The still point of an ever-onwards-rushing world is a passenger on the Arbatska-Pokrovskaya line of the Moscow metro. I’m standing in the middle of the carriage, hastening, let’s say, from a 1-2-1 at the Russian offices of a ball-bearing manufacturer to the little school at Strogino where I’ll spend the rest of the day with my five-year-olds. I’m carrying a heavyish rucksack, my right arm is straight up in the air grasping the overhead rail, and I’m reading, awkwardly both holding the book in my left hand and turning its pages with my left thumb. Someone hops up from a seat and gets out at Smolenskaya; I glance along the carriage and calculate that the other people standing are all able-bodied men in their twenties or thirties. I sit down.
In that moment I know I’ve lost the game. Not the old game that you can only win by not thinking about (I’ve just lost that game though, and so have you). I mean the game that I play everywhere in Russian public places, usually on the approach to Russian doors. Behold, here is a door; behind me is a random person who happens to be a man. If I can hold the door for him I win; if he holds it for me I lose. I always, always lose this game, even when, in some excessively complicated process, the man has to walk all the way around me to get to the door. For some reason in Russia I’m just not allowed to open doors. Also, and maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect that I get slightly higher priority than a man of my age bracket in the hierarchy of who gets to sit down first in the metro, and if I was firm enough to stick to my own bloody-minded principles, I would refuse to sit down until I was the last person standing. But I’m tired, and I’d like to have both hands free for my book, and the idea that being female gives me a right to that seat makes me feel just a little bit less selfish for taking it. I’m worried, though, that this aspect of Moscow is wearing off on me.
I’m going to lay my cards on the table here and say that I don’t think manspreading is a thing. Of course I haven’t lived in London, or in any big city apart from Moscow. Maybe in all other cities in the world, all men really do make a concerted effort to inconvenience female fellow travellers on public transport, and a sensible reaction is hashtag womanspreading with as many Instagram and Twitter pictures as possible by way of all-out war on the patriarchy. Of course people are inconsiderate on public transport, and it’s easy, on public transport, to feel irritated in the extreme. My own pet hate is overly-demonstrative couples; if other people feel similarly infuriated by their male neighbours’ knees, well, I guess we don’t get to choose our knee-jerk reactions.
But this does not mean that some women’s decision to sit with their own knees assertively spread is a startling piece of news worth featuring in a national newspaper, cough cough The Guardian cough cough. ‘We’re finally taking up the space we deserve’. Bring on the hoop skirts and the petticoats and the bustles, then, and let the gentlemen lay their jackets down in the mud as we pass, fire hazards and all. Or, of course, we can opt for the Moscow stereotype; in Moscow the proper stereotypical way to take up metro carriage space is to wear a big down coat and travel with twenty-seven shopper bags, your dog (also wearing a down coat), a few cats in cat carriers, a pot plant or two and an ironing board. Personally, if anyone has longer legs than me, or a dog, pot plant or ironing board, I will definitely insist on them taking the seat with more room, and if the longer legs etc belong to a male traveller I do not conclude that I am therefore suffering from internalized misogyny.
Violence perpetrated against women and girls, oppression from families and societies and government, sexual harassment and assault and exploitation of all kinds: these seem to me too important and horrible to risk being diluted in a general concern about whether all women are under threat from all men’s knees. It seems likely that some women struggle with the feeling that society does not want them to occupy the space they occupy, and this shouldn’t be the case, and is a Bad Thing. But the rhetoric of all women against all men means that somewhere out there, I would imagine, is a woman who wondered if there was something wrong with her because she didn’t have a #MeToo story and she was shocked and surprised at the number of her friends posting #MeToo and yet everyone seemed to be saying that all women were supposed to know about this already. And maybe somewhere there’s another woman who posted #MeToo with no background to it, just because she wanted to feel included. And somewhere there’s a woman who posted it and then felt worse than before, watching for notifications that might bring support but never quite bring as much as a person needs. And all over, everywhere, there are women who never go online and never knew and still don’t know.
It’s all too important, it seems to me, to be discussed in the same opinion column as someone’s otherwise understandable annoyance about male posture on public transport. It’s a topic that feels risky for this blog too. I’m more likely than usual to upset someone. Am I allowed to say, purely on the basis of my own private experience of being a woman, or am I not allowed to say, that I don’t take any particular interest in whether a man sits manspreadingly or crosses his legs or stands on his head on the seat or does the splits in the middle of the carriage? But surely there are more important conversation to be having; surely The Guardian could suggest some more productive way for us to help other women than an alternative method of arranging our knees. I want to hear other women’s stories. I do not want other women to assume that I already know the struggles they have faced, just because I am a woman, when actually I do not know and I want to stand with them if I can and if they are willing to share their stories with me. I do not want anyone’s story to be less heard by me because it does not fit exactly with the kinds of stories most widely publicized at the time under the banner this is what all women experience. We’re able to be more nuanced than that. And we’re able to be more nuanced and adopt a power stance at the same time.