Sometimes, the bravest thing I’ll do all day is put my arm on the armrest of my chair. Surrounded on both sides, I often feel forced to make myself as small as possible. I don’t want to bother them. I don’t want to be a burden. I don’t want to take up space. But I’m a living, breathing human being, and I have no choice but to do so.
As a woman, however, I’ve been taught from an early age to make myself small so that others — usually men — can be big. These messages are subtle and quiet. Rarely does anyone actually advise me to speak quietly or take up less space, but societal norms and conventions demand that I do this. I’ve seen countless other women minimize the space they occupy — and, more importantly, I’ve seen men inadvertently engage in behavior that forces them to.
Just last week, I was sitting in a cramped classroom around a seminar table. As always, I tried to make myself small so that others could fit — but in doing so, the guy sitting next to me put his arm on my armrest, leaving me with even less space than I already had. When I gathered the courage to put my arm there, he didn’t budge. I spent the rest of the seminar with my arm awkwardly scrunched up. At work, I was recently stressed about a project and didn’t understand the instructions given. When I repeatedly asked a male coworker for help, with the explanation that I wanted to do it right, he told me to “relax” and proceeded to ignore my problem. A female professor of mine in the humanities once complained about how often things were “mansplained” to her. She had been working in her field for over ten years, but that never stopped male peers from belittling her and assuming that she wasn’t an expert just because of her sex. Cutting women off, taking up the space they deserve, and belittling them is often chalked up to being an honest mistake and a result of human interaction — and while that may be true in some cases, men on campus need to more critically examine their attitudes and behavior toward women.
What I’ve mentioned might sound petty, particularly to men, who may have never experienced this before. And while I’m sure some women do take up men’s space, speak over them, or condescend to them, the level at which men do the same to women is staggering. In a study at George Washington University, it was found that women interrupt men in a given conversation once on average, while men interrupt women 2.6 times. In a joint study between Princeton and Brigham Young University, it was found that men speak for about 75 percent of any average meeting, leaving female voices out. It’s reached the point where putting my arm on an armrest is a small act of defiance — and if that sounds ridiculous to you, ask a female friend if she’s ever felt the same. I have, and I’m regularly reassured that I’m not alone.
It’s not that I’m not independent or strong; I can guarantee you that I am. I’ve traveled the world alone, proven myself academically, and built incredible relationships. But societal norms of male-female interaction have been drilled into my brain for so long that sometimes they inhibit my independence and strength. So many successful, incredible women are the same. It’s not that we’re inherently afraid of something, it’s that we’ve been raised to make ourselves small so that men can be big. We’ve been taught to self-sacrifice, to give ourselves up for the benefit of others. I’m not saying that this is not a value taught to young men, but many young women have been exposed to this since childhood. In some cases, adults tell us to “look pretty and talk less,” while in other cases, we see how our mothers and sisters interact with men, encouraging us to do the same. As we get older, routine interaction with men reinforces these notions.
Here at Princeton, where the men are educated and knowledgeable, why can’t they be aware of where they put their arm? Why can’t they be aware of whom they’re cutting off in their speech? I’m not at all saying that every male Princeton student is guilty of mansplaining or taking up more than his fair share of space; I am, however, saying that some Princeton male students definitely are guilty as charged.
It’s hard to point out such incidents, though — in large part because it’s often too uncomfortable to say anything. It might take me years before I tell a guy in class next to me to move his arm or before I tell a male coworker that his comment was condescending. But I wish that these individuals would think for a moment before they acted. I wish they’d realize how they are putting me in a position where I feel like I have to make myself small again. I wish they’d realize how much I don’t want to be small.
Leora Eisenberg is a junior from Eagan, Minn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.