- From the Editor:Women Visible
When I was twelve or thirteen years old, I decided one summer evening to take a walk around my neighborhood. It was a quiet area in the Philadelphia suburbs, predominantly white and upper-middle class with pretty houses, well-kept lawns, and no crime rate to speak of. I was dressed in generic American kids’ garb: jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers, and that totem of female puberty, a training bra. About a block from my house a car pulled up next to me with its windows rolled down, and a man, or perhaps more accurately a boy, somewhere in that space between sixteen and twenty—pale skin, short dark hair, basically good-looking with a bit of acne—leaned over the front seat to call out, “Hey, you wanna party?”
My heart pounded, but I sought to look casual, unconcerned. I could hardly bear to articulate to myself what he wanted. “No thanks,” I said, with fleeting eye contact and then a look to the side. Never had the houses along this street seemed so quiet, the smooth landscaping of the lawns so desolate. He shrugged and drove on, but then at the next intersection did a quick U-turn and headed back my way. This time the car was a little farther away, on the other side of the street, but he himself felt closer as he leaned a bit out the driver’s side window. “You sure?”
“That’s OK … no thanks,” I said back. And then he drove off.
This story is so unremarkable that it is hardly worth telling. My story is most of all one of good fortune and privilege, for I had a home to walk back to, with parents in that home who were horrified to hear what had happened. I also was lucky to have parents who did not seek to blame me for this disquieting event. The world in which my parents lived and their place in that world were such that they trusted the local police and immediately called them, fully expecting that they would respond. Indeed the police did, showing up within minutes to take a report, even as my father and I, in our own car (again, good fortune and privilege), drove around looking for the man. What a rare community this was within the scope of global space and human history, where police could take the time to show up and hear about an event that was not even a real crime. What a luxury of resources to be able to sound such an alarm for a mere girl. After all, what had even happened?
Nothing had happened. Nothing at all. A male had propositioned a female, she had declined, and he had (eventually) accepted that refusal. My youth was all that made the interaction anything other than mundane. But within this uneventful event, a great deal had happened to me. I will never forget the shock of being looked at and assessed, that sense of being [End Page 7] suddenly enlarged under the microscope of a man’s casual gaze. How visible I was, and how vulnerable. And yet how invisible, for in this male’s eyes, I was mere flesh, all flesh. The web of thought and the sense of self through which I perceived the world were not what he saw or cared to see. Invisible also in the sense that I had no power, that I could too easily be disappeared from that quiet, empty street. But invisible most of all in that this was a quality I now fervently desired in response to the shame that his invitation made me feel. I must have done something to attract his unwelcome notice, I thought to myself. I wish he could not see me. Perhaps I should not be out here to be seen at all.
This event from my early adolescence kept running through my mind over the past few days, as I settled down to write the preface to this issue. It is not an event I have thought about a great deal over the years, so the resurfacing of this memory at this...