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 Times’ “words of the year” list.
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 TomDispatch.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.