Every time I walk down a New York City sidewalk, I’m in a 1950s James Dean movie. We’re playing a game of chicken, where — at least in the movie version — two cars drive toward each other along the same path. The first one who swerves out of the way to avoid collision is labeled “chicken” — the weaker one.
In my case, it’s not with cars, but with humans. Human males, in particular. When a male body — of just about any age — is walking towards me, I continue as long as I possibly can to see if he will step out of the way. He never does.
What happens instead is a collision. I’ve been bonked with elbows and shoulders, scowled at, and a few times nearly knocked to the ground. Most of the time, I’m the chicken who swerves. But I try to hold out as long as I possibly can — to make the point, if nothing else.
I started to note these spatial gender dynamics on city sidewalks, wondering if everyone shared my experience. Was I expected to step out of the way every time a man was headed in my direction? Was there an unwritten rule on this that I wasn’t aware of?
Like manspreading and other patriarchal practices of taking up too much space, sidewalk sexism is a way to exert power, to say “I own this space” and to say “you must step out of the way for me.”
I’ve learned this in my informal study: the pavement patriarchy never steps out of the way. It is a daily micro-reminder of who owns public space.
I conducted a super scientific study of observation — one hour on lower 5th Avenue, New York City. It’s worth asking if this is unique to New York (doubtful) or unique to major cities (possible). My theory is still evolving.
I’m interested in the micro-movements in the micro-moments, the split-second gestures of taking up sidewalk space — spreading arms or veering slightly towards, rather than away from, women on a sidewalk when there is ample space that could be shared.
Sure enough, I wasn’t the only woman who jumped out of the way in the face of an oncoming man with no plans to move. In my speedy study, I’d say about 70% of women stepped out of the way. The men continued on their path. That’s enough for me to see a pattern. And a problem.
So to further my so-scientific inquiry, I asked my fellow female pedestrians what they thought.
“I don’t care if I bodyslam anyone… why should I move?!” one said.
“I step out of the way for everyone. It’s what I was taught to do. Be polite.” said another.
Another woman explained that age and race all came into the picture for her. There is a clear intersectional element to this. And height, she said. “Overall, the taller person wins.”
At the same time, when looking down at our phones, sidewalk sexism no longer applies because we’re all the same type of jerk — iPhone zombies.
But the bottom line is that women are expected to behave on the sidewalk as they should in other parts of life as well — sweet and discreet. Don’t be too loud. Don’t demand attention. And certainly don’t take up too much space.
I did a piece on feminist cities once, and sexo-spatial dynamics, and who takes up space. Here’s what I learned:
By 2030, the majority of the world’s population will live in urban areas. This will generate new opportunities for women, but ensuring gender equality will also become more difficult. As if it is not nearly impossible right now?!
One of the top priorities for the United Nations is to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, sustainable. For city leaders, this means putting the needs of women and girls at the center of the urban planning process. Let’s start with safety. If women don’t feel safe in a place — no one will feel safe. It is simply NOT a safe place for anyone. Women are the barometer by which such things must be measured.
When I lived overseas — in about 20 different countries — I used the presence (or absence) of women in public space to get the pulse of the place. If women were out walking, or had set up informal markets, or were circulating comfortably — this was a good sign. If not — well, that’s an obvious problem that extends beyond women. Essentially, women are an early warning system for a society’s safety and stability.
So, look around your city — especially at night. Are women there? Do they feel safe being there? Just about every woman I know has developed strategies to mitigate risk when walking alone — we move to different sides of the street, or wear headphones but have no sound, or keep our heads down, or bulldoze straight ahead, or share our location with a friend, or a bazillion other things we should NOT have to do.
Because I’m happy to be a broken record for as long as it takes, I’ll say again: violence against women curbs our freedom and mobility, limits our choices, and chokes our power. Even the fear of violence is a form of violence.
And rape myths are embedded into the geography of cites: “Why were you walking alone at night?!” We are constantly asked to account for ourselves when exercising our own rights to free movement.
Feminist geography is essentially a way to look at a particular space to determine who is included and who is excluded — and how. This is done by examining specific design features inherently shaped by gender (read: power). When looking at cities through a feminist lens, we learn one critical thing: spaces — particularly cities — are designed by, and for, men.
Designing for men usually translates into neglect (at best) or outright damage (at worst) of the needs of women and other marginalized groups — people with disabilities, for instance. Designing with men as the default means that cities are built assuming that the “typical” urban citizen is a breadwinning husband and father, able-bodied, heterosexual, white, and cis-gender.
And it’s not just sidewalks. We’re talking about transport systems, public parks, everywhere that is shared space.
Here’s the answer. Firstly, build cities by/with/for women. Ask women for their input, and follow through on it. Challenge the assumption that urban space is, by default, male space. Build a feminist city. Trust me, it’s better for all of us.
And, reclaim sidewalks as shared space.
I’d like to remind the pavement patriarchy that public space is (supposedly-)shared space. And that sidewalk sexism is a practice that has been learned — and can just as easily be un-learned. Learning to share sidewalk space is about etiquette. It’s how we must coexist. Anything less is simply being an asshole.
I refuse to allow the pavement patriarchy to engage me in a perpetual game of chicken. Men: you are not James Dean. And this is not the 1950s — one would hope.
It is time to evolve — or get off the sidewalk.