Chairs I have sat in. They’re usually too big, those conference table chairs at editorial meetings I attend, or seats set in a row for panelists at author events, with a copy of our latest book propped on the long table in front of us.
It’s difficult to be one of the “important people” in the room–and there I perch, feeling like Lily Tomlin’s comic character Edith Ann: feet barely touching the floor, knees unable to bend properly around the too-extended front of the chair.
Or I sit boldly, confidently, feet planted firmly on the floor. And my bottom is six inches from the back of the chair, sliding perilously backwards, if it’s one of those slippery wooden jobs, rounded with arms. Unless I cramp my calves and grip the floor, until leg spasms force release.
Who were these chairs built for anyway? Not women like me: 5′ 3″, 115 pounds fully dressed. A woman of small-to-average size.
These chairs have been built for men. Tall men, large men, men who should be authoring books, expounding on panels, or holding high-level meetings in richly furnished New York publishers’ rooms. Discussing literary affairs with large sums of money attached. Cutting deals.
I’ve grown to enjoy the occasional meetings and the frequent panels, with stimulating topics and engaging participants; but almost always, the chairs don’t fit.
And so, as I wiggle uncomfortably, I often comment on how the chairs are normed for men, and then I stand. Which does give me a certain commanding presence when I speak, standing, to a roomful of seated people.
But I wish I could be one of the gang like most others in attendance, who sprawl at ease in their chairs. Why not have a diversity of seats in any given room, to attract a range of people who can relax, comfortably providing a diversity of voices and perspectives? That way, I wouldn’t have to negotiate furniture which clearly was not built with me in mind.
The same goes for those painful airplane seats, which I can only conjecture are also created for a six foot, bulky man; no one else’s head could possibly be at ease with that head-rest, set to torture my neck no matter the angle I try.
As our society becomes more open to tapping the talents of our entire population, the configuration of our chairs are one of those small but significant details we need to attend to, ensuring that everyone feels welcome in the seats of power.
Until then, thank you, I’ll stand.
Joan Steinau Lester is the award-winning author of several hundred op-eds (NPR’s “All Things Considered,” “Marketplace,” as well as online and print publications) and five books, most recently the novel Mama’s Child.