Our curriculum is organized chronologically – think of it like a survey course on the History of Civilization in college, but with these guiding questions: How did patriarchy develop? How did it function at each particular time in history? Who has challenged patriarchy, and what are their arguments? Each week a different reading partner and I read a book and record our discussion, like a mini-version of the enriching, illuminating class discussions I had with my classmates in graduate school. I recruited readers of different ages, races, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, education levels, career paths, and sexual orientations because I wanted as many different points of view as possible to inform my learning and to bring unique wisdom to the texts. All these readers are smart, insightful, generous-hearted readers, and I have been awed by their intelligence and insight.
Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. All of us have heard or used the term “mansplaining” – that thing that happens when a man explains something to you that he assumes you don’t know, when you do know what you’re talking about because of your professional expertise or your own lived experience. These interactions reveal that this man thinks that instead of being your peer he is in a role of your dad or your teacher or your boss. The author Rebecca Solnit published an essay online in 2008 called, “Men Explain Things to Me,” which went viral and has become a touchstone for feminist thinkers and everyday women, and it now appears on many “essential reading” lists, which is why we’re discussing it today! This essay inspired the coining of the term “mansplain”, although the essay doesn’t say the word and Solnit herself says she doesn’t use it. Solnit says she has mixed feelings about the word, as I do I, but before we talk about the word, and about this essay and some others in Solnit’s collection, I want to welcome back to the podcast Malia Morris. Hi, Malia!!
Malia: Hi, Amy!
Amy: Listeners will remember Malia from our very first episode after the introduction, The Chalice and the Blade. So excited to have you back, Malia!!
Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself, Malia, maybe review some of your key stats and then tell us a story or anecdote that illustrates who you are?
Amy: Before we talk about these essays, let’s learn a bit about Rebecca Solnit.
Malia – Bio:
Rebecca Solnit was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1961, to a Jewish father and Irish Catholic mother. When she was 5 years old her family moved to Novato, California, where she grew up. She said of her childhood: “I was a battered little kid. I grew up in a really violent house where everything feminine and female and my gender was hated.” She enrolled in an alternative junior high in the public school system that took her through tenth grade, and after that she passed the General Educational Development tests and skipped high school altogether. She enrolled in junior college, and then when she was 17, she went to study in Paris. She returned to California to finish her college education at San Francisco State University and then received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 1984. She has been an independent writer since 1988, and has written many many books and essays, including a memoir in 2020 entitled Recollections of My Nonexistence, and has won several prestigious writing awards.
Amy: So let’s talk about these essays. Solnit starts out with a story, so let’s start there. She talks about attending a party with her friend Sallie when she was about forty years old, at a cabin-mansion in Aspen that was owned by a wealthy older man. The whole crowd at the party was older and wealthy, and as Rebecca and her friend were preparing to leave the party, the host found them and said “No, stay a little longer so I can talk to you.” He said “So I hear you’ve written a couple of books,” and she replied that she had written several. And I’ll read the rest of the interaction.
“He said, in the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice, “And what are they about?”
They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.
He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?”
So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book — with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.
Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said — like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales … — “gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” Still, there are these other men, too. So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, “That’s her book.” Or tried to interrupt him anyway.
But he just continued on his way. She had to say, “That’s her book” three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless — for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing, and we’ve never really stopped.”
Malia, what are your thoughts?
Malia: Experience with Matt Edwards without naming him – i’m going to use vague terms around him because I don’t want to out him. I think his general problem is less a male-ness issue and more a general personality thing, because I’ve heard that he does this generally with people speaking over them (so maybe it’s a male thing for him!)
Thoughts on cancelling culture vs calling in culture.
Amy: So important to give people the benefit of the doubt. I have another question for you; first I want to set up the question by sharing a scene that I will remember forever from Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste, which I reference all the time. Wilkerson shares a story from her life when she was a writer for the New York Times and she was featuring a bunch of small businesses for an article she was writing. She had made an appointment with the owner of a boutique, and was waiting for him at the agreed-upon time in his store. A few minutes later, he came rushing into the store and when she greeted him, he said “I don’t have time right now, I have an interview with The New York Times.” She said, “Yes, I’m the Times writer, I’m Isabel Wilkerson,” and he straight up didn’t believe her. For several minutes they had a conversation wherein she tried to convince him that she was the New York Times reporter that he was rushing to meet with, there, at the appointed time, and he simply would not believe her, presumably because she looked too different – as a Black woman – than what he had envisioned a New York Times reporter to look like. This scene was so infuriating to read, and as we’ve said so many times before on this podcast, I just want to say it again that women of color experience that “double jeopardy” of sexism and racism that can make this phenomenon of not being believed and not being listened to so much worse.
How does this strike you?
This is relatable and real – i’ve been asked if I’m the nanny many many times.
One part of the book that I found was consistently missing was the lack of intersectional discussion. Violence and oppression are present within racism, classism, anti-religious rhetoric, homophobia etc and Solnit did not acknowledge that. It was, to me, a huge oversight. Further quotes cemented a general overgeneralization of it including,
“There are so many forms of female nonexistence. Early in the war in Afghanistan, the New York Times sunday magazine ran a cover story on the country. The big image at the head of the story was supposed to show a family, but I saw only a man and children, until I realized with astonishment that what I had taken for drapery or furniture was a fully veiled woman. She has disappeared from view and whatever all the other arguments may be about veils and burqas, the make people literally disappear.”
I winced when I read that. There are some big gaps in how she presents her views of other cultures and her perceptions of inequality for cultural practices, as compared to say Melinda Gates’ book which explores options to help countries within their given cultures. Acknowledging the basis of that culture is vital, to avoid a sort of white savior complex. Solnit included comments about women of color or diverse women, but it was usually there to bolster her points rather than to explore why those customs existed.
I winced too. In my view, women should love and support other women’s autonomy. And there are many Muslim women who see the veil as empowering. And think of Malala Yousefsai, who fought the Taliban’s prohibition on women’s education and an icon of women’s sovereignty – Malala wears a hijab. So the problem, of course, is cultures where women are forced by men (and women who uphold those men’s rules) to wear the hijab, and/or clothing that they don’t want to wear. I’ve been following the Iranian activist Masih Alinejad for a few years, who chooses not to wear the veil and is in exile for her own safety, vigorously fighting the Iranian government, which forces women to be covered. The books Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi also talk about this. So the issue is women’s autonomy, right?
I want to note that I don’t think this is a trauma contest where we need to debate who has the most trauma, women of color, white middle class women etc, but the fact is that many modern women find the label “feminist” problematic. One of those issues stems from what is a perceived oversight of women of color, trans women, women across the class spectrum, women with disabilities etc. focusing on white, middle to upper class women.
I found Solnit’s lack of exploration on the topic of intersectionality disappointing. It is fair to note that this is her experience and that in and of itself is valid. It just didn’t cover enough broad ground for me to feel like it accounted for the diversity of violence that occurs against women, particularly when she discussed different cultures, norms, etc with such broad strokes and generalized statements.
Additionally, One line that really stuck with me and maybe not the way intended was the line, “Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.”
It’s a powerful statement that can suggest that women experience a huge amount of violence at the hands of men. I think it’s important to also note that most men are killed by other men which she also states in the book but she sort of dismisses because she focuses on partner violence. So in regards to this violence against women, is it a feature of them being women, is it power differential, is it because men historically are in positions of power in marriages, is this biology or nature vs nurture for men? There are many threads we can follow with this and I felt like some of Solnit’s explanations were moving but overly simplistic. The truth is, I think there are many factors that impact why women have so many violent altercations with men. I looked up statistics with the World Health Organization and they said,
“A 2018 analysis of prevalence data from 2000-2018 across 161 countries and areas, conducted by WHO on behalf of the UN Interagency working group on violence against women, found that worldwide, nearly 1 in 3, or 30%, of women have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or non-partner sexual violence or both (2).”
I was curious how those statistics compared to same-sex intimate partner violence (IPV) and some research suggets, “ …many studies have revealed the existence of IPV among lesbian and gay couples, and its incidence is comparable to (Turell, 2000) or higher than that among heterosexual couples (Messinger, 2011; Kelley et al., 2012).”
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual IPV hasn’t been as well researched as heterosexual IPV, but there is a growing empirical research. The researcher so far makes a reasonable inference that lesbian partnerships experience a comparable amount of violence, at least according to available data. So where does that leave us with the hypothesis that violence against women by men is a male problem?
I think there are too many factors of violence for us to simply conclude violence against women caused by men is driven solely because of their male-ness. Could it be a feature of it? Absolutely, but it’s a complex problem that deserves a lot of complex analysis and I didn’t feel like Solnit was able to convince me that her conclusions were evidence enough.
We talked about gender-based violence on some of our other episodes as well – most notably on the episode featuring the UN Declaration of the Elimination of Violence toward women. It really enriches the conversation to bring in data from same-sex couples, and that’s so fascinating that lesbian partnerships experience so much violence too! So men perpetrate violence against other men, and women do against other women. But I suppose that because heterosexual partnerships do make up a majority, there is a much higher instance of men hurting women than women hurting men. And as we talked about, some areas have horrifyingly high rates of women being raped and murdered by men, including Native American women in our own country right now.
With that said, like you asked, is that driven solely by their “maleness”?? It can’t be, right? Because men in Denmark – the country with the lowest gender-based-violence – are just as biologically male as Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. So there must be a huge cultural component. And we’re going to talk about that very thing on our episode on the book For the Love of Men: From Toxic to a More Mindful Masculinity in a few weeks.
Amy: One thing I want to talk about is the word “mansplaining.” As I mentioned, Solnit didn’t write the word – her essay just inspired it, and Solnit herself says she doesn’t love it. I have mixed feelings about it, because on one hand, I have definitely been on the receiving end of very very patronizing treatment that I knew I would not be getting if I were a man. For example, there was a fellow student in one of my grad school classes last year (not in my cohort) who would constantly correct the women. [Tell the story.]
On the other hand, two things: First of all, I know that there is the potential for women to accuse any man who disagrees with her or shares his knowledge as “mansplaining,” and we need to be careful that we don’t get trigger-happy with that term. [Erik noting the wrong Math at CrossFit – I told him if I had been the coach, I would have thought it was because I was a woman]
Second, I have seen women do this exact behavior too, and I myself was such a know-it-all as a kid! I’m afraid I was an insufferable explainer, and was legitimately terribly bossy.
The word “Bossy” has gotten a bad rap – in fact Sheryl Sandberg started an initiative specifically to get people to stop saying that word because the word is almost always only applied to girls. It’s true that if a boy and a girl exhibit identical confidence and ability to direct others, the boy is likely to be called a leader, while the girl is likely to be called “bossy.” I found an article on Psychology Today, written by Wharton professor Dr. Adam Grant, where he says,
To make sense of bossiness, we need to tease apart two fundamental aspects of social hierarchy that are often lumped together—power and status:
We react very differently when power is exercised by high-status and low-status people. When people with high status also possess power, we perceive them as dominant, but also warm. We hold them in high regard, so we’re willing to follow their commands. When the same commands come from people who lack status, we judge them as dominant and cold. Since they haven’t earned our respect, we feel, they don’t have the right to tell us what to do.
When young women get called bossy, it’s often because they’re trying to exercise power without status. It’s not a problem that they’re being dominant; the backlash arises because they’re ‘overstepping’ their perceived status.”
So this explains why we perceive the same behavior in boys and girls so differently – in a patriarchal culture, boys have inherent status just based on being boys, and girls have to work much harder to earn that status – their default state is to not have status.
In fact, Solnit says in the essay:
“After my book Wanderlust came out in 2000, I found myself better able to resist being bullied out of my own perceptions and interpretations. On two occasions around that time, I objected to the behavior of a man, only to be told that the incidents hadn’t happened at all as I said, that I was subjective, delusional, overwrought, dishonest – in a nutshell, female. Most of my life, I would have doubted myself and backed down. Having public standing as a writer of history helped me stand my ground, but few women get that boost, and billions of women must be out there on this seven-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives.” (8)
So Solnit had status because she was a published author.
Obviously, if you’re going to be a leader, best practices for all leaders, regardless of gender, is to be a good…