Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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 strengthened Solnit, but she can recall two instances when she objected to a man's behavior...
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only for them to deny that the incidents had ever taken place. For most of her life, she tells us, she would have backed down in these circumstances. Achieving success as an author has made her better able to stand up for herself. However, billions of women around the world are still being told that they do not understand their own lives and do not have ownership over their own truths. This goes far beyond men explaining things to her, Solnit admits, but that, too, is a part of men's arrogance.
Solnit then describes another episode that took place in Berlin at a dinner with Marxist writer Tariq Ali, in which another dinner guest, whom Solnit refers to as "Mr. Very Important II," attempted to contradict her in public. Solnit attributed the end of Senator McCarthy's anti-communist reign of terror in part to the women's group Women Strike for Peace; Mr. Very Important II claimed that she had her dates and the whole narrative wrong. He was so forceful that Solnit researched the matter the same day. She found that her version of events was completely correct and later wrote an essay detailing the confrontation for the Nation.Countless women of Solnit's generation and of the "up-and-coming generation that we need so badly," Solnit concludes, have been trampled by the ignorance of the "Men Who Explain Things." Women around the world have been denied access to careers, education, political involvement, and even the category of being considered human. As was the case with Women Strike for Peace, women are fighting on "two fronts": as well as championing their chosen causes with words, they are fighting as women for the right to speak at all. Solnit writes that this struggle will not end in her lifetime, but she will continue to fight.