I’ve had a couple of experiences recently that have left me feeling like an utter failure at being a feminist. Once again, I am thinking about what being a ‘feminist’ means and how to be feminist in my everyday life.
In general, I am hesitant to express my opinions, shy, and introverted. It seems that these are not desirable traits for a feminist to have – aren’t feminists ‘supposed’ to be outspoken, confident, assertive, and confront sexism and injustice when they see it? In other words, feminists are activists, right? Hmm. Can’t I be a feminist without undergoing a radical personality shift? I’d really like for the answer to be yes, of course you can. But that brings me back to my initial question – how can I be feminist while being a shy, introverted woman? It doesn’t help to ask myself what someone like Anita Sarkeesian would do – because, quite simply, I am not her.
Our house made it abundantly clear this winter that we need to replace the windows, sooner rather than later. We received a list of approved vendors from our bank, making appointments with several of them to give us estimates. (In case you haven’t been through this process – lucky you – it requires having a salesperson come to your house, give you a sales pitch, and walk them around the house for measurements.) Most of the salespeople – I’m fighting against writing salesmen even though all of them were men – were fine. There was one notable exception; the first of the feminist challenges I’ve had recently.
After we opened the door when the salesman arrived, my partner received a firm handshake and a genial greeting. I was greeted with “Why, thank you for letting me into your house, little lady.”
I was flummoxed, and my automatic, ingrained (socially conditioned) response is to smile and say something polite. It took my brain a moment to catch up – had someone really just called me “little lady”!? I know I live in the western half of the country, but I have rarely felt as if I live in the Old West.
At best guess, I’d say the salesperson is a white man in his 60s, with some obvious health concerns. I have been taught to be polite and respectful to my elders. And on some subconscious level, I make allowances for people with health difficulties. As an introvert I have a hard time making polite small-talk in social situations. Most successful salespeople are the opposite – talking comes naturally and effortlessly. Our window salesperson kept a steady stream of questions and comments going while he was coming up with an estimate. While I am resigned to my age and marital status leading perfect strangers to feeling justified in asking if we have children, a decisive “no” from me generally ends the conversation. But not in this case – after dutifully answering his question with a very firm “no, we don’t have kids,” he then followed up with “but sometime soon, right?”
Excuse me? How is that question acceptable? Since it was phrased as a question rather than a comment, I felt obliged – obliged to be polite, obliged to answer a direct question – to respond. This time, I answered with an even more decisive “no,” hoping my tone conveyed my unwillingness to discuss the topic any further. The subtext of my tone held what I wanted to say: My – our – reproductive choices are none of your business. You are here, in my house, to provide a service. I don’t owe you an explanation.
A little while later, he asked if we spend much time in Boulder. He then decided to tell us that his favorite thing to do in Boulder is to sit on Pearl Street and “babe watch.”
I really thought I hadn’t heard correctly. But no, I did. As if the comment itself wasn’t inappropriate enough, it was directed at my partner, a man-to-man sort of remark. I smiled tightly – conditioned response for when someone says something they expect to be amusing – and seethed inwardly. I wanted nothing more than to insist he leave my house immediately. But a lifetime of not wanting to cause conflict, to avoid offending other people, and to be polite in social situations prevented me from asking him to leave or indicate in any way that I was offended by what he said.
My inner feminist was yelling at me that I should let this older, white man know just how unacceptable and inappropriate his remarks were. But the moment had passed, and although I was still furious, I said nothing. Had I been at a store, rather than in my own house, I would have walked out. How is it that a stranger could get away with saying things like that in my space when I wouldn’t tolerate it as a consumer elsewhere? Did I feel sorry for him, with his labored breathing, difficulty going up and down stairs, and standard-issue diabetic shoes? Or was it merely my automatic reticence to speak up overriding my irritation?
After he left, my partner and I were in complete agreement in hoping that that quote wasn’t the lowest one because we absolutely did not want to give our business to that company. (Thankfully, it wasn’t, so are giving our business elsewhere.)
I’ve also recently had the experience of interacting with car dealership salespeople.
Salesman F. is a white man in his 50s or 60s, and was generally fine until we were wrapping up our conversation. Then, he repeatedly made reference to his “girl” – a fellow employee, presumably an assistant or non-salesperson. No name, no acknowledgement of her status as a co-worker or (heaven forbid) an equal, just his “girl.” What Salesman F. doesn’t realize is that with that one de-humanization of a co-worker he lost our business for good. Once again, I didn’t say anything at the time, just inwardly growled.
There’s a pattern here – I am disinclined to give my business (therefore financial support or validation) to companies that employ sexists. Except…
Salesman W.’s company had exactly what we needed, putting me in the uncomfortable position of not being able to walk away and take my business somewhere else as I’d done in the previous two instances. Even worse, I was a captive and repeat audience for Salesman W.’s sexism. He frequently made the “joke” with my partner (whenever my partner solicited my opinion or thoughts, which was often) that “we know who’s in charge!” (i.e. me, the woman, the wife). I really despise the stereotype of the nagging, overbearing, obnoxious wife. Salesman W. also made a “joke,” when I asked my partner to come look at something and give me his opinion, that it was “so nice of her to include you, but you’ve been summoned” (or something along those lines). Apparently the only “good” wife is a completely silent, un-opinionated, passive woman who doesn’t concern herself with car sales.
I am suddenly reminded of the lines from The Book of Margery Kempe:
So, as she went forth toward Beverly…they met many times with men of the country, who said unto her, ‘Damsel, forsake this life that you have, and go spin and card as other women do, and suffer not so much shame and so much woe. We would not suffer so much for any good on earth.” (Ch. 53)
However, I think Salesman W. eventually picked up on my irritation with the “we know who’s in charge” nonsense and switched tactics. Suddenly my first name is such a nice name, and my surname is so much easier to spell than my partner’s. When the Boy’s Club approach doesn’t work, turn to base flattery? Worse, I didn’t know how to respond other than with my typical polite smile. The last straw was when Salesman W. looked at the picture on my driver’s license and commented “oh, so that’s what you look like with your hair down! how pretty..”
I had another one of those brain-stutter moments – did he really just say that? I laughed a little out of disbelief – which I’m pretty sure he took as my appreciation of the “compliment” – and couldn’t come up with a single thing to say. Would he say that to a man? No, absolutely not. What makes it acceptable that this man, a man old enough to be my father, felt comfortable commenting on my appearance in that way? (It made me perversely glad that both times I was in the presence of Salesman W. I’d had my hair completely pulled back.)
His “compliments” and flattery only heightened my awareness that women are socialized to view such comments as inoffensive and even desirable. I was both offended and uncomfortable. By that point, too, we certainly weren’t walking away. Based on recent experience I doubt any other dealer would have been better. The only women in the dealerships (that I saw) were receptionists. Every single one of the salespeople were white men. The only variation was in age.
On top of the anger and discomfort at the blatant sexism, I was also feeling ashamed of myself that I didn’t act as a feminist should (in my mind) and speak up. If I am so disturbed by such comments, surely I should do my part and indicate with a witty retort that those remarks and attitudes are unacceptable, right? I’m often left wishing I’d thought of a witty retort; it rarely happens in the moment (if at all). Am I truly a committed feminist if I let these situations go by unremarked? How do I get past all of the ingrained lessons to not upset other people (even at my own expense)? How can situations like these be handled politely and calmly, without making me feel as if I’m the one who’s said something inappropriate?