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A Mother, A Daughter, All Women: No Reprieve On The Streets

Writer Naomi Shulman on walking with her daughter through a harassing world. (Himanshu Singh Gurjar/ Unsplash)
Writer Naomi Shulman on walking with her daughter through a harassing world. (Himanshu Singh Gurjar/ Unsplash)
This article is more than 4 years old.

I live less than a mile from the center of Northampton, Massachusetts, and I have been taking the same walk into its hopping little downtown almost daily for 16 years — ever since we moved here. I was taking that walk the day before my water broke with my daughter Lila, 15 and a half years ago. I took that same walk a couple weeks later, when I brought her outdoors for the first time in the sling. And we’ve continued to take that walk literally thousands of times since — with her in the backpack, the stroller, and soon, when she got old enough, walking beside me, her baby sister in tow.

The other day as I was again taking that walk with Lila — now a teenager -- we were harassed. In all our many walks over the years, it was the first time it had happened to us together.

I’ve tried to raise my girls to feel they own their place in the world, despite what the rest of the culture has to say about it.

I have experienced street harassment since I was 14 years old. The first time, I was walking alone in my small hometown in rural Vermont when someone yelled something unintelligible from a passing car — and then, in case I didn’t get the point, followed up with a wolf whistle. I had just started high school, and the first thought I had was to look down at what I was wearing. It was a white corduroy skirt. The fact that I remember that strikes me as all kinds of wrong. Why was I so aware of my clothing? This wasn’t really about me. But I didn’t know that then. I still have to remind myself.

Through my teens and 20s, the harassment increased. It didn’t matter where I lived — Vermont, Southern California, Boston, New York City. "Hey cutie. Smile. What? I’m just saying hi." It was everywhere. Sometimes sinister; mostly just annoying. A near-constant buzzing in the margins of the public sphere. Any woman will tell you the same. Hence the hashtag: #yesallwomen.

But when I became visibly pregnant, I noticed a dramatic reprieve. For the first time since middle school, I was able to walk through the world in relative peace. Was my belly offering me protection? And the harassment didn’t return after the baby came — at least, not when the baby was with me. When I moved through the world with my children, the comments stopped. Was I getting a pass because of the kids? Or did I finally look more like one of their mothers? Whatever it was, I was glad — and maybe even let down my guard a little bit.

Until I began noticing men looking at my daughter, tall for her age. The first time I saw their eyes tracking her as she passed, I wanted to get in their faces. “She’s TWELVE,” I wanted to hiss. “Back off.” But I didn’t confront them; instead, I spoke to Lila. I knew it was a matter of time before she began getting comments. I told her what I wished someone had told me: That nothing she said or did invited any attention from them, and that she was never under any obligation to respond, no matter what. “Oh, I know,” she told me. Turned out she had received a few comments already. I should have guessed: #yesallwomen.

But I never witnessed her dealing with a comment till the just other day. “Hey there, sunshiny ladies,” was the leering opening line. It was three guys. Research shows — and anecdotal experience bears out — that men rarely comment unless another guy is there to witness it. In other words, it’s more about them than us.

“How you doing today? What, you won’t even say hi?”

I felt myself stiffen with low-level fear, as I always have when approached by strange men on the street — and then felt a competing response: protectiveness for my girl. They were addressing her, these guys, not just me. In fact, I knew, she was the primary target. And I realized something else: She had noticed them before I had, loitering there in the shade of the overpass, and a few moments prior had wordlessly moved to the far side of me to create a little more distance. She was more aware of her surroundings. She has to be. She has decades of this ahead of her. I glanced sideways in her direction. Her face was impassive, staring straight ahead. Our gait held steady. Neither of us said a word, moving forward in lockstep.

She's taking the same walk I've taken thousands of times. It's just not the one I wanted for her.

“Charming,” I murmured a minute later when we were far enough away. “Mmm hmm,” Lila replied. And then we returned to our previous conversation. It was hardly the most egregious street encounter I’d had, and yet I was shaken. Didn’t he realize this was my daughter? But of course we’re always somebody’s daughter. And why do we have to be someone’s daughter to deserve to walk down the street in peace?

Yes, all women. Even baby women. Even with their mothers right next to them, standing guard before them.

I’m happy to say Lila wasn’t rattled. I’ve tried to raise my girls to feel they own their place in the world, despite what the rest of the culture has to say about it. But the way we both slipped into silent high alert tells me she has taken her cues from the world around her, too, and is figuring out how to navigate it. Walking by her side, I am relieved to see she’s learning how to do it. But at the same time, I am angry, too. She's taking the same walk I've taken thousands of times. It's just not the one I wanted for her.

Related:

Naomi Shulman Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Naomi Shulman lives with her daughters in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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