by Elise Hempel
There's an innocent-looking little white ornamental tree in my neighbor's front yard which blocks your view when you're trying to turn from C Street onto Polk. You must crouch at the wheel and peer through the small open space beneath its lovely overhang to see another car coming from the left. Because this sweet little tree had already caused one accident and one near-accident, and because the tree's owner isn't friendly and approachable enough to tell her that her tree is a hazard, I decided recently to call the police.
Here, in condensed form, is the conversation between me and the male officer:
Me: Hi. I'm not sure I'm calling the right place, but there's a tree in my neighbor's yard – a little white ornamental tree – that blocks our view when we're trying to make a turn onto Polk Street. We're on C Street. There's already been one accident, and just now another one almost happened….
Officer: I know the tree you're talking about. I live in the neighborhood. I've never had a problem with it.
Me: Well, I can't see around it, and neither can my boyfriend. There's already been an accident, and a guy on a motorcycle almost got hit just now….
Officer: Are you in a car or an SUV when you're trying to turn?
Me: A car, but it doesn't matter. My boyfriend drives a truck and can't see around the tree. You can't see around it when you're walking either.
Officer: I've never had a problem with it, Ma'am, but I'll send an officer out to determine if it's a hazard.
Me: I'm telling you: It is a hazard. You can't see around it. We're afraid to turn there, and I'm afraid there'll be more accidents….
Officer (in anger): Ma'am! I said I'll send someone out to make that determination!
And then the click of the phone as he hung up on me. At first came puzzlement and disbelief, and then an anger that soon turned to a familiar sick feeling in my stomach. And then, even though I had started the day in a good mood, I was suddenly in tears at the kitchen window. I had imagined, before I made that call, that I would get a thank you from the police – thanks for letting us know, for being a good citizen, for helping us keep our streets safe. But instead I had been dismissed – almost before my first sentence was out of my mouth, almost immediately. I felt terrible, and now, so quickly and easily, full of self-doubt. What had I done wrong? Had I pushed too hard? Had I interrupted him and not been aware of it? Should I have been more quiet and polite?
All of us have had this sort of phone conversation at one time or another – a conversation where you start out as a nice person and end up a raving lunatic. But for women there is another layer to it. For women, there is always that extra question: Would he have talked to me that way if I were a man?
My poetry rejections are often followed by a similar question, and I've considered removing my gender from my name, using androgynous initials, as so many other women writers have done. (Somehow that feels good to me when I imagine it – just two anonymous initials before my last name, standing there like some sort of impenetrable gate, some sort of armor, a shield against the world.) And another version of the question occurred to me the other day, when an orthopedic surgeon squinted at my pelvic MRI displayed on his computer screen and, not seeing the same tearing in my hips that the radiologist had seen, suggested that my ongoing hip pain could be “all in your head.” (This made me recall a different orthopedic doctor I saw in the early 80s to figure out my back and leg pain and find out if I could run again. This doctor said, after looking at my X-ray, to “stop focusing on your pain” and “go see a psychiatrist.”) Would he have so quickly and unsympathetically dismissed me if I were a man?
In fact, “the man question” has been right there, behind so many personal and professional interactions, for most of my life. In sheer duration and ever-presence, the question beats out the times I've been directly called “the b-word,” as well as the too-numerous times I've been inappropriately touched. And even these more obvious instances of sexism have been followed by self-doubt: Did I cause it in some way? It's not much of a surprise that the little white tree is still untrimmed, still blocking the view of traffic in my neighbor's front yard. I'm guessing that no police officer was ever sent to check it out. I should pursue the matter at city hall, I suppose, but there is that fear: I don't want to get yelled at again; I don't want to appear to anyone, male or female, as “the b-word.” Easier to stay quiet and be liked by everyone, and so much nicer to not have that sick feeling building in my stomach. Easier to be as cautious as I can when I turn onto Polk Street, or watch that intersection like a hawk and throw my hand up in warning at anyone about to hit a passing motorcycle, as I did on my dog-walk that day.
And easier to just vote. Donald Trump has now spoken and brought with his candidacy some of the most obvious examples of sexism, and still it's accepted or unnoticed by thousands of women (and men). When he called Hillary Clinton “disgusting” for having to use the bathroom during a debate, why didn't his candidacy end right there? Why haven't his tweets containing the word “bimbo” ended it? And where are all the anti-Trump “bastard” buttons, to match the anti-Hillary “life's a bitch, don't vote for one” buttons that were on sale at the RNC? Where's the “don't be dicked around by one that hangs to the right” button, to match the actual button that says “KFC Hillary Special: 2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts, left wing”?
All women, but mostly those who are still undecided in this election, need to look back on their lives and consider not only the obvious ways they were treated poorly just for being a woman but also the more subtle ways they've been dismissed or condescended to, the more subtle ways they may have been held back in life, or silenced merely because of their gender. They need to consider the ways they may have hesitated, through self-doubt and lack of confidence, and sabotaged themselves. They need to squint harder than my doctor did into my MRI and see how their lack of assumed authority has affected their own life. I had planned to vote for Bernie Sanders, because I consider national healthcare a top prioirty for my country. But Hillary is fine too. More than fine. And, more than ever, we need her.