I have always had a great appreciation for women who compliment me on the street. In this era where we decry catcalling as a crime against femininity, I would like to take the time to examine the other side of the equation: women talking to each other on the street.
When I was younger, it always disarmed me when anyone talked to me on the street. However, I noticed that when women were talking to me – usually offering some sort of nice compliment about my outfit – it wasn’t the same as when the men did it. When the men did it, it was a power move, a way to leer at me, a sexual invitation. (Sometimes just a greeting, and usually harmless, but that’s a different conversation altogether.) With the women, it was a nod of solidarity. Or, at least, that’s how I have come to interpret it. It was a way for one woman to say to another, “I see you.” And by responding, I am saying, “I see you, too.”
Women talking to each other in the street is a way for us to not be invisible in public. When our visibility in public is generally reduced to a sexualized object of power play, affirming each others’ presence in public space is an act of radicalism. It’s a way to say, “You belong here. You are safe here. I see you. I got you.”
This is something that I have seen men do for each other in myriad different ways. Most commonly, I think of being asked out to dinner by a male companion. The male server or bartender approaches us, and my conversation is briefly interrupted by this strange but universal rapport that men seem to have with each other, this natural ease, this automatic gliding into familiarity and conversation. I am cut out for a moment, and then it’s back to the task at hand.
If we examine the small ways that men signal the security of their status to each other, this is a prime example. Despite the fact that the bartender or server is by the very nature of this dynamic here to serve us, the nod of familiarity between server and served repositions the woman in the conversation as an outsider. On the other hand, if the server were a woman, then she would be dismissed by the man (who, of course, is in charge of steering this dining experience to his liking) and the equivalent of the female nod of acknowledgement doesn’t even happen.
Enough of that. Women, we need to acknowledge each other in public spaces. As our servers, our cashiers, our bus drivers, our bank tellers, whatever it is. We need to put in the extra work to say hello to each other. We need to talk to each other. Ideally, by creating this basic undercurrent of acknowledgement we can grow on top of that a solid sense of being on the same team. We can get to know each other, and in knowing each other, we can know each others’ strengths and problems.
I would like to think that in an ideal world, I can walk into a restaurant, build rapport with my server, and have a functional relationship, woman to woman. (Let’s throw this “man to man” aphorism in the trash, ladies.) Too often, women are harassed on the job, and sometimes that harassment is in plain sight. So many times, I have seen female workers harassed by not only bosses but also patrons. By actively engaging with each other, we can support and protect each other. In the worst case scenario, we can use this trust to call out someone we see who is abusing female workers. On a day to day level, we should be able to ask the female workers in our society, “Is your boss treating you fair? Did you get that raise you asked for? Were you considered for the promotion?”
We can build on the basics of female acknowledgement so that we can further acknowledge: are we being respected in our public facing careers?
It’s just an idea for a first step, a small thing that we can do to further undermine a system that none of us believe in.