"Sorry" She Said
by Sophie Pollack
The very first time I felt like a victim of sexism was in high school. Whenever I asked a question in class, I always began by apologizing. Usually it was just one word, “sorry”, followed by a question. It didn’t seem at all weird to me until one of my teachers brought it up. They asked me, “Why do you always say sorry before you ask a question? You have nothing to be sorry for.” I didn’t have an answer. I wasn’t sure.
But as soon as my teacher mentioned it, I began to notice the same behavior everywhere. And the strange thing was that although tons of other girls also apologized whenever they had a question, I never saw a single boy do it.
I realized that this strange habit comes from a deeply-rooted societal view of how women should be. We should be quiet. We should not take up space. We should apologize when we do. I was supposed to feel bad for disrupting the class with a question, for being inquisitive or curious at all. I had been conditioned to apologize at the beginning of my sentences–before I even said anything of substance. It was something I had been doing for years. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed.
I was incredibly privileged to grow up feeling like I was never impacted by sexism. My bedtime companions were Lizzie Bennett, Hermione Granger, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. My grandma was a successful lawyer. My mother was an entrepreneur. My city was one of the most progressive in the United States. The fight for women’s suffrage belonged only to my history class, and I thought it was over now.
My ignorance was a privilege, but it was also incredibly dangerous. It’s scary to think that these small moments of oppression are natural, that they are normal, that they should be normal. I hate knowing that I was blindly, willingly contributing to this societal norm that demands women apologize for taking up space. I began to examine other parts of my life, and I realized that I had fallen into a pattern of ignorance. Every time I walk alone in the dark, I pretend to be on a phone call. Every time I get into an Uber, I put my headphones on so I don’t have to talk to the driver. I don’t act this way because I feel threatened at any particular moment, but rather because it feels natural. It’s just something you do. But these seemingly small actions reveal a deeply disturbing view of society: it is normal for women to feel afraid. It is normal for women to assume they will be harassed. It is normal to think you will not be safe walking home. My female friends know this, because they have been conditioned in the same way.
I didn’t question dress codes until I was much older. Our dress code only affected females, and I accepted willingly the reason administrators gave: the way some girls dress is distracting for boys. I continued to watch my hem lines and make sure my skirt was only so many inches above my knee. It never occurred to me to question something that seemed so normal, so ingrained in the fabric of our society. But again, these conventions we take for granted often reveal a darker undertone. Why was I responsible for a man’s good behavior? Why didn’t we teach men to focus, rather than teach women to cover themselves? The implication was that a breach of dress code justified an oppressive male gaze, that a short skirt was “asking for it”. There are thousands of girls in school everyday who confirm this dangerous view as normalcy without even knowing it. We have become unable to notice those things that hold us back.
We have ceased to feel surprised when we admit that our President has committed sexual assault. He was elected three years ago now–the controversy has become a thing of the past, ingrained into our societal fabric as just another iteration of status quo. Men who commit sexual assault can hold positions of power. Men who commit sexual assault can hold the most powerful position. Men who commit sexual assault will not be reprimanded.
It is one thing to live in a sexist society and try to change it. It is an entirely different thing to live in a sexist society and not notice at all. We can attend women’s marches and protest against oppression and return home that day feeling like we accomplished something. And we did, to some extent. But we will never bring about big change without first attacking the fundamental societal conventions that we accept for no better reason than because they are already there. As long as girls continue to say sorry before they ask a question, as long as I continue to walk taking fake phone calls, as long as little girls blindly adhere to the dress code for no other reason than because everyone else does, we will never achieve true equality. We have made great strides towards achieving an equal society; I am not disputing that. But it is destructive to think we are finished. I do not know how long I would have continued to apologize in class had my teacher not pointed it out one day, and that scares me. We cannot normalize dangerous societal patterns just because they are natural. We cannot let young girls believe women’s suffrage belongs only in dusty history textbooks. We cannot apologize when we ask for powerful, beneficial change.