Solnit touches on a few key themes in her collection: The issue of credibility — and society’s refusal to ascribe it to women — the silencing and “disappearing” of women as a form of violence, the relationship between sexism and classism, and language and ideas as the core of revolutions.
One thing I can’t stop thinking about is Solnit’s characterization of sexual violence as an act of entitlement or power. In her chapter “The Longest War,” Solnit argues, “It begins with this premise: I have the right to control you” (26).
Solnit mentions — among other incidents — the rapes committed by the stars of Steubenville High School’s football team in 2012 and the assault carried out in 2011 on a New York City hotel maid by the powerful head of the International Monetary Fund.
Solnit points out that many assault survivors fear the consequences of speaking out, especially if their attacker has high status. “Not uncommonly,” the author writes, “when a woman says something that impugns a man, particularly one at the heart of the status quo, especially if it has to do with sex, the response will question not just the facts of her assertion but her capacity to speak and her right to do so” (104). That seems to be the best a woman can expect; Others are unlucky enough to receive threats, suffer social or professional exclusion, and more (107-8).
When I was nineteen, I left my hometown near Boston for the Midwest, majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing at Kenyon College. Kenyon is a liberal arts school nestled in the countryside of Ohio, where I spent my days reading poetry, writing short stories, and discussing everything from politics to philosophy to sociology with my friends. It’s full of friendly students and caring professors and has a safe, small-town vibe.
Early on in my college career, I began noticing things, though — things that motivated me to volunteer as a Sexual Misconduct Advisor, working to provide a judgment-free space and support for survivors of sexual assault on campus. I found that many survivors fell under the oppression of silence that Solnit describes in her book, afraid of how speaking out would affect their day-to-day life on campus, fearing retaliation by the perpetrator (physical, financial, social, and otherwise). The small-town vibe I so loved about Kenyon often made things worse, transforming community into claustrophobia.
And, after college, back home in Boston, I found my female friends to be hyper-sensitive to their surroundings, well-educated on how to carry their house keys like weapons, and quick to ask for a companion to walk home with after dark. At the Lady Problems hackathon in Cambridge, MA, last November, my team and I took away a prize for our prototype for “Allies,” a web application to help women find peers along their route to travel safely with.
Apart from the perceptive guys on our team — my boyfriend, Jake, and my good friend, Nathan — men do not seem to think about these things. Most of them do not assume that potential violence walks alongside them on their way home after dark. That they could fall under attack doesn’t come to the forefront of their minds, as it does for many women.
So I’ve wound up asking the same question Solnit asks: Why is the unspoken burden, here, on women to make sure they don’t become the victims of violence? And why aren’t they believed when they speak up about their suffering?
It goes back to Solnit’s point about credibility as a “basic survival tool” (5). “Most women fight wars on two fronts,” Solnit writes, “one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledge to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being” (9-10).
While she’s blunt about the prevalence of gender discrimination and violence in our society, Solnit also demands that we keep hope. Cautiously optimistic, she highlights the shifts in language — the development of the term “sexual harassment” in the 1970s, for one (127) — and policy that have improved women’s standing over time. She acknowledges the generations of feminists who fought for our legal rights. She recalls #YesAllWomen, the Twitter hashtag that leapt into being in 2014, employed on the platform to share anecdotes of violence against women, and draws a parallel between social media and change-making.
In a chapter paying homage to the myth of Pandora’s Box, Solnit expands on her perception of what creates change: “What doesn’t go back in the jar or the box are ideas. And revolutions are, most of all, made up of ideas” (14).
“Men Explain Things to Me” pulls together references to Take Back the Night, Malala Yousafzai, Rachel Carson, Stephen Colbert, Occupy Wall Street, ancient Greek myths, and the fight to legalize gay marriage in the United States. It provides deep-diving interpretations of Virginia Woolf‘s writings and Ana Teresa Fernandez‘s paintings. And, above all, it’s a call to action: The fight for equality is not over. Change is possible, so let’s make it the horizon we drive towards.