It still sucks to be a woman sometimes, in both the most boring and most dangerous of ways.
It all started with a light. A light in the hallway of our apartment building in Boston.
A light—just a bare bulb, really—that shines through a window into our bedroom where I sleep fitfully most nights even with blackout curtains, a fan whirring, and the white noise (rain falling softly on a tin bucket) from my 2-year-old daughter’s room playing over the baby monitor.
What happened was this: Our upstairs neighbor wanted the light left on all night, and we didn’t want to comply.
This winter, as New England grew steadily darker, my husband, Jason, would simply get out of bed and shut off the hall light after the neighbor would come home late. It was annoying to be woken in the middle of the night, but the light resides in the hallway, technically a common space. We just turned it off when it was no longer in use.
A few weeks into this on-off routine, the upstairs neighbor—a 20-something Indian man recently out of graduate school, who occasionally throws wall-shaking parties despite the strict noise clause in our lease—knocked on our door. He was clearly angry as he told Jason that he needed the hall light left on throughout the night so that he and his girlfriend could “come and go at all hours.” I listened to the conversation from the bedroom. Adrenaline flooded my veins.
The neighbor, who stands half a foot taller than Jason, did not ask; he demanded.
The neighbor, when Jason explained how the light shines into our room, did not reach for a neighborly compromise. His chest-puffed “sucks to be you” attitude dripped from his voice as he repeated his demand again before leaving.
By the time Jason shut the door I was shaking. My reaction surprised me. Why was I so angry over a light?
In a word: privilege.
It so happens that the light in question uses our electricity. Despite the switch in the hallway, it’s our breaker and utility bill to which the light is connected, and our apartment into which the light shines. Jason is the peacekeeping type, quick to oblige someone over low stakes matters even if it causes him a mild inconvenience. But this was not a low stakes matter to me. I’m a working mother operating on too little sleep as it is, and the idea of leaving the hall light on all night gave me hives. Not only would the light disrupt my sleep, but we’d also be paying for electricity spent entirely on someone else’s decision to come home after midnight.
I could go on. I could send you pictures of the stairwell when only the upstairs light (as opposed to our downstairs light) is on, and I bet you’d agree that it’s not actually all that dark. I could point out that most smartphones come equipped with flashlights, and as a software developer, my upstairs neighbor almost certainly has a shiny new phone. I could list the approximately 10 alternatives—key ring flashlight, stick-on light, motion sensor light, etc.—that we suggested to the neighbor, all rejected out of hand over a series of text messages.
After Jason lobbied the neighbor for a while, I took a turn. In a calm, but firm tone, I explained that we felt leaving a light on for 12 hours overnight was an excessive expense, and while the neighbor could speak with the landlord, we would not capitulate to his unvarnished demand.
But as soon as I took over the campaign for compromise, the neighbor’s tone changed from intimidation to patronization; simply put, he delighted in riling me up. Several condescending texts later, I said that if he continued to badger us about the light, we would have no choice but to flip the breaker when we went to bed at night.
His next response shook something loose in me. “Go for it!” he wrote, complete with smiley emoji. It was a schoolyard dare.
The fact that I’m taking this much time to explain such a mundane disagreement is telling. I’m going out of my way to demonstrate my neighbor’s lack of compromise, and to emphasize the many ways in which Jason and I tried to solve the problem for everyone’s benefit (we even offered to go halves on the motion sensor light).
Ironically, earlier that same day the Good Men Project tweeted a call for submissions by asking a question: Is chivalry dead?
I’ve been turning that question over in my mind ever since. I’ve been thinking about the way I responded when I saw the neighbor’s text-dare—how I burst into tears at the powerlessness it wrought in me. How I could sense his entitlement from the moment he knocked on our door—his physically intimidating stance toward my smaller husband, his condescending tone to me, his unwillingness to accept anything less than total compliance—and felt utterly silenced, even a tiny bit afraid in my own home.
This incident occurred at the same time the board of trustees at my university was attempting to oust our female president over allegations that she had an “abrasive” leadership style. Only when the male mayor of Boston publicly came to her defense did the board begin to back down. A few days after the light debacle, I posted a pro-Hillary article on my own Facebook page, and got spammed by a male acquaintance with pro-Bernie arguments and links. Another male friend intervened, paraphrasing my post’s original thesis. In a single comment, he successfully shut the other guy up.
Chivalry isn’t dead because it can’t be. I still need men to go to battle for me, and I hate it.
Describing the patronizing and often incorrect “corrections” men routinely offered on her heavily-researched book on Eadweard Muybridge, River of Shadows, Rebecca Solnit writes in her 2015 book, Men Explain Things to Me, “Yes, guys like this pick on other men’s books too, and people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered.”
Solnit illuminates the connections between everyday microaggressions of sexism and the most horrific violence done to women the world over. You might think that because my upstairs neighbor was willing to demand the same of Jason as of me that his behavior over the hall light wasn’t sexist, but it’s important, I think, to look at what I’ll call his intersectional privilege. He can afford, in his early 20s, to live in a building that Jason and I have had to work 10 years to move into. This suggests comfortable wealth from a non-Western upbringing in a country where men of means still hold the greatest power. As the larger man, he took a domineering stance toward Jason, and was downright entertained by verbally sparring with me later.
After a few more weeks of aggressive light-turning-on-and-off, Jason decided he’d better contact the landlord. Like many in Boston, we’ve never actually met our landlord. But we’ve inferred a few things about him through our phone and email conversations, and from the day he showed up announced to have our apartment appraised. Our babysitter was there with our then-infant daughter, and the landlord simply let himself into our apartment with his key. He didn’t even knock.
Our babysitter, startled and protective of our daughter, explained that she didn’t live there and asked the landlord what he wanted. Amused by her obvious fear, he replied, “Well, I own the place.”
Before he hit “send” on his email to the landlord about the neighbor and the light, Jason asked me something. Would it be OK, he asked, if he played “good cop” and told the landlord that it was his wife who was really upset about the light and the neighbor’s unwillingness to meet us halfway?
What was he really asking: Could he make me the “bad cop”?
In other words, abrasive. In other words, a bitch.
I get why Jason thought a little wink-nudge sexism would work with the landlord, who was likely predisposed to take our neighbor’s side. I get why my male friend was able shut down the Hillary-bashing on my Facebook page. I’m glad he shut it down. But this kind of allyship, however necessary for women to be able to sleep well at night, or post their views on their own social media pages without harassment, sucks. It still sucks to be a woman sometimes, in both the most boring and most dangerous of ways.
Jason’s email worked, of course. The landlord installed a motion sensor light in the downstairs hallway. We still pay for it, though, and the neighbor has yet to say thank you.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA, with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.