Who Owns Public Spaces?

Last weekend I was at the gym, waiting for a fellow male bodybuilder to get off the pullup bars. Yours truly can do about 7-10 wide grip pullups unassisted of which she’s very proud, and that Saturday was a heavy back day. While I’m waiting, another gym guy comes up and asks me if I’m doing just that, waiting. Why yes. Yes I am. Then:

Gym guy: “Can I just get in my reps before you?”

The first thought that crossed my mind was that this grown man had not attended kindergarden. That is the place, I recall, being taught about the concept of waiting your turn. But here he was, a full (approximately) 27 years later, clearly having passed kindergarden (although we musn’t assume). So then,

Me: “Uhh, no. I’m going to finish my set first.”
Gym guy: “Seriously? Jesus Christ!” and storms away.

The truth was, of course, that this guy figured that because I was female, my sets didn’t matter as much as his. His goals, his body, his gym routine was more important. He could probably do more, lift more, and above that he was male. He belonged in the gym far more than I did. His presence was normalized behaviour, mine was other – invited. Think I’m kidding? Do you think he would have attempted to butt in front of another man?

It’s interesting, this concept of gendered spaces. The gym is a great example of a place where men clearly feel they belong there more than women – and women definitely feel they need to either fight for their place or be relegated to the ‘women’s only’ section. Sometimes I feel like I have to push harder, lift more, be faster – just to justify my presence in the free weight section, usually the only woman among a good 20+ men. I find myself making my workouts harder and more complex, just to earn my spot. I guess this is motivation, but I’m not sure its from the right source.

Although public spaces are supposed to be just that: open to all, often they are dominated by those with privilege: traditionally white males. While these spaces have opened their invisible doors, those barriers often still exist, based primarily on gender, race and financial access. Think of country clubs, golf clubs, member only groups – while many have publicly denounced their racist and gender discriminative past, privately the gates remain closed, with white males still populating most of the ranks. Others who are allowed in are generally more scrutinized, need to have more credentials, pass more tests. More hoops to jump through, just to attain the norm.



The gym is not the only place women feel excluded. The very public arena of the street is highly gender-discriminatory, with a seemingly free for all in men’s gazes and words towards women. Sexual harassment through furtive touching on sidewalks, groping in public transit, and cat calling on the street makes these public spaces discriminatory and exclusionary towards women. While walking down the street for a white male might be second nature (he belongs there afterall, these are his streets), for a woman, it entails the burden of the male gaze, unwanted touching and jeers masked as compliments. Sometimes the street can resemble a soft battlefield.

If that weren’t enough, governments have taken to enacting policy that is making public spaces even more exclusionary and engendered. Whether you agree with France’s decision to ban women in headscarves from public places or not, it does fail on several accounts. First, the law was implemented without consulting the women who wear the headscarves – thus removing their agency and denying them a voice in a matter that affects them. Then, it contradicts its own motivation: it chooses to ban the headscarf, denoting it as a tool used to opress women, but instead of challenging the root causes of why this might be, it simply bandaids this supposed (both sides might be right, but its important to include both sides) problem, thereby further excluding (especially if the person in question is a girl in school) an already marginalized portion of the population based on gender and religion. Massive fail.

We have always been very concerned about protecting women within the private sphere – domestic violence, abuse, the burden of care and domestic gender roles are being criminalized and politicized. We’re becoming aware that women are paticipating more in obtaining higher education and in the working sector but without a diminished role at home, and that this is a major issue. See: Can Women Have it All?

More and more, however, I wonder if we are taking public spaces for granted, assuming that without actual targeted measures, these spaces will automatically veer towards gender equality. They are, afterall, public. But we know that not to be true. We know that when left to the norm, the norm veers male. White male. Time and time again.

I’m not sure the ‘women’s only’ section at the gym is the answer. Sure, women like to have a space where they don’t feel the male gaze. It can be very very liberating. But I think better strategies are needed. Maybe if sports were seen as normal for women. Maybe if women weren’t seen as sexual objects. Maybe if women weren’t seen as having lesser worth than men. Maybe if men were socialized to see women as equals instead of conquests or pushovers. The list goes on.

But maybe what it really comes down to is having women involved in the discussion. The ridiculous pictures of the Congressional Panel on Birth Control on Capitol Hill that included exactly zero women seems to be symptomatic of a widespread persisting issue: men are still talking about what women should and shouldn’t do without involving any women in the discussion at all. Again, this provides the message that we don’t have a voice. We’re not worth listening to. What we have to say doesn’t matter at all, and we can’t be trusted to make our own decisions. We may have the right to vote, but we’re still considered not full human beings. Children maybe, and to be taken care of.

I mean look, we still have to make (great!) videos such as these in order to ask for someone, anyone to respect our rights. It’s sad that we’re still here, asking for such basics, raising our hands to be permitted to speak, and being ignored when we do.

I completed my pull ups, and went on to my next exercise. Equality can’t be that far, I thought. But it’s still just out of our reach.


Photo credit deanetr via the Creative Commons License.  

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  • I used to sub teach regularly. On those rare occasions when the job assignment was physical education, the lesson plan often included weight training. Many female students are uncomfortable in the gym. I used to tell them, “A fit woman is a powerful woman.” My read on this fellow is not as sinister as yours. He is selfish and accustomed to getting his way, for sure, but not necessarily sexist. You were right to keep your place. Why did you not report him to an attendant or even the manager on duty? If he is acting out of line, his privileges can be suspended. WOMEN BELONG IN THE GYM.

    • John, I do think you mean well in your analysis, but as another woman who has experienced this on multiple occasions, I must mention that no woman in the gym has ever asked me to pack up so she can workout in that spot or with a certain machine. Has a man ever done it to you at the gym? I’d be curious to know, because my hunch would be that men don’t experience such a thing from guys, women don’t do it to other women, but men do it to women. This theme makes me think that she’s not evaluating his behavior in a sinister light. While you yourself may not be a sexist, there are TONS of them all over the place and we women run into them all the darn time.

      • Guys have asked me if they can cut in. I usually let them, but I am under no obligation to do so. I can’t say that this guy was sexist; I was not there. He does sound like an impatient, selfish person who needs to learn to share.

        • Chris Kad

          To answer all the variations of “Do you think he would butt in front of another man?”: Yes.

          I’m a male, but have experienced the same thing more than a few times. Typical etiquette is to ask if you can ‘work in’ (take turns while the other rests), but I have encountered the selfish type described above. There is a type of person like this who asks because most won’t. If you say ‘no’, nothing is lost to him because he doesn’t care what you think about him. If you say ‘yes’, regardless of whether you feel generous or feel pressured, it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care if you go home to write an article about him because his opinion of himself matters more to him than yours. This certainly is not a uniquely male trait, but perhaps it is disproportionately male. While I can’t definitively rule out this man as sexist, you can’t definitively confirm him as sexist either. The author, however, does see it through a lens that will lead to more false positives. If a man treats a woman disrespectfully, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is based on sexist views. John and I merely offer up a perspective that suggests an alternative reason.

          • Knatx

            The author failed on so many areas its not even funny. She is clearly blinded by her more extreme feminist views, as anything that rubs her the wrong way is clearly against females and such must be bashed and attacked.

    • Caitlin

      Why is he selfish and accustomed to getting his way? Why do a lot of guys behave this way? And why do a lot of women acquiesce? It’s more than just one guy being a juicebox here.

  • I feel the same way at the gym and have stopped going. What you describe has happened to me on many occasions, and I have told them NO to get the same irritated response. I know that men “work in” with each other too, sometimes, but they will ask “can I work in with you here” which means they do their reps while you rest and then switch. That seems legit to me. But when a man asks me to abandon a machine/spot so that he can do his thing there (which happens too often) I think the exact same thing: OH Mr. Uber Muscle, I didn’t realize your workout was more important than mine just because my neck isn’t as wide as my butt!!!!

    Bitterness couldn’t be held back in this comment. 🙂

  • Harold_Maple

    1) Person A acts like an asshole to Person B.
    2) Person A is male, Person B is female.
    3) Ergo, sexism.