commute · feminism · running

Experiments in Walking While Feminist

Earlier this year, I read about Beth Breslaw’s experiments with walking in public and male entitlement. Breslaw decided that she would stop moving out of the way when a) she was walking down the appropriate side of the sidewalk, and b) someone was not walking down the appropriate side of the sidewalk and directly in her way. I decided to take her up on the challenge of doing the same on my twice-daily walks to and from the office, and during my weekend errand runs around the Annex and down to Kensington Market (which is packed with pedestrians). 
Here’s what will come as not even a little bit of a surprise. Entitlement is alive and well on the sidewalk. When I don’t move–and I can’t do this every day, because it’s exhausting–I get slammed. Repeatedly. When another walker and I are on a collision course, I apparently become invisible and my personal space completely disappears. And it doesn’t matter how much or little of my side of the sidewalk I’m taking up. I can be essentially on the curb and I still get body checked. Women also fail to yield, but men are much (much) more likely not to move over. A number of snarky articles took offense at New York Magazine’s decision to call this “manslamming,” and called into question the legitimacy of Breslaw’s experiment. Hers (nor mine) stand up to any kind of rigorous examination as scientific experiments, but they don’t need to–at least one of the many walking studies in the 1970s demonstrated exactly what we both experienced: “when two pedestrians passed closely to another, the majority of women turned away from the other walker, while the majority of men turned toward the opposing pedestrian.”
What gives? Breslaw makes the connection between failing to yield and manspreading, or what we might think of more generally as the male entitlement to fully bodily inhabit public space, and I think she’s right. One of the reasons that I was so desperate to give up my subway commute was the back pain it was causing me–men felt entitled to sit fully back in their narrow seats, shoulders spread, and I was getting chronic back pain from squeezing between them and having my shoulders pushed forward the entire hour-long ride. When I did attempt to take up my full allotted amount of space on public transit, I experienced the same pushback, subtle and unsubtle, that women continually report in every story about manspreading ever written. The same pushback I get on the sidewalk. 
What I really wonder is how I failed to notice for more than thirty years of my life that my seemingly straight-lined walks were actually continual feints, dodges, and weaves. When I’m not refusing to move, I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy moving, repeatedly, multiple times a minute, for people who have decided that my half of the sidewalk is their rightful space. The distance between my starting point and destination on a map does not equate with how far I actually walk, because all of my weaving adds up to a significant addition. Interestingly, the same is not true for when I’m out running. Perhaps its simply because I choose not to run during rush hour, or on streets that I know will be crowded, but my GPS tracker normally lines up with the distance on the map at the end of a run–I haven’t feinted my way to an extra half kilometre. I wonder, though, if it’s because “athlete” registers differently in public than just “woman.” 
Despite how frustrating, and sometimes painful, keeping up this experiment sometimes gets, I still refuse to move on at least a few of my walks a week. I really doubt that the men who bash into me are learning anything from the experience, although I hope they might. But mostly I do it for the same reason that I do power poses before an interview–to remind myself that my body is entitled to its share of space in the world, and that to step aside or hunch my shoulders or compress myself into a smaller space does make me smaller, does disempower me, does change how I experience being me in the world. And I’m not down with that. 

2 thoughts on “Experiments in Walking While Feminist

  1. Oh yes. This. Here's something. My daughter is always banging into people while walking, because she occupies space the way a child does, which is to say, in a manner completely heedless of anyone else's needs. And i have been correcting her, constantly: “Muffin! Be careful of the other people on the sidewalk! Muffin! Don't bang into people–watch where you're going!”

    So I'm training her to do the thing that women do: look around and get out of people's way. Now I'm mad. Of course, everyone should be polite, but it is NOT FAIR that some people are always on the giving space spectrum while others stay on the taking space spectrum.

    I have been pushing back against manspreading on planes, where it drives me bonkers. This basically involves not recoiling from the touch of strangers: elbows over the armrest into my personal space, knees pushign into my thighs, shoulders into my shoulders. I find it is not enough to not relinquish space. I have to actually push back, which is crazy, and verrrrrrrrrrry uncomfortable emotionally for me to do, but I do it because ENOUGH ALREADY DUDES.


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