few after women, from streets and buildings - Lafayette Street, Madison Avenue, Lincoln Center, Rockefeller Center - to boroughs - nearby Paterson, Levittown, Morristown. The nomenclature of the city seemed to encourage men to imagine greatness for themselves as generals, captains of industry, presidents, senators. My collaborators and I made a map in which all the subway stops in New York were renamed after the city's great women. Last year, when I discussed it with students at Columbia university (named after Christopher Columbus, of course), a young woman of colour remarked that she had slouched all her life; that in a city where things were named after people like her she might stand up straight. Another wondered whether she would be sexually harassed on boulevards named after women. The world is an uneven surface, with plenty to trip on and room to reinvent. I like being a woman. I love watching and maybe smiling at or talking to kids I run into in parks and grocery stores and anywhere else; I'm confident no one will ever take me for a creep or a kidnapper, and I know that it would be more complicated if I were a man. There are more subtle advantages about the range of expression I'm allowed in my personal relations, including in my close, supportive, emotionally expressive friendships with other women - and, through all my adult life, my friendships with gay men, many of whom who have boldly, festively, brilliantly broken the rules of masculinity and helped me laugh at the gaps between who we are and who we're supposed to be. Liberation is a contagious project, and growing up around people who took apart and reassembled gender helped liberate even a straight woman like me.

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