It’s fortunate for our understanding of the dynamics of oppression that the writer Rebecca Solnit attended a certain party one evening in Aspen years ago. That’s when she encountered an instance of everyday sexism so staggering it sparked her widely shared and quoted 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things to Me.” Her description of a man unheedingly explaining to her what she already knew—the subject of her own recently published book, in fact—struck a familiar chord for those who had experienced their own encounters with the “confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant.” A reader’s label for the phenomenon—“mansplaining”—went viral. It’s now an established cultural reference for the patronizing rhetoric of a man who assumes he knows more than a woman solely because of his gender.The term has come in handy over the past few years for comically describing all manner of arrogance buoyed by privilege—most startling that of a male politician who justified denying women access to abortion in the case of rape with his utterly fanciful ’splaination of the female reproductive system.
Useful as it may be as journalistic shorthand, “mansplaining” is cultural bubblegum in comparison to Solnit’s actual body of work, most recently Men Explain Things to Me, a collection of essays that begins with that eponymous piece, goes on to illuminate aspects of her argument, and, finally, seeks solutions.
Mansplaining reveals the assumption that women know less than men, are less capable of knowing, and are therefore less deserving to be listened to or heard. And there’s the great harm. “At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes,” writes Solnit, “has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.”
That necessity is evidenced in “The Longest War,” the book’s second essay. A rape is reported in the United States every 6.2 minutes; one in five women will be raped in her lifetime—statistics Solnit presents not to condemn all men or to alarm women, but to help us begin the hard work of confronting “a pattern of violence against women that’s broad and deep and horrific, and incessantly overlooked.”
Confronting reality—often by looking at phenomena from unexpected angles—is at the core of Solnit’s impressive body of work. Her articles, essays, books are all informed by her background as a journalist, art critic, historian, and activist. That pursuit ultimately takes her beyond reporting facts, statistics, or even lived experience. Solnit’s great undertaking is the exploration of imagination and consciousness. One of her recurring concerns is how those most personal qualities are subjugated by imbalances and abuses of power—sexism, racism, colonialism—and how they may be liberated.
Like Virginia Woolf, whom she celebrates in one of the essays in this book, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” Solnit uses prose to venture “unknowing into the unknown,” to offer a description of how we come to some understanding of great mysteries—in this case, identity, perception, society, the arc of history. This is Solnit’s style and method at her most fluid—risking digression, making connections, taking the reader on a journey to an unexpected but necessary destination. It is the antithesis of mansplaining’s use of language to dominate. Instead, Solnit invites the reader to find agency through heightened awareness—both of what we know but also of what we don’t. The grounds for hope, she writes, “are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.”
“Feminism is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth—and in our minds, where it all begins and ends,” she reminds us in her final essay. While there is no shortage of those who join “the volunteer police force” to put women down, to subject and subjugate them, we have made more progress than we often realize. New feminists and a new feminism rise up under the most difficult circumstances. In the context of history, we’ve only just begun with this endeavor. It’s far too soon to surrender.