Taking Up Space at Amherst by Julia Pike ’19

On Thursday, the 20th, the Women’s Group held a Val-Sit and discussion in the back room of Val. We put up pieces of paper and markers on several of the tables. Questions were written on the paper like, “How do the social spaces on campus make you feel?” “What spaces belong to women on campus” “What spaces belong to men” and “Where do you feel unsafe on campus?” to name a few. We also put up papers so people could free write anything they were thinking.

We put the papers up at 4:00, before dinner began. By the time dinner ended at 8:30, the nine sheets we’d put out were covered in the magic markered words of hundreds of women (and some men). The intention of the protest had in some ways been two-fold. We wanted to allow women the space to reflect on how it feels to be a woman at Amherst, but we were very interested also to see what the reactions would be. This prompted us to put the protest in the back room of Val, which is often dominated by men and by male sports teams.

The reactions of students were interesting, and varied. Women for the most part contributed or walked quietly around the tables reading others’ responses. Many men spent time reading the responses as well, moving from table to table alone or in groups. Some reactions from men were not as respectful. On one paper, labeled “Freewrite,” where women had written about the need for more intersectionality on campus, the ways in which they feel subject to the male gaze at all times at Amherst, and even experiences with sexual assault, one response in particular stuck out. “We need better gluten free food :)” someone wrote in purple marker on the bottom of the page. “A man wrote this,” someone wrote below the gluten comment, “I hope you feel powerful.” While few people went as far as to openly mock the experiences of the women on this campus, many complained about the space the protest was taking up. People who normally sat at those tables were upset that they were being covered. One student described it being a “sin” to cover tables on burger night.

What felt ironic to me about the number of men complaining about the space taken up by the protest was that this was exactly what the protest was about. In Women’s Group, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing one of the less obvious but most insidious ways that sexism is present on this campus—through the occupation of space. Amherst, of course, began as an institution for solely white men. The college became co-ed in the fall of 1975, which is shockingly recent when you stop to consider it. But even today, so many subtle things about the culture at Amherst reinforce that the spaces here belong to men.

Responses on the papers in Val reinforced this point over and over. Answering the question, “What spaces belong to men?” women wrote: “the pathways when I’m walking to class (men expecting me to move out of the way),” “the doors to Val (stop cutting me off),” “the space underneath the tables in class—manspreading,” and “the speaking time in most of my classes—men always speak first when questions are asked.” Academic spaces came up frequently, with women explaining how classes and office hours often feel dominated by men. Social spaces came up over and over again, with people explaining over and over that “parties,” “Jenkins,” “Hitchcock,” and “the Triangle” especially belong to men.

From personal experience I can attest to how true this is, as I’m sure can every woman at this college who’s been to a party. I have had men push me out of the way, spill things on me, touch my body in ways that make me uncomfortable. When I arrived at Amherst, I wore a crop top out on a few Saturday nights, a tendency I did away with almost immediately because every time I did so I found that men treated the area of exposed skin on my midriff as a landing strip for their hands, zeroing in on and clinging to it without my consent. Men at this school seem to feel as if they have a right to scantily clad women. A female friend once spoke to me about a trend she’s noticed when she goes out—if she wears low-cut shirts or crop-tops, men are all over, physically and socially. But if she wears a top that covers her more completely, men rarely even speak to her at parties. Another friend told me about how she went to a party in the socials last year wearing a jacket because it was cold out. As soon as she entered the party, a man standing by the door reached over and removed it from her body despite her shifting uncomfortably away from him. “You’re overdressed,” he said. What he was really saying was “your body and your space are not your own.”

Women at Amherst do not even own the private spaces. A number of women wrote on the papers about men—strangers and even close male friends—entering their rooms and refusing to leave despite repeated requests. Women do not have private spaces in the abstract, either. I’ve heard countless stories about men at this school discussing women, by name, in explicit detail, in person, but more often over social media. “Locker room talk” is still sexist and damaging if it occurs in Groupme. Explicit conversations about women’s bodies and actions do get back to us, and they reinforce yet again that men on this campus feel ownership over us.

The culture of this campus reinforces every day the male-ness of Amherst. When women walk around to class dodging men who walk in straight lines, when we sit in classes with equal proportions of men and women listening overwhelmingly to male voices, when men push us out of the way without a second glance on the stairways of Jenkins, it feels like Amherst telling us over and over again that this place is not ours. This culture makes women feel “watched,” “objectified,” “fetishized,” “sexualized” and “powerless,” to quote the posters.

Reading this, you may be dismissing me and the people who wrote these comments as being over-sensitive and tetchy. People are being sexually assaulted in other places, so why does it matter that women here are being cut off when they walk? My answer to people who think this way is two-fold. Yes, of course, outright sexual assault of women is despicable, and we must do all we can to  stop it (and remember that it is not happening separately from us—sexual assault happens at this school, and everywhere, frequently). But while considering this, it is important to understand that the same culture that teaches men that women will move out of the way of them when they’re walking down the sidewalk also tells them that it is alright to take advantage of a woman if she’s wearing a short skirt or has had too much to drink.

It would be remiss of me in an article about the ability to take up space not to mention that being a woman is not the only identity that denies you room on this campus. This struggle is present every day for those who do not identify with the gender binary, for people of color on this campus, for people who don’t identify as straight, and for countless others. It is in large part because of my identity as a white, straight, cis woman that I can speak so vocally about this topic with relatively little fear, without immediately being labeled as “angry” or “aggressive.” Identifying as a woman is only one way people are denied space at Amherst.

It is also important to say that I have met some of the best men I have ever known at this school. I have met men who validate who I am and who I wish to be, who listen to me when I yell about being pushed out of the way on the stairways of Jenkins, who truly reflect on their actions when called out for the amount of space they are taking up. I’m not (only) saying this because it’s the requisite “I don’t hate men” part of a feminist newspaper article. I’m saying it because it’s true, and it’s one of my many reasons why I love and have hope for this school. But I am also saying it because these are the very men that need to be doing so much more than they are doing right now.

It is not enough for the men who read the signs in Val on Thursday to simply feel bad. It is not even enough to just change your own ways. Recognizing your own privilege and trying to address the ways in which you take up space and deny it to others is key, but it’s not the whole battle. The men on this campus need to be far more vocal—the women on this campus speak up again and again and nothing changes. Men, use your privilege to help out. If your friend is making a woman uncomfortable at a party, speak to him about it. If someone says something in your team group chat that’s sexist, do not remain silent. If you are quiet, you are part of the problem. Men and women, validate the women in your life more. If a female friend is saying something to you and she apologizes for taking up vocal space (as women do all the time), make sure she knows that she does not need to apologize. Women, challenge yourself not to say sorry for taking up space, to realize that you deserve to be here and to speak up in class just as much as anyone else. And men, tell the women you love in your life that you love them, and that they deserve to take up space. But do not expect to be heroicized for this—being an ally isn’t about validation, and most of the time you probably won’t get it. Allyship is not about empty words and promises for the sake of looking good, it’s about action. Understand that there will be little obvious pay off, that calling out your friends can be awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. And understand that the women of this school are not asking you to rescue us—every one of us learned to rescue ourselves a long time ago—we are simply asking you to treat us as just as deserving of all Amherst has to offer as you are.

A common tactic used to silence those who are oppressed is by telling them that elsewhere—in other places, at other points in history—people have it worse. And of course, this is true. Everyone attending this school is privileged to be receiving an education of such high caliber. But that does not mean that things are perfect, or close to it, here. Rather, it means that this school has to do so much more if it hopes to remain a pinnacle of higher education for men and women. It needs to tell the women at this school that Amherst belongs to them, too, and work harder to create a culture where the men of this school understand that everything—hallways, classrooms, the bodies of women—does not belong solely to them.


4 thoughts on “Taking Up Space at Amherst by Julia Pike ’19”

  1. As a graduate of a women’s college and a current Amherst student parent I have to say I am more than a little bit saddened by your protest. It seems to have some valid points but when you staged it in not only male space but female space on campus you made the mistake many do in believing that causing the most disruption will get you the most gains.

    I chose a women’s college particularly because of the encroachment I believed men made on female space, especially academic space. For me, the choice to abandon co-ed learning for single sex was simply to have the chance to be free of male domination of the discussion and to have a space in which the driving factor in social relationships was not finding someone with which to hook up (although, in honesty back then it was dating/marriage).

    My college struggled as many women like you decided that a co-ed space was where “real life” was and abandoned single sex colleges. (And, let me remind you that it isn’t “shocking” that Amherst was all male into the 1970’s. In your immediate vicinity are Mt. Holyoke, Wellesley and Smith. Not shabby options for academically-oriented women. It is more salient to me that these colleges have managed to survive when women like you choose to ignore their existence and their mission of providing women with an excellent education and the chance to be free of male dominance for just a few years while they grow and develop into fully capable academic beings and future leaders.) The real life co-ed atmosphere you chose means that you need to find a way to deal with minority status. Pick your battles wisely. Dining hall seating isn’t one of them, in my opinion.

    If you have real issues with imbalances in academic conversation then your protest should have been staged in a classroom or lecture hall. I fully support this. Implicit biases in our country and culture mean that men frequently do speak first/over women/louder and longer. I don’t think this should be allowed in your classrooms so let your professors know if this is an issue. When this isn’t resolved, then find a way to stage a protest, in the academic space. Talk first; disruptive protest second. Men aren’t going to disappear at your first job so now is the time to learn what to do when you feel ignored. Protesting in the company cafeteria won’t be the answer.

    You are unhappy that you are ogled when you wear a crop top? Do you believe that feminism means you can wear whatever you want because being dressed in fewer clothes is some sort of female empowerment statement? Let me be clear: it isn’t. That’s some sort of sad Kim Kardashian brand of “feminism” and it is twisted. I’m not saying you have to dress like a nun but you put the goods on display and they are going to be looked at. (Never ok to be touched; valid point taken.)

    If you are unhappy that men are taking up the bulk of seats in the first floor dining hall then get there early and sit with a group of friends, every night, until you gain back some territory. You publicly chastised guys (and their female friends) who had no idea there was a problem. I bet you could have shifted the balance of power in that room simply by being there. Same end result; less animosity. If that didn’t work, then a protest would have been fine.

    It seems to me that some of your arguments sound as if you want a partial return to the male-female dynamics of many years ago. You want men to cede walkways to you, doorways to you, treat you differently than they treat each other. I don’t think you can have that part and yet still want to be treated equally. Men don’t get out of your way on a pathway? Then walk straight on, sister. Don’t feel like their parties are your speed? Then create your own.

    Life in a liberal arts co-ed college with a significant population of athletes, both male and female, will have its unique set of challenges. It also provides you with a unique set of opportunities for personal growth as you learn how to positively impact your world. I support equal voices for women. However, I think you need to examine how and when you want to use your voice for change. A little more talking and a little less staged protest might go a lot farther. For my daughter’s sake and the sake of other young women on campus, I hope it does.

    1. Hi Stephanie. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my article. Your main criticism seems to me to be that the protest was too confrontational, as you say “a little more talking and a little less staged protest might go a lot farther.” To me, the purpose of the event was to create more talking. You say that we should occupy Val and take back the space—that is what we did. Conversations about what it means to be a woman at Amherst aren’t happening, and the goal was to provide a space for women to begin to talk about how they feel, and for men to hopefully begin to listen, and for discussion to build off of that. What was so interesting, and what I hoped to make clear in my article, was that the fact that many people on campus viewed the Val sit as a disruption rather than an opportunity for dialogue, which I think says a lot about the climate of this school.

      I was saddened and slightly confused by the fact that you accuse me of “ignoring the existence of women’s schools.” I am in no way ignoring these schools. When I chose to attend Amherst, I did so because it was the best school for me, and I felt that here I would get the education that was right for me as an individual. I think your assertion that I should have gone to a women’s college reinforces my fundamental point—that it’s hard to feel heard as a woman at a co-ed college, and thus these schools need to be doing a lot more to provide space for women. Women’s colleges should not be the only safe spaces available to us.

      In response to a point you make about my “Kim Kardashian” feminism, you ask whether “I believe that feminism means you can wear whatever you want because being dressed in fewer clothes is some sort of female empowerment statement?” For me, wearing a crop top is not a feminist act, and should not have to be. It should be my right to wear whatever I want and not be criticized or objectified for it. My crop top is not empowerment, that’s overly simplistic, but I do think it is, as you say, my right to wear it without being touched. It’s also important to note that even women who aren’t “putting the goods on display” have to deal with being ogled and touched and dehumanized in social spaces.

      Lastly, you accuse me of wanting a “partial return to the male-female dynamics of many years ago.” As I explain in the article, no woman here is asking to be rescued or have the door opened for her. You seem to be accusing me of being too hostile and too subservient at the same time—what I want is directly in the middle, to be given as much space as men here. Rather than learning how to “deal with” my minority status, I hope we can all work together to change the fact that women at this school are oppressed, and that minorities have to “deal with” their oppression at all.

      1. Stephanie,

        Julia did address this, but it should be clear that a woman wearing a crop top at a party should not be an issue. Men lewdly objectifying that woman and groping her should be the issue.

        Everything Kim Kardashian has done that is negative for women and society in general should not be a factor in this. It’s ridiculous that men would get a pass on displaying signs of sexual assault, just because of what someone is wearing.

        The mentality to just “grin and bear it” if you’re a minority somewhere doesn’t make sense. I believe all voices should be heard, and all voices should be listened to. As a male, it is my responsibility to use my privilege to listen to those who may not be listened to as much as my voice is, and help amplify the voices of those who don’t receive the same inherent societal privileges I do. It’s not my job to correct what they say, or interpret what they say, or say anything for them, or criticize their experience. It’s my job to listen, and understand, and as someone who is privileged enough to have gone to an all women’s college, and has the privilege to have graduated and can now be in a more stable period in your life where you can be on the outside looking in, you can use where you are to better listen and understand what the current generation of women is trying to address and change in today’s culture. That is: the culture of victim blaming in groping and sexual assault, and inherent male dominance in classes and almost all party environments.

        Those are my rambling thoughts on the matter. Thank you for yours!

    2. Stephanie – I agree that all-female colleges don’t get the recognition they deserve as rigorous academic institutions, and I do believe there are inherent biases towards all-female colleges on the principle that they are all-female.

      However, this isn’t a reason to decry Julia’s (and her female classmates’) decision to attend Amherst, nor is it a reason to create a divide between women who have chosen to have different collegiate experiences than your own. You use the phrase “women like you” to describe those who don’t attend single-sex colleges — why such divisive language? There are many reasons why they might have chosen Amherst over a single-sex college.

      It’s true that schools like Smith/Mt. Holyoke/Wellesley are underappreciated, but the blame for that shouldn’t be shunted to “women like [Julia]”, nor should women at Amherst have to learn to “deal with” being a minority simply because they made the decision to attend (no minority at Amherst should have to learn to “deal with it”). Julia already articulated this point very well in her own response.

      The sit-in, from what I’ve gleaned from Julia’s article, provided a space for women to share their frustrations in a thoughtful and introspective — yet also communal — way, and the venue allowed other students to read/learn as well. The dining hall seems as good a place as any, seeing as it’s the only one on campus and you’re likely to maximize participation by setting up there. It does also provide some commentary on the strange dynamics that take place in the back room (although they are further complicated by the fact that it’s also an athlete/non-athlete issue, not simply male/female), but I don’t think that’s the main focus.

      I’m not entirely sure why you take such issue with the dining hall, and I’m especially confused as to why you think posting up in the back room of Val every night or speaking to a professor would be better options. I don’t mean to say they’re bad options by any means. Any step taken in the right direction is better than none.

      But neither addresses and acts upon the real root cause, which is societal deference to the male voice/presence — for example, sitting in the back room of Val every night will disrupt the usual flow, but that’s about it, and speaking to a professor about the issue won’t invite the men in the classroom to make any conscious effort to change their behavior. A sit-in with posters in a public place seems to me a great middle ground between “talk” and “action”, and a great springboard for further action.

      You provide a unique and important perspective on the issue, and you’re right that female students at Amherst have before them a unique set of challenges. However, one of those challenges shouldn’t be the policing by other women who believe there’s a “better” time and place for protest.

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