Men Explain Things To Me And I Point Out Their Errors

This is more of an academic-style review of this book, be forewarned. I was required to review it for a class in activist lit, and I felt that it’s important enough to bring to this arena. I have expanded upon it as well. However, I’ve removed all my footnotes so that it flows easier, you’re welcome.

In a series of seven scathing essays, Rebecca Solnit works through the complex dynamics of male/female interaction through the lens of a very specific type of patronizing social interaction common among women worldwide. She begins the book with an essay she published on wherein she illustrates the premise of the book by recounting a meeting at a party she attended in Aspen in years prior. At that party, she discusses her occupation with a gentleman in attendance, describing him as “an imposing man who’d made a lot of money.” He condescends to discuss her work with her, completely transparent in his lack of confidence in her ability and also in his own willingness to accept her as a possible intellectual equal.  Upon learning that she recently penned a book on the renowned artist Eadweard Muybridge, he goes on to question if she’d read a really important book about that very photographer released earlier in the year. After several attempts at interrupting his rant to admonish to him that it was her book he was lauding, he is finally set to rights by a friend of Solnit’s. He turned pale and admitted under the duress of his own shame that he’d not actually read the book at all, instead he’d read about the book in the New York Review of Books.

This essay sets the scene for the remainder of the essays whereupon she builds off of the idea that by the infantilizing of women in conversation, men are not only seeking to assert their own dominance over the women to whom they are condescending, but also rejecting the mental agency of women by subjecting them to a form of intellectual violence stemming from the gendered nature of violence against women so pervasive across the world.  She writes,

“[v]iolence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.

While it’s not a seamless narrative or argument, it’s nevertheless powerful in how it serves to reify the notion that by negating a woman’s potential as an informed character, the man is acting in accordance with the longstanding practice of using passive forms of silencing women who seek to insert themselves in society in any form or fashion.

Arguably the starkest example Solnit uses in Men Explain Things to Me, is that of the media backlash and rebuke of a maid of African descent who dared speak out against then International Monetary Fund chairman, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The essay begins by praising the apparent shift in the reaction of the world players in the treatment of rape accusations, noting that a tide was turning and that women’s voices are being heard—to a sharp left turn as an addendum to the chapter discussing how the Strauss-Kahn had successfully silenced his accuser by attacking her character. This vituperative defilement of her person as witness caused enough media fallout that her case was dismissed in criminal court. She was however awarded over a million dollars in a civil suit, which proves Solnit’s theory that it’s not an entirely unwinnable war against this ingrained violence, but that it’s an internecine war of attrition.

However, I do agree with critics of Solnit, like New Politics Amber A’Lee Frost who struggled with Solnit’s lack of acknowledgement that violence against women, while it’s not unique to the lower classes, affects women, specifically women of color in lower classes with much greater frequency than it does women of the upper classes. Frost argues that Solnit is flattening the argument that this trend is based on temporary weaknesses in the economy as opposed to the systematic oppression of the lower classes which has been represented throughout history. Although, Solnit does a good job of noting that the power struggle between the sexes is often rooted in a dynamic of patriarchal oppression when she cites studies which found that women on reservations in the United States experience rape and violence committed against them—primarily from white men outside of their tribal laws—at a rate of nearly twice that of their white counterparts not living on reservations and under traditional American authority for prosecution.

Overall, Solnit provides the reader a compelling dialogue which seems more and more prudent in the current political era.

Her examinations of the history and evolution of violence against women provides a framework where women are free to discuss the collection of cultural capital, voice, and agency in the epoch of societal regression in the face of a radical right which is at its very root a bullhorn of violent, toxic masculinity, dressed in a three-piece suit and represented by those in our highest office.

The takeaway from the collection is that while we as women are repeatedly subjected to questioning and silencing, the more we use our voices, the stronger they become, and the more of us who join in the conversation, the more importance society will place upon what is being said. She argues that we must become as self-assured as men even though we are raised to question our minds, our instincts, and even our own intelligence and sanity, if we are to make headway against the dominant forces of the encroaching male.

Men Explain Things To Me was published in 2014, in a time where it felt like there were a lot more possible avenues for empowerment and equality than it does post November 2016. There was a sense of optimism that seems dulled by the current political climate. Right now, there is a real war going on over the rights of women to have autonomy over their own bodies. At this minute the ACLU is fighting for the reproductive rights of an undocumented immigrant, who came here seeking asylum from an allegedly abusive household, to obtain a safe, legal abortion. This case highlights two very specific aspects of the republican war on reproductive rights, the first, is that they are not pro-life at all. Their judgements on food stamps, maternity rights, failure to fund CHIP,  the dismantling of Obamacare by degrees, the desire of GOP to cut SNAP (commonly referred to as food stamps) benefits to bare minimums, and proposal to decrease the WIC (supplemental nutrition program for pregnant women and their babies) budget by millions proves they aren’t “pro-LIFE” they are merely “for forced childbirth” as Helen Rosner so eloquently put it on the popular podcast With Friends Like These. This case also points out that their policies are also aimed with a focus on minority women and children. 

Last week, Crooked Media got ahold of a leaked White House memo wherein the White House’s Domestic Policy Council (DPC) referred to the WHO as a “corrupt, hostile bureaucracy that achieves no actual [public health] capacity in countries.” They noted a desire to switch from the sexual health measures and sexual education mandated by Title X, to a fertility awareness method, aka, natural family planning (NFP), which fails 25 percent of the time. NFP is the method used frequently by religious persons who are not allowed birth control because of their beliefs, but do not wish to become pregnant. It requires extreme attention to detail, an exact record of the woman’s cycle, and other variants to delay or prevent pregnancy. Because ovulation is so unpredictable, it is prone to failure.

These types of programs, along with abstinence-only education simply don’t work. Moreover, they disproportionately affect lower-income and minority communities which are already struggling because they place another level of burden on the expectant mother. Yes, white girls get pregnant as teenagers as well, but overall experience less negative impact in their lives and the lives of their children than minority teen mothers and children. White teen mothers are more likely to graduate high school, attend college, and eventually marry than black mothers who have children at the same age.

Dismantling Title X and the disastrous executive order granting employers the right to refuse to cover birth control, as well as the whittling away of abortion rights are all strategies to not only control women via their wombs a la The Handmaid’s Talebut also serve as another arm in the racist policies designed by the GOP to continue what Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow era. If they can’t control black and brown people by owning their lives, they will do their best to minimize every choice and opportunity they have, and they’ll get like-minded people to go along with it under the guise of individual freedom, religious superiority, and thinly veiled hate. Economic shackles may be invisible, but they’re no less confining.

There is room for hope, though. I’ve never seen public involvement like I have since Trump took office. More and more women are lining up to run for public office. We have Indivisible and Onward Together. It is going to take lining up, yelling out, and demanding our voices be heard, but we know what we can’t allow, and we know how to affect change, so let’s get to it.


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