Preserving the Old in the Smallest of Ways

Our guest writer Sophia Backus is a first year student at Pacific University who plans to double major in Creative Writing and Literature with a minor in Editing & Publishing. Originally from Wisconsin, she has lived in Salem for the past three years before deciding to come to Forest Grove for school.

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Ten more minutes, I think to myself after glancing once again at the clock. This is what you get for coming to the doctor’s office early on a busy day. There’s hardly any seats and there’s a delay because everyone’s here to get routine procedures done. Despite the mass of people, I don’t have any neighbors. To my right is a table and to my left is an empty chair, a true score. I can use both armrests and spread out after being confined in the car on the drive here. Then, disaster. A new person enters the room. I watch apprehensively as he scans the room and starts to make his way over to the open seat in the room. Half a second before he sits down, I murmur a quick “Oh, I’m sorry,” gather my purse, relinquish the left armrest, and huddle to the right side of my chair. After the cursory smile and nod, he spreads out over the relinquished space, by claiming the armrest and by spreading his legs an inch or so past the armrest of his chair, and pulls out his phone. While this relegates me to three quarters of my chair, he is , the image of contentment.

A flash of rebellion crosses my consciousness, but I squash it down. I did the right thing. That space had to be shared. It would’ve been rude not to move, to keep the armrest within my personal space and not give him room to sit. Though, if I was honest, he wasn’t so much sitting as he was lounging–taking up way more space than necessary. Looking down at my own crossed knees, I frown. I now have no room, I’m confined even more than when I’m driving, and I still have eight minutes before my name will be called. So I pull out my phone and begin to skim blindly through it as my mind only focuses on the tiny space I am now forced to inhabit.

Was I really forced to, though? It wasn’t as if someone was walking around with a ruler, telling me how much space I was allowed to inhabit if a man sat down beside me. Yes, perhaps I am physically smaller, but that doesn’t mean I have to shrink even further to allow him to splay like a throw blanket. I would have seemed rude by defending my territory and not being a courteous and submissive lady. That’s what our society defines as being lady-like, isn’t it? Making ourselves small, crossing our legs and arms so we’re perceived as even smaller, yielding our personal space to men, and apologizing for the inconvenience of taking up that space.

On the contrary, the man beside me doesn’t seem to think twice about the exchange. A quick glance at his face reveals him to be calm and completely engrossed in the text messages on his phone. Suddenly, movement. He shifts in the uncomfortable chair, stretching his relaxed muscles, and raising his arms above his head. Will he relinquish the armrest? Oh, never mind, of course he won’t, I think to myself as he reclaims it, even gripping the end of it after his cat-like stretch. His legs have claimed more territory, as well; one foot stretching out further so it’s fully extended. Briefly, I wonder if he will move his legs when I get up in five minutes. And when I do get up, I’ll apologize again, because I’ll be inconveniencing him by going about my daily activities.

The thought of mumbling another “sorry” bothers me. Why do I say it? To be polite? Yes, of course. One must be respectful to others. Women don’t give this much space up to other women. It’s just understood that we all take up space and we should allow for it equally. I only ever huddle in a corner when a man comes along. Intuitively, over the years, I’ve learned that that’s just what one does. And I, as a woman, have accepted it unequivocally. This example of subordination in women is an incredibly small gesture of submission. The misogyny of our civilization is so imbedded in our minds that women don’t even have to be told to do this. We learn by way of observation and simply accept it.

In fact, I don’t even remember when I first started doing this. This is a terrifying thought; that little girls can be intuitively taught to be submissive and for them to grow up accepting this without question is a terrifying prospect. Since it is much harder to unlearn a habit than pick it up, teaching women to recognize this act will be an uphill struggle. It’s just so ingrained in us that we don’t even realize we do it. And if we don’t realize it, how are we going to change it? Can it be changed?

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