Violence Against Women: Not in My Backyard–Er, Subway Car

The other day I was riding the Number 2 Train home from the city, thinking about what I might write here in honor of Women’s History Month and feeling overpowered by current affairs. The tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster. Senseless murders in Libya. The gang rape of an 11-year-old girl. This month I sense such widening circles of sorrow swirling, it’s easier, I confess, to shut off and just hold close those I love. If I pause long enough to truly let the world in, I fear I’ll be carried out on a wave, swallowed up by a sea of emotion from which there is no return. And then, there’s the tragedy going on right in our own backyards–that which lifts us out of our chairs and just kind of compels us, without thinking, to act.

Here is what I mean:

On the subway seat across from me, a woman sits with a large-sized purse taking up half the seat next to her. A hulking man enters the car and sits down—partly on the seat with the bag, and partly on the woman who owns the bag. The woman gets up in a huff.

“You don’t sit on women,” she says.

“Your bag was taking up half the seat,” he says.

“You don’t sit on women!”

“Your bag was taking up half the seat!”

This seems like it’s going to go on for a while. People nearby are getting edgy. I try to catch the woman’s eye, shoot her a glance of solidarity.

An older woman sitting closest to her catches her eye instead and says, “Let it go. You’re the bigger person.”

The two women chat. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but the man is listening all the while. The first woman gets off at the next stop. The man, it seems, is not through.

“She’s the bigger person huh?” he says to the older woman.

“Oh you’ve got the wrong one. The wrong one. Don’t you start with me now,” she says.

As the subway doors close, the dozens ensue. I try not to listen but, like a rubbernecked driver who can’t look away from a car wreck, I’m compelled. The words “Your mama…” “Your wife…” “Your mama…” “You’ve got the wrong one…” pour from the pair repetitively, and in escalating tones. There’s a feeling of gas rising to the point of combustion.

And then: THUNK. Sound of woman’s head being slammed against subway wall. Next, a piercing wail.

Violence, when it takes place right in front of you, has a quality of the surreal. I’m floating outside of my body, watching the scene from the ceiling, not sure that it’s happening. Suddenly, I’m standing up and slinking out of the way as three burly men (well, one burly man and two Hasids) move toward the pair, drawn to the violence with as much compulsion as I’m drawn away. The entire car is unsettled. On an ordinary subway ride home, life has become undone.

I’ve opted for flight, instead of fight, and I feel myself moving without a destination. My only desire is to get away. As I head toward the far end of the car I make out words coming at me:

“Aw, don’t press the button.”

Button? I follow my fellow passengers’ gaze and see the button a few feet in front of me, on the wall.

“Don’t do it.”

Slowly, these words jolt me from my frozen state.

There’s a big red button in every subway car that you push in cases of emergency. That button. Red means stop. When someone pushes the button, it means there’s going to be a delay.

“Lady, I just wanna get home.”

And that’s when it dawns on me: the people in the car are more concerned with getting home than alerting the conductor that an act of violence has taken place.

I push the button.

“A woman has been hit,” I say to the wall, leaning in.

Crackle crackle. Something inaudible. And then: “Do you need help?”

“A woman has been hit,” I say again, my mouth nearly touching the wall.

Crackle crackle. “….help?”

“There’s a violent man in this car!” I scream.

This does the trick. The conductor appears thirty seconds later and enters the car where the man and woman still sit, separated by bystanders who are actively keeping them apart.

“Who needs to leave?” the conductor says, moving toward the scene.

I can’t make out the rest, but it appears that the woman has decided not to press charges. The conductor exits the car. The subway lurches forward, and we continue on our way.

I get off a few stops later and note that the man and woman are still sitting there, each in their own silent huff.

A woman—an older woman—has been hit. In front of my eyes. Kitty Genovese comes to mind: a woman raped, a sidewalk full of people, and no one willing to call for help. People, what planet are we on?

I can’t stop a tsunami. But I can press a button. Truly, it’s the least I can do.

Editors’ note: What would you have done?

Originally posted at 9 Ways, a blog by Gloria Feldt.

Photo from Flickr user dilworthdesigns under Creative Commons 3.0


  1. Push the button. Well done.

  2. I wrote about Kitty earlier this month because it was the anniversary of her death. I hadn't realized it, but many of the commonly held beliefs about her death aren't true. No one saw everything that happened to her, and the police were called but weren't quick to respond. It was actually a neighbor of hers who held her until an ambulance arrived. None of that excuses people who stand by when they should intervene, though.

    I would have been unnerved in your situation, too. My heart was pounding the night I called 911 because it sounded like my upstairs neighbor was being attacked. She was screaming and yelling "Get off of me." When the police arrived, it turned out she had been hiding car keys from a drunk man. It ended as well as it could have but I would never have forgiven myself if something worse had happened and I didn't do anything.

  3. Im going to share this blog on facebook. Fantastic blog and you make a really good point.

  4. Good job girl, hitting that button. I would have hit it too. It's too bad the woman would not press charges.
    And beautifully written, may I add.

  5. ScarletFeminist says:

    You did exactly what you should have. If it were me I probably would have started cussing and shaming the man, push the button, and try to get a picture of his face with my phone. Kudos to you for standing up to a violent idiot.

  6. wonderful! Just push the button. I don't know if i would've had the guts… but its very inspiring indeed

  7. I would've called 911. The one thing I remember the most about a psychology class I took, is when the professor explained how there are many stories of people dying in crowded streets…and *no one* ever calls 911. She explained that the more people there are, the more each person assume someone has already called or done something. In addition, people feel embarrased to be the center of attention (I think it's why people fear public speaking more than they fear death), so many people will stand around and do nothing (even if they are able to do something) because they're too embarrased to step forward and draw attention to themselves.
    So I made a vow to ALWAYS dial 911 if I ever witness something. You CAN'T assume that someone else has already called! I saw a girl's leg get crushed in an automobile accident at the airport – witnessed the whole thing. I dialed 911 immediately and stuck around to provide a witness report.

  8. Jez Flores says:

    Push the button; he pushed yours.

  9. Survivors Guide says:

    Push the button. I've done it before and would never hesitate to do it again. You’re action is a clear statement that we cannot allow our fear to prevent us from doing the right thing, especially when others around us choose to do nothing.

  10. Ironically, I was invisioning myself pressing the emergency button before I read the part where you decided to do the same thing. I'm a person who thinks before she acts on an important situation, so although my first reaction was to confront the man who was initiating the violence, I then thought after quickly thinking it through that it would be better for both of us if I involved someone who had the authority to stop the person who was hitting the woman.

    I agree with your way of thinking. What world are we living in? Maybe many of us have seen too much violence and hard times in this day and age to stop caring any further? I'm not sure, but I know that I for one am not standing for indescrepincies against women. Great article!

  11. Push the button, very well done, indeed. And yes, call 911. I can't believe this man actually got away with assaulting the woman because she declined to press charges. If he will attack a stranger, what is he doing to those he knows?

    • Pressing charges can be a PITA and she probably got an earful from the conductor and other witnesses in the car about how sure she has their support but they'll all be held up having to wait for the police to arrive and give them each their statements and it could be hours. I think the police make the process as grueling as possible to make sure nobody's faking it. Frighteningly, people are talked out of pressing charged against perpetrators of violence all the time. And that guy on the subway car who slammed an old lady's head into a wall is free to do it again to some other woman.

  12. Thank you for these encouraging comments, everyone! They mean a lot to me. I find myself still thinking about the woman who got hit, weeks later. The sound of human head against subway wall is pretty hard to shake.

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