Category Archives: Wisconsin

A Woman Alone in Public

“Women you know Sir are considered as Domestick Beings, and although they inherit an Eaquel Share of curiosity with the other Sex, yet but few are hardy eno’ to venture abroad, and explore the amaizing variety of distant Lands.  The Natural tenderness and Delicacy of our Constitutions, added to the many Dangers we are subject too from your Sex, renders it almost impossible for a Single Lady to travel without injury to her character.” – Abigail Adams to Isaac Smith Jr, 1771.

There’s not much to do on your own in a new city after dark.  Coffee shops, museums, and libraries close down.  Madison’s weird lack of central movie theaters becomes obvious.  Parks become dangerous.  And so I do what any 20 something in my position would do: I go to bars.

And here’s what I find when I get there: men.

Rows of them.  In groups or alone.  Men drinking beer, men with whiskey and sodas, men watching the game.  Some of them are with women, of course – dates, friends, wives, maybe sisters.  But what you don’t see, what you never see, are women alone.

At least in Wisconsin you don’t.

At the time Abigail Adams complained, things were only starting a trend towards privacy.   Of course, not all women were in private.  More and more women worked outside the home, and young girls flocked to the mills at Lowell to work, and live, on their own.  But whether it was despite or because of this (I tend to think the latter) it became less and less acceptable for women to exist in public.  In old Victorian pubs you can still see frosted glass separators, creating spaces where women could be in public, but unseen.

On a tour of the Teatro Nacional in San Jose, Costa Rica, our guide pointed out two small rooms off the central salon – ‘they were for women,’ he said, ‘which, at the time, meant mostly prostitutes.’  Well, naturally, they were in public, after all.

But I would have hoped that by 2013 we would be past openly gendered public spaces, wouldn’t you?  I mean really.

I would have been wrong.

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You notice things traveling alone in ways you never do with a friend.  You notice the way opportunities disappear when the sun sets.  The older women in my hostel, all living near the bone, go to sleep.  After all, what else is there to do?  There are no movie theaters downtown.  Even if there were, they’re $12 a ticket, more than half the cost of a night’s sleep here.  Ann watches the same 70s sci-fi movie, again and again, on the small TV that buzzes so loud you can hardly hear the spaceship.  Marcy sleeps, fitfully and intermittently, from 7pm on.

So I go out.  And everywhere I go, there are men.  Everywhere I go I look for women, and I can’t seem to find them.

Of course, there are some.  Bartenders seem to be mostly women.  There are women on dates, and women in groups of friends.  They sit around small bar tables.  They talk to each other.  They don’t talk to me.

So I leave these bars, not long after sunset.  I come back to the hostel.  The women I live with are asleep.  I go to bed by 9pm and get up at 5:30.

I walk down the dark streets through a cool pre-dawn.  At 6, I unroll my yoga mat and look around the studio.

And oh: there are the women.

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A Friendly Town

Madison is a friendly town.  At least, Madison should be a friendly town.  It’s in the Midwest!  It’s full of people from Wisconsin!  They love beer!  They’re called cheeseheads, for God’s sake.

And of course it is.  People open doors a lot, and give directions handily.  They’ll joke with you on the street about weather.  They compliment your boots and let you pet their dogs.

But they don’t, actually, make friends with you.

The last time I traveled alone I was in Israel.  There were scores of us: young people, many of us on our own, out to see a foreign culture.  We exchanged phone numbers, hopped on busses to Bethlehem and went drinking together.  We took each other’s pictures, and met outside the same cafes.  It felt like a movie montage.  It felt great.

But no one travels through Madison.

Everyone is here for a reason – mostly because they live here.  There’s one hostel and it’s filled with a ragtag bunch of us – law students attending conferences, me to do my research, and an unusually large population of women in their seventies here for no clear reason at all (more on that later).

There’s no exploring a foreign culture.  No Bethlehem.  No learning to ask for beer in Hebrew.   .

So I go to bars.  And I go to them alone.

I know there just must be a trick to finding a bar where you can make friends.  But I don’t know what it is.  So I go into them, one a night, and order a beer.  The Tipsy Cow, The Great Dane, The Weary Traveler, El Dorado, The Old Fashioned, on and on and on.

I sit down.  I order beer in a way that makes clear I am a fun person just in town who would like to know Madison.

One time this initiated conversation.

Then I pull out my book, sometimes making some comment on it.

This has succeeded never.

I order food, and ask someone near me what I should order.  I attempt to make this one question convey my entire, happy-go-lucky, mysterious-person-on-her-own personality.

This once led to successfully talking to another human being for a whole 40 minutes.

Eventually I get as far as commenting on the game.  It’s a stupid starter for 10, really.  I will have at best one sentence to say about it.  I once tried to start talking about the Brewers and it immediately became apparent that I didn’t know who they were playing.  In fact, I didn’t know what league they were in.  (National League, in case you’re wondering.  Or, if you use my accounting a leagues “the Mets/Nats league, not the Yankees/A’s one.”)

Baseball has led to three separate conversations.  One lasted 15 minutes.  If it sounds like I am recording this with a near manic meticulousness, that’s because I am.

But none of them have made me any friends.

Now, I will not pretend to be particularly socially apt.  I am not.  I am awkward as hell, furiously shy at first, and immediately thereafter uncomfortably garrulous.  But I’m not awful, not really terrible.

So I have to wonder – would this happen in every city?  Or is it Madison?  What makes a city really “friendly”?  Is it the opening of doors, and meaning it when you say “have a nice day”?

Or is it a stranger at a bar – someone who takes an interest in you, someone else who is on their own.   Someone who would never open a door for a lady, but who might, just maybe, say hello.

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