It was snowing as I walked down High Street one February evening, furious. Why had I left Jonathan Edwards College so fast? Why had I known, in a split second, that I could no longer stand to be in that room?
I had just told John, my now-ex boyfriend, that I felt uncomfortable in my encounters with his friend Mark, another man. Mark and I knew each other from class freshman year. We never hung out one-on-one, but during group hangouts after dinner, or when I sat next to him during a meal, Mark would only address ideas about philosophy and theory to the man I was with. He’d nod, if anything, in my direction, while angling his body towards the other man. If I attempted to join the conversation, he’d pretend that he didn’t hear what I said. The only time Mark showed personal interest in me was when he learned I was single. Immediately, he asked me to dinner and spent the entire night talking about sex—staring deep into my eyes, he talked about the wonder of sexual harmony, clearly trying to get me to sleep with him. As soon as I started dating someone, Mark resumed ignoring me, apart from the occasional appraising once-over of my body. I was no longer available for sex, and therefore no longer of interest to him.
Immediately after I relayed my experiences to John, he turned to our friend Alex, the other man in the room. “But I’ve never seen Mark do anything sexist,” John said. “Do you think he’s sexist?” This question, addressed to Alex, not me, was startling. Something felt off—I was talking about my experience with Mark, not John’s, and not Alex’s.
I left that room in JE before I even knew I was leaving, before I recognized that the icy feeling driving me to my feet was fury. As I crossed Elm Street and strode through Cross Campus, my thoughts began to crystallize. John had asked another male to validate my discomfort. There were several problems with this: first, that John doubted my feelings in the first place, and second, that he had needed confirmation from another male to confirm that my intuition—my sense, as a woman, that I was encountering sexism—was ‘correct.’ I don’t believe that men should be excluded from discussions of sexism—far from it. But neither John nor Alex had any right to decide whether my feelings were valid.
Nowadays, I know when I’m in danger, and I know when I have to leave. I know when I’m safe, and when I can let my guard down. But I wasn’t always confident in my judgement. First, I had to identify their source. These feelings of intuition arise not from my brain but from my gut.
So what is intuition, really? For me, it precedes rationality. It manifests before I read a situation analytically. It’s a feeling, but not an emotion. I cannot remember life without it, but it only started to feel important in adolescence, when I began to think more critically about my gender in relationship to others. At around sixteen, I was no longer able to leave my sense of female identity, and the particular intuition that came with it, at the door. When I entered a space with other people, I began to notice how they reacted to my performance of gender. Some guys looked over my whole body. I began to learn, based on their glance, whether to avoid or approach them. Over the years, this intuition has intertwined itself with my relationships with men in all the spaces I inhabit: the street, the library, parties, apartments, parks––and yes, even in class.
I’ve always had a messy feeling about trusting my intuition, precisely because it is essentially non-rational. Non-rational instincts are out of place in a Western, scientific, largely masculine intellectual framework: therefore, choosing to trust them is an act of rebellion. Besides, I’m a very rational person. It’s hard to make friends with this inner sense that beats rationality to the chase, that fills in when rationality turns against itself or disappears.
Right up until February 2020, I would have said that intuition didn’t exist, at least not scientifically. I don’t believe in God, nor do I believe in ghosts, and, as logic goes, I shouldn’t believe in intuition. But now I’ve come to see that scientific existence is the wrong criteria for thinking about intuition. We should consider intuition within its own conceptual framework, in which case the evidence that people feel it should be enough.
“Why is ‘How are you’ the hardest question for you to answer?” John often asked me while we were together. At the time, he was right: I found it hard to think through this question rationally, because my brain provided counter-evidence to every conclusion I came to. How was it really possible to account for everything that might influence how I am? The truth was that John himself clouded my mind. My brain instructed me to use John as a benchmark for how I felt—that if he was okay, I was okay. But he had drastic mood swings, and I swung with them. I was never sure how much of my well-being originated from me, and how much of it came from him. Essentially, he muted my intuition. But at the end of the day, it was this same intuition that rose up and saved me from the relationship; a rescue mission that started that February evening in JE.
“What specifically did he do that was sexist?” John had asked me again and again. I listed a few things: body language, ignoring me in conversation. But, I argued, that wasn’t the point. When I was around Mark, I felt ignored. I felt objectified, and, on a good day, merely physically uncomfortable. I tried to explain to John that these feelings were intuitive.
But he kept asking me for evidence that would explain why Mark made me feel uncomfortable. Unless I could prove that Mark did something truly reprehensible, John wouldn’t believe me. His thoughts went like this—because my intuition is non-rational (does not rely on rationality to function) it is irrational (nonsensical or absurd).
John fell into the trap of assuming that his white male experience is universal. He believed that his method of interpreting and understanding others using rationality was the superior one, and relegated other forms of judgement to a lower tier. Intuition needed to first be translated into his vernacular for him to consent to its legitimacy.
I felt the importance of my experience shrink. Some things shouldn’t be translated; they should just be taken on their own terms. Intuition is one of them.
A few weeks after the episode in Jonathan Edwards College, my mom came to visit me at Yale. She picked me up outside Silliman College, and we left to eat at Pad Thai. I started sobbing as she pulled away from the curb. At the corner of Temple and Elm Street, she pulled over. She knew why I was so upset; she knew it was about him.
“I’m going to ask you one question,” she said. “When you think about him, do you get an icy feeling below your stomach? Does your heart go crazy, and is it hard to breathe? Does that feeling creep up into your throat?”
I nodded, mutely. How had she known?
“That’s your intuition. The feeling is fear. Many women have this sense; I’ve had it too. You have to get out of this relationship.”
I could only nod again. Far, far inside me, beyond my deep love for John, was the knowledge that my mom was right, a knowledge lodged within that very same intuition. My rationality hadn’t caught up yet. In some ways it still hasn’t, even six months since the relationship ended. But rationality is powerless against this warning from below my navel, at my innermost center, the place that feels like my axis of balance. I knew, based on John’s behavior over the past few months, that I was in some kind of danger. Thanks to my mom, I could now name the feeling itself: I chose to call it my woman’s intuition.
I believe this intuition is a foundation of my womanhood—passed down from my mother to me. In many of the infinitely different manifestations of strong womanhood, I’ve noticed this common thread—this beautiful watchdog strength.
Much of the internet (and individual male friends and relatives I’ve spoken with) thinks that women’s intuition is chimaera-like. They associate it with “magic,” “auras,” and (here we go down this infinite rabbit hole of sexism) “witches,” when it’s the opposite: reliable, ever-present, assertive. I believe in my intuition more than I believe in most things.
Is women’s intuition only experienced by cis women? I’d argue that isn’t the case. I wasn’t born with this intuition. Instead, it has developed within me as a reaction to the experience of performing female gender identity. (Intuition is also influenced by many other facets of identity such as ethnicity, race, class, and sexuality, although here I concentrate on gender). Women’s intuition develops as a reflex in anyone who has experienced socialization as a woman in a patriarchal society. It is necessary to our survival. By springing me to my feet in JE, it functioned as a seasoned defense mechanism. Later, I wished that I had stayed; I wished that I had, in the moment, told John that it was wrong to ask Alex to validate my experience. I wished that I’d stood up for myself. But I’m also proud that I left. I had to leave, it turns out, in order to realize why I should’ve stayed. I had to leave to realize that the icy feeling in my stomach was common to my mom, too––that it was an intuition we’d developed as women.
My woman’s intuition isn’t just defensive: it is also creative. It leads me to notice emotional and other non-verbal cues that men can ignore. It does not at all detract from my ability to read a situation rationally; instead, it provides another rich layer of interpretation. “Most everything I do seems to have as much to do with intuition as with reason,” said the writer Susan Sontag. Intuition fosters more complex and sensitive relationships among individuals. It can help women understand other women, as well as men. When men make the choice to listen to women’s expression of their intuition, the power of it multiplies: we all have access to a more acute and sensitive understanding of the world.
“I believe this intuition is a foundation of my womanhood—passed down from my mother to me. In many of the infinitely different manifestations of strong womanhood, I’ve noticed this common thread—this beautiful watchdog strength.”
Just like I had to actually leave that room to understand why that conversation had illustrated sexist conceptions of intuition, I had to exit my relationship to understand how it had controlled my worldview for the past two years. I had let myself be subsumed by it, resulting in ecstasy, despair, and an anxiety that between the two I did not actually know who I was. I had teetered on the edges of life and thought I had no time for the boring middle. I had lost my ability to relax, and with it my appetite and sleep patterns. Finally, I had taken up meditation, not as an attempt to achieve more clarity, but as a last-ditch effort to find some kind of center amidst John’s emotional extremes and the constant noise of my flailing rationality trying to make sense of things.
A few days after my relationship ended, the world went quiet. Waves of COVID-19 crashed over the whole world, and as I began to quarantine at home in New York City, I couldn’t fathom how much of my world and the entire world had changed all at once. The two things I counted on most—school and my relationship—had disappeared. I didn’t think the extremes were ever going to go away; I thought the world was telling me I’d never be able to truly gauge how I felt. At first, incredibly selfishly, I was a little glad that the chaos of the world reflected my own inner chaos.
Around May, I began to get better, and the world got a lot worse. The noise in my own head fell away and suddenly, lying in bed one night, I realized that for the first time in a very long while I knew how I was—I could just sense it. Relief washed over me. Since then, I’ve done a lot less thinking, and things have gotten simpler. If I want to do something, I do it; if I don’t, I don’t. I pay more attention to other people’s body language and the physical dynamics of interactions. If someone says they have an instinct about something, I believe them. In the age of COVID-19, respecting people’s intuitions is especially paramount, and allows me to take better care of those around me.
In the middle of August, I met up with my two friends Charlotte and Henry on a beach in Cape Cod. We were so excited to see each other after unexpected months apart that it was a while before we slowed down enough to check in with each other. “How are you?” Charlotte asked me. I could’ve taken minutes to mentally scroll through my uncertainty about taking a year off from Yale due to COVID-19 and the varying mental well-being of people in my pod. I could’ve searched through the expressions of the other beachgoers, hoping they’d contain a clue about how I was feeling. But this time I didn’t need to. There was a warmth and a peace deep within me. I looked out at the sea, and then back at Charlotte and Henry. They really cared how I was, me, the me without John, the me who was taking a leave of absence, the me who was going into the future knowing there was one thing I could always depend on: my intuition. “I’m really good,” I said, and smiled. “How are you?”
—Beasie Goddu is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College and a Senior Editor.