Although the first week of semester had begun, the scorch of summertime still lingered in the air, swelteringly oppressive, on the night that I saw my first shooting star. The company was beyond my capacity to appreciate - a hundred sweaty new students, twenty or thirty leaders, living under one another's feet on a campsite that could just as easily have been a battery farm for humans. I wasn't clad in swishing skirts with flowers twisted through my hair, though the reflexive archetype of a young woman in the summertime would certainly have suggested it. But there was something magical in the moment where I lay on my back, a collective bottle of warm, flat, Coke -or was it juice?- with vodka splashed in clutched in my sweaty hand. I didn't mind the lack of bubbles, the germs of a half dozen lips around its neck, or the even my inherent aversion to vodka, so delirious was I from doing battle in a non-ventinaled commercial kitchen for twelve hours straight. The temperatures had risen above forty degrees with ease that day, even as my companion and I cooked for a horde of students, and for the thousand flies that came to watch the show. We had been too busy, too flustered, too panicked about dinner being late, to even pause for a drink of water, and so dehydration had stolen beneath my defences. But in a way that, too, was part of the magic.
I had wanted to swill away all of the day's frustrations, but the night had overshot balminess, and skyrocketed right into smothering. And I, the kind of extrovert whose batteries are recharged by the company of others, felt tangled amidst the dual snares of loneliness and a desire to be alone. The party was elsewhere, leaving only myself and a handful of close friends, all perfectly necessary in that moment, but whose faces blur upon recollection. This transience cheapens the way the memory looks, but in no way what it felt like. But I digress.
We lay in the crackly brown grass, our legs draped over the log seats around a long-quenched campfire, and stared at a sky that exploded with glimmering carbon in a manner our light-polluted city blinkers from us. A curious breathlessness overtook our collective, a half-dozen lost souls ruminating on the nature of stars, and I held a lover's hand in mine, never once minding that sweat pooled between our palms, and then the sky breathed.
As my gaze traced the curve of my first shooting star's trajectory, the refrain from the Elliott Smith song "Sweet Adeline" surged into my mind with such all the intensity of unprovoked perfection. If a feeling could swallow a person whole, I would have tasted of nothing but raw, irrational emotion. Not happy, not sad, not angry, not confused, but a beautiful mish-mash that the word "bittersweet" could never do justice.
I had gone to that camp with the same intentions I have of every camp: to ensure the safety of my charges, help new students make friends, dress up obnoxiously on costume night, and roll around for the better part of the weekend in a rip-roaring, pirate-level of drunk. What I hadn't expected was how with the sight of my first ever shooting star, these plans, and every other plan I had shouldered at the time, would fade into obsolescence. And for thirty seconds, or thirty minutes, or however long that arc of light danced with my delirium, I lived utterly in that moment. To this day, the feeling cannot pass for me - but it can never be recaptured, either. Not without the chemical reaction of setting and sensation and "Sweet Adeline."
Recently my mother gave me the intellectual equivalent of asking me to help her choose a puppy: to collect for her a series of articles explaining why feminism still hasn't "fixed it all" yet, and why young people (read: not girls, ladies, or women, but any and all genders) still have an aching need for equality. It was so hard to know where to start, I became quickly overwhelmed. I'm constantly posting interesting articles about human rights and equality on Facebook, which presumably has lost me many a virtual friend in my time... though I couldn't say how many "friends" with which I had started, so it's not particularly upsetting. But I digress.
It's funny how gender equality, as a passion, snuck up on me. As a teenager I was extremely passionate about virtually every meaty human rights issue there was, but considered the feminist movement "done" after the suffragettes sorted out all the contraceptive/right to vote business.
Teenage me was a heck of a cynic. She balked from extreme binaries and loved to advocate for the devil. Many examples come to mind. After all, it is not the victims, rather than perpetrators, of physical and sexual violence who are blamed for their abuse. And it's not like men still capitalise on seduction guides that dictate on how to commodify women, appropriately belittle and intrigue them, and then push their physical comfort barriers because consent isn't about enthusiasm, but about ensuring that a man doesn't stop escalating physical contact until he can "make the ho say no." It's not like people still make jokes about outdated gender roles by telling an assertive woman to "get back into the kitchen". Nobody complains that men are emasculated by the existence of women in gaming, or engineering, or politics.
Oh, wait a minute.
Feminism still has a metric fuckton of equality to achieve.
Believe it or not, those examples are only the tip of the iceberg. That form of sexism is slimy and unpleasant, but relatively easy to identify and call as being overt. It's rare that anyone won't agree that it is deplorable that in Australia alone, one woman will die every week at the hands of a partner, or ex-partner. But the insidious undercurrent of sexism is what sees these stories become framed as "he was under so much pressure/he snapped/she goaded him/this is a men's mental health issue more than it is a domestic violence issue." Feeling your jimmies rustling as you read that contention? Boom. Point proven. People don't like to confront their own ingrained sexism. Heck, my fingernails gouged deep grooves in the floorboards of my mind as I was dragged, by logic, through a metamorphosis into proud feminist.
It's a harsh truth, but sexism is deeply rooted everywhere, even in the most seemingly "civilised" of cultures. It's in the millisecond-long pause before you commit to a gender-trope-heavy punchline, and the moment when a woman is heckled from a car and struggles to establish whether it should be flattery, or offensive. It's in the need for women to be amiable, polite, and never abrasive. Because to be abrasive is to be a leader, and a woman "acting like a man" is abominable.
When I discovered the Everyday Sexism project, it took a lot of self restraint not to bubble over with excitement as I read men and women recount moments that made them feel as if they were constrained by their gender to accept behaviours of others that made them uncomfortable.
I have the fortune of being seven years older than my younger sister. This allows me freedom to not worry about needing to impress her friends, all of whom have seen me slob around in a dressing gown so often that I suspect my sister tells them that I lost all my clothes in a suspiciously-concentrated fire. Simultaneously, she's razor-sharp, and we have some awesome conversations. But best of all, above any sisterhood: I got to have Christmastime tradition far, far longer than anybody I've ever met. And it's been ace.
When I was sixteen, our family went for the annual family photo with a mall Santa. It's been a tradition in our family for over twenty years, and the album captures, in one snapshot a year, my every awkward teenage phase of my life. But age sixteen was a special year, and not in a jolly way. Because Santa took one look at my mother and I, and insisted we sit in his lap, whilst my sister, aged nine, stood to the side.
You thought I was kidding? Hell, no. We still have the photo, complete with awkward-as-fuck grimaces.
When I think back on that moment now, all I can feel is revulsion. Revulsion that some disgusting old dude in a fleecy fake beard exploited a happy family moment so he could get a sneaky grope in the one context where nobody wants to shatter the suspension of disbelief, and call out his bullshit in front of a child.
That is everyday sexism.
When I was walking through a narrow doorway at 8pm in a pub, and some guy going through the door the other way shot his hand out and groped my crotch for one, fleeting moment. That was everyday sexism. Not because he liked the look of my body - I doubt he even gave me a second glance before that moment - but because I was a woman who dared exist in a public space, arrogantly exuding the confidence of someone whose body is my own. He clutched at my pelvis not because it did anything sexual for him. He violated my space, and then the space of the girl next to me a split-second later, because he wanted to feel the power of depriving me of mine.
When I was walking down a residential street one beautiful summer's day at age fourteen and was flagged down by some stranger in a car who told me that my "legs were hot" and asked if I'd get in and go for a coffee with him. That was everyday sexism, too... but at least he had the good grace to drive off quick-smart when I blurted out my age with shock and condemnation dripping from every syllable. And it pains me to add this disclaimer, but no, there is no chance on earth that Scarlett circa 2005 looked even remotely close to over 18. The need to clarify that as some form of self-justification is part and parcel of the pervasiveness of everyday sexism.
It is in my ex-boyfriend curling his lip in offence at my desire not to take somebody else's name. It is in political enemies of my employer crying "who will do the work when she is on maternity leave?" and then, "she isn't taking maternity leave! What kind of mother abandons her family like that?". It is in the jokes of my friends who praise the windy campus of my alma mater which causes the skirts of pretty girls to fly overhead, as if the internet is not rife with women who would happily consent to showing your their underwear, and all else under it as well, without violating their comfort zones. It is in men being told that they need to don a stiff upper lip, because crying is for women and being vulnerable is for homosexuals.
Or maybe it's something as simple as: "Women have got it fine. Feminists just being pissy because they're too equal now, and they're making things up to elevate themselves above men."
I guess what I'm trying to say that if any of this strikes a chord with you, I'd encourage you to talk to your friends and family about the everyday sexism that they have experienced, or witnessed. It might actually surprise you how much of the things you say and do are dictated by gender roles. And there's no better time to call this shit out.
After all, who wants to live in a world where a teenage girl could ever start a story with: "Have you ever been groped by Santa?"
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.