Review by Rebecca Woolston
There is a woman traveling on a road. All she knows is how far she has come, but cannot know how much further she must got until she’s reached the end of her journey. This is an image used often in Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book, Men Explain Things to Me. A collection of her essays that explors the gender disparities from workplace gender gaps to domestic violence, even down to what happens too often in conversations between a man and a woman. Men Explain Things to Me is humorous at times, relieving mounting irritation toward incidences with sarcasm. Take for example this moment when Solnit found herself yet again being “explained” to by a man, despite, as she points out, her having published nine books at that point (twelve now). As she recalls, one of her books was on the subject she was being told she knew nothing about: “explaining men still assume I am, in some sort of obscene impregnantion metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge. A Freudian would claim to know what they have and I lack, but intelligence is not situated in the crotch—even if you can write one of Virginia Woolf’s long mellifluous musical sentences about the subtle subjugation of women in the snow with your willie.” Using humor has long been a way to cope with idiocy, sometimes one must laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation rather than get mad. Solnit does this cleverly many times throughout her essays.
Humorous and uplifting moments aside, Solnit’s writing sobers with its numbers on domestic and sexual violence and the questioning of why it is still so prevalent. She asks why no one wants to speak about it, let alone work to eradicate it. Solnit brings into question the reality of marriage, tracing the changing of the term from “same-sex marriage” to “marriage equality” and how this term change too, is empowering for hetero women. She writes, “the phrase is ordinarily employed to mean that same-sex couples will have the rights different-sex couples do. But it could also mean that marriage is between equals. That’s not what traditional marriage was… the laws defining marriage made the husband essentially the owner and the wife a possession.” To experience marriage, regardless of gender(s) as an equal partnership is a profound shift necessary in our culture. Her essay “In Praise of the Threat” discusses this shift eloquently and was perhaps one of my favorites in the collection.
It’s hard to imagine that all this could be covered so deftly in just 130 pages, the topic of each of these essays could use their own book. Solnit accomplishes a feat many could not. She does this by choosing each word and its placement with care and precision. Every word inside this text matters and the words that surround it bring deeper meaning. These are what sentences from a writer dedicated to her work look like and I read them slow, thanking them for existing.
Men Explain Things to Me is a refreshing definition of feminism in its new era. Because feminism is always evolving, along with the world it exists in. It has been attacked for so long as women hating men and burning our bras to show it. But, she writes, “like racism, misogyny can never be adequately addressed by its victims alone. The men who get it also understand that feminism is not a scheme to deprive men but a campaign to liberate us all.” Statements like this are so necessary in a time when so many humans remain uneducated about feminism. The recent social media outburst of women who claim they don’t need or want to be a feminist because they love men, clearly do not know what feminism is. They do not understand that without feminism, they could not go viral with their claims that they don’t need it, could not vote, could have no choice of whom and when to marry those men they love, no choice regarding sexual health, or be able to go to school and get a job outside the home earning their own wages. Of course, I’m showing what side I stand on in what Solnit questions might be a “full fledged war now, not of the sexes—the division is not that simple, with conservative women and progressive men on different sides—but of gender roles. It’s evidence that feminism and women continue achieving advances that threaten and infuriate some people.”
So maybe the next step is to stop warring, which is always easier said than done, but if everyone could understand that “feminism sought and seeks to change the whole human world,” it’s possible people would stop feeling so much resistance toward it. Some are better at accepting change than others though. The most important thing for me in this collection of Solnit’s essays is this point: that feminism is always evolving, and she offers an energizing redefinition, and once an idea has been presented, we cannot go back. One cannot take language back once it has been spoken, the memory marks the mind, the idea marks the collective consciousness. So I will end as she ends, a woman on a road traveling and though she does not know how much further she will have to go, she at least knows she can only continue to move forward.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of fifteen books, including, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, The Faraway Nearby, and A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. She has received a Guggenheim, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lanaan Literary Award. She is a frequent contributor to Tomdispatch.com and a contributing editor for Harper’s. Visit her website at rebeccasolnit.net