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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.