Are they picking on you?
Every year, my entire high school piles onto buses headed to Stamford, Connecticut to spend a Shabbat together. The weekend is always totally joyful and totally overwhelming as 550 students, most of the faculty, and many of their families flood the building for 25 hours of song, community, and prayer. One of my favorite things about this shabbaton is the conversations that come out of it. The school itself is very seminar-focused, so there are usually three or four required sessions on various topics over the course of the weekend. On top of that, I am a part of a deeply opinionated student body, where conversations of politics and religion are more commonplace than one might expect. I love the passionate discourse, even if navigating it can sometimes be frustrating.
I sat down at dessert on Friday night with a friend of mine, a self-identified “economic liberal, and social conservative.” As often happens, a heated discussion on feminism arose. As the argument went on, more boys began to gather around. One boy said to the one I was arguing with, “man, you’re being wrecked.” I was feeling good. I wasn’t going to change his mind about the need for feminism, a “ridiculous institution”, as he called it, but I was going to express this need clearly and concisely, and then I was going to get out of there.
A staff member at the hotel noticed the heated argument unraveling before him and made eye contact with me. With a smile, he asked, “Are they picking on you?”
To be clear: nothing about this scene looked as though I was being ganged up on. It was me arguing with a boy, with some other boys standing around and listening. That was all. The argument was heated, but no one was doing anything out of line. This man’s comment pissed me off, to say the least. Here I was explaining confidently why it is that we need feminism-- a liberty that was granted to me by the work of the many feminists that came before me, without whom I would have never had the education or the guts to debate a boy in the way that I did. At that exact moment, a man saw the position I was in and figured that I, as a female, needed the help of a male to handle another male. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach and then asked for my lunch money too.
Many will say that my anger in that moment was irrational. But the smile on that man’s face is something that can only really be understood by someone who has been on the receiving end of such a gesture. It’s a smile that says, “I see a girl and the only flirty or witty comment I can think to make is one that is both patronizing and degrading, so that’s what I’ll do.” Do I think that that man’s goal was to patronize me? No, I do not. I do believe, however, that we live in a society in which we teach men that if they can’t find a bone to grab, they can just knock a woman down a few pegs and make themselves feel stronger. Or they can look at a woman, comfortably arguing with a man with whom she is on equal footing, and try and step in as her “hero.”
I don’t need a hero. I have the generations of feminists who came before me to thank for that, and to call my heroes.
I looked the man in the eye and said, “I’m good, thanks.” As I pulled the argument away from him, the boys caught up to me and wanted to somehow use that moment as proof for their argument.
“See?” They said. “Why did he have to ask you that?”
This was, as well, deeply frustrating. “Why did he have to ask me that?” I asked. “I was fine. We were arguing. I was very comfortable with what I was saying. Did it look like I needed his help?!”
I appreciate an outstretched hand in a moment of need. Kindness is a necessary building block for a just world. I do not, however, appreciate my voice being minimized because of my gender. I do not appreciate condescension in a moment when I am working to prove myself. So yes, boys, we do need feminism, until the day when a man can see you and I arguing and view us as equals.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Fish-Bieler, Hani. "Are they picking on you?." 27 May 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 7, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/are-they-picking-on-you>.