In the first three chapters of Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit writes about our society’s history of male conquering and its manifestation in America as a virus against the credibility and autonomy of women. Solnit begins Chapter 1 with an anecdote about a posturing man who condescendingly attempts to explain the importance of a book which he had only read the review of, and which Solnit herself had written. Our societal prioritization of male power has polarized the genders’ communication habits, men are able to become arrogant while women silence themselves in moments of uncertainty. Although credibility is a basic tool of survival, Solnit explains that men are born with it while women earn it. This credibility of men over women is what perpetuates the lack of autonomy women are deemed to have in their lives and over their bodies. When women overcome the pressure to self-doubt themselves into silence they face different forms of backlash, either they are discredited as subjective actors and “told they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever” (7). Or, they are scared by the aggressive scorn of men so that arguing back seems “a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult” (8). Even when women earn credibility it is through outward reinforcement, the validation of the public, or men, who deem her worthy of that credible status. According to Solnit, women fight wars on two fronts when they try to use their voice, one for the subject that they are talking about and the other for “the right to speak, have ideas, be acknowledged, to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being” (9-10). Solnit explains that she wrote the essay Men Explain Things to Me, to make sure that young women know that being belittled isn’t a result of their own failing or weakness, but rather a result of gender wars. In the postscript of her essay, Solnit argues that although women can also be facilitators of patronizing explanations, that’s “not indicative of the massive power differential that takes far more sinister forms. Or of the broad pattern of how gender works in our society” (12). In her essay Solnit is reflecting on the open space for men and the narrow space for women to speak, be heard, be respected, to participate and have rights which manifests itself in these forms of polite discourse and emerge in impolite discourse and in acts of intimidation and violence against women.
In chapter Two and Three, Solnit delves deeper into the discrediting of women by emphasizing the pattern that is overlooked in the incidences of violence against women. In most circumstances men develop elaborate explanations and justification for violence perpetrated against women, all to avoid gendering the violence when it provides the clearest explanation. The war of the sexes is lopsided, the “usual guidelines in such situations put the full burden of prevention on potential victims, treating the violence like it’s a given” (29). Therefore the burden lies on the woman to limit her life to avoid being a victim, while men impose their power and desire to control on women. This pattern of male power has been pertinent throughout history as they have endeavored to dominate, exploit and silence others for their own riches as seen throughout decades of imperialism. It is evident in the perpetual assault on women’s autonomy by men in power, such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF who allegedly sexually assaulted a hotel employee and other subordinate women. It is also seen predominantly in the American political and legal system as well. Just in 2012, Senator Todd Akins claimed that a woman has ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of rape while working with five other male Senators to to gut reproductive rights, access to birth controls and abortion. However, not all men are predators, many men consider themselves feminists because they understand the benefit it provides men to not conform to the societal imagination of masculinity. Solnit explains that although the Women’s Liberation movement was construed as a movement intent on encroaching or taking power and privilege away from men, it is reflective more on those against it that they believe only one gender at a time can be free and powerful.
Questions for Consideration:
- Why do you think that men have been found, statistically, to be actors of more violence than women? In what way does our culture impact how men and women react differently to their emotions?
- In reflecting on the way that men impose their desire for control and power on women, how can we in our community foster a space where women are autonomous and men are able to live without the pressure to be this narrow form of masculine?
- What does Solnit’s ideal meaning of democracy say about what is lacking in our democracy today? How is classism and sexism intertwined according to Solnit?
- How does Solnit’s view the feminist movement and the women’s liberation movement differ from Bell Hook’s view? How does Bell Hooks Chapter 9 presentation on violence against women differ or show similarities to Solnits view of violence against women as fundamentally gendered?