"Most women fight wars on two fronts, 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. Things have gotten better, but this war won't end in my lifetime. I'm still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it."
Trigger warning: Violence against women.
In 2008 Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay called Men Explain Things to Me which started out jokingly talking about the way the author had had to listen to a man at a party patronisingly telling her about her own book, then went on to talk about the more serious consequences the silencing of women can have. Once published online at TomDispatch the essay went viral, having apparently struck a chord with many people. Beginning with that essay, this book is a collection of essays grouped around the topic of misogyny and sexism. In The Longest War Solnit talks about the failure of the media to name the problem of male violence, instead talking around the issue and attributing blame to other factors. My favourite quote from this section was:
“We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it's almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn't have a race, a class, a religion or a nationality, but it does have a gender.”
In In Praise of the Threat Solnit writes that the gay marriage actually is a threat to traditional marriage just as its opponents say, only not for the reason they claim. She says it is a threat because it presents an example of a marriage of two equals, without the baggage of the idea of one partner owning the other, who ceased to be a legal person.
This updated edition of the book, from 2014, also contains two new essays. The first is #YesAllWomen, about the aftermath of the Isla Vista murders, and the mainstream media's drive to define them as “an isolated event” or solely the result of mental illness, instead of the result of a combination of toxic masculinity and entitlement like so many other acts of violence against women. The second new essay is Pandora's Box and the Volunteer Police Force, in which she mentions how the horrific gang rape and murder of Indian student Jyoti Singh in 2012 helped to change the public conversation about violence against women, seeing individual crimes against women as part of a wider phenomenon that needs to be addressed on a much larger scale.
Men Explain Things to Me is a book that provides a lot of food for thought. Parts of it made me very angry, though not with Solnit. Most women have probably experienced "mansplaining" to some degree and will relate to it. I've had a guy who watched me painting a still life in oils tell me that oil and water don't mix, and heard male comic geeks and gamers doubt womens' credentials as "real" fans. These are little things, but they are connected to a bigger issue. The other essays dealing with topics such as domestic violence and rape are heavier going, but insightful and fascinating. As well as rage and sadness the book ultimately left me with a feeling of hope, that women will keep on fighting for a better world.