Over Spring Break, I had an Uber driver ask me, completely out of nowhere, “How long was your past relationship?” I remember thinking to myself, “Why is he asking me this? He has no right to know.” As a white female college student who was clearly out of her element in southern Florida, he probably saw me as an easy target. While I found it very creepy, I responded with something that I knew would end the conversation: “Three years.” And the fact is, I have never been in a romantic “relationship,” but then again, what defines a “relationship” anyway? 

I have had many relationships — none that have been socially constructed as “romantic” — but relationships nonetheless. I have had relationships with friends that have taught me a lot about myself and have had relationships with teachers that have benefited me immensely as a learner. I have had a strong relationship with my mom all my life and had an amazing relationship with my math tutor that I would not change for anything. Until college, I did not really think much about relationships; I have not been in a socially constructed boyfriend-girlfriend relationship and am perfectly OK with that.

“How long was your past relationship?” I said to the driver, surprising my friends in the back seat with my pursuit of the conversation. He replied, “You don’t need to know that.” When I asked why, he said, “Because you’re a girl; girls have vagina power that men will never have.”

At this point, I was fuming. Sitting in this Uber, I thought about why on earth my driver would ask me such a meaningless question. I couldn’t help but think of the labels young women innately have just by being women. In the women’s studies classes I have enrolled in since attending the University of Michigan, I have learned about the stigmatizing stereotypes women face in society and how some individuals cannot see beyond the binary. Not only had my Uber driver asked me about something that was strictly dependent on my gender, he came to conclusions that ignored the obstacles women have to overcome constantly in society.  

It took every fiber of my being to not go on a 20-minute rant about socially-constructed gender roles. I calmed myself down and realized that as much as I wanted to change this man’s beliefs, there was no way that would happen in the 10-minute car ride back to the hotel.     

It takes a lot of mental strength to choose your battles and move on. As sad as it is, it is not often that you get into a deep conversation with a stranger that results in changing their beliefs about an issue you feel to be morally important. Everyone is different, and our experiences throughout life shape the way we think and live within our communities.

This Uber driver’s lifestyle was likely vastly different from my own, and though I did not appreciate the way he talked to me, he made a point to relay that he was mildly joking. However, in every joke there is some truth. Though I did not feel threatened, it saddened me that he thought about women this way.

In 1848, the women’s suffrage movement began at the Seneca Falls Convention. It was more than 50 years later that women got the right to vote in 1920. A right that female youth in the 21st century often take for granted took more than half a lifetime to implement. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was passed, but we still have a wage gap. In 1965, the Weeks v. Southern Bell case fought against restrictive labor laws for women, but women are still not treated equally in the workforce. In 1973, Roe v. Wade granted women the right to be educated on contraceptives and obtain legal abortions, but policymakers still try to restrict women’s control over their bodies. And in 2013, the ban against women in military combat positions was removed, finally reducing restrictions on women wanting to sacrifice their lives to serve our country, but they are still objectified by their male counterparts. 

Our history as women has been strong. We have come a long way to make waves in an oppressive society, but we can’t stop fighting and must always be aware of how we can help enact this change.

Transforming the ways our society views women has not and is not going to happen overnight. Instances like the one with that Uber driver in Miami frustrate me and show me that some people still don’t know the meaning of feminism and the true progress that women have made.

As I got out of the car that night in Miami, my final words were “Thanks for the ride, but you should look up a definition of feminism and educate yourself.” Unsure of what his response was, I felt reassured knowing that I at least tried. Did he look up the definition? Probably not. But at least I knew that I made a conscious effort to plant the seed in his mind on something that needs to be reinforced in our society.

In an age when women are holding marches to support unity and educating others on ground-breaking reconstruction of gender norms, there are many small acts we can perform to help make this change. I have come to terms with the fact that I can’t change everyone’s beliefs, and in order to make a significant difference, it is the small stuff that really counts.

Michelle Phillips can be reached at mphi@umich.edu.

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