I was running late because I’d stopped to listen to Michelle Obama’s New Hampshire campaign speech. I knew I’d have to rush to make it the drag-themed Scooby Doo parody I found myself attending on a Thursday evening. (One of the perks of being a former theater major is getting invited to a lot of unusual plays.) As I hurried toward the performance venue—a cabaret space above a bar—my thoughts were still focused the election: Donald Trump’s racism and sexism, Hillary Clinton’s “likability.” I arrived slightly out of breath, but eager to catch up with the friend I had invited along for the show. We perched on barstools at a thin counter facing the stage, trying to guess what kind of performance we were in for.
I’m not sure if I noticed him right away, or if it took a few moments. But suddenly there was a man standing between us and the stage, no more than a foot or two away from our seats. He’d walked directly up to our table as if he were an old friend or a waiter taking our order. And then he simply froze in place, his head tilted slightly to the side, his eyes fixated directly on my boobs.
I’m generally pretty good at dissipating tension, but I was so taken off guard I wasn’t sure how to respond. Plastering on a fake smile—the one I’d perfected during my stint as a restaurant hostess—I asked if he needed something. He mumbled and shrugged, but kept his feet firmly planted and his eyes trained on my chest. A quick glance around the room confirmed that my friend and I were the only two women alone at the venue, which immediately made it clear to me that this man wasn’t just awkward or confused. He was testing the limits of what he could get away with.
When men hear about catcalling or aggressive male behavior, I think many of them picture it as a simple misunderstanding. “Why don’t you see it as a compliment?” they ask. Or, “I’m sure they’re just being friendly.” But unwanted sexual advances have nothing in common with a rom-com meet-cute. No, they usually look more like the scene unfolding in our theater that night: A middle-aged, disheveled man calmly invading the personal space of two younger women. A 50-year-old Donald Trump sticking his hand up the skirt of a twenty-something model he’d never spoken to while they sat together a crowded couch at a nightclub.
My friend and I—two self-proclaimed feminists—tried all the tactics women deploy in situations like these. We smiled to show him we weren’t afraid of him. We tried to pretend that he wasn’t there. We kept picking up our programs to give ourselves something else to look at; I remember remarking with forced enthusiasm about how cool it was that the programs were in color. Our few minutes of pre-show catch-up time became an exercise in social compartmentalization. “Should we move?” she asked through a fake laugh. “It doesn’t seem fair that we should be the ones that have to move,” I replied half-heartedly.
It’s worth pointing out that while the specifics of this particular encounter were especially bizarre, the basic dynamic wasn’t. I may talk a good feminist game on Twitter, but in real life I’m far more likely to acquiesce than I am to physically smash the patriarchy. When strange men tell me to smile, I usually do—because it’s easier that way. When a man stops me on the street to comment on my appearance, I instinctively issue a terse “thank you” as I walk away. When a group of dudes yells at me from a passing car I keep my eyes forward and pretend I can’t hear them. I’ve been trained, like so many women have, never to rock the boat.
I’m not sure how often men notice these tiny injustices women deal with on a daily basis, but in this case, one did. A man who worked at the venue came up behind us and with his best professional voice, quietly intoned, “Ladies, just so you know we’re aware of the situation and we’ll step in if something happens.” He smiled and walked away. In the moment it seemed like the greatest example of male ally-ship I’d ever seen. In retrospect it seems like a cop-out.
Because something was already happening. Sure, we didn’t seem to be in any physical danger, but our space was being invaded, our time was being stolen, and we were uncomfortable. Yet the best course of action the staff could think of was to let two adult women wait out the clock while a man watched them like animals in a zoo. From the outside it must’ve looked like a truly absurd piece of performance art—a misogynistic riff on Samuel Beckett’s masterwork. Waiting For Godot To Leave.
As we sat in uncomfortable silence, I began to think again about Donald Trump. I thought about the women he’d groped. I thought about the men who, through their ignorance or denial, enable this behavior to happen. I thought about Michelle Obama telling women and girls that they deserve dignity and respect too.
And I decided enough was enough.
“Sir, you can’t stand here anymore,” I found myself saying with a forcefulness that surprised even me. I kept a smile on my face as I spoke (always, politeness first), but I dropped the timid, half-joking tone I’d used earlier. I spoke with authority. “You can go sit somewhere else or you can go to the bar, but you can’t stand here anymore.” I kept pointing and talking, firmly but politely, until the man finally skulked away to order himself a drink.
I’d never done anything like that before, and it made me feel infinitely powerful. I was Emmeline Pankhurst claiming a voice, Gloria Steinem demanding respect, Michelle Obama announcing, “This is not normal.” For once I’d put my comfort above the comfort of a strange man. I’d created, if not a room of one’s own, at least a barstool or two.
Of course, I also immediately began to worry that he might come back and might even get violent, which is both an entirely irrational fear and a not uncommon occurrence when women reject men. I made sure to keep an eye on him during the show, and I didn’t feel fully relaxed until he left at intermission.
But for a brief glorious moment, at least, I was a woman invested with feminist power. And in a strange way, it’s because of Donald Trump. In attempting to silence women’s voices, he inadvertently inspired me to find my own. So thanks Donald. I’m more than happy to use it against you this election.