Rebecca Solnit has assumed a place among the foremost essayists and nonfiction writers active in the United States. Her writing is born of insight and journeys of thought and language that require a keen mind and the faith to explore ideas and concepts without the hindrance of “conventional wisdom.”
In one of her past essays, Solnit wrote: “Change is often seen as loss but there are things we benefit from losing, and loss is what you see when you look back. When you look forward, you see the unfamiliar rushing toward you, with gifts, difficulties, new stories.”
The stories Solnit refers to are not fictional tales (although she offers masterful interpretations of them), but her explorations of issues and experience that provide epiphanies about our lives.
In her latest book, the anthology that begins with her internationally famous essay about the practice that has become idiomatically known as “mansplaining,” Solnit offers a series of essays that move from the comical obtuseness of a patronizing white male in Aspen to the not uncommon end result of male entitlement: violence against women, including rape and murder.
There are other essays in the book, including an eloquent exploration of the legacy of Virginia Woolf in learning how to expand one’s mind through journeys, including ones that involve getting lost – and discovering new thoughts and paradigms in that process. This is a frequent theme in Solnit’s writings and the subject of her book, “A Field Guide to Getting Lost.”
Truthout interviews Rebecca Solnit about “Men Explain Things to Me” and the sense of male entitlement that leads to attacks on and the killing of women:
Karlin: Your 2008 essay for Tom Dispatch, “Men Explain Things to Me,” (which is the title of your new book) still resonates as explaining the tip of the iceberg in male entitlement: the assertion of male knowledge as if women have no credibility. Your initial example involved a man you had just met dismissing a book you had written on the photographer Eadweard Muybridge and the implications of the photographer’s images on our modern society. Then this man begins talking about a great new book on Muybridge, which is yours. Despite your friend informing him that it is not another book but actually your book, he continues lecturing you.
That particular incident occurred in 2003, but you wrote the essay in 2008 at the urging of Marina Sitrin. Can you explain how this particular encounter was emblematic of men frequently suppressing the voice of women in both the literal and figurative sense?
Solnit: He didn’t dismiss the book itself; he dismissed me as someone who had something to say. He asked me what my books were about, I mentioned the subject of this most recent one, and he overrode me to start telling me about a book on the subject I should know about. So we’d gone, mid-transaction, from the possibility I had knowledge to impart – after all, he’d asked me what my books were about – to his insistence he had knowledge I needed on the subject. Except that he didn’t, because he was explaining to me that I should know about a book I happened to have written, and he assumed that I needed to be told about it. It was not easy to penetrate his oratory to let him know he was explaining the book to its author.
The problem is a kind of overconfidence men sometimes have that they assume they know and she doesn’t – a problem when it’s actually the other way around. The essay resonated because so many women have had this experience, and the cumulative effect is to undermine and override knowledge and contributions to the conversation or the project or the world a woman might have. It also seems to be the conversational way in which a man insists on his right to take up more space and that a woman should take up less, or that he has the right to invade her space – she should listen; he should talk; he possesses, she lacks. Which makes it a small, relatively harmless version of a model of a dynamic that becomes very destructive and brutal on the large scale.
You move in this essay from what has become termed “mansplaining” to the issue of violence against women – and women often having their voices as witnesses to violence discounted by men. It is an incisive and revealing connection. Can you summarize the relationship?
Yeah, that’s the large scale. A society that assumes men know more or are more reliable or more rational than women tends to believe him over her – and you just have to look at any of the accusations around male sexual misconduct from Anita Hill on Clarence Thomas to Ms. Diallo on Dominique Strauss-Kahn to see women accused not merely of having the wrong facts, but of being delusional, manipulative, conspiratorial, prostitutes or sexually out of control, etc., charges that often contradict each other but are all leveled together anyway. Many people revert pretty quickly to the idea that crazy, hysterical, scheming women just say stuff to get men into trouble and that women should not be believed, which is very close to the idea that women should not speak or be heard. Thus the unfortunate and widespread belief that there’s a great deal of false rape charges – and thus can real crimes against women be discounted. Pundits in the US have been very fond of commenting on the misogyny in the Middle East, but there are analogous hate crimes against women in this country, plenty of them, based on similar beliefs. Or maybe the same basic belief.
In the “Men Explain Things” essay, I recount a story a male physicist told me when I was very young about a woman running naked out of her house in the middle of the night saying her husband was trying to kill her. He was jovially incapable of imagining a middle-class man like himself in his affluent suburb might be homicidal, so he assumed she was crazy, even though middle-class men like himself kill quite a lot of female spouses and exes (and we need a word like familicide for the guys who take their whole family with them). So it’s not just about being snubbed in minor conversations, it’s about not having credibility when you say things like, “He’s trying to kill me.” Lack of such credibility can be fatal. A voice and credibility are survival equipment as well as part of having human status.
In the second essay in the book, The Longest War, you focus on rape and violence against women by men. You write: “Rape and other acts of violence, up to and including murder, as well as threats of violence, constitute the barrage some men lay down as they attempt to control some women, and fear of that violence limits most women in ways they’ve gotten so used to they hardly notice – and we hardly address.” In the end of the essay, you emphatically state the need for altering this unacceptable gender violence. What is the route to that deconstruction of male entitlement and violence against women?
We need to establish the idea that women are endowed with certain inalienable rights and that all people are created equal, to reuse the language of 18th century revolution. That men are not more important, more valuable, more entitled to have their agenda met than women. Which sounds like something we already believe, because it’s so simple and straightforward and fundamental to decency, but clearly a lot of men don’t believe it. All those men murdering a girlfriend or ex-wife for daring to leave, the website about how dangerous, even fatal, it can be to say no that has arisen in the wake of the Isla Vista murders and the #YesAllWomen hashtag about women and girls who are punished savagely for making up their own mind, for serving their own needs and choosing their own paths rather than his. And the language of the Isla Vista murderer talking about what women owed him – not women he had established a relationship to but women in general, women he saw on the street.
It’s complicated: Women really are trained in many subtle ways to keep men comfortable all the time, by being deferential, admiring, in agreement, nonthreatening, and many men are trained to expect this. There can be unpleasant consequences for being strong and independent-minded and telling the truth. Not, of course, from all men, but enough to take a toll and to teach you there’s a cost to these things.
I’ve long seen violence as an entitlement issue and a form of authoritarianism: I have the right to control you and punish you; I have the right to direct or limit or terminate your life. You have no rights. You see that in domestic violence, in rape, in threats and harassment, and in what some Italian activists call femicide, murder driven by misogyny and entitlement.
But also, a lot of men seem to have the unfortunate idea that they are entitled to be in control and that they need to be in control. It’s an impossible goal. No one’s totally in control of anything. This inability to accept a complex world of equals in which you negotiate in good faith with equals and find common ground is tragic and probably lonely, and a lot of the programming men get seems harmful to them first, all that proving your manhood kind of stuff; the limits on what straight men are supposed to feel and express and enjoy; the toleration of bullying and jeering – those ways some men and boys police others who might not fit the model as well (and that kind of bullying and shaming is a major force in the rampage school shootings we’ve seen the past 15 years, according to Michael Kimmel’s excellent book Angry White Men). It seems like a straitjacket. Free us all.
Too, a huge portion of the violence on earth – in the US more than 90 percent of most violent crimes, 99 percent of rapes – is committed by men. Not all men, of course, and the category “men” encompasses half of all human beings, including Harvey Milk as well as Dan White, Martin Luther King as well as O.J. Simpson. I think looking at the gender of violence would allow us to address it in ways it’s never been addressed yet. To everyone’s benefit.
I saw you on Democracy Now being interviewed on the misogyny of the Isla Vista mass shooting and the resultant #YesAllWoman hashtag. Can you explain the importance in the phrasing of that hashtag and why it struck such a chord?
There was a tremendous debate about those murders. The mainstream said, as they always do, that this was an isolated incident that had nothing to do with anything; feminists and other social critics insisted that this was not an aberration but an extreme version of beliefs and practices deeply embedded in our culture. The killer felt that he was entitled to have beautiful women meet his sexual and emotional needs, and he was entitled to punish them and anyone else who got in his way for not doing so. Which is why the useful phrase “sexual entitlement,” which feminist writers like Soraya Chemali were already using, suddenly became part of the conversation in a big way.
I just said, “It’s complicated: Women are taught to serve male needs, and men are so accustomed to being served in this way.” One of the things that was so interesting about that hashtag and the response to it was all the male rage that was expressed as threats, hostility, sneers, spiteful attempts at jokes, and – to use another handy phrase to emerge out of all this – man-tantrums. The angry men seemed to be saying, “How dare you say things that make me uncomfortable!” And they denied the content of what was being said. For example, a post, “#YesAllWomen because the odds of being attacked by a shark are 1 in 3,748,067, while a woman’s odds of being raped are 1 in 6 . . . yet fear of sharks is seen as rational while being cautious of men is seen as misandry.” A bunch of guys on Twitter and Facebook got very upset that we dared to say that and went straight to calling it misandry, which seems to mean we are violating their right to be comfortable by talking about the realities of our lives. The hashtag was in part a response to the constant refrain of “not all men,” which a lot of guys would throw into the conversation as a way of saying, not me, I’m innocent, not my problem; and way too often, let’s talk about me and my needs. Bring back my comfort! These conversations about violence against women kept getting derailed by men.
One of the really important things that emerged in the conversation was that most women spend a lot of their lives in fear: The world is for them a war zone, particularly young women. Will the guy on the elevator try to grope me; should I walk home alone (so many women now text each other to say they got home safely); how do I say no to this guy I don’t want to be involved with without him exploding; is this hostile comment from a stranger the prelude to a physical assault? This was such a huge part of my life when I was young and poor and living in the inner city and constantly menaced and harassed and no one would say, this is a civil rights issue, this is a human rights issue, you have a right to the freedom of the city, instead of don’t go anywhere alone, don’t walk, don’t look female; essentially curtail my life in extreme and depressing ways. So I’m very excited that this conversation – carried on for a while by organizations like Hollaback, the anti-street-harassment group – has gotten bigger and more consequential.
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In your chapter “In Praise of the Threat,” you describe how gay marriage may positively influence the development of more gender equality in heterosexual marriages. In what way?
Well, marriage historically is not a free alliance between equals. You look at law and custom into the 20th century: Husbands are owners and masters, wives are property and servants. Women were supposed to get a husband’s permission even to open a checking account; he made all the big decisions, often without consulting her; he owned the property and the property she brought into the marriage became his; he had the right to beat her. Even the concept of marital rape is a very recent one feminism brought us – until then, after saying yes at the altar she never had the right to say no again. Love, cherish and obey.
The term “marriage equality” is used to mean that same-sex couples have the same marital rights as male-female couples. But to me it means more, it resonates more deeply. When two men or two women marry, there’s no inherent hierarchy in the alliance (though of course you may have a more socially powerful or more overbearing partner, but it’s not a given the way male and female roles have been). So it’s an alliance between equals. I think conservatives who say this is a threat to traditional marriage are not saying exactly how, because they don’t want to admit that they want to preserve marriage inequality, in which the husband is the boss, still. I think it is a threat to traditional marriage in that sense, and I think that’s wonderful.
In “Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force” you state: “Young feminists are a thrilling phenomenon: smart, bold, funny defenders of rights and claimers of space – and changers of the conversation.” How are young feminists changing the conversation?
There was a long lull in feminism, when young women seemed convinced that everything was fine and yet nothing had changed (they didn’t understand feminism had gotten them things like the right not to be sexually harassed on the job or discriminated against in hiring) and feminism was supposed to be a bad word or a bad thing you didn’t want to be. The current generation of women in their 20s and early 30s has wholeheartedly embraced feminism and they have generated a tough, funny, smart, outspoken bunch of writers, speakers, advocates and organizers, including the young women organizing beautifully on college campuses around this issue.
In your essay on Virginia Woolf’s “darkness,” you use her writing to once again explore a recurrent theme that flows through your work: Out of the murkiness and loss of our lives emerges the possibility of effecting change and personal transformation. What is your response to those who have given up on the potential to save life on the planet and challenge systemic injustice, who have resigned themselves – as Voltaire’s Candide did – to only “tending their own gardens”?
Well, I think standing up for what you believe in with people who share those beliefs is a good way to live, whether or not you attain your goals how and when you’d like to (and adjusting the when factor, looking at the long arc of change, has been something I’ve written about regularly the last decade or so). I think everything in this culture, or at least in its mainstream and most privileged, would like us to feel powerless and just, like after 9/11, go shopping. So whatever your impact, disobeying/resisting that mandate to be passive and trivial has its satisfactions. And then too, sometimes you win. If you try.
In “Grandmother Spider” you evoke a compelling reflective journey beginning with women traditionally hanging out clothes to dry on a laundry line and moving on to the obliteration, the disappearance of women in history. Can you elaborate on this image in which “a woman both exists and is obliterated”?
It’s a painting by my brilliant friend Ana Teresa Fernandez, of a woman hanging out a bedsheet. You see the sheet; she’s behind it, only hands and feet visible, but it billows around her to delineate her form. She’s literally hidden behind the laundry, and that allowed me to write an essay riffing on some of the ways women are forced to disappear, as voices, as people, in the public conversation and as participants in public life, in the family tree and historical record.
A recent commentary on Truthout by William Rivers Pitt, ” ‘Men’s Rights’ and the Septic Tank of History,” drew virulent misogynists out of the woodwork in the comments section. What is it about the internet that draws out the rage of male entitlement, its anonymity?
The internet was created by a certain kind of guy to fulfill his vision of paradise: It creates billionaires and nifty new time-saving profitable gizmos and fun distractions, all of which have been described in superlative, even utopian terms. And it creates a distribution system for lots and lots of fairly dismal, mean-spirited porn. The journalistic zones are ad-driven, and comments sections are largely, as far as I can determine, a result of the fact that ad-driven media rely on clicks: The more clicks the more ad revenue, rather than the more elegant writing or civilized debate or meaningful content. Draw in the trolls to do battle with each other and, incidentally, attack the writer – especially if the writer is female and the subject is gender – and sometimes go on to threaten her and attempt to silence her. It’s ugly out there. The New York Times is virtually the only publication with a comments section that isn’t seething with nasty ad-hominem substitutes for real debate.
Someone posted a screenshot of a feminist piece of mine next to a bunch of super-sexist links – the usual feed about seeing celebrities naked and knowing their secrets and stuff. Because that feed is there all the time. The ad-driven stuff is pretty debased. But the online world has been very happy to feed the trolls.
I think anonymity also unleashes some inner pit bulls. People will say things anonymously they won’t stand behind with their name or face or say to anyone’s face, and sometimes they’re quite abashed and upset when their comments are traced. It’s a tangle, because there are good and legitimate uses for anonymity – sex workers, transgender people in transition or not out at work trying to talk about their lives, for example – and sinister uses of our real identities as companies like Google harvest a scary amount of data on their users and really, in the case of Google, almost all online users. Truthout has Google Adsense or Google Analytics on it tracking users, I have to point out. (Which is why I have installed Ghostery, the blocking software that reveals this, with its own sneaky info-gathering feature turned off.)
This year, the mainstream media and the White House finally acknowledged that rape was not being taken seriously by many colleges, including some of the US’s most prestigious schools – and that the perpetrators were often treated leniently. What are your thoughts on how a horrifying act of violence against women could once again virtually “disappear” at so-called bastions of enlightenment?
Once again? When did they ever appear before? But I do think we’re at a turning point around sexual violence and sexual entitlement, and that’s pretty great. It’s a turning point around both policy and public awareness and understandings, thanks to some journalists, columnists, advocates, Title IX enforcers, a lot of rape survivors at universities speaking up, and with #YesAllWomen a lot of otherwise anonymous people joining the conversation.
If you look at the world with, say, an 18-month perspective, it’s hard to see change or have hope. But if you look at it over longer time spans: Well, compare where we are now to the world I was born into half a century ago. I think a lot of people forget just how misogynist, segregated, prejudiced and unfair that world was. It’s gone now, to a large extent. The people trying to take away reproductive rights and the right to bodily autonomy and the people assaulting women by words and deeds are trying to reclaim 1964. But I don’ think we’ll ever go back. Not all the way. They can change laws against our will, but not so easily our beliefs about what’s true and right and just.