I Want My Space—Setting Boundaries on the NYC Subway

As a feminist, there are days you want to feel like you are doing something, even if you can’t accomplish the bigger things today. And as a New Yorker, I find it appropriate to take my anger out on unsuspecting strangers when I deem they have done something thoughtless and disrespectful. When I couple these urges, I find myself becoming something of an activist on New York City subways.

The subway is a frustrating place and it always will be, but that does not excuse elbow-invasion and wide leg stances. I’m not denying that women have plenty of rude habits, namely reaching into their ginormous Longchamp bags to find things. But the elbows do abate at some point (once they have found the phone, notepaid, etc.) whereas men extend their elbows into half of my seat and splay their legs out during the entire trip like a woman waiting for her annual pap smear, taking up half of my seat, which was barely occupied to begin with.

I say barely occupied because I, like many women, keep my knees together as if they held in place by superglue and fold my hands neatly in my lap. I look like a mummy whereas some of the men who sit next to me sit as if it is their living room couch. I sit like this because someone else is crowding my space. Some men may argue, “Well yeah, but I’m bigger than you. I need more room than you do.” To this argument, I point to the kind gentlemen I sit next to on the train, who put their hands in their laps and close their legs together. I sit next to men who weigh 60 to 80 more pounds than me every day and they do manage to avoid taking up nearly half of my seat.

What makes the debate worse, is that it’s an argument we’ve heard before about other things. Men take more food and they deserve more food, because they’re bigger. Men deserve more food and rest because they work harder than we do. In the book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Gloria Steinem used access to food to illustrate how women are considered less valuable across different parts of the globe. I think personal space is similar, because men believe we just don’t need it as much as they do, whether or not we paid the same price for an airplane ticket or a train ticket. Socialization also allows them to feel more comfortable invading someone’s space.

Men see me and see a seat and a half. Sometimes I let men know that they are not entitled to my space simply because I’m smaller than them. One night I sat next to a man sitting spread eagle. He closed his legs at first, just to open them back up again later. I decided to spread my legs open (thankfully I was wearing pants) as far as humanly possible, pushing his legs out of the way. I turned to him and smiled. He looked startled then amused. He closed his legs. There was an uncomfortable exchange of looks, but if he thinks twice before doing it again, I will feel I have accomplished something.

We need to fight for our space. It’s unlikely that women will win bigger fights, such as getting a seat in Congress or at the boardroom table, when we can’t even attain a whole seat on the train. Use your voice. Spread your legs when he spreads his. When his elbow digs into your ribcage push it out. Or nestle up next to him so that he can understand how it feels. But whatever you do, don’t surrender your space.

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About Casey Quinlan

Casey Quinlan is a reporter for the New York City News Service and student at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for the Journal and Republican weekly newspaper, and contributed to The Watertown Daily Times, a daily newspaper, in upstate New York, as a community reporter. Quinlan has also covered state politics for The Legislative Gazette in Albany.

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