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.

jpike19@amherst.edu