Taking Up Space

February 8, 2017
By Mollie March-Steinman

tw/cw: violence against women, misogynoir

Alice Walker Quote.PNGAs women, we are often encouraged, implicitly or explicitly, to be small. There are lots of terms thrown at us when we raise our voices, gain weight, or take up space in general: “hysterical”, “bitch”, “bossy”, “cow”, “shrew”. We are scrutinized so much, we can start to scrutinize and criticize ourselves.

It is undeniable that women in Western countries, particularly white, wealthy women, have immense privilege. We do not tend to be forced into marriages when we are children, or stoned to death by our communities, or have our genitals mutilated. There is no law prohibiting us from driving or holding public office.

However, women in Western countries, particularly low-income women, LGBT women, and women of Color, still experience tremendous hardship. They are often stripped of both their intellectual and physical agency, and are not fairly represented in government. They are abused and demeaned by family members and partners, are underpaid, and experience cruel working conditions. Most women around the world, in every region, are often unable to go about their days feeling safe.

I believe that most violence against women stems from the same assumption: that women do not deserve to take up space. We are supposed to exercise, starve, work, and silence ourselves until we are slivers of a person. If we refuse to do this, if we say “no”, we are ridiculed at best and physically attacked at worst.

This is something white feminism does not understand, because white feminism is most accustomed to the “ridicule” response. White feminists are familiar with their favorite female celebrities being criticized for sexist reasons. However, most women are familiar with a more severe, violent response. When many women in the world dare to take up space, they are screamed at, beaten, or killed.

One heartbreaking example of this is the murder of Janese Talton-Jackson, who was shot and killed in January of last year for refusing a man’s advances. This tragedy occurred in Pittsburgh, on North Lang Avenue in Homewood in the middle of the night. A man was trying to hit on her in a bar. She said she wasn’t interested, and left. He pursued her, and when she once again said no, he shot her in the chest. The man who shot her was arrested with charges of homicide.

This tragedy struck me because I grew up just a few blocks away from where Janese was killed. However, I had the luxury of living on the other side of Penn Avenue, which serves as the divider between a white, upper-middle class neighborhood and a predominantly Black, low-income neighborhood. Women who live on opposite sides of Penn Avenue may as well live in different worlds.

It’s not fair for a zip code to determine your safety. Too often, we are spoken about as though we all share the same experiences. Unfortunately, systemic racial, class, and other oppressions make some women more susceptible to violence, while those of us with privilege are insulated from it. The intersectional obstacles that women face are intended to silence them into submission.

Therefore, it is a revolutionary act whenever women take up space. If you are told lifting weights will make you “too bulky”, remember Serena Williams. If you are called “hysterical” for expressing your beliefs, remember Angela Davis or Linda Sarsour. If you are told women are weak, remember Clarissa Shields, Simone Biles, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ida B. Wells. Take courage from their bravery. For women with privilege, we must be both assertive and attentive, listeners as well as leaders.

When we assert ourselves, take care of and celebrate our bodies, eat what we want, speak our minds, express our needs, and move through the world confidently, we are defying every power that has tried to contain our vastness and magic.


Mollie March-Steinman is currently self-designing an Economic Justice major at Chatham University. She is passionate about promoting peace and justice for all. Mollie is an intern with the NewPeople Editorial Collective.

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