Gender and Space (revised)

A few times in my travels I have been very nervous because I was a woman. In Paris, very late, almost the last metro, I was the only other person on the quai in a warren-like station with many tunnels on the right bank, not a neighborhood I knew well. The man on the quai was cussing and gesticulating, maybe having a mental breakdown, and he was swearing about whores and all the people he hated. There aren’t too many places to go on a metro quai, to one end down a long tunnel, to the other end up some stairs to more tunnels, or onto the tracks. I was very worried that in his extreme rage and distress I would end up on the tracks. Women figured prominently in his tirade.

Flamenco dresses in Seville.

Eventually the train came after what seemed like hours of me cautiously and slowly moving away from him. In Costa Rica I went hiking in the mountains above San José by myself and got pretty lost. It was a sunny day and I could see the city far below so I wasn’t too worried. Two men came down the path leading a small horse and asked me where I was going and offered me a ride on the horse. I accepted but when the younger man gave me a boost, he put his hand between my legs. I yelled at him, he seemed a little off, and he stopped groping. The older man said something to him in Spanish and we went off, me on the horse. I eventually got off and wandered down to a plaza where I found a bus and nothing bad happened.

Macarena neighborhood Seville.

I have a few other stories but I have been lucky to have only brushed up against the terrors of being a woman in the wrong space, the male space, late at night, out of home, in a place where other women aren’t present. I think about this a lot and I love places where I feel safe to walk around alone at night, to sit at a bar counter and think my own thoughts, or to rest on a park bench alone and daydreaming. But it only takes a tiny shift, a weird glance, a man slowing his gait, a realization that no one else is around for the fears to return.

Some years ago I taught a creepy Joyce Carol Oates story to my students at the end of the school year. I gave them lots of warnings but they chose to read the story and discuss it. The girls all knew the feeling, the sudden realization that a friendly and jovial situation is about to become a menace to a woman, a shift that occurs in the way someone opens a door, looks at one’s body or asks a question.

Detail from Christopher Columbus’ tomb, Sevilla Cathedral.

My class and I sat outside in the spring sunshine, looking forward to the end of school and discussing the creepy story. One of my boy students, a very tall deep-voiced man-looking boy, shared his impressions. He said that the only time he had felt those terrified feelings were when he was face to face with a bear. We lived in a town where bear sightings were common and he shared that the fear, the bafflement about running or freezing, the cold feeling down his spine when he ran into a bear in the woods felt like what Oates described in her story. Maybe something awful will happen, maybe the bear doesn’t care and will just lumber on. We, women and girls, said yes! – it’s like being around a bear but you never know which ones are the bears and which ones are going to turn into bears – it’s invisible. I so appreciated that big tall boy student’s ahah moment.

So I have spent most of my life thinking about spaces where women are safe but recently, on a trip to Sevilla, I had a completely different realization about gender and space in the church of Saint Louis of the Franceses. Remember Louis? He was a crusader long ago, seeking to convert people in the Middle East. This baroque church is strangely full of men. Mary has been replaced by a very pretty Saint Joseph.

My brother, who is confirmed, confirmed that this is Joseph.

The church is overflowing with babies, small boys beloved by the priests.

Since the church is no longer officially a church I was able to wander all over and went behind the altar in the smaller chapel to what I think is the sacristy. Gold and silver and semi-precious stones decorated what was basically the work space, the prep area, for priests. I stood alone in the lavish room, wondering at the bone relics, the wood carvings, the golden icons and all the images of male divinity and I felt it. If I were a man standing in that room I would know that whatever I did was right, approved of by my holy ancestors’ bones, endorsed by the images of god who looked just liked me and surrounded by a history that meant I was right, so right. Mainlining the (white) patriarchal power must have been exhilarating and so justifying. If I had grown up on a steady diet of that golden power, I would be infuriated at attacks on the church or the metoo movement or any suggestion that this power, this right, this virtue, this justified way, was merely a social construction that really wasn’t endorsed by any god or any particular science.

A professional outfit from another church.

The next day I floated in the Arab baths, deep in the bowels of a warm dark stone building, with my sister-in-law and wondered if the hammam was a space invented by women for women. Under the dark wood carvings with candles burning in the corners I didn’t feel godlike power, just peace, gratitude for the luxury and extreme bodily comfort.

The baths, a delight!

In this lifetime I do not think I will ever stop noticing gender in the spaces that I enter. As I age I definitely feel safer as a woman and I did get the crown for king’s day this year so maybe I’m about to receive a Shazam transmission of pure patriarchal/matriarchal power for 2020. Seville was a beautiful experience in reflecting on space as it has been Arab, Roman, Catholic, World Expo and so many other things over the centuries. The most moving spaces for me, ultimately, were those created by dancers moving their bodies, singers singing and guitarists thumping and strumming.

A young woman so present in her body and her dance that I felt tears coming on.

4 thoughts on “Gender and Space (revised)”

  1. Ah, Sevilla! One of my favorite cities, if I can actually say I favor cities at all.
    Did you find (or do you even know of…) the hidden nunnery where one buys jam (all made on site) using the ancient “orphan transfer” doors? (I know there is a word for those but it eludes me at the moment). Delicious jam and with a story.

    No, I did not overlook or miss the intention of this piece. Just momentarily lost in memories of southern Spain….where the dance also brought tears to my eyes.

    As a male over 6′ tall there have been few times I have been able to relate to the “public oppressive fear” (a term used by a female partner of many years past) many women feel, especially those that travel off the beaten path. But I remember first hearing of this as early as the early 70’s from female friends and companions and, unfortunately, I hear it still today. It frustrates me that this particular piece of human existence…. this male-female construct, with fear being constantly initiated by this false dominance… is taking so long to move around the corner of time.

    Having spent some significant time in a country that is primarily Muslim I came to find that in that world of that religion it is Note the religion that creates the abyss of male dominance, it was the cultural world of ancient tribal peoples that used Islam as a tool to have the male be dominant. Of course the world outside wants something to hate so they use the dominant religion to show others how awful it is to be a woman there.

    Having had as little to do with religion in my life as possible (Hey, we all celebrated too many religious holidays s kids!) everything I know of this “western world” culture is only of observation based on the male dominated everyday. But there is little doubt in my mind that a great deal of the continuation of male domination through fear and intimidation is based on religious constructs. Just the way too many westerners think of Islam I am afraid I think of Christianity, especially the Catholic sects.

    I am afraid the fight for balance, true loving balance, will continue for some time. I am happy to read you have suffered little of the physical manifestations of this construct but am saddened it still invades your piece of mind and the piece of mind of far too many women. It is, simply put, a fight for all of us. One we need to win, so that everyone can be free of the ned to fear and the ned to feel we mist instill fear.


    1. Yes Robert! Thank you for your thoughtful response. After I read what you wrote I realized I had lost a paragraph – the bear paragraph – when one of my tall male students tried to empathize with what it feels like. I didn’t find the secret jam source in Sevilla but given the 10euro tickets we got to go there, I am definitely planning on returning! And maybe next time I’ll take my dance shoes.


  2. I remember reading something about Louis not really being into women, though it could have been Plantagenet/English propaganda. Perhaps the church designers believed the same story.


    1. Interesting – it was odd to be in a church in Spain and not see a big bejeweled Mary. Wikipedia has this very odd paragraph about Louis’ marriage – Louis’s marriage had political connections, his wife was sister to Eleanor, later the wife of Henry III of England. He enjoyed her company, and was pleased to show her the many public works he was making in Paris, both for its defence and for its health. They enjoyed riding together, reading, and listening to music. This attention raised a certain amount of jealousy in his mother, who tried to keep them apart as much as she could.


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