Men Explain Things to Me Summary
Rebecca Solnit begins her essay by describing her encounter with a man she refers to as "Mr. Very Important" at his sumptuous Aspen lodge. He asks her about her books but interrupts her when she mentions her latest work on the photographic pioneer Edward Muybridge. He arrogantly asks her if she is aware of another "important" book on the subject recently published. It is only after several attempts that her friend Sallie is able to tell him that it is Solnit's book that he is referring to. He momentarily turns "ashen" but then continues without acknowledging his error. The episode delights Solnit, who writes that it is seldom that forces that are so hard to identify become so absurdly visible. However, she also remembers that she actually harbored a little doubt, wondering briefly if she had missed this so-called important book. She feels called upon to interject that she has known many "lovely," supportive men—but "Still, there are these other men, too."
The author recounts how in a letter to the New York Times, a reader discounted Muybridge's achievements. His letter revealed a total ignorance of the subject. Likewise, a British academic took issue with her in a letter to the London Review of Books. He not only exhibited his lack of knowledge of the subject, he also accused her of not giving credit to an earlier figure, Henry R. Heyl. Solnit had actually made mention of Heyl, although his contribution to photographic technology was minor.
Men like this also disparage other men's work, she continues, and people of both genders appear in public spouting dubious claims. However, only men exhibit such ignorance with total confidence. Every woman knows what Solnit is talking about here, Solnit writes. This phenomenon silences and isolates women just as street harassment does. She herself is not entirely free of self-doubt and a tendency to remain silent. She names Colleen Rowley from the FBI, whose early warnings about al-Qaeda went unheeded. The Bush administration was impervious to anything that contradicted its narrative about WMDs in Iraq. The arrogance of men causes even successful female authors like herself to doubt themselves. Some self-doubt can be positive, but not when it paralyzes women.
In some Middle Eastern countries, Solnit writes, women's testimony about being raped is not legally admissible. Turning to the US, she recounts the horrific story of a naked woman fleeing into the street, claiming that her husband was trying to kill her. Even in such an extreme case, the woman had no credibility at all to the man who witnessed the incident, because she and her husband were "respectable middle-class people." The man telling the story concludes that the woman was simply crazy. Credibility can be essential to one's survival, Solnit writes. Credibility is required to secure restraining orders, which "often don't work anyway." Violence silences women and denies them credibility; meanwhile, three women are killed by their husbands or ex-husbands in the US every day. Making women credible has been at the heart of feminists' struggle to have different forms of rape and domestic violence legally recognized as crimes. It was when these acts began to be taken seriously that women became human, Solnit says. She brings up the murder of Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach by her superior to show that harassment in the workplace can be lethal.
Denying that a woman knows what she is talking about "perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light." The publication of her book Wanderlust
(The entire section is 900 words.)