Rebecca Solnit’s essays begin with the title essay, ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ which sets the tone for her collection of feminist essays. I haven’t read anything by Rebecca Solnit before, and maybe that just shows how much I need to get back in touch with feminist writing. They are interspersed with paintings by Ana Teresa Fernandez, which begin each chapter – underlining and adding further texture and depth to Solnit’s essays.
Solnit’s essays address a number of major issues facing this period of time in human history.
The first essay is about, of course, men explaining things to women when said women already know, perhaps even know more about, what is being explained. It isn’t just any general ‘explaining’, but it is more about how and why those things are being ‘explained’ – basically, in a patronising and condescending way.
Solnit’s first example is of a man explaining her own book to her, even after she has corrected him and said that she is the author of the book. She describes it as being more a combination of ‘overconfidence and cluelessness’ – a need to be seen as an expert, in a position of knowing it all, especially in relation to a woman’s knowledge. This interaction is an assumption that the listener or subject doesn’t have the same capacity to understand, and since this is an examination of the way men explain things to women, this has consequences beyond just being irritating: it is the sexist assumption that a man will be more knowledgeable and more capable of understanding something than a woman.
Solnit considers the far-reaching consequences of such gendered behaviour. It leads to silencing and disempowerment, where the testimony and knowledge of a woman is seen as less credible – for example in legal and professional settings – unless validated or backed up by a man. These consequences are a feature, she argues, of a widespread phenomenon 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.’
I would add here that I’ve had a few ‘mansplaining’ encounters before, when the assumption is that I don’t know something, or that my knowledge and experience are limited in some way – and when I give my knowledge, that knowledge is questioned, unless a man present verifies it. There are also smaller niggles, such as when you say something, and are ignored (or questioned), and then a man says it, and he is heard. These things don’t inspire confidence, and do have the capacity to chip away at the confidence we have in our own voices and opinions.
Each essay in this collection builds upon an examination of worldwide culture, attitudes, and patterns, from rape culture to the ‘policing’ of feminists and activist women. I also found her essays ‘Grandmother Spider’ and ‘Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable’ to be thought-provoking and hopeful in equal measure. ‘Grandmother Spider’ is a discussion about the erasure of women from history, from family trees, from their own stories. It is about the importance of women being present in their own lives, able to tell their own stories and have a voice:
‘To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not just straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sing and not be silenced, to take down the veil and appear: all these are the banners on the laundry line I hang out.’
‘Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable’ is an exploration of Virginia Woolf’s assertion that ‘the future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.’ Rather than literally meaning that the future is going to be bad and difficult, Solnit feels that Woolf is getting at the idea of uncertainty, of the future being unknowable. The essay explores how we often feel, looking at the present and the past, that we know what the future is going to hold, that it is predictable, when, actually, incredible, unpredictable things happen all the time, both good and bad.
This offers us hope, rather than cynicism. In regards to social movements (and feminism), it offers us possibility – we can’t know how our actions will affect the world many years later. It also offers a way to live with uncertainty and things we can’t explain. Not everything needs to be explained. We can say ‘I think’ or ‘I don’t know’, and this is fine. Solnit says:
‘All Woolf’s work as I know it constitutes a sort of Ovidian metamorphosis where the freedom sought is the freedom to continue becoming, exploring, wandering, going beyond. She is an escape artist.’
Her final essay, ‘Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force’ explores how feminism is often thought to be finished (eg. Post-feminism), that the work is too much or doesn’t need to carry on, when it is, in fact, more of a web of milestones, of individuals and groups making different choices on the way towards something. It isn’t a straight line, and we don’t all travel on it at the same time. There are meandering paths, there are steps back and there are pit-stops. It’s bigger than just one thing, and one country. There are feminisms, rather than just one feminism. There are gains and losses all the time.
Solnit uses the myth of Pandora’s Box to illustrate how once the box is opened, nothing can be put back – with feminism and activism in general – the ideas stay out there, can’t be killed or destroyed:
‘And revolutions are, most of all, made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states of the union, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies. Practical changes follow upon changes of the heart and mind.’
With the visibility of women and activists online and in society, comes what Solnit has dubbed ‘the volunteer police force’ – basically, the overt and covert backlash against feminists, feminism, and women with opinions (about anything). This backlash can take the form of media, conservative opinion, and the epidemic of relentless violent threats that women receive online and in person. This policing is another form of silencing, of control, an attempt to put women back into their (subjugated) place. It can be anything from a subtle casual sexism, to outright misogyny.
At the end of her final essay, though, Solnit offers hope. It’s easy to feel disheartened, with the weight of all that has to be done to make the world a better place, for now and future generations. It involves liberation from a system that: ‘prizes competition and ruthlessness and short-term thinking and rugged individualism, a system that serves environmental destruction and limitless consumption so well—that arrangement you can call capitalism.’
She also questions what direction feminism will go in next. In particular, she feels that there needs to be deeper inquiry into men, seeing that they also stand to benefit from equality and liberation. How does culture and the status quo also damage men? How can we foster meaningful dialogue so we understand things better? What is it like to be a man who is also at risk from rape culture, crime, and capitalism?
Solnit’s end paragraph is something that I, and I imagine, many of us, need to hear, that reminds us what is at stake and that it is possible:
‘Here is that road, maybe a thousand miles long, and the woman walking down it isn’t at mile one. I don’t know how far she has to go, but I know she’s not going backward, despite it all—and she’s not walking alone. Maybe it’s countless men and women and people with more interesting genders.
Here’s the box Pandora held and the bottles the genies were released from; they look like prisons and coffins now. People die in this war, but the ideas cannot be erased.’