On Reading “Men Explain Things to Me” by Rebecca Solnit

The blessing of public transit (October 2014, NYC High Line)

The blessing of public transit (October 2014, NYC High Line

“Yes people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard at times for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and being heard when they dare; that crushes young women in to 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 (Men Explain Things to Me, Chapter 1).

My lunchtime read this week has been Rebecca Solnit’s book “Men Explain Things To Me”, and I really want you to read this book. Quite simply, it is a brilliant collection of essays written in different years that all touch on different aspects of violence, and regardless of your gender, it is an important read. Rebecca Solnit defines violence as “the refusal to treat someone as a human being, and the denial of the most basic of human rights, the right to bodily integrity and self-determination”, and notes that violence comes from the premise “I have the right to control you”. From this refusal to treat women as human beings, violence manifests itself in the way women are silenced, the way women are sexually harassed and violated, the ways in which women are not heard, the ways women are abused by intimate partners, the ways in which women and their histories and genealogies are silenced and erased, the ways in which non-quantifiable epistemologies are violently rejected, the ways in which the earth is violently abused, and so much more. The list goes on and on of how violence shows up in everyday life.

It’s an amazing book because it highlights that fact that violence is a culturally systemic issue enabled by attitudes, laws, norms, behaviours by describing and exploring major and micro aggressions that women experience in their daily lives. For me for instance, the experience of having “things explained”, of being patronized, of not being heard and of others speaking to the males in my life (whether brother, husband or father) instead of to me are all familiar, and this book helped me find language and frameworks to understand and explain moments and encounters that trouble me but I often find difficult to explain.  To understand why feminism is important, this book is a hugely important resource, and I’ve come away from this book with copious notes.

In addition to having great content “Men Explain Things to Me” is a joy to read because it is just so well-written and insightful. There is an intriguing essay about same-sex marriage that argues that because the institution of heterosexual marriage has within it inherited baggage about norms and roles and hierarchies, same-sex marriage allow for new spaces to imagine and understand what marriage equality looks like, and as a result, challenges us to manifest equality in all marriages. In an powerful essay titled “Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite: Some thoughts on the IMF, Global Injustice, and a stranger on the train” the author looks at rapes committed by the head of the IMF and in particular, the rape of a Ghanaian hotel maid, and draws connections between these events and predatory practices of the IMF towards the Global South. In another essay about Virginia Woolf, Solnit talks about hope and despair, the meaning and mysteries of night-time, and the introspection that is possible through physical activity and movement. Her insights on movement and introspection rang particularly true for me – I took the Gautrain (a Joburg train system) for the first time last week and during the trip and afterwards I felt exhilarated, and parts of my brain that previously felt sleepy and dusty suddenly felt activated. (The independence and freedom to move is something I have so so missed, and even though I was just going to the public library, wandering and walking around alone before and after was such a joyous and wonderful experience. Cities and transport systems that allow you to walk around freely without fear are important for everyone, but especially for women, and so even though the route of the Gautrain is limited, I’m so looking forward to my next journey on the train.)

In Chapter 8, Feminists Rewrite the Story, Solnit talks about language and the creation of words and how social media and digital storytelling has allowed more women to tell their story. She argues that although language is sanitized to avoid the conveying of meaning (for instance calling torture enhanced interrogation) the creation of words such as “rape culture”, cyberbullying, and others are important because “if you lack words for a phenomenon, or emotion, or situation, you can’t talk about it, which means you can’t come together to address it, let alone change it”.

And ultimately, this is a book that helps to create conversation and self reflection. In our own house we’ve spoken about this book lots this week, and I wholeheartedly recommend the read. It truly is book that is worth the investment in time.


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