Today has been an interesting day to be a woman for me. It’s also interesting that it happens to be International Women’s Day, when many of us are talking about the experiences – both shared and distinct – that represent womanhood for us.
My husband, son, and I are in Los Angeles this week for the annual Code4Lib conference, an annual event that brings together the people who build and support digital innovations in the library space. While Adam attends the conference and Eliot spends much-needed family time with his grandparents, I ended up spending time on my own and had four separate experiences – all in the course of a day – that represent facets of a beautiful, sometimes terrifying, sometimes affirming experience of existing in a woman’s body.
I. The energy of a hundred women talking in a room together.
In the morning, I took a Lyft (my first ever!) from Westwood to Santa Monica with a driver named Carlos (Hi Carlos!) to General Assembly for a session of Lightning Talks with eminent women from the LA area. GA in Santa Monica is an open, bright, industrial-chic space, and this morning it was packed with women, their voices clamorous and energetic and finding homes in all the corners. The room was at such ease that it wasn’t possible to know who was familiar or who were strangers until that morning. The speakers gave feminist advice mostly of a sort of ‘Lean In’ garden variety, though there was a shining moment where the Public Policy and Community Engagement Manager at Facebook mentioned intersectionality.
I’ve found that, perhaps because of the necessity of women having to take their problems into their own hands to solve, feminist talks often focus inordinately on how we can change to better position ourselves for growth and greatness – stop asking for permission, make your own jobs, find/be a mentor, lean in, etc. – not leaving enough attention for the systemic issues that are more appropriately to blame (non-inclusive hiring practices, retaliatory/predatory policies). These talks were not an exception. But the women’s stories brought more to the table than the teaching moments. Each speaker brought elements from her own history as a woman – an affirming conversation with a parent, or a career-deciding moment with a mentor – that gave dimension to the mosaic of womanhood they represented.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity of all was just the sheer number of women gathered to meet and celebrate each other. I had the chance to meet Eileen Rosete, founder of Our Sacred Women, a company that makes ethical accessories and gifts with messages that honor women, and buy one of her beautiful pins. No event can be perfect, but there is some magic to us being all in a room together, and it was a wonderful opportunity to do that.
II. Sometimes you can’t go on strike.
After the session, I moved to a sunny coffee shop, bought a plain black coffee and settled into a booth to take a work call for an hour. I so would have liked to say that I had gone on strike today along with many other women, and in fact I didn’t work a full day after my call was done. But my customers on the call were with the department of public safety in the division of emergency management, and our task was to finalize requirements for a new solution to improve the process of mobilizing resources for fast and effective incident response. We’ve been working together on these requirements and process for months (it is not a full-time endeavor for any of us). They took time to speak with me despite the fact that they were simultaneously battling multiple fires in my state. I am privileged that the reasons I was required to work are not tied up in pay or job security, and that I have the option to work remotely to make my life easier. Working for an hour on a day that I wished I was striking was a reminder, frankly, of how good I have it.
III. Gratitude, black girl magic, and gratitude.
After I finished the call, I took off my jacket to enjoy the warm sunshine and walked up a block to the Third Street Promenade. I grabbed a table at a bougie fast casual open-air restaurant called Bruxie and got a chicken sandwich on a waffle. It’s not important to the story but it was delicious.
In the tall booth across the restaurant, four young black women had lunch together. They sat in shorts and tank tops on bar stools with towels draped over their shoulders, maybe having just come from the beach, and sipped on strawberry lemonades. One took a picture of her waffle with her phone. They chatted, laughed, and ate in familiar and comfortable silence. They were beautiful. They seemed so easy together. Maybe I’m just attuned to noticing women together as friends, and I’m not sure why it seemed so miraculous. Maybe because I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the cultural idea that we should expect women to compete with, envy, manipulate, and undermine other women. When that is our social precedent, enjoying a comfortable, sunny lunch together does seem more miraculous, more revolutionary, perhaps more sacred.
I ate my lunch in silence and drank my own lemonade; the breeze and sun came in and lightened the whole space; I witnessed not only these young women but a whole restaurant bustling with talk in several languages; I reflected on the good fortune of an entire morning in a room filled with a hundred women who are willing to be vulnerable and use the words ‘sisters’ and ‘goddesses’ without a hint of insincerity; and I ate a chicken waffle sandwich topped with honey infused with chili and cider coleslaw and marveled at how I could truly be there. People with anxiety are often not in the present but actually in one of many possible scary and bad futures. I was truly present and was awash in gratitude.
IV. Grounded in reality.
After lunch and a quick walk, I was tired and full and my shoes were getting uncomfortable and it was time to hail a Lyft back to the conference center. I started walking down Ocean Avenue looking for a good place to sit and wait before making the request (I had learned my lesson from this morning, when I had actually missed my first ride because I did not make it down the elevator in time).
On a corner, a boombox was playing and a man was dancing and as I passed, he moved toward me suggestively. I ignored him and continued walking. He followed.
His comments were just low enough that I couldn’t really make them out, but at one point he did call me ‘bitch’. He followed me for blocks. I tried to duck into a shop that turned out to be closed up; I heard him say, ‘locked out, bitch.’ He knew I was scared and seemed to enjoy that. I continued to ignore him because I thought the safest thing was not to engage at all. I lost count of the number of people who walked past both of us without saying anything.
As I got further from the commercial district and into more apartment complexes and he still followed, I thought fleetingly of calling the police but chose not to. This may sound dramatic to you if you’ve never been followed menacingly for half a mile. I didn’t do so because there was a racial dynamic and I didn’t feel it was worth the risk to this person. But no one should have to make that kind of judgment and I’m glad that I finally stumbled on a restaurant so I didn’t have to.
Relieved, I ducked into the lobby. When the hostess approached, I simply told her I was being followed and she invited me to act like I was meeting someone and sit as long as I needed. I was offered a water. I used the moment to breathe and request my ride.
The experience was a bucket of cold water after such a transcendent morning. It is a sobering reminder of a few facts:
- You would be surprised how much harassment happens in broad daylight in heavily populated areas.
- Very confident, outspoken, self-possessed people can still get scared when harassed/followed. There’s really no ‘right’ response to harassment.
- Many people will walk right by without noticing or may notice but may not get involved.
If you see a woman you think is getting harassed, I BEG you, PLEASE stand with her and wait and talk with her until her harasser is gone.
Thank you to the women who encouraged me to take refuge in their restaurant and told me to be safe as I left to catch my ride. You’re perhaps the most important part of this woman’s long story today.
My love to all sisters and goddesses and refuge-givers today.
Thank you, and happy International Women’s Day.