Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Men Explain Things to Me," by Rebecca Solnit

Readers may have heard the term “mansplaining,” referring to men’s explaining things to women – often condescendingly – that women already know about, and may even be experts on. Rebecca Solnit -- an expert on many matters, including the environment, San Francisco, walking, and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, among other topics, and the author of 15 books -- inspired this phrase, with her essay “Men Explain Things to Me.” Now she has published a slim collection of her essays -- “Men Explain Things to Me” (Haymarket/Dispatch, 2014) -- that includes this essay. Solnit, who lives in San Francisco and whom I have heard speak (she is an excellent and engaging speaker), hastens to point out that not all men do this, but that it is enough of a phenomenon to warrant pointing out. Solnit provides some jawdropping examples, not only from her own experiences but from those of many others, including contributors to the website “Academic Men Explain Things to Me,” where “hundreds of university women shared their stories of being patronized, belittled, talked over, and more.” Solnit explains that this problem is not just a small annoyance, but something that has larger contexts (sexism) and larger consequences (silencing women). She notes “It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field: that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence” (pp. 4-5). Most of the other six essays in this small but powerful collection also deal with issues of gender and power. “The Longest War” and “Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite: Some Thoughts on the IMF, Global Injustice, and a Stranger on a Train” deal with rape and other sexual assault. Other essays speak of so many instances throughout history of women’s powerlessness, voicelessness, erasure. One essay explores the connections between same-sex marriage and women’s issues. Solnit always writes with passion backed up by facts and reason. She alludes to history, politics, art, literature, and current events. One essay focuses on the life, thought, and writing of Virginia Woolf. This is a potent, important collection of essays from one of our leading writers and thinkers. I highly recommend it.

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