By Beth U
In 2008, Rebecca Solnit published an article in the LA Times entitled “Men Explain Things to Me.” In it, Solnit describes a conversation she had with a stranger at a party. During their brief chat, the man tells her about book that, in fact, Solnit herself wrote. When she finally gets through to him that she, indeed, wrote the book, he is momentarily stunned, then continues to explain her own book to her. Solnit writes:
Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I mean. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world.
Solnit suggests that men explaining things to women in this way can make it difficult for women to speak up, and if speaking up, to be heard. “It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”
People may disagree with Solnit’s “we,” which is part of her polemic style. But what interests me more is what happens to narratives in which women’s lives, rights, bodies, and integrity are at stake. It is not just a conversation at a party, or whether individual people feel they have experienced these “roles,” but about women’s voices in the public sphere, and those of all people who have less social power.
Solnit republished Men Explain Things to Me as an essay in a book of the same name. In an addendum, she discusses how her LA Times essay went viral. Responses included the invention (unclear by whom) of the now popular term “mansplaining.” Although Solnit herself did not coin this term, her essay resonated with enough people that the term popularized. A portmanteau of the words ‘man’ and ‘explaining’ it describes when a man assumes that a woman knows less than he does based on her gender and thus speaks over her.
Intersectionality tells us that we can’t extract gender from other social variables. Some critics deem the term “mansplaining” essentialist: women are not a uniform or unified “category” but demonstrate as much complexity as any other socially invented group of people. For example, perhaps women “mansplain” to other women, just as embodied experiences of “man” or “woman” are not universal. While transwomen are women, their experiences may differ from ciswomen. There is an assumed gender binary here that ignores/displaces the rich variety of gendered experience and their intersection with other social realities such as race and class. Additionally, men don’t “talk over” women exclusively, but potentially over anyone who has less social power or voice, or is perceived to.
The term mansplaining could and might more aptly be: whitesplaining, cisgendersplaining, or hetereosplaining. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s neologism kyriarchy might better explain the intricate mechanism of mansplaining. Fiorenza developed this term to challenge that patriarchy results in the domination of all men over all women in equal terms. Rather, a person may be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others.
Let’s be clear, Solnit did not write an essay about the term mansplaining. She wrote an essay about her personal experience with men who explain things to her. Yet, we can see the effect of kyriarchy in Solnit’s writing about patriarchy and misogyny: Solnit speaks from her position as a white cisgender woman (and one at a fancy house party) although she does not discuss class or race. We are to assume her race, and that of the man over-speaking her, as white. Even as she writes about a white man’s gender privilege, she fails to mention either race or class or her own position as a cisgender woman. What is unnamed is s “invisible” and thus assumed white and (upper) middle class (among other things).
Yet, what Solnit shares about gender and language is critical even as it intersects with other variables. I appreciate Solnit because she shares a personal (and snarky) story to illustrate a gendered trend, a social norm: men are taught to speak over women, especially privileged white men. Men are taught that what they say, no matter what they say, is important. Men are taught to expect to be heard. Women are taught to listen, to encourage, and to accept authority. These characteristics are not innate but socialized – taught via omnipotent and thus largely invisible social norms and throughout our lifetimes. Deviation from social norms can result in punishment or shame: outspoken women lack sympathy, demure men are sissies. For people of color, deviation (or compliance for that matter) carries a harsher punishment and perpetuates ongoing stigma with long lasting consequences.
I have seen this gendered trend time and time again in the college classroom. Often, women students defer to their classmates and qualify statements with “I don’t know if this is right, but.” Often, men students speak up and out of turn, speak over other students and me, until I teach/train/force them not to. In fact, topics can be so gendered that some people refuse to discuss them. I have heard male undergraduate students express reluctance to discuss certain topics (motherhood or queerness for example) because to do so would be “gay” or a reveal them a “pussy” (their words)—pussy meaning feminine and thus weak, of course, although as far as I can tell, pussies are the strongest things around, if the least protected.
Gendered trends, however, make people nervous because, by and far, we see gender as inherent and “natural,” not constructed and thus changeable. If we can change gender and our understandings/experiences of it, we are responsible for gender-related injustices. In addition, it is easy to see loopholes and contradictions that can disprove a gendered trend. This is because social norms reflect the distribution of social power. Not all men have power, and not all women are equally powerless, so to speak. It is difficult to challenge the assumed biology of gender and its conflation with sex while simultaneously recognizing the impact of gender socialization and the legacies of gender discrimination on our everyday lives. Yet this is exactly what we need to do.
Furthermore, to put a name to the fact that outspoken women are far less common than demurring ones is not to say that vocal women do not exist. They always have. Women are brilliant, articulate and powerful. They are scholars and public speakers and activists. They express power, knowledge and sophistication in any number of ways. Every day women take stands both public and private. Despite social sanction, women did not and do not passively accept what is presented to them.
Many women were and are leaders of labor movements and continue to fight for equal wages, legislative representation, and protection from violence to name a few injustices. The fact that women and trans involvement in struggles for equality is lesser known indicates that mainstream history marginalizes these VOICES and experiences. In fact, mainstream historical interpretations usually mansplain away women’s political participation, along with everyone else who is not white and male and straight.
Mansplaining is also a matter of what a woman attempts to vocalize. As Solnit clearly explains, even when vocal about a subject to which she has extensive knowledge–in this case the photographer Eadweard Muybridge–the man’s assumed knowledge trumps hers. He dismisses, he corrects. Perhaps if Solnit were to talk about relationships, children, fashion or (cattily) other women, then she could be an expert on these non-threatening “girly” topics–at least this is what the vast majority of mainstream media teaches us. Of course there is nothing wrong with these topics, but they are socially accepted arenas of gendered interest.
Social norms need not prevent women from speaking up, and women can employ the power of voice. However, for many this a learned process that is not taught institutionally—through family structures, schooling, or professionalization. Women can (learn to) interrupt and to insist on their own opinions and expertise. However, even if/when women, people of color, poor people, and others with less social power express themselves, legislative and juridical apparatuses, among other bureaucratic measures, often erase the legitimacy of their words, or subject them to a “higher authority” for validation.
We need only to consider our current political administration, the accepted sexual predatory behavior of our president, of Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby and countless other men in this contemporary moment. Mansplaining is not only a matter of personal expression or claiming voice, but the structures that erase or give authority to knowledge and experiences. Which brings us back to Solnit’s central point: language is about speaking up; it is also about being heard. It is about listening – not deciding for another person what is real, which is exactly what happens when politicians make sweeping statements defining what is “legitimate” rape and what is not, for example. It is about what experiences we give weight and credibility, about how words take up space both public and private. It is about voicing what you know about yourself and your experiences in the world: “At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible” – to ourselves and for others. But it is also about accountability to women’s words and thus their experiences, and our continued fight against impunity for those who violate women’s lives.