Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays : a review of the compendium of essays by Rebecca Solnit

Picture by me.

« For the grandmothers, the levelers, the dreamers, the men who get it, the young women who keep going, the older ones who opened the way, the conversations that don’t end, and a world that will let Ella Nachimovitz ».

I wanted to begin this article with this citation that welcomes us on the first page of the book. A kind reminder of the words and chapters we are about to read and comprehend. Published in 2014, Men explain things to me and other essays is a concentrated collection of constructed critiques and remarks on women and men issues in our contemporary societies. I know that Rebecca Solnit is not always well appreciated in the feminism universe. Still, this book is worth a read for anyone. In 7 chapters, Rebecca Solnit opens up her mind and shares her vision of feminism.

CHAPTERS one & two: observations on rebecca’s experiences and on rape culture

The first chapters of the book greet us into a world of pure violence. In the first chapter called « Men Explain Things To Me« , the author begins by relating her own experiences in the literature and cultural world in the US. From mansplaining to sexism, the author calls out the sexist events that occur in her early author life. Through old events and past discussions, Rebecca Solnit enlightens some violent moments of sexism she has faced in her career. From men, self-proclaimed experts on women issues, dismissing her own knowledge and her works in the feminism sphere. Rebecca Solnit has been confronting a lot of big ego men along her career. The author explains these issues in the chapter with this quote : « it trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercices men’s unsupported overconfidence ». The first chapter introduces us to the basics of mansplaining issues that women have to face in their career, whatever their status and jobs.

The second chapter called « The Longest War » is a plea against rape culture and the impunity amongst rapists. Rape culture has made a lot of victims and is still very present today. Around the globe, women are surviving this phenomenon, because rape culture is not an isolated occurence, it’s well settled and commonly tolerated. The author reminds this to us with frighteningly big numbers and examples of rape cases from India or the USA, I quote : « violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender ». In the USA, a rape happens every 6 minutes and 1 woman out of 5 will be raped in her life, which is unbearable to think about and highly abnormal. From military to universities and even their own homes, rape culture is inevitable, it’s like a social disease perpetuated by misogynistic politics and patriarchy.

chapters THREE & FOUR : COLONIZATION, POLITICS AND ECONOMICS INEQUALITIES

This chapter begins with a take on the aftermath of european colonialism around the world. Like Marguerite Duras said before, institutional racism and especially rapes and sexualization of women of color have a history, which is perpetuated in today’s world. Rebecca Solnit accuses world organizations such as the FMI of being neo-colonialist organizations, having power and decisions on geographical areas without understanding those regions’ issues and needs. But the big part of this chapter is the Sofitel scandal explanation and analysis. I was 14 when the scandal happened. As a young french black girl, I remember the electricity in France concerning the repercussions and future of Dominique Strauss Kahn. But nothing for the victim, Nafissatou Diallo, a black woman. In the meantime, she was insulted across every media, calling her an opportunist when she just spoke about her sexual abuse.This theatened the balance of the border between the super rich and the people. In September 2020, the french magazine Paris Match released an interview of Nafissatou Diallo and the negatice comments under the Instagram post had me speechless.

Dominique StraussKahn as Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein were well known in the industry to have harmful tendencies towards women, and their misbehaves have only been revealed thanks to the #Metoo movement. We can’t imagine how many other victims of them are out there. Rebecca Solnit links the positions that these men have to having a god-like power on women’s bodies and personal lives, I quote : « In other words, he (DSK) created an atmosphere that was uncomfortable or dangerous for women, which would be one thing if he was working in, say, a small office. But that a man who controls some parts of the fate of the world apparently devoted his energies to generating fear, misery, and injustice around him says something about the shape of our world and the values of the nations and institutions that tolerated his behavior and that of men like him« . Rebecca Solnit is contemplating the influences of the North on the South, of a powerful white man on a working african immigrant woman, of a man on a woman’s body. At this point in the book, I tell myself that it’s a difficult book to read when you are yourself a woman. It’s a violent but necessary reading.

In the fourth called « in praise of the threat/ what marriage equality really means », Solnit debunks the sacred institution of marriage. Marriage whether it’s traditional or religious, is foremost a status serving men. In many occasions, women have less rights and are not in positions to act or think for themselves. They have to obey, serve and be the righteous women possibly. Even in civilian ceremonies so juridical marriages, women have to share. Marriages, on the political and economical plan, only work for men, they are continuing the inequalities between the two sexes, I quote : « throughout much of its history in the west, the laws defining marriage made the husband essentially the owner and the wife a possession. Or the man a boss and the woman a servant« . The other input of this chapter is mainly to approach homosexual marriages. The author affirms that homosexuals marriages are more equal on their own because the stereotypical roles of the man and the woman don’t apply anymore, the balance is maybe more equal than in heterosexual marriages. This chapter reminds us the modalities and dysfunctions operating in marriages. The violence and feminicides often happen in marriage where some men abuse and take over their partner. The book doesn’t silence violences caused by women, but it reminds that most of the violence in our world are caused by men, because they are controlling the world.

CHAPTER FIVE, SIX AND SEVEN : philosophy, women heritage and feminism symbolism

The last 3 chapters of the book conjugate between a more personal analysis of the author, philosophy and history.

The fifth chapter called « Grandmother spider » is subdividing in different parts and comebacks on women places in kinship and lineage, I quote : « eliminate your mother then your grandmother then your four grandmothers. Go back more generations ad hundreds, then thousands disappear. Mothers vanish and the fathers and the mothers of those mothers« . The author even talks about the British Blackstone Laws of 1765, which were validating women inferiority in the couple and the family, I quote : « by marriage, the husband and the wife are one person in law : that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman in the suspended marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband (…) He covered her like a sheet, like a shroud, like a screen. She had no separate existence. The husband name comes before the wife name. The author explains that women’s histories often vanished and are forgotten in their own families. We can see it in our world history where women artists or scientists have endured silence treatment and anonymity to sometimes exist as an author or inventor. In other words, men stay the reference in many disciplines, they are the norm.

Chapter 6 is called « Woolf’s darkness/embracing the inexplicable ». It is an ode of the author to Virginia Woolf, who seems to have a big impact on the author personal life and professional life too, both as a feminist and an artist. This sixth chapter reminds the beginning of activism, the impulse of fighting for a cause, act and protest in their prime forms. By quoting Virginia Woolf and other engaged women activists, conscient of their realities and their eras, the author uses philosophy and even psychology to understand the world, the duty to act and understand our surroundings and the definition of ourselves as conscious human beings. Rebecca Solnit says that we ourselves and our individuality are sometimes the first bulwark to communicate and unite.

« We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan it’s easy to see what we want to see »

Laurence Gonzalez

Solnit claims the need for artists to embrace the world and its imperfections, including our own imperfections, I quote : « it’s the job of writers to see more, travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open« .

And finally, chapter 7 called « Pandora’s Box and the volunteer police force » goes beyond the philosophical era. The last chapter starts with a sincere and metaphoric analysis of the evolution of feminism. Feminism is often downgraded and not respected enough. Women have been trying to be heard for centuries and yet we are barely touching the surface. Solnit subtly informs us of the lengths that we have to wall through to continue the fight, I quote : « The road is a neat image, easy to picture, but it is mislead when it tells us that the history of change and transformation is a linear path, as though you could describe South Africa and Sweden and Brazil all marching in unison ». The author uses the metaphor of the Pandora Box, present in a lot of cultures and legends. The Pandora Box could contain « the hope » and that hope has escaped. And women are apparently the openers of those boxes full of secrets. As in the biblical and genesis story of Adam and Eve, women are seen as responsible.

MY THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSION

The book was my « first » contemporary feminism reading. After Marguerite Duras, Françoise Héritier and Octavia Butler, I’m happy to have fallen upon this little book full of knowledge, laws and interpretations of what womanhood is globally and in the collective minds. The chapters are well constructed, sometimes complex and triggering for their honesty. Rebecca Solnit has used her own conception of feminism and has tried to make it accessible with controversies and numbers to highlight the problem : patriarchy. The book is an awakening about current issues, even tough it came out 8 years ago. Nothing has changed. We have the possibility to see a new generation of feminism where young women are engaged and well cultured. The end of the book, which concluded on Zapata‘s activism gave me hope and comprehension on the multiple ways of being a feminist, as a woman and as a man. « Men explain things to me » is a general lecture of inequalities between men and women. It’s a bubble full of visions, culture and testimonies. It might not be for everybody but the book is doing the job : it’s teaching us, guiding us and making us believe in its ways.

Lunaticharlie.

Don’t hesitate to comment. And if you appreciate the article, subscribe to my blog and follow me on Instagram : @pointzeroworld – POINT ZERO WORLD.

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