When I got an internship in Washington D.C. for the summer, my parents made it absolutely clear that I had an unlimited budget for late night cab rides. “We don’t want you walking home in the dark,” my parents said. “If you’re going to be walking alone late at night, even if you know the neighborhood, it’s better just to take a cab. Don’t take risks.”
So when I walked out of the metro station in the dark one Friday night, I went straight to the taxi stand. I slid into the backseat, and the driver glanced back at me in the rearview mirror as we pulled away from the curb. “You going out to a party?”
“No,” I said. “Just back home.”
“But next weekend, then, you go party?”
“No,” I said. “I’m very boring.”
“Pretty girl, you should be going out. I like to go to parties, maybe you come out with me some night.”
It was the second time in a month that this had happened to me. I slouched in the backseat and tried to be as quiet and disengaged as possible. “I don’t really like parties,” I said. “And I’m only here for the summer.”
“Where you from?”
“I sometimes go to New York. Why don’t you give me your number, if I call you?”
I knew what I was supposed to do, of course. I should have gotten his medallion number and phoned in a complaint to his dispatcher. I ought to have told him, firmly, using ‘I’ statements: “I feel uncomfortable when you talk to me this way. I would prefer that you stop.” But, instead, I just pressed my head against the window, watching the empty streets flash by and wondered if I should get out a block early, so the cab driver wouldn’t know where I lived.
The whole situation felt horribly unfair. Yes, I was getting a cab after 11 p.m., but I was sober; I was wearing pants, not a short skirt and my hair was in a ponytail, for heaven’s sake. Hadn’t he seen that I had a math book by Martin Gardner under my arm? I glanced down at my top, trying to work out if a polo shirt rather than a T-shirt qualified as showing too much cleavage.
It wasn’t after I got out of the cab that I realized that, for the entirety of the ride, I had been operating under the assumption that something in my own behavior must have provoked the driver. I had been imagining that I had earned the right not to be harassed because I wasn’t wearing make-up — instead of remembering I deserved to be respected because I was a person. A miniskirt wouldn’t have been an open invitation to harassment.
For the entirety of the cab ride, I had kept thinking that the cab driver’s behavior was somehow my fault. For all that I think of myself as a good feminist, I had immediately slipped into the habit of thinking that holds that women are the guardians of men’s virtue, that women have to censor themselves because men are too excitable to be responsible. It didn’t matter whether men of different cultures considered leaving my hair down or wearing a tube top provocative; it ought to be their problem, not mine.
I’m used to the idea that I can opt out of sexist treatment. Whether I’m paying for a taxi, so that I don’t have to walk a dark street by myself or out-butching the boys showing off my latest project from the metalworking shop, I expect that I can bypass of the uncomfortable parts of being a woman without consequence. I forget that my day-to-day existence as a person of equal worth to a man depends upon a majority (or a strong plurality) of the people in my culture consenting to this idea and conforming their actions to this standard.
As a politically minded woman, it’s not hard for me to neglect this side of the feminist struggle. It’s a lot easier for me to focus on lobbying, protesting, campaigning. Political work allows me the possibility of major changes that make life better for women nationwide. And, aside from the practical concerns, it’s a lot more comfortable for me to focus on the political sphere. When I’m doing political work, as long as I knock on enough doors, raise enough money, spin the press well enough, equality is mine for the taking. No wonder I was sent reeling by my feelings of powerlessness when confronted with even mild sexual harassment.
My summer in D.C. turned out to include an education in the limits of the political, important as it is. For years, I have subscribed to the feminist maxim, “The personal is political,” but my summer reminded me that its converse is also relevant. In the fight against sexism, I’m weakened if I only play to my strengths.