It’s been a long time since a book I’ve read doubled as a personal journal, but my copy of Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me is about as marked up as my high school copy of Emerson/Thoreau’s Nature/Walking.
The book, a collection of essays about the individual and shared experiences of womanhood and issues of gender, power, and feminism, takes its name from the lead essay in which Solnit narrates an infuriating experience of an older gentleman oldwhitemansplaining one of her own books to her… a book that he didn’t even read! She springboards from this experience into the broader concept of silencing women, sometimes with deadly consequences.
The dangerous implications of this silencing in personal, professional, political, and cultural spaces is a theme throughout the book’s nine essays, which were written between 2008 and 2014. Of course, my furious margin journal writing often referenced the 2016 US election. For those who were operating under a falsely optimistic experience of feminism in the US prior to the election and therefore found the election completely disillusioning, it may be helpful to revisit these pre-election essays: even if we hadn’t advanced quite as far as we thought, the forward progress becomes clearer at 10,000 feet, a view Solnit’s essays provide. To paraphrase MLK and President Obama, our trajectory is not straight forward, but it still seems forward moving.
Solnit writes beautifully, so that even the essays that were beyond my background (specifically, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embrassing the Inexplicable”) were still lovely to read. The downside of the poignant prose is that the horrific events Solnit covers in the book, from the New Delhi (and Los Angeles) bus rape+murders to Dominique Strauss-Kahn to Malala Yousafzai to Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, are particularly emotional to read.
“Emotional” is actually a perfect descriptor for the experience of reading Men Explain Things to Me in this post-election gender (and racial and national etc.) hellscape. I wish I had read this book with a bookclub or gender studies discussion group – sharing essay reactions in a group, especially with a diverse and engaged group who can bring personal and shared experiences to a critical discussion of Solnit’s essays, would deepen my experience of the book. For example, as a queer woman, I wrote “co-opting the movement” above Solnit’s declaration that “feminism made same-sex marriage possible” (Chapter 4, In Praise of the Threat: What Marriage Equality Really Means). I can only imagine the notes my immigrant, trans*, international, straight, and/or male friends would have to Solnit’s stances.
Whether you tackle this book on your own, in class, or in your feminist bookclub, I think you’ll get something out of Solnit’s tiny tome (even if that something is just a fiery ball of anger burning in your stomach).