No rest for the wicked: How my morning run turned into a discourse on feminism

This morning I had a very positive check-in with my thesis advisor and, feeling uncharacteristically favorable about the state of my manuscript, decided to reward myself with a run on my favorite trail before the temperature soared from “hot” to the forecasted “blistering.” (By reward, of course, I really mean stave off self-loathing, but I suppose that’s for another post.)

The top of Cottonwood Canyon, where I have more than once had to dodge a rattlesnake.
The top of Cottonwood Canyon, where I have more than once had to dodge a rattlesnake.

North Table Mountain is a Jeffco Open Space Park and it’s the coolest. Actually I guess it’s the hottest because there is no shade to be had whatsoever, but I like it anyway. I’m told the mesa and its neighbor, the creatively named South Table Mountain, were formed by lava flows some 60 million years ago, which sort of adds to the mystique of this weird, jurassic landscape. Raptors fledge there in the spring, we often spot mountain lion tracks, and I have more than once encountered a rattlesnake ready to strike. Thanks to its abundance of sunlight, people head there year-round to run, mountain bike, and rock climb. Also, I have never done any of the aforementioned activities there and not been left seriously dehydrated. It is, in short, the perfect destination for a mini-adventure.

My very favorite route begins at the trailhead off Highway 93, meanders around the base of the mountain on North Table Loop, and cuts up Cottonwood Canyon for maximum rattlesnake exposure. It’s about eight miles, none of which are shaded. Covering about a thousand feet of elevation gain and subsequent loss, it’s an ideal loop for the avid masochist trail runner.

I set off down the trail feeling pleased with myself for having gotten out the door so quickly after my phone call. I was compiling a mental checklist of what’s left before I submit this paper—no rest for the wicked!—when my reverie was interrupted by three dudes on mountain bikes.

The Dudes were moving uphill toward me at a pretty good clip, and as I opened my mouth to utter my usual cheery “Good morning,” I was surprised they were still able to form complete sentences despite their pace.

Or maybe I was just surprised at what they said.

“Watch out for snakes, little lady!” warned Dude 1.

“Look at those legs—she can outrun it!” countered Dude 2.

“Come on, dudes,” duded Dude 3, eyeing my engagement ring, “She’s married!”

And then they were gone, and I had the rest of my run to process The Dudes.

If you’ve been around me at all in the last year or so, you know that my thesis covers two of my favorite topics: climbing mountains, and the politics of gender identity. Can you see where I’m going with this?

Before I launch into my diatribe, I want to make it clear that I bet The Dudes are pretty nice guys. It’s nice that they were enjoying the out-of-doors in the company of friends, and when I later learned that a rattlesnake was stretched across the singletrack half a mile down the trail, I sort of appreciated their ill-informed warning.

I’m also aware that as a white, cisgendered woman (this means my gender identity matches the sex I was assigned at birth), I have it a lot easier than a lot of people to whom I consider myself an ally. Still, given that I, too, am part of a group who’s only been allowed to vote in this country for more or less a century, I think my take on this matter is as valid as any.

That said, I’m grateful that The Dudes demonstrated three distinct, subtle attitudes that exemplify the kinds of harassment women are faced with every day, by people they know, often by people they like, and probably more often than not by people who don’t even know they’re doing it.

Let me elaborate.

“Watch out for snakes, little lady!” First of all, I’d like to take issue with the use of little lady. What year is this? 1856? All joking aside, adding little lady (or dollface, or sweet cheeks, or hell, you might as well just call me sugar lips—and yes, these are all things I’ve personally been called by strangers) renders an otherwise courteous warning condescending and, yes, insulting. It’s like Dude 1 expected me to jump into his arms and exclaim, “Dear me, what in heaven’s name shall I do? Won’t you go and kill it for me? Thank you ever so much, my knight in shining armor!”

Here’s the thing: I’m pretty tough, and I’m no match for a lot of the women I hang around with. We’re not afraid of snakes. They are a natural feature of the environment I chose to run in today, and while I certainly don’t want to be bitten by one, I’m pretty capable of handling an encounter, Big Fella. With what I’d be willing to bet is further wilderness medical training than Dude 1, in fact, I’d reckon I’d be more helpful than he, should Dudes 2 or 3 fall victim to the aforementioned snake.

Look at those legs—she can outrun it! Yes, I’m in pretty good shape. No, this is not a compliment. It’s harassment. It’s based on this very troublesome and very pervasive idea that public spaces—the sidewalk, your office, the trail I ran on today—are spaces owned by men, and that this gives them the right to comment on women’s appearances and whether they find them appealing. Pointing out that my legs look toned is not meant as a commendation: it’s an expression of power, because I, as a woman in a male-owned space, am subject to their desires and judgments. It’s no different than a catcall or a request to see my boobs or a comment on my weight: it’s insulting, and it’s harassment.

The good news is this: I don’t have to care what The Dudes think. My self-worth is not based in whether men on mountain bikes think I’m sexy. Still, this attitude is damaging, especially when juxtapositioned with the attitude expressed by Dude 3.

Come on, dudes. She’s married! What’s most disturbing to me about this attitude is that Dude 3 probably thought he was being a Good Guy. Good Guys rescue kittens from trees and visit their grandmothers every week and don’t hit on women who are “taken.” Pop quiz: would The Dudes have said any of those things if Bix had been running with me?

Of course not. (I’m assuming that’s the answer you gave.)

Sure, I’m wearing a ring. I recognize that wedding and engagement rings connote some very heteronormative notions, specifically that I am already possessed by a man. I wear my ring because it’s pretty and I’m excited to be engaged and it reminds me of someone I love very much, but I’ve lived in the world long enough to know what it might mean to other people. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter whether I’m married or engaged or in a relationship or dating or single or sleeping around or completely asexual.

Telling The Dudes to stop hitting on a woman “because she’s married” is disrespectful, and for the same reasons I say “No, thank you” or “I’m not interested” instead of “I have a boyfriend” when someone hits on me at a bar: If I’ve expressed that I’m not interested in being approached, you should leave me alone, and not because another man has already spoken for me—because I, too, am an autonomous human being who is able to choose how I want to interact with other people, and I’ve made it clear that this isn’t how I want you to interact with me.

A somewhat unnerving (but very informative!) pamphlet put out by Jeffco Open Space, which sincerely hopes you will avoid rattlesnakes.
A somewhat unnerving (but very informative!) pamphlet put out by Jeffco Open Space, which sincerely hopes you will avoid rattlesnakes.

I was another mile or so down the trail and still pretty steamed when a woman heading toward me on a mountain bike screeched to a halt at the junction of two trails.

“Which way are you going?” she asked.

Too breathless to answer—in my indignation I’d been running considerably faster than my usual plod—I pointed to the singletrack on my right.

“Oh, good,” she said, gesturing back the way she’d come, “I was going to warn you to stay away from Rim Rock—there’s a huge rattlesnake in the middle of the trail. It’s beautiful, biggest one I’ve ever seen!”

There. There was a perfectly reasonable—lovely, even! courteous! thoughtful!—way to warn someone about a hazard ahead on the trail. Also, she wasn’t afraid of snakes. She just didn’t want me to get bitten. I appreciated both these things.

Because I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to write a very brief but still descriptive conclusion for my manuscript, I feel compelled to sum it up like this: If you are not a heterosexual man, know that the icky feeling you get when someone delivers a creepy remark disguised as a compliment is valid, and that you have every right to regulate how you connect with people.

If you are a heterosexual man, you can help mediate those interactions for the non-men you care about. You can start by not saying things you can hear The Dudes saying, but because you are part of the dominant group, you can also intervene when you see someone being victimized by this kind of harassment, and you can encourage others to do the same.

I finished my run with characteristic Table Mountain dehydration, but I also felt grateful. I’m lucky to surround myself mostly with men who consider themselves feminists, and frankly, it’s pretty sweet that my life is easy enough that I have time to articulate the politics of gender identity.

Also, I did not get bitten by a rattlesnake today.

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One thought on “No rest for the wicked: How my morning run turned into a discourse on feminism

  1. Views on gender equality and identity are such a difficult thing to articulate, and you’ve done it superbly well, here! Thanks, Emma for reminding us that even the smallest cliched remarks can still carry a lot of oppressive oomph.

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