Woolf, more on street harassment, and simple things

How Virginia Woolf did not age well (or, rather, she aged very rapidly) and yet she maintained this essential quality of light elegance, quiet composure. In contrast to her brilliant, racing mind? I feel somewhat obsessed with that photograph of her, from 1938, just three years before she died; her limpid expression, the angle of the camera, the light behind her.

In the grim state of affairs regarding women’s public safety, my conclusion is thus: You simply cannot trust men you do not know. This sounds dark and cynical, but I feel dark and cynical about the state of women’s freedom and the outrageous lack of respect for women as human beings. A close friend worked at the same hospital as Hannah Graham’s alleged murderer and rapist and said he was the nicest, gentlest guy; so did many of his friends. “So, now knowing all of this, and knowing how I found him to be such a trustworthy person,” my friend said, “how can you trust anyone?” We let the question fall and didn’t answer, because what could we say? Who can you trust? But “anyone,” to me, is the limiting factor. I’d answer that you just can’t trust unfamiliar men with your physical safety, ever. Because Lord knows a woman isn’t going to rape you and then throw your body in a stream.

We were talking about this case again with friends around a bonfire and the daily reality of street harassment came up. Except that the men around us — thinking, respectful, generous men — seemed somewhat shocked that this was a daily reality for us women. We women all agreed that we were always on alert, everywhere, even in daylight, even in familiar places. Stories about harassment that had happened just a few hours prior bubbled up. The men were silent. But none of it was unusual to the women. Constantly checking our surroundings, whether day or night, watching for suspicious characters, cringing when walking past a construction site: these are not behaviors that men commonly concern themselves with.

Someone said, “Well, they’re just yelling at you; they don’t have any real power over you.” But men who harass you on the street do, unfortunately, wield a form of power over you. Because they make you afraid. They make you feel unsafe. They make you frightened of your surroundings, mistrustful of society at large. They make you feel exposed and vulnerable. This is how a patriarchal society works.

I have to quote Rebecca Solnit again, because I feel like I just can’t get over this:

Women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk, because their walking and indeed their very beings have been construed as inevitably, continually sexual in those societies concerned with controlling women’s sexuality.

— Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Please, look me in the eye and tell me that we don’t need feminism. That women have enough rights already. Say it to my face.

We talked about ways to respond to street harassment and didn’t come up with any workable solutions. Responding, to me, is giving such a man what he wants (recognition that his words have affected you), even if that response is a middle finger (or a thumbs down, as someone cutely suggested). I’ve always chosen to ignore, to steel myself to wear an unfeeling mask. But I don’t know if that does anything to resolve this ongoing issue.

Every time something as horrific as Hannah Graham’s murder crops up in the news, every time a man shouts an obscenity at a woman in the street, the only refrain I can recall is you are not free, you are not free, you are not free…

As a corollary to this conversation about street harassment, my friend Tara made an interesting side note. “No one hollers at you when you have a bunch of babies strapped to you,” she said, with a wry smile. That interested me. I wonder if other mothers would report the same? Street harassment is negated if you are accompanied by small children?

A woman will also never experience catcalling if she is accompanied by a man. Presumably, that woman is owned by her male companion and she is therefore protected, as his property, from verbal abuse. So there’s that. (Which also enrages me in a different way. That even the basest men somehow respect this misogynistic code of behavior toward one another — if a man has “his” woman with him, “his” woman is therefore ineligible to receive harassment. But a woman daring to walk alone? Open season!)

Virginia Woolf, June 1926. (c) National Portrait Gallery. #virginiawoolf
Virginia Woolf, June 1926. National Portrait Gallery.

This devolved rather quickly. I had intended to write about simple, pretty things.

Like how my rosemary has flourished in the front yard. Like the way Eden leans against my chair while I am reading and looks directly into my eyes with an unblinking, expectant stare. Like the fact that I am savoring Lila and reading it with worshipful patience. Like having lunch with Guion on the deck on a weekday, with the dogs sunbathing, with the leaves fluttering to the ground, with the yellow jacket persistently hovering over your raised spoon.

Books for cloudy days

Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories

10 books:

  • Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, Ryunosuke Akutagawa
  • Dog Years, Mark Doty
  • Middlemarch, George Eliot
  • What the Living Do, Marie Howe
  • Runaway, Alice Munro
  • The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk
  • The Shipping News, Annie Proulx
  • Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit
  • Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan
  • Orlando, Virginia Woolf


Women walking

A Shaker woman with her dog, from the LIFE Magazine Archives.
A Shaker woman and her dog. Source: LIFE Magazine Archives.

Women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk, because their walking and indeed their very beings have been construed as inevitably, continually sexual in those societies concerned with controlling women’s sexuality.

— Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Since finishing Rebecca Solnit’s lovely book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, I have continued to reflect on the pleasures of a good, long walk.

Specifically, I feel breathless when I consider the large number of barriers that still exist to women who dare to walk alone.

(1) In history, any woman who was on the street alone was a prostitute (a street-walker). Even today, any woman who exists on a street unaccompanied by a man could be accused or suspected of prostitution. In some countries ruled by fundamentalist religion, it is still unlawful for a woman to exist in public without being accompanied by a man. (I recall Malala Yousafzai laughing about the absurdity of this rule in her memoir; by law, she had to be accompanied by a man on her errands in her Afghan village. But that “man” was her 4-year-old brother, who she was just baby-sitting on the way to the market. But by Taliban order, he fulfilled the law and was “protecting” her.)

(2) Furthermore, women are daily subjected to sexual harassment if they deign to exist on a public street alone. Regardless of attire, women come to expect some form of verbal or even physical harassment on the street. A woman alone on a street? Surely she deserves to be ridiculed and disgraced for her existence, for her outrageous boldness to possess a body! So men may yell at her, shout obscenities at her, do whatever possible to make her feel belittled, ashamed, and used.

(3) Women’s clothing has also been a barrier to free movement. And even though women no longer have to wear corsets and yards and yards of fabric to pass the muster of common decency, we are still hobbled by high heels and mini-skirts. Woolf puts the sartorial tension between the sexes perfectly in Orlando:

Thus, there is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking. So, having now worn skirts for a considerable time, a certain change was visible in Orlando, which is to be found even in her face. If we compare the picture of Orlando as a man with that of Orlando as a woman we shall see that though both are undoubtedly one and the same person, there are certain changes. The man has his hand free to seize his sword; the woman must use hers to keep the satins from slipping from her shoulders. The man looks the world full in the face, as if it were made for his uses and fashioned to his liking. The woman takes a sidelong glance at it, full of subtlety, even of suspicion. Had they both worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might have been the same too.

— Virginia Woolf, Orlando

(4) Accordingly, violence against women is commonplace, and so a woman alone is constantly thinking about being mugged, assaulted, or raped. And yet this threat of violence is also used to keep women continually living in a state of fear; to live under the constant reminder that you are never safe, you are never whole unless you have a male protector from male violence.

It is simple, societal examples like this the mere consideration of something as mundane as walking that makes me ASTOUNDED when people say that we have no need for feminism, that our feminist work here is done. Or when supposedly intelligent women eschew the term “feminist” as if it were an epithet; it really and truly blows my mind.

Solnit writes in Wanderlust that she had been followed by a man who was yelling vile sexual proposals to her. When she finally turned around and told him off, he was livid and told her she had no right to speak to him that way and threatened to kill her. She writes:

It was the most devastating discovery of my life that I had no real right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness out-of-doors, that the world was full of strangers who seemed to hate me and wish to harm me for no reason other than my gender, that sex so readily became violence, and that hardly anyone else considered it a public issue rather than a private problem. I was advised to stay indoors at night, to wear baggy clothes, to cover or cut my hair, to try to look like a man, to move someplace more expensive, to take taxis, to buy a car, to move in groups, to get a man to escort me—all modern versions of Greek walls and Assyrian veils, all asserting it was my responsibility to control my own and men’s behavior rather than society’s to ensure my freedom.

So, what is a modern woman to do if she wants to take a walk?

Simply, I think, keep walking.

I have also found that having a pair of German shepherds is a benefit. For better or worse, I never feel my typical whispers of fear when I am walking solo if I have Pyrrha and Eden at my side. In general, people don’t try to eff with German shepherds. (Even though the worst my dogs would do to you is jump on you and maybe bark in your face.) But they are my constant walking companions. Scary or no, they improve my mental state. There is nothing quite so enjoyable as a good, long walk with a dog at one’s side.

My feminism posts always end with this note of grim reality, a recognition that women are still not free. It drags me down, but I am resolved to keep thinking and walking, regardless of cultural mores, and take the dogs with me.