I have never read an entire Rebecca Solnit book before. Oh yes, I’ve read an essay here and an essay there as they appear in magazines I read now and then. I have intended to read Field Guide to Getting Lost for ages but wouldn’t you know, as these things go, the first Solnit book I actually read cover to cover is her newest collection of essays Men Explain Things to Me. The book is slim but it packs quite a punch!
The title of the collection comes from the essay of the same name. I think I mentioned before that the essay, originally published on the internet, brought about the invention of the word Mansplaining. This word was not invented by Solnit and in a short afterward to her essay she says she doesn’t really like the word all that much because it makes a blanket assumption that men are inherently flawed this way and it allows people to laugh off the phenomenon. And what is that phenomenon exactly?
It is something that happens when a man/men and a woman/women are in conversation and the man makes the condescending assumption that he knows more than she does simply by virtue of being a man. Solnit’s essay describes a moment at a party in Aspen when a man was telling her about an important book that had just been published a few months previous. Solnit realized he was talking about her book and when she tried to engage him in discussion about the book it became clear that a) he didn’t believe that she was the author, and b) he had not read the book, only a review of the book. He remained undaunted, however, and continued to explain her book to her.
This essay sets the tone and theme for the entire collection. The essays that follow are squarely feminist and deal with issues like violence against women in general and rape specifically. She points out that while most men are not rapists nor are they violent, most all violent crime in the United States is committed by men and women aren’t generally known to rape men nor regularly commit violence against them. The onus of rape prevention is placed on women who are taught how to protect themselves and avoid dangerous situations while men are rarely talked to about not being rapists. Rape and violence against women is rarely seen as the civil rights and human rights issue that it is.
But the book is not all gloomy. There is a really wonderful essay about how feminism and the push for equality in marriage opened the door for same-sex marriage. The essay also discusses what might be one of the base fears of those who oppose same-sex marriage: it completely removes gender hierarchy from the relationship and opens up the relationship and the marriage, granting to people the freedom to define their own roles. And of course just as the feminist push for equality in marriage opened the door to the GLBT community, same-sex marriage will tip back over and affect how heterosexual couples relate to one another.
In another essay, “Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force,” Solnit talks about just how much things have changed since the feminist movement began. She also talks about revolutions and insists:
What doesn’t go back in the jar or the box are ideas. And revolutions are, most of all, made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states of the union, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their bodies. Practical changes follow upon changes of the heart and mind.
Something to keep in mind given the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision.
This collection also includes the marvelous essay “Woolf’s Darkness” on Virginia Woolf, which is what prompted me to buy the book to begin with. The essay was even better the second time around and I plan on doing a whole post on it because Woolf. Love her. Love what Solnit writes about her.
Men Explain Things to Me turned out to be a good little collection. Depressing at times, but enjoyable too, and ultimately uplifting. I was left with a sense of communal feeling, of not being alone, of working on big ideas and changes with women and men all around the world. The book left me feeling pretty darn good.