"In her comic, scathing essay "Men Explain Things to Me," Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don't, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters. She ends on a serious note-- because the ultimate problem is the silencing of women who have something to say, including those saying things like, "He's trying to kill me!" This book features that now-classic essay with six perfect complements, including an examination of the great feminist writer Virginia Woolf 's embrace of mystery, of not knowing, of doubt and ambiguity, a highly original inquiry into marriage equality, and a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women"--
Solnit's method, in all the essays, is that of the historian or social critic, rather than the hard scientist, or even the data-driven social scientist. She cites statistics, but her arguments are postmodern rather than modern, and are aimed at building an internally consistent and liberating interpretive framework, rather than arguing for a single, exclusive interpretation of hard data. Given the sexist assumptions that have been built into various dominant social science theories over the years - Solnit makes this point explicitly with respect to Freudian psychology - she has good reasons to take this approach.
On the other hand, it means that the plausibility of the interpretive framework she builds very much depends on the lived experiences of her audience. Specifically, Solnit views several male behaviors as fitting along a single spectrum: casual exercise of male privilege in conversation (such as ignoring what a women says or automatically discounting her experience); vicious online comments; workplace harassment; physical and sexual violence by individual men; and violence by gangs of men against women. For Solnit, all of these are efforts by men to control women.
I can certainly see how they can all be experienced as that way - although, if I understand Solnit's argument properly, it seems to me that many women might experience them on two spectra, one that includes being ignored or condescended to conversation and being constantly aware of the potential for violence from men (in other words, all aspects of feeling devalued and vulnerable); and another spectrum of actually experiencing hate speech and violence, or the threat of violence, directed at oneself (which inflicts another level of trauma in addition to the feelings of vulnerability). But, unlike Solnit, who speaks from experience as well as long study, I can only imagine this, and listen to the women I know when they tell me what their lives feel like.
As a man, I'll also add that the logic of control Solnit describes doesn't feel sufficient. I haven't committed the abusive and violent acts that populate the middle and end of her spectrum, though I've no doubt I've been stupidly insensitive and obtuse in conversations. But when I try to understand from within how I could come to commit violence, it seems to me it would be as an act of bursting, or futility, or nihilism, not with any expectation of control, but as a bitter renunciation of it. That also seems to me to be true for most of my male friends. It's possible my perception is wrong; and from the perspective of liberating a woman who suffers from or fears violence, it may not matter, as oppression takes away her autonomy, whatever the man's motive. But from the perspective of helping men learn to control our aggressions and manage our frustrations constructively - or, say, in the context of distinguishing evil tendencies that can be trained away from those that can't - I suspect it matters a great deal.
The spectrum of male violence is, of course, just one concept (though it recurs in multiple essays). Whatever you think of it, the collection is well worth reading for Solnit's conception of how changes in language, including such hashtags as #YesAllWomen, help bring feminist values into women's and men's lives in a very practical way. Solnit makes an implicit assumption that people live enmeshed in social media and the popular news cycle; that's certainly not true of everyone, but it is true of enough young people to make her thoughtful analysis broadly relevant.
Which is a shame, because her writing is balanced and relentlessly fair. There's no broad sweeps being made at any group. She's interested in how the conversation surrounding equality has moved forward, and there's no doubt, she says, that we have moved forward, and compares where we were as a society in the 1970s when it came to racial, sexual or gender equality. We are still working towards a more just society, but what we're fighting for has changed.
Solnit is an academic and historian and so her essays are serious and well-reasoned. She's interested in the environment and anti-war activism as well. Men Explain Things To Me is a hopeful and determined look at our progress toward a more just world, with a clear-eyed look at where we are now and why it matters.
The other six essays are solid, especially one where Solnit posits that some of the resentment about gay marriage is actually hatred of marriage equality, whereby straight men and straight women are striving towards gender equity within their relationships. Except for the ones that don't.
More on violence and on Virginia Woolf. Short and very readable.
When I first started reading Solnit's essays, I felt angry. That's okay; I'm used to feeling angry. What I liked about this collection is that she goes beyond anger, which can lead all too easily to feelings of despair and hopelessness, and she does provide hope for a brighter future, as well as an impetus that we all keep doing our small part because everyone's work toward equality is important. Many reviewers have commented on "Woolf's Darkness" as an outlier piece in this collection, but it was the essay I most highlighted, because it talks about how creative work gets done and ties that into the limitations placed on women, and also because it introduces the idea that the future is dark. We cannot know what will happen in the future or how our actions now might make a difference. We are all spinners in a web, and how those threads come together, we just don't know, but those threads are all necessary, so we cannot stop our work, whatever it may be. We all make a difference.
Solnit says in this essay: "To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don't know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable."
"Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in Gonzalez's resonant phrase. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don't have that memory and that reality doesn't necessarily match our plans..."
While this essay spoke volumes to me, my favorite essay was "Grandmother Spider," which begins by showing how women have been erased from family lines and thus from history, and ends by honoring the work of women, all of it, and how it taken together weaves an intricate and beautiful web:
"Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story, the genealogy, the rights of man, the rule of law. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt."
An inspiring collection for all people.
This short book of essays or blogposts is rather thoughts from a female point of view which I am already most familiar with, and I applaud Solnit for clarity and wit, and in the later essays, a certain depth of understanding. In the first, eponymous essay Solnit tells us of something all of us (those of any race, creed or sex) may have experienced before when someone to whom we are speaking underestimates (or misunderestimates, as George W. would say) their conversational partner, raving on about something about which they know only a little and about which we may know quite a lot. It sometimes happens to women in the company of men, but it also happens to men which is perhaps why this essay feels so pertinent and fresh to all that encounter it.
Solnit's other essays on how women function, or do not function, in the world are well-argued and instructive, and her extension from that to other injustices we create in our world, i.e., wage inequities, the fear of damage from nuclear reactors or weapons, inequitable marriage laws, make a certain sense. I especially liked her look at the case of the IMF's Dominique Strauss-Kahn since I haven't heard anyone else's take on that since it happened. What a ridiculous example that was of overweening self-regard and lack of fear of prosecution. He didn't, in the end, get away with it but it was a close-run thing.
As sometimes happens in the nature of things, this book came to me at the same time I was introduced to some thinking by Hannah Arendt as a result of the 2013 Margarethe von Trotta film in her name. Arendt is a writer of such depth, eloquence, and profundity that Solnit comes off as fledgling. But I think Arendt would say Solnit is on the right track, and would celebrate and encourage, and perhaps even use her ideas, as Solnit says Sontag did, as the starting point for deep discussion.
She mentions the website TomDispatch.com for giving several of her essays wide circulation. Looking at that site it looks like a hotbed of political dissent and discussion, and a useful spur to creative disagreement.
As other reviewers have noted, the Virginia Woolf essay seems out of place, but I did find it interesting just I just read Mrs. Dalloway a few months ago.
The book includes wonderful strong fantastic black and white images of paintings by Ana Teresa Fernandez.
The essays here might be a good way into Solnit for those unfamiliar or intimidated by her bigger stuff, but most are nowhere near her longer works like River of Shadows, a personal favorite. But hey, hard for me to complain about more published stuff by one of the more exciting and incisive thinkers today.
The book resembles Everyday Sexism, which I would recommend to people who aren't acquainted with works of Woolf and Sontag.
I'm considering patching up my literary knowledge, and I'm certainly going to look into "tyranny of the quantifiable".
For one reason and another, my Ms. magazines have been piling up unread lately, so it was very refreshing to read essays that did not need to justify their feminism, distance themselves from other feminists, or be followed by a rage-inducing comment section that makes you want to weep for humanity. These essays are smart, unapologetic, make fascinating connections, and somehow make me feel hopeful even as they make it very clear how far feminism still has to go.
Between this book and the last I read, it's clear I really need to read some more Virginia Woolf.
HIghly recommended. A quick and thought-provoking read.
I recommend this to anyone trying to understand what "mansplaining" or "toxic masculinity" really are. Hint: we're not man-haters, we are pointing out real societal problems, like... calling feminists man-haters.
Great series of essays.
You may be familiar with the titular essay in Rebecca Solnit’s collection “Men Explain Things to Me.” The essay was born from an experience she had at a party, where someone introduced her to a man by sharing, in part, that Ms. Solnit had just written a book on topic X. Before letting Ms. Solnit speak, the man started going on and on about a book Ms. Solnit just had to read on topic X. It took her three times to get him to understand that she wrote the book he was talking about.
If you are a woman, you’ve likely had a similar experience (although maybe not so dramatically) and can pull up examples quickly. The most immediate one for me came just a few months ago. Part of my job is planning for mass fatality incidents. I started out knowing next to nothing about it; over the past five year, however, I’ve been invited to speak on the topic at conferences, and even published a small article on it. What I’m saying is, I know more about it than your average bear. But upon meeting Dude A (slightly older white guy in a somewhat similar field), when it was shared with him that I do this work, he asked if I was familiar with DMORT. That’s sort of like asking an oncologist if she is familiar with chemotherapy. Yes, dude, I’m well aware. But thanks for assuming I’m not…
This 15-page essay takes the reader from the seemingly innocuous, eye-rolling scenario presented above and carefully walks us through the slippery slope that leads to women not being taken seriously in other realms. While being underestimated at a cocktail party is annoying, being underestimated when reporting domestic violence to the police is quite another. The running theme across the nine essays in this collection is one of voice, and credibility. Ms. Skolnit explores who we pay attention to, and who we believe.
She doesn’t discuss it, but many of her essays brought to mind the Bill Cosby case. One woman isn’t credible to the world; she is always assumed to be lying; the accused always assumed to be telling the truth. Not just in a court of law, but in discussions over dinner or at the gym. The man is assumed to be telling the truth, and only when literally dozens of women tell the same story does society even begin to consider that perhaps they are the ones who are telling the truth.
My favorite essay is her exploration of marriage equality. Her central thesis is that same-sex marriage is a threat: a threat to the power imbalance that has ruled marriage for centuries. No wonder so many people who benefit from the default model of man as head of household are scared of marriage equality; those relationships offer from the start opportunities for an equitable role for each spouse. Ms. Solnit makes this argument much more eloquently than I am, and it’s a really interesting take that I hadn’t fully considered.
I love that this collection got my mind racing. It’s reminded me that I don’t just want to finish my book or throw together hastily written blog posts; I want to really explore the issues that are relevant to me in a deeper, meaningful way. I’ve already ordered two of Ms. Solnit’s books and I cannot wait to dive into them, pen in hand, furiously scribbling marginalia throughout.
Perhaps best known for the title essay, she relates the frustratingly bizarre and insulting social interaction that occasioned her writing it. This edition includes a coda that addresses the rise in the use of the term "mansplaining," for which she disavows complete credit while helping to focus the meaning of the word.
Like any effective writer, Solnit supports her arguments (and there are many worth noting) with facts, details, and references. Unfortunately, for anyone wishing to follow up on these references, she omits documentation of her sources, explaining in the Acknowledgments that doing so would have resulted in innumerable “ponderous” footnotes. She does mention that the source citations are available in the online versions of these essays, which is a minor inconvenience.
Despite the brevity of these essays (none exceeds 20 pages), they are indeed powerful and eye-opening declarations. Just try to read “The Longest War” without getting peeved. “Cassandra Among the Creeps” is likewise infuriating. She also provides some much-needed context for the #MeToo movement (which originated after this book’s publication in 2014) with her analysis of the #YesAllWomen movement in the essay of the same name, subtitled “Feminists Rewrite the Story.” One motif that informs every essay in this collection is Solnit’s belief in words, the power they wield, and the power afforded to those brave enough to use them. If you want to know what feminism sounds like in the 21st century, read this book.
But that's missing the point, of course. This isn't written for Guardian readers or the religious right. The people for whom campaigning books like this are really important are the people the book is talking about - in this case women who are victims of male violence or unable to make their voices heard. Reading something like this, even if it is only setting out the problems and not really offering concrete solutions, helps you to realise that you aren't alone, that these are subjects that can be talked about and should be, and that talking about the problem openly and getting others to accept that it is a problem can be the first step on the way to changing the world.
Solnit writes with a good deal of understandable anger and frustration, but the points she makes struck me as fair and balanced - where there's a standard counter-argument she doesn't hesitate to stop and give it a fair hearing (before blasting it out of the water...). A worthwhile book, definitely.