A decade later, men are still explaining things to Rebecca Solnit.
“Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about,” Solnit read from her so-titled 2008 essay on Thursday night. “Some men.” (“Now we can add the hashtag #NotAllMen,” she joked in an aside.)
None of these men have ever apologized to her for it, Solnit told the audience in Cooper Union’s Great Hall. There’s still time, she said, “but I’m not holding my breath.”
Solnit’s keen observation—which she made after a smug man once explained the contents of one of Solnit’s many acclaimed books to her, not realizing that she herself had written it, or could have been capable of writing it—inspired the term “mansplaining,” and quickly embedded itself in 21st-century feminist thought.
The 10th anniversary of her essay “Men Explain Things to Me” arrives amid an exciting cultural and political moment for women, who are finding their voices in the #MeToo movement and running for office in record numbers. But these shifts—though they may appear seismic—hardly make Solnit’s argument about the insidiousness of sexism obsolete. “Men Explain Things to Me” remains relevant in 2018 not in spite of these movements, but because of them.
Solnit wrote “Men Explain Things to Me” one morning at her kitchen table, in the hours before her houseguest, feminist writer and scholar Marina Sitrin, woke up. Solnit has said that by the time she finally set the words down on the page, the piece had long been “restless for the racetrack”—she knew that the young girls and women in her life desperately needed to know that when men explained things to them, belitted them or doubted them, it wasn’t because of their own “secret failings,” but a larger systematic problem.
When Solnit read from her essay Thursday night, using a comically self-assured baritone to voice the now-iconic mansplainer, the crowd laughed along easily. It’s easier now, perhaps, to laugh at mansplainers, to tell them, "Actually, I wrote that book," and watch their faces go “ashen,” as this particular man’s did. Thanks to Solnit, women can more readily recognize that the problem is patriarchy.
But that doesn’t makes its effects any less sinister.
Men explain things to women, Solnit argues, because of the fundamental belief that women lack credibility, a “basic survival tool.” In her essay, Solnit shares an unforgettable anecdote: A man tells her with a chuckle about his nextdoor neighbor, who one night ran naked from her house, screaming that her husband was trying to kill her. The man told Solnit it had struck him as funny because he knew there was no way what she said was true—the naked woman’s husband was an upstanding member of the middle class.
The #MeToo movement has made the link between credibility and survival all the more obvious, especially after news emerged in November that Harvey Weinstein had hired a fleet of private investigators and ex-Mossad agents, which the The New Yorker called his “army of spies,” to pursue the women who’d accused him of sexual assault. Weinstein had also fostered relationships with journalists to leak information to him and take hits at the women’s reputations. After all, who would believe those women over a powerful white movie mogul?
“Five years ago, every act of violence against women got treated as an isolated incident,” Solnit said Thursday night. “There was this will not to connect the dots, and this will not to treat it as a social problem … so we can all just move along.”
The #MeToo movement has helped put an end to that, Solnit suggested. But by itself, it isn’t a solution to our culture’s deep-seated problems with gendered violence. It may be the very first step. “We’ve been through this wave of diagnosis—pushing aside the excuses, pulling things out of hiding and diagnosing,” Solnit said.
At its core, #MeToo is about getting men to keep quiet for long enough that women can speak without being interrupted or talked over, without being seen as liars or deceivers. “Men Explain Things to Me” still reminds women that they have a right to that speech.
“Women are getting men to shut up by waving this book at them since it came out,” Solnit said of the bright blue book containing the titular essay. “It has a weapon-like quality.”
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