Changing lanes and speaking as a woman-librarian, and not just a librarian:
I feel I can take care of myself. Years of working in customer service have honed my skills of talking folks down from anger and frustration. I’m not a small woman, and I consider myself more aggressive than most. I’ve taken numerous RAD classes for self-defense, and succeeded in defending myself again one attacker, then two. I went to the 54th largest high school in America in an area still riddled with gang violence, drugs and crime, and managed to stay clean. I worked the second and third shift for a number of years, walking home in the dark, dodging requests for a light, and for other less savory things. I pack a mean right hook and I’ve got a nasty mouth learned from growing up in NY with a former sailor for a dad. I’m heavy and solid, you probably can’t carry me away unless you’ve got some serious towing power. It takes a lot to rattle me.
But I have been rattled.
Years ago, I reported an employee for dishonesty and arranged for a meeting with my boss, the employee, myself and Human Resources. Upon learning that I had reported him and was following up on the issue, the man’s response was to stomp into my office, close the door, loom over and across the desk I was sitting at, jut his index finger down at me and tell me “You’re gonna pay for this,” spittle flying, his face red with anger. My adrenaline spiked, and I managed to say, “Please leave. We will discuss the issue at the scheduled meeting.” He spat, “Bitch,” spun on one foot and left.
This was in my office, beside a very large and heavily-trafficked public service desk, in an academic library, in a major city. Bright lights. Lots of people. White-collar job with air-conditioning and holidays, high heels clicking on tiles and students filling water bottles at the fountain just past my office.
It was not a place I thought I would ever feel fear.
My heart was still beating hard. He was gone, but I was still shaking, my mind was still flying through permutations of what-would-I-do, he was between me and the door, and the closest defensive weapons I had access to were a handful of books, my computer monitor, pens. Eventually the panic faded, and what took its place was anger.
I told my boss about what happened, how angry I was. She asked me if I had contacted Human Resources. I hadn’t; I knew we would be seeing HR about the dismissal and felt there was no need for an additional meeting or report. I can take care of myself, and nothing really happened, I think I said. My boss asked me what I would have done if the man had acted the same way with my staff, two young women, petite, and I realized I would have feared for their safety and immediately phoned security or HR. What would I have done if this man had done the same thing to my sister in her workplace? Of course I would report it and pursue the biggest punishment possible. I would have been terrified for her until he was off the premises.
But then I see the Elliot Rodgers killing spree, and I wonder how many women turned the other cheek at his aggression. How many figured that his behavior didn’t merit intervention since he didn’t actually hit them. How many did not have a wise friend like my boss who could highlight that whether or not I was okay, that such behavior was not okay, and that someone in a position of power needed to know about, and act upon, it.
There is more to violence against women than being punched in the face, or raped. There is the male assumption that women owe them anything. There is the assumption that part of the rites of manhood includes what-you-can-get-from-a-woman. There is the fact that women must always be on edge and prepared for violence, prepared to cross the street, prepared to diffuse a man’s anger with a smile and pleading tone, prepared to defend their reasons for declining physical contact, prepared to defend her choice of clothing, prepared to defend her right to say Don’t touch me. We live in a society where it is assumed that a man can tell you not to lay a finger on his fresh-waxed sports car, but where a man laying hands on a woman–against her will–is grounds for arguments about “gray areas.”
I was cornered against the seasick-green brick wall by the science labs once by a boy in high school who wanted to kiss me, his hands on the wall at either side of my head. I have walked, intoxicated, five miles home in the dark because my then-college-friend would only drive me home if I had sex with him. I have been whooped at on the street by construction workers while walking to class when I was in graduate school in Atlanta, and I have been called a cunt on the sidewalk for not adding some change to a homeless man’s palm. Lawmakers have compared me to cows and pigs. I have had to beg a male coworker to walk me back to my hotel at a professional conference after an after-hours get-together, and still we argue over whether our conferences need a statement of appropriate conduct. I have been cornered in my office, with my desk and an aggressor between myself and the door.
And still, until I thought about it, I never considered myself a victim of gendered violence. I have never sported man-made bruises or broken bones. No man’s fist had made contact with any part of my person. And now with the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter, I find that I’ve actually turned a blind eye to my own experience, owning it as normal, part and parcel of life. Reading the paragraph before this one, replacing myself with my sister, mother, aunt, best friend, is terrifying. I would be furious on their behalf if any of then told me just one of those experiences. But maybe that’s why they don’t stand out for me – they are not just one experience, they are many, and they span my childhood to my present mid-30s.
Several of my best friends have given birth to little girls in the past year. While I smile, knowing these little girls have the models of their fierce and wonderful mothers, I also wince a little bit every time new parents break out the pink booties. This world is not safe for you, yet, little ones. Be wary, be fierce, and learn from your mothers.