This past summer I had the honor of attending Soapbox Inc.’s Feminist Camp, hosted by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards in New York City. The camp accommodated about thirty people and was focused on how to take our interest in feminism and help translate it into our professional careers. We met with dozens of groups and covered a new theme every day ranging from philanthropy, to women in art, to reproductive justice. We met everyone: female slam poets, nonprofit workers, doulas and even a few lightening rod characters like Merle Hoffman of Choices Medical Center. Each day was jam-packed with more lessons, inspirations, and career advice than my brain could fully process. By the end of the voyage, I was exhausted but exploding with newfound inspiration about how to implement feminism into my daily life.
On the last day of camp, I reflected back on the week and sifted through all of the tips I had been given over the last five days. To my surprise, one piece seemed to stand out above the others, and it was not what I would have expected. On our “careers” theme day, we had had a very short encounter with Elaine Golin, an incredibly successful partner at the Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz law firm. Given how important she is, she only had a few moments of time to offer us, and her presentation was noticeably briefer than the others. She swiftly presented us with a list of the best lessons that she had learned since entering an incredibly male-dominated industry, and her number one tip was both odd and enlightening.
Elaine pointed out something that had never occurred to me: When women go on work trips, they order room service; when men go on work trips, they go out for dinner and drinks alone. It sounded so strange and simple, even potentially inaccurate. But, then she asked us — a group of strong, vocal, self-identified feminists — to raise our hands if we had ever had a drink alone in a bar. To my surprise, almost no one’s moved…including mine.
While I had certainly gone out to dinner alone before, it was always out of necessity. It had never once struck to me to go out for a drink by myself. Despite the fact that all of my male friends do this constantly, even when they are not out of town, it had never popped into my head that I could go out for a drink alone. Why is that? Simply put, I didn’t want to be harassed by men. It is almost as though I somehow felt I needed permission to take up that space if I wasn’t there for a man’s entertainment.
Elaine went on to say that yes, you will experience some creeps if you try this, but that it is still worth the experience. This is an opportunity to network that women routinely leave themselves out of because we are afraid of men. She finished by stating that you need to act confident and strong in these situations until you actually feel it.
On that final day of camp, our last session finished at around four in the afternoon and I had an early flight out the next morning at ten. I decided to call it a day and take the subway back to my friend’s apartment where I was staying. As I was strolling the Upper West Side looking for a takeout pizza place, it suddenly hit me that I was doing exactly what Elaine had advised against. I didn’t want to deal with men trying to talk to me or stare at me, so I was getting pizza…to eat alone in my bed on my last day in the most exciting city on earth. I was giving up space that I felt I was not entitled to so I could avoid having to potentially be stern with a stranger. It swiftly became clear that that would be the wrong way to end my Feminist Camp experience, so I took a leap that was surprisingly difficult and went out to happy hour by myself. What ensued was one of the most memorable nights of my entire life.
First off, finding a restaurant made me unexpectedly apprehensive, shy even. I am a very strong person who has no difficulty committing to my decisions. I trust my instincts and I am typically very comfortable with the outcome. So why was I wandering around creeping on customers in an attempt to pick up on the restaurant’s vibe before committing to drinking there? This deliberation lasted an embarrassing twenty minutes before I unswervingly entered a small French restaurant that boasted a $7 Malbec happy hour.
I walked in, took a seat at the bar, and waited anxiously for the bartender. I was committed to the idea of skipping out on my iPhone so that I could fully embrace the experience and that choice had certainly left me feeling extra awkward. After ordering, I began to feel like Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, constantly wondering “…what do I do with my hands?” I scanned the room and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. I drank way too fast out of nervousness. I picked at my cuticles. I feigned boundless interest in the bottles on the shelves. And as those seconds ticked by and turned into minutes, I began to wonder if this decision was ill formed. Then Joe sat down.
Joe was a jovial man who was immediately friendly with everyone. The staff knew him by name and clearly had a love for him, because they quickly communicated to him that whatever he wanted was on the house. Randomly, we got to talking about how it is impossible to find a good early breakfast in NYC that isn’t bagels, and BOOM! — suddenly I had made a drinking buddy. Turns out Joe was part of one of the nation’s first LGBT choirs, and he gushed when I told him about my experience at Feminist Camp. Though we only shared a few moments together, it was memorable.
After Joe left, I felt my uneasiness return, but only for a moment. The vacant space to my left suddenly opened up to a sweet couple in their mid-sixties named Alfredo and Jacqueline. The two sat down and dove into asking the bartender meticulous questions about the wines on the menu; they even had the bartender check in the back to see the years of select types of wine. Knowing nothing about wine myself (I once described a merlot as “grape-y” at a wine tasting), I decided to strike up a chat and ask the simple question, “How do you know if it was a good year for that wine?” Not only did they answer my question in great detail, they also seemed really excited to chat with me. They asked me about why I was in New York, and then subsequently what the heck Feminist Camp was. I asked them about how they knew so much about wine and if they lived nearby (they thought I was a New Yorker, which still makes me feel way cool). Turns out they are both retired and now own a vineyard in Argentina, but spend their summers on the Upper West Side. Not exaggerating, we ended up talking for two hours about politics, our families, our jobs, and of course, wine. They too were friends with the staff, so we were given free shots of some alcohol I can neither pronounce nor remember, and at the end of our chat, they bought me a $150 bottle of Argentinian wine and paid for all of the appetizers.
To me though, the joy of that evening stretches beyond anything monetary. I was making a real connection, with real people, all on my own. I wasn’t hiding behind my smartphone or my book like I normally do in public; I was uniting with new people outside of work or school or friends-of-a-friend.
Of course, the night didn’t stop there. I meandered around outside and shared a smoke (sorry Mom) with a woman who is the agent for comedian Brian Regan, but eventually, I called it a night. As I went to sleep, I felt smoky, tipsy, alone, and proud that I had tackled a huge fear that turned out to be so minimal in reality. It never ceases to amaze me how afraid we women can be of men and the world in general, and while it of course is with good reason (read the headlines, for heaven’s sake), it still prevents us from experiencing the magic of true human connection. It stops us from talking to that stranger, or applying for that job, or going to that place alone. It keeps us small and scared and "in our place” and without noticing it, we build ourselves into cages. I subconsciously had ruled out an entire realm where I could meet people, just because it could make me uncomfortable.
Since that night, I have gone out by myself on a few occasions and I have had many wonderful experiences, but nothing will ever quite compete with the joy of realizing I could take up a little more space. Also the $150 bottle of wine was really, really good.
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Annie Anzaldua is the 24-year-old founder of The F Word Gift Shop (@theFWordGiftShop) an Etsy shop that features handmade feminist apparel and products that support Planned Parenthood. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband Antonio, their two cats Winston & Bighead, and their pitbull rescue Yolonda. When she is not smashing the patriarchy, Annie can be found hiking, paddle boarding or training for her next marathon.