My husband and I walk every morning along a shared cycle path. There is a narrow part of the path set aside for walkers. You can walk two abreast but if someone comes the other way, one of you must give way. I pointed out to my husband that if a man approached, he just unconsciously assumed I would step aside.
And, worse, I always did.
Ralph started to watch to see if I was right or not. He was rather shocked. He decided to test our observation. If a male pedestrian approached, he positioned himself in his path – the man gave way. He now makes a point of it. It is quite fun to watch.
There has been quite a flurry on social media recently about a phenomenon called 'manspreading' where men on public transport spread their legs wide (to advertise the enormous size of their tackle, I presume) and take much more than their fair share of the available space. One woman has started to fight back by simply sitting on the man’s spread leg! I’d love to see that - must be even more fun than watching the confusion of a bloke who expected to have a woman in his path suddenly being faced with another bloke.
All of us who have travelled on a plane will have experienced the silent elbow tussle over the shared armrest. I now always choose the window seat just to ensure I get at least one to myself.
We do these silent, unconscious space negotiations all the time and, generally, women are expected to make way for men. My mother tested this out decades ago and decided not to move out of the way. The blokes simply bumped into her, then stared with outrage. She even got sworn at a couple of times.
But it isn’t only in physical space that women are expected to give way and make room.
When I was young, I had a mental image of myself as being ‘too big’. This, by the way, was ridiculous. I have always been a tiny person. I am 5’1" tall (I hope) and until I had children weighed in at 45 kilos. Despite weighing considerably more than that now, I remain a size 12. When I was a child I was the kid who always sat at the front of the school photo holding the class sign - the universal signifier of the smallest kid in the class.
My sense of myself as being ‘too big’ was about taking up too much mental and emotional space. I was too talkative, too loud, too opinionated, too enthusiastic and too expressive.
I knew I was meant to be demure, modest and quiet. I knew I was meant to keep my eyes lowered and my ideas and opinions to myself. I was just incapable of doing so, and that incapacity made me feel bad. I sometimes wonder if I took to rigid dieting with such gusto in my 20s as an apology for the unruly size of my personality.