Feminism 101: Feminists Share Their Most Interesting TSA Experiences

From helpful to horrible, seven feminists share their stories of TSA interaction
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 04/07/2017 at 9:00 AM EDT

We all know that airline travel can be a pain, and it doesn’t help than in a post 9/11 world the TSA can account for a good portion of it. While safety is certainly a priority, many have questioned the USA’s security methods when it comes to air travel, wondering if the potentially invasive process actually helps.

While we wait and see if the TSA will ever change its tactics, we’ve decided to share some TSA related stories from our favorite feminists. They run the gamut from sweet and helpful to downright ridiculous. This week, we asked our feminists:

What has been the strangest TSA-related experience you’ve had, particularly as a woman?

Ruchika Tulshyan:I was coming back from Canada after speaking at a conference, a (female) TSA agent stopped me for special screening and proceeded to pull on my wrap dress so it very nearly unraveled completely. I had to hold my dress together and walk to a private room. It was shameful.

[Another time] I was patted down for 25 minutes while wearing my 6-month-old baby because they said my milk bottles didn’t look like what they thought milk should look like, so the only way to get on with my 20-hour long international journey would be after they patted me down. Nothing made sense but it was 1 AM and I was traveling alone internationally with a baby. Plus I’m brown, I figured if I made a stink, my odds of getting to board would be slim to none.”

Rebecca Hains:Several years ago, I had surreal experience with international media attention as the ‘TSA Cupcake Lady.’ After they confiscated a cupcake from my carry-on, I fired a snarky message to the blog Boing Boing about it while waiting at the gate. I got on my plane, went home, and went to bed. The post went viral overnight, and major news organizations were literally knocking on my door unannounced the next morning. I chatted with everyone from NPR to Fox News about it. It was the one subject liberals and republicans seemed to agree on: that it’s ludicrous to confiscate baked goods in the interest of security theater. My story stayed in the news for weeks with repeated follow-up interviews, embarrassing the agency. TSA leadership didn’t quite know how to handle the attention and reignited the story when they released a statement in defense of the cupcake confiscation.

Of course, as a woman with an opinion, I got a lot of misogynistic comments sent my way, by everyone from strangers online who said it was all a publicity stunt (not true), and even Jay Leno, who in his monologue bizarrely speculated on something like whether I was so fat that I couldn’t travel without a cupcake. (Ooh, sick burn. Did you stay up all night writing that one, Jay?)”

Danielle Corcione:When I came back to the U.S. from a backpacking trip last year, I was asked where my bag was. I gestured to the backpack on my back and said, “here.” The security guard asked me how I could possibly survive two months with just a backpack. I told him I used a washer and dryer before he excused me a moment later. I wondered if he’d ask the same thing to a man, because stereotypically women travel heavier and more items than men.”

Amanda Adams:On Memorial Day weekend 2003, my husband, our five week old son, and I flew home from LAX to Denver after his first open heart surgery. He’d been airlifted to LA earlier in the month, so his ticket and mine were both one-way flights which raised alarms. My husband’s ticket had a return date because he was planning on returning to work before I was, but they let him help me with the search because I was recovering from an emergency c-section. My son and I were both patted down and our belongings searched. The poor TSA officer looked disgusted and humiliated when she had to look under the lining of our son’s baby carrier. She was so upset about it that she let us through a special access door and we were able to avoid the lines and go straight to our concourse. She also yelled at a British man who was complaining that we were taking too long because she was upset about having to search a baby on oxygen. She didn’t question my breast milk, but it all melted on the flight and I had to throw it out when we got to Denver anyway, then I pumped in a family toilet room. Then, it was only a year and chance since 9/11 so it didn’t bother me as much as it probably would today. You’d think we’d have gotten better and made thing easier after all these years.”

Jen Selk:When I was in university, I used to cross the border (from Canada) to visit my grandparents for reading week (known as ‘spring break’ in the states, I think). I’m non-white, and after 9/11, my experiences with TSA went way downhill. I am still regularly pulled into special lines, subjected to extra checks, etc. It’s not as bad as it is for many others, but it’s definitely a bit scary. On one of my trips to see the grandparents, the border agent took me aside to grill me about my luggage. WHY did I have so little luggage? (Um, because I was only going for a week.) WHERE WERE ALL MY SHOES? WHERE WERE MY BIKINIS? (Um, visiting my grandparents.) WHAT WAS I REALLY UP TO? (Um…) Anyway, apparently if you are a young non-white woman, it’s very suspicious to travel to Florida without 30 pairs of shoes and 15 bikinis. Even to see your 80-year old grandparents. Luckily, he eventually just let me though. This is sort of a funny story, but in general, I try to cross as rarely as possible. Things are always getting worse.”

Jessica Sutherland:I was flying out of my hometown (Cleveland, OH). The security line I prefer has a restroom just before you get in line, and a brewery (Great Lakes) where you can purchase six packs to take home, just after you’ve gone through. I peed, went through TSA, had a snack and a leisurely pint at the bar and ordered 50 bucks worth of souvenir beer when it was time to head to my gate. I went to take a pic of the six packs to send my then-roommates who were eagerly awaiting them.

And it was then that I realized I’d left my phone in the bathroom.

The bartender couldn’t keep the beer for me because it falls under the “don’t take shit from strangers” rule that’s announced over loudspeakers every ten minutes at every airport. I hauled ass to TSA, and they couldn’t watch it for the same reasons. I would have to throw 50 bucks away to go check the bathroom, and after an hour’s time, I didn’t even know if my phone was going to still be there.

The TSA line was also really long, and my flight was about to board.

A very nice woman took pity on me and my love of local beer. She asked her supervisor if she could help me. Together they came up with a plan: the supervisor would cover my new best friend’s station, and go see if the phone was still there. It was.

They ran it through the belt as I watched from the other side. I had my beer and my phone, but I was probably gonna miss my flight. I gushed with gratitude all the same…and my buddy flagged a guy in a cart and asked him to get me to my gate.

Don got me there with minutes to spare. I had the beer and my phone.

TSA gets a bad rap, but hey, that lady was a hero. And Don remembers me every time I see him at the Cleveland airport. He actually just gave me a ride to my gate in January.”

Mayim Bialik:I can’t pick just one… But one of my favorites is that for some reason my breasts always show up as ‘problematic’ when I go through a scanner. Maybe it’s fibroids, or just their awesomeness (they nursed two healthy boys exclusively for over a year each and fed them for a total of 6.5 years…)… Even when I don’t wear an underwire bra, this happens to me. One annoying TSA agent told me she would have to pat me down — mind you, I have had more TSA agents touch my breasts with a gloved back of the hand than men in my life. She said ‘It must be your bra’ to which I said entirely too loudly and full of rage, ‘I’M NOT WEARING A BRA!’ I was planning to embarrass her, but I think I may have made more of a spectacle of myself than embarrass her. Oh well. Guess that’s what I get for having such awesome breasts.”


Have a question for our ragtag group of raging feminists? Send it to Avital Norman Nathman at and it might just be answered in a future Feminism 101!

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