Men Explain Things to Me – A Book Review

by Laura Kerrigan

I’ve heard many people in the left say that Rebecca Solnit’s recent work, Men Explain Things to Me, is too “lib” to be taken seriously in the left. Well, it seriously moved me so much that I felt it imperative to write a review for our listeners. If you listen to Season of the Bitch, then you have at least some awareness of the complicated issues that Solnit approaches her book. While she doesn’t approach the issue of misogyny and violence against women from a Marxist perspective, maybe we don’t need that right now. Maybe we just need to back away from the necessity of looking at things through a Marxist lens and take this book at face value. While it may be lib, it doesn’t make it less important and relevant to me and all of the women I know.

Betty Friedan, author of the 1963 best-selling book The Feminine Mystique writes about “the problem that has no name.” She was speaking about the unhappiness of women in the home (to be clear – this issue affected a specific class and race of women). Her book is noted as a spark for the second wave of feminism. In a less Friedanian sense, Rebecca Solnit approaches a different problem with no name: the misogyny present or inherent in everyday conversation. Solnit takes this issue one step further, and links it to the absurd amount of violence against women in the United States. For her, these issues go hand in hand.

In her devastating chapter, “The Longest War,” Solnit outlines the prevalence of rape and rape culture within the United States (and at times throughout the world). In addition to upsetting statistics about the prevalence of rape and domestic violence, another theme emerges: the societal drain on women. Solnit describes a story where students in a college classroom were asked what they do to stay safe from rape. “The young women described the intricate ways they stayed alert, limited their access to the world, took precautions, and essentially thought about rape all the time (while the young men in the class gaped in astonishment).” The extent to which women think about staying safe can really create a drain on our energy – I couldn’t help but wonder how much more shit women could get done if we weren’t worried about these things on a near constant basis. 

I want to preface any of my critiques with the fact that this whole book is a must read. That being said, I still have some qualms with certain aspects of Solnit’s writing. On page 45, she writes:

The United States has a hundred million flaws, but I am proud that the policed believed this woman [who accused the head of the IMF of sexual assault] and that she will have her day in court. I am gratified this time not to be in a country that has decided that the career of a powerful man or the fate of an international institution matters more than this woman and her rights and well-being. This is what we mean by democracy: that everyone has a voice, that no one gets away with things just because of their wealth, power, race, or gender.

There is a whole lot to deconstruct in this short paragraph, and I think we need to take it piece by piece. This one set of police believed this one woman in this one case. The fact that Solnit picked up on this story is because this is not the norm in the United States. Instead, women all over the country deal with internalized rape culture, which Solnit is aware of, but is leaving out of this specific analysis (which I find intriguing). Our country, in fact, has always and will always (until patriarchal capitalism is dismantled) protect the rich men at the expense of others. The icing on the cake for me is this last sentence, where Solnit somehow places herself within the context of other Americans when she uses the term, “we.” What is actually meant by democracy in the United States is that corporate power means more than a person’s vote – and in 2011, this would have still been the case. If you tuck this tidbit inside your chapter of the IMF, you’d think it would have more of a corporate awareness within US democracy. That being said, explaining the intricacies of the IMF’s role throughout the world is an intense task for a short essay. With this piece, we still see a strong introductory explainer of the IMF and US global hegemony.

In the chapter titled, “Grandmother Spider,” Solnit eloquently layers a silent oppression facing almost all women. It’s the erasure of womanhood, the erasure of a matriarchal lineage, erasure of women from history and thereby society. It’s a silent enclosure, which pushes women to stay home after dark for fear of sexual assault or rape. Solnit layers together patriarchal lineages, Argentinian violence (los desaparecidos), rape culture, and art history to weave a “spider web” of intricacy that helps illustrate the extreme nuance that must be taken to truly understand the structural oppression that women face. This is one of her stronger pieces in the book, and it could stand on its own.

Rebecca Solnit honors a matriarchal lineage of women authors (specifically Virginia Woolf in “Woolf’s Darkness.” In this chapter, Solnit describes how liberating Woolf’s writing was, particularly on an individual level. She writes, “[Woolf’s] demands for liberation for women were not merely so that they could do some of the institutional things that men did, but to have full freedom to roam, geographically and imaginatively.” Amplifying the writing of Woolf and Sontag, Solnit brilliantly weaves her own voice with the voices of women who have written on these topics before.

Solnit illustrates the multifaceted ways in which women struggle to have their voices heard and taken seriously. She uses concrete examples of historical events, as well as anecdotal stories to make her points come to life. She forces the reader to take seriously (at least I would sure as hell hope they would) the issues that she writes about throughout Men Explain Things to Me. I believe this is a MUST READ for the left. Looking at this from the lens of our podcast and as a woman in the DSA – these issues are not only on the right, these issues affect women and femmes all across the political spectrum, and it’s our duty to demand liberation for women across all forms of structural oppression.