About a year ago, I walked down a grocery store aisle with my two daughters. As another shopper (a man) bore down the aisle at us, I shuffled the girls to the side and said, “Excuse me.” The phrase tasted bitter in my mouth. I knew this man was behaving rudely, thinking his trajectory preempted ours, but I had yielded out of habit. Out of politeness.
I realized I was teaching these girls that our position is to yield and apologize. So I stopped. I spent months noticing when men walked toward us without even slowing their pace because they expected us to clear the path. I saw men stir with surprise that I didn’t move for them, even when I was out by myself. I resisted my strongest urges to be judged “polite” by strangers.
Then I read this piece in the New Statesman, and I was so happy to hear a name for the philosophy I’ve been passively teaching my daughters, 5 and 2, for the last year. British professor Charlotte Riley plays “Patriarchy Chicken” on her commute to work, holding to her path through streets and tube stations while oncoming men choose to move aside or run into her.
Imagine me, a grown woman, with a jumping 5-year-old on one hand and a rogue 2-year-old pulling on the other. We are broad. We take up space. And now we hold that space, especially in the face of anyone who chugs toward us expecting to have the path cleared for them. So far only one person has run into us, bumping into my daughter’s child-sized shopping cart in the produce section.
My daughter said, “Watch out!” And I jumped to correct her tone, embarrassed that she seemed rude. Then I noticed that the other shopper was annoyed, not about to offer an apology, and I thought, “Why are we the rude ones in this scenario?”
Politeness is not the same as shouldering the responsibility to be ever watchful that everyone around us has a clear path.
My ingrained feminine civility needs to make this clear: I am not teaching the girls to be impolite. If we bump into someone, we say “excuse me” ― even if it takes a reminder. We politely honor any “excuse me” offered by a passerby. (This is unscientific, but I’ve paid attention — “excuse me” comes mostly from younger men and women. This gives me hope and a feeling that the much-maligned millennials have a pretty good understanding of how to respect others’ space.)
Politeness, however, is not the same as shouldering the responsibility to be ever watchful that everyone around us has a clear path.
Now when we are out shopping, taking a walk or engaging in any other family activity, I focus on the children and on our objective. I don’t look around to see how we can make ourselves more convenient for everyone else.
What harm am I going to do? Contribute to a new stereotype that mothers and small daughters are self-focused instead of submissive? OK, sounds great. Raise women who feel entitled to prioritize their own goals? Cool.
In “How to play Patriarchy Chicken,” Riley writes, “The point is that men have been socialised, for their entire lives, to take up space. Men who would never express these thoughts out loud have nevertheless been brought up to believe that their right to occupy space takes [precedence] over anyone else’s right to be there. Women have not been socialised to take up space. Women have been socialised to give way, to alleviate, to conciliate, and to step to the side.”
I can see this is true about myself, in how hard it has been to suppress the urge to be more convenient and apologize for existing in public with my children or on my own.
If girls can be trained from birth to uphold the patriarchy ... why can’t they start learning to dismantle it just as early?
Unfortunately, we know that simply standing in a man’s way can be dangerous.
Like Riley, I know I am exercising the privilege of a white woman in my upper middle class neighborhood where I can be inconvenient without worrying that it puts my children in danger. Too many people take a much greater risk in not yielding their space. When the children are older, we will start to discuss how they can use their privilege to give more space to others.
Some might argue it’s a wasted exercise because, at ages 5 and 2, they are not mature enough to pick up my unspoken message. But if girls can be trained from birth to uphold the patriarchy — taught to “play” at housekeeping and childrearing, taught to be pretty in a way that men traditionally expect from women, taught to be quiet and small and out of the way — why can’t they start learning to dismantle it just as early?
This is not just about who makes way for whom on the sidewalk. According to a New York Times article, “researchers say children absorb stereotypes, including about gender roles, by age 3.” It’s not too early to set feminist examples for them.
My 5-year-old says she wants to be a “builder”; Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi from “The Lego Movie 2” is one of her heroes. She’s not going to be whatever she wants to be if she thinks her role is to stay out of her male peers’ way.
So for now, we will not make ourselves small or duck our heads in apology at the grocery store. Then maybe they won’t be inclined to do it later in their personal and professional adult lives.