I moved to Chicago from Iowa a few years after I graduated college. I was from the suburbs but had lived in an idyllic college town for almost seven years and an idyllic suburb for 18 years before that. Moving to a big city was an adjustment.
I had driven everywhere in Iowa. You had to. But in the city, I tried to leave my car parked and hoof it or take the CTA as much as I could. I wanted to learn the city and save money. This was also a challenge. One of the things that shocked me the most was the rudeness of people on the streets.
Getting jostled, assaulted by perfume and cologne, poked with umbrellas, almost run over by other pedestrians during rush and lunch hours were things I had to get used to. But during my first year in Chicago, I read an article that changed my life.
The article said that women give way on the sidewalk more than men do. So if the sidewalk has (or should have) roughly the same rules as the road does, men swerve into oncoming traffic and expect that traffic to move out of their way.
And it was true.
I started looking around and noticing men barreling down the sidewalk, oblivious of being on the “wrong side of the road”, throwing dirty glances at people who got in their way. And then I noticed it wasn’t people who got in their way; it was women. They moved around or for other men, generally. But women and children were expected to move.
This first year in Chicago was eye opening for me in many ways. The dating scene was intense, full of people, both men and women, who were on a different level than I was, it seemed. They were polished. They had the same clothes. They were put together, witty, poised it seemed. I felt awkward, bumbling.
I also felt big and stupid and anxious a lot of the time.
I’m a tall woman, 5’9”, and I was an athlete in college so other women built pretty much on the same scale as myself surrounded me. And men as well; tall, muscular, goofy men and women. I never felt big. I was small for my team, actually. In Chicago I felt huge. I towered over men at bars. I was always elbowing people by accident, spilling drinks, knocking into things. I wanted to be sleek and streamlined when I was really big and bulky.
So when men barreled ahead, expecting me to move out of their way on the street, it was kind of a shock. But because I am a polite Midwestern girl at heart, overwhelmed and new to the city, I moved out of their way. When they spread their legs on the CTA seats, I scrunched up my own long legs to make room for them. When they stood in doorways and conducted conversations, I waited.
When I read that article (and I wish I had the foresight to cut it out) everything changed for me. My view of the world flipped. Here I am, 5’9”, 176 lbs. of muscle, 26 years old, IQ in the triple digits, expertly educated and gainfully employed. Why on god’s green earth would I get out of the way for anyone? Why would I try and make myself smaller? Scrunch up my legs to accommodate someone else’s rudeness. I was so angry at myself for acting this way! And at men, for not even knowing that they were doing it most of the time, and thinking it was okay when they did know.
The next morning on the way to work I walked down my side of the sidewalk, as usual. I was taking up enough room for me to walk there. Very quickly, some ass bleating into his cellphone came along in my “lane”. I squared my shoulders and let him run into me. He hit me so hard it spun him around. His phone flew in a graceful arc into traffic and he seemed dazed for a moment. I have never had a better moment during a morning commute. He started yelling at me, called me a fat bitch. I raised my finger aloft, without ever breaking stride.
Since that day, I do not give way on the sidewalk. I take up as much room in this world as I need to. I allow men to bang, smack, bump into me. It is not aggressive. I like to think of it as a passive residence. I have the shoulders of a linebacker. I am strong. I am so strong.
I have been yelled at, called names worst than fat bitch, been harassed, threatened. But I do not give way. The same became true on the CTA. I politely ask men to move their legs. To make room for me. I have met with a lot of the same reactions.
But it also became true of my dating and social life. I don’t feel oversized in the city. I feel powerful. I look at the other women and I wonder if they give way on the sidewalk. I walk up to men and women of all sizes and talk to them and don’t worry if I am polished or poised or smart. Those things don’t matter to me like they used to. Everything falls into place when you know how much room in the world you deserve. In my case, it is as much room as I need.
I think of a quote from Caitlin Moran’s book, How to Be a Woman. “You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this, as well?’ If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit’.”
Men don’t think about how much space they take up on the sidewalk. I guarantee it. They feel entitled to their space and my space and the space of every other woman on the street.
This is how I live my feminism, in this way and in countless others. I automatically counter for more money when I am offered a job, even if there is no chance I will get it. I want them to know that I know my worth. I mentor younger women. I participate in a women’s group where we talk about issues facing all of us. I volunteer at Planned Parenthood. I vote. But I always mention that article that I read all those years ago, to other women. I remind them, show them, tell them, and convince them that they do not have to give way; not on the sidewalk, not in their careers and not in their relationships. We deserve the space we need in the world and we get to decide how much space that is.
Beth Dugan is a graduate of the University of Iowa and studied writing at the prestigious Fiction Writing graduate program at Columbia College, Chicago. She has been a freelance writer for more than a decade and has written for TimeOut Chicago, The Pampered Chef, NewCity Chicago, APICS, Think Glink, UR Chicago, The EDGE Network, and Venus. She is currently a Technical Writer for Signal.