Women be uncomfortable

(Thanks to those of you who get my obscure reference to "women be shoppin")

People like to tell me all the time that we live in a "post-" society - you know, post-racism, post-sexism, post-gender, post-classism. I think it is pretty obvious to anyone with eyes and a brain and a heart that we do not, in fact, live in such a society. But alas.

I work in a public library in a small town. As is the case in much of the profession, particularly in the entry-level ranks, I work with mostly women. Our director is a man but the rest of the administrative staff are women, and otherwise in an organization of about 50 employees, only about 5 of them are men. Women be librarians.

Unfortunately, as is the case in probably every job where you have to provide services to the public, our patrons are not always... the people we would like them to be. Some of them are smelly. Some of them are annoying. Some of them are whiny. Some of them are angry. And some of them are men - men who leer, men who stare, men who strike up unwelcome conversations, men who follow you around the building without saying anything, and men who try to follow you when you walk home from work.

We've had all sorts of incidents that have now gone into the canon of "office lore" and "fun stories" bandied about the workplace. There's the guy who wandered upstairs to the third floor (home of the administrative offices, where I usually work, and not generally open to the public), walked into a meeting room, shut the door, turned out the lights, and went to sleep under the conference table. There's the guy who took his shoes off, put his feet up on that same table, and ate his lunch. There's the guy who rearranged the furniture in our public area so that he could stare into the glass-doored office of one of our female supervisors (we had to buy her curtains). There's the guy who beat his wife in the elevator while their baby was sitting in his stroller right next to them. There's the guy who followed a female employee home from work and then later grilled a different employee to find out her last name. I could go on. Perhaps there are creepy female patrons, too - most assuredly they exist somewhere - but I never hear those stories, and I haven't experienced any firsthand (yet).

As a woman in our society, one gets used to a certain amount of male attention. Even I, who am decidedly not society's ideal of femininity and attractiveness, have been the object of unwanted leering, glaring, creepy smiles, and creepier "hello"s. Because I look the way I do, I'm far more likely to receive unwanted attention from lesbians than from men, and I have had a lifetime's worth of creepy lady interactions and pick-up lines and misunderstandings, but there's something about working this job, in this area, at this point in time, that stands out to me as "the time of the unwanted male gaze."

Fellas, there is a lot of information out there already about the proper way to behave in public. Just because she smiles at you doesn't mean she wants to have your babies. (We have actually had to train female staff to smile less often and less widely around certain patrons to protect themselves from harassment by said patrons. That. is. nuts.) When she's running away from you, she's not playing "hard to get." People: Go forth. Google. Learn.

But what I'm more focused on right now are the ways in which we as women change our behavior, and sometimes our personalities, in order to protect ourselves and accommodate the circumstances happening around us. Fundamentally this feels wrong to me in a very deep and real way - but when I'm the one in the trenches, when I'm the one in the line of fire at the reference desk, it's much easier to simply stop smiling and wear dowdier clothing than it is to change an entire culture's perception and treatment of women. Is it right? Of course not. Is it fair? Hell no. Does it work? Not always, but often. And it makes it easier to focus on the quotidian parts of my day until I get home.

Women have to be brave to live in this world. Women have to be strong, to be tough, to have a thick skin, to have their wits about them, to know an uncomfortable situation from a dangerous one in the single span of a glance, or a leer, or a gibe. But, at the same time we are expected to be soft, to acquiesce, to save face, and to feel embarrassed when we are frank and direct. It's an impossible dichotomy to inhabit. It's an impossible world to live in.

We should be better. We can be better. This is not the world we should be living in. But it's the only world we have. Let's treat each other better.