Mansplaining, Explained

How Rebecca Solnit articulated a millennia-old phenomenon.

Sady Doyle

In the grand his­to­ry of fem­i­nist neol­o­gisms, there has per­haps nev­er been one more sat­is­fy­ing to slam down into a bad con­ver­sa­tion than mansplain­ing.” The term, which caught fire in the late-’00s fem­i­nist blo­gos­phere, describes a par­tic­u­lar­ly irri­tat­ing form of sex­ist micro-aggres­sion: name­ly, a man explain­ing a top­ic of con­ver­sa­tion to a woman who a) has already demon­strat­ed ade­quate knowl­edge of that top­ic; b) could rea­son­ably be pre­sumed to know about that top­ic; and/​or c) could rea­son­ably be pre­sumed to know much more about that top­ic than he does, because she is an expert in the field. Once coined, the term spread into the main­stream so quick­ly and thor­ough­ly that in 2010, mansplain­er” land­ed on the New York Timeswords of the year” list.

After Solnit introduced herself as the writer of a book on the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, the man she was speaking to began to tell her about a book on Eadweard Muybridge she ought to read. As it turned out, the book he was hectoring Solnit to read was in fact the book she herself had written—a fact he had to be informed of three or four times before he stopped lecturing at her.

Efforts to estab­lish a defin­i­tive lin­eage for the term tend to run afoul of the fact that it seemed, like many great ideas, to crop up in mul­ti­ple places at the same time — but one com­mon ref­er­ence point is author and activist Rebec­ca Solnit’s 2008 essay Men Explain Things to Me,” orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished at TomDis​patch​.com.

Sol­nit had fall­en vic­tim to the third vari­ety of mansplain­ing: After Sol­nit intro­duced her­self as the writer of a book on the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Ead­weard Muy­bridge, the man she was speak­ing to began to tell her about a book on Ead­weard Muy­bridge she ought to read. As it turned out, the book he was hec­tor­ing Sol­nit to read was in fact the book she her­self had writ­ten — a fact he had to be informed of three or four times before he stopped lec­tur­ing at her. Even after Sol­nit told the man she’d pub­lished a book on Muy­bridge, he couldn’t believe she’d pub­lished that book on Muybridge.

Most women fight wars on two fronts,” Sol­nit con­clud­ed. One for what­ev­er the puta­tive top­ic is and one sim­ply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowl­edged to be in pos­ses­sion of facts and truths, to have val­ue, to be a human being.”

Men Explain Things to Me” serves as the anchor (and the name­sake) of Solnit’s new vol­ume of essays on women’s issues, released this month by Hay­mar­ket Books. Men Explain Things to Me” took off from Solnit’s own expe­ri­ence to point in sev­er­al direc­tions at once: The way women’s voic­es are dis­missed with­in a pro­fes­sion­al con­text, or how we attack the cred­i­bil­i­ty of women who report on domes­tic vio­lence or rape. Men Explain Things to Me, the book, is sim­i­lar­ly wide-rang­ing: You’ll find essays on mar­riage equal­i­ty, on Vir­ginia Woolf’s crit­i­cism, and on the Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund, along with more gen­er­al mus­ings on women’s place in the world.

Not all of the con­nec­tions that Sol­nit makes real­ly work: When she attempts to con­nect for­mer IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged assault on hotel employ­ee Nafis­satou Dial­lo to the IMF’s poli­cies more gen­er­al­ly, she’s got good points on both top­ics, but the full con­nec­tion nev­er quite gels, rely­ing more on metaphor (“Her name was Africa. His was France.”) than sus­tained argu­ment. Some of her points aren’t quite as ground­break­ing as they’d like to be — an essay on male vio­lence against women includes sta­tis­tics and argu­ments that will hard­ly feel fresh to those famil­iar with fem­i­nist media, where sim­i­lar argu­ments have been cir­cling for many years. And when she refers to New York Times colum­nist Nicholas Kristof as one of the few promi­nent fig­ures to address the issue reg­u­lar­ly,” one wish­es she were more famil­iar with the thriv­ing fem­i­nist blo­gos­phere, where these issues are addressed more or less con­stant­ly. Sim­i­lar­ly, her hor­ror at see­ing a woman in a bur­ka — I real­ized with aston­ish­ment that what I had tak­en for drap­ery or fur­ni­ture was a ful­ly veiled woman” — would most like­ly get her ripped to shreds in the fem­i­nist blo­gos­phere, where white women’s sav­ior com­plex­es with regard to Mus­lim women are not suf­fered gladly.

Still, it’s reward­ing just to see the license Sol­nit gives her­self to explore the ter­ri­to­ry, to pit Son­tag and Woolf against each oth­er in one essay, and los desa­pare­ci­dos against the effac­ing of women’s matri­lin­eal ances­try in the next. In that essay on Woolf, Sol­nit says that great crit­i­cism seeks to trav­el with the work and its ideas, to engage it in con­ver­sa­tion, to invite it to blos­som and oth­ers into a con­ver­sa­tion that might have pre­vi­ous­ly seemed impen­e­tra­ble, to draw out rela­tion­ships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked.” Solnit’s style as an essay­ist — patient, ele­gant, spin­ning webs of con­nec­tions and invit­ing ideas to bump up against each oth­er and form sur­pris­ing new rela­tion­ships — exem­pli­fies that sort of lib­er­at­ing and viv­i­fy­ing rela­tion­ship with the world.

A writer’s author­i­ty is a strange thing, a hybrid of exper­tise and sheer arro­gance. It helps to have an ency­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of facts. But the key to being a good essay­ist, rather than a good Wikipedia edi­tor, is the will­ing­ness to claim the author­i­ty of one’s opin­ions; to say that you know what mat­ters, and why it mat­ters, and (here’s the tricky part) why every­one should lis­ten to you and (prefer­ably) pay you for the priv­i­lege. The right to that kind of self-con­fi­dence has always been denied to women. By allow­ing her­self such a wide range of sub­ject mat­ter and approach­ing it with such con­fi­dence, Sol­nit sug­gests that the key to defeat­ing mansplain­ing is not just iden­ti­fy­ing the prob­lem or giv­ing it a catchy new name, but insist­ing on women’s right to do a lit­tle explain­ing themselves.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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