From the January-February 2015 issue of News & Letters
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books, 2014).
This is a short book of seven essays mostly published online over the past few years. What ties them together is that they eloquently describe how patriarchy attempts to distract us from the fact that seemingly isolated incidents and seemingly separate oppressions are part of a system of profound and devastating violence.
The title essay from 2008 refers to the situation where a man explains a topic to a woman about which she has more knowledge. This essay is so popular because of how universally women have had this experience and it has been given the term “mansplaining.”
Solnit presents her personal story of a man lecturing her on the merits of an “important book” which had been written by Solnit herself. She points out that this is part of a pattern of silencing women which not only stifles us emotionally and professionally but allows men of the religious Right to make medically inaccurate statements that affect reproductive rights. This atmosphere in which a man’s word is given more credibility than a woman’s has also led to women not being believed when they are victims of rape or assault.
Solnit discusses how, by being unmentioned in history, women have been silenced and how their ability to influence the world has been discounted. She explains that religious Right opposition to same-gender marriage is caused by the Right’s insistence on traditional marriage in which the husband dominates the wife. She describes how situations intended to make women feel that the world does not belong to them are reproduced in how richer and more influential governments have oppressed and starved poor nations.
Solnit also states that feminists are making connections between the many worldwide acts of violence, harassment, and silencing—declaring them human rights violations—and have coined the term “rape culture.” Except for a few cases, she does not delve into what feminists are doing about it, but she does call for more study into the causes of patriarchal, authoritarian violence. She also discusses the importance of creativity in creating a more positive future.
Solnit emphatically makes the point several times that not all men are violent or condescending and that women can also engage in these behaviors. She states that male allies have always been important to feminism and that their participation will be necessary in dismantling rape culture.
She also makes the connection between patriarchy and capitalism, but with only few vague sentences. She does not explain why and how capitalism is damaging to people, other than to mention “competition and ruthlessness.”
Other than that, Men Explain Things to Me is very valuable as a brief introduction to key feminist concepts. Its analysis of patriarchal oppression is balanced by a reminder: we have had great success so far in what is still a long struggle.