‘We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it’s almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.’
‘The Longest War’
Heralded as the precursor to the term ‘mansplaining’ Rebecca Solnit’s collection of essays begins with an unassuming evening in which she reluctantly attends a party near Aspen with a friend of hers. As the night progresses, she finds herself talking to the older male host who begins to tell her about a new book he’s recently read a review on in The New York Times. As he details the book with the authority of someone who knows exactly what they’re talking about, Solnit’s friend pipes up that the author of the book is sitting right in front of him; that it is, in fact, Rebecca Solnit who wrote the book. However, the man in question carries on regardless. He proceeds to explain a topic that Solnit is an expert in, having done a huge amount of research for the book in question, all the while knowing very little about the topic himself.
Beginning with such an insidious, but ubiquitous, incident, ‘Men Explain Things To Me’ ends in a discourse about the epidemic of male violence being one of the biggest killers of females globally. As the title essay became such a wide internet sensation when it was published in 2008, the act of men patronisingly explaining things to women – which struck a chord with many of us who were finally able to name the commonly gendered experience of being belittled and talked down to – was only the ‘thin edge of a thick wedge’.
Linking this dismissal of women for what they have to say with rape and murder should be shocking. It is shocking. But we have become so accustomed to acts of violence against women and girls throughout history and the present that gender hardly ever comes into it. Often in the news, gender-based violence and the blatant misogyny of such horrific acts are never seen as the root cause for why these men would do such a thing. The Isla Vista shooting in 2014 is a prime example. Instead of being described as a woman-hating man who had committed hate crime against women in his past and who had even written a ‘manifesto’ expressing his hatred towards the opposite sex, he was described as a ‘lone’ gunman as if male violence against women was an uncommon occurrence rather than one of the biggest killers of women in the world.
The fact that ‘Men Explain Things To Me’ led to more discussions about – and is most remembered for – the experience of being talked down, which led to the coining of the term ‘mansplaining’, rather than the causal link between such common acts of dismissal to gender-based violence is a brilliant example of how we have come to categorise different forms of violence and put them into separately defined boxes. It’s exactly what Solnit tries not to do in her collection of essays, which can oscillate between the erasure of women in history to the rape and murder of women at male hands. As Solnit better describes it:
‘We tend to treat violence and the abuse of power as though they fit into airtight categories: harassment, intimidation, threat, battery, rape, murder. But I realise now that what I was saying is: it’s a slippery slope. That’s why we need to address that slope, rather than compartmentalising the varieties of misogyny and dealing with each separately. Doing so has meant fragmenting the picture, seeing the parts, not the whole’.
Made up of nine exceptional and stunning essays, the underlying theme of gender-based violence runs through all of them. With clear precision Solnit redefines the ways we think about power and the relationship between the sexes. What becomes the most pressing issue arising from Men Explain Things To Me is the serious problem there is of silencing women who have something to say. As a result, the essays give a voice to these problems – they name and define them – which is the first step in a battle to deconstruct the deeply ingrained misogynist current that runs through our society.
My first ever Solnit and I was completely blown away and surprised that I had never picked up one of her books before. A feminist, environmentalist, human rights activist and historian, she has written on such varied and interesting topics from landscape to art to politics and hope. Added to my list of great feminist thinkers, alongside Audre Lorde and bell hooks who I only discovered in the past year as well, I vow to read more of her work.