Men Explain Things to Me

by Rebecca Solnit

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Last Updated on January 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014

The Silencing of Female Voices

Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me” provides a powerful antidote to the global issue of female silencing and assumptions of male superiority. Solnit provides both personal and global examples of female silencing throughout the entirety of her essay, beginning with her opening scene of a man at a party condescendingly asking, “in the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice,” about the books Solnit has published. Despite the extensive expertise a woman may possess, Solnit argues that most women have been conditioned toward a life of self-doubt:

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 it is not their world.

Solnit argues that our world operates on a false hierarchy—that the male voice always reigns supreme, that it possesses an unshakeable knowledge of the world, while the female voice is always up for debate, always questionable, always weak.

To prove the global consequences of female silencing, Solnit provides a poignant and dangerous example in the form of the male-dominated American government’s inability “to hear Coleen Rowley, the FBI woman who issued those early warnings about al-Qaeda.” She argues that much of the “trajectory of American politics since 2001” was informed by this male assumption that the instinct, knowledge, and tact of a woman is inherently wrong and untrustworthy.

Despite her frequent examples of female silencing, it becomes clear that Solnit’s essay is meant to directly combat a world that wishes for her, and for women everywhere, to remain on the sidelines of social, political, and economic discourse. Solnit follows each example of silencing with a counterargument, actively demonstrating her refusal to be ignored. Following the publication of her book River of Shadows, “A British academic wrote in the London Review of Books with all kinds of nitpicking corrections and complaints . . . He carped, for example, that to aggrandize Muybridge’s standing [Solnit] left out technological predecessors like Henry R. Heyl.” Solnit provides a direct rebuttal: “He’d apparently not read the book all the way to page 202 or checked the index, since Heyl was there.” Her essay is a powerful act of reclaiming her own voice.

Violence Against Women and Gender Inequality

Solnit actively integrates real-world examples of violence against women to prove the dramatic consequences of privileging a male voice over a female one. Beyond her own personal experiences of gender inequality, Solnit turns to the political:

More extreme versions of our situation exist in, for example, those Middle Eastern countries where women’s testimony has no legal standing; so that a woman can’t testify that she was raped without a male witness to counter the male rapist. Which there rarely is.

Her example effectively demonstrates a not uncommon underlying assumption about women: that they are less-than and that they cannot and should not have control over their own bodies. While she acknowledges that this example is extreme, Solnit includes it to emphasize that when we silence a woman’s voice, we silence her self, her soul, in its entirety.

This disrespect of the female voice and a dismissal of the concerns a woman has over her own safety happens in the United States, too. Solnit writes that “Even getting a restraining order—a fairly new legal tool—requires acquiring the credibility to convince the courts that some guy is a menace and then getting the cops to enforce it. Restraining orders often don’t work anyway.” These legal hoops through which a woman must jump, simply to remain unharmed, tell us she cannot be trusted with judging the conditions of her own safety. Solnit provides the absolutely devastating example of “Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach, age 20,” who “was apparently killed by her higher-ranking colleague last winter while she was waiting to testify that he raped her.” Solnit continues: “The burned remains of her pregnant body were found in the fire pit in his backyard in December.”

Self-Confidence and Credibility

Solnit argues that “Credibility is a basic survival tool.” In the face of constant silencing, a woman must frequently prove that her voice and opinions are supported by research and facts. It is evident that credibility is a tool Solnit frequently employs as she asserts her own voice in the male-dominated world of academia. Solnit names a plethora of titles she has published in order to prove that her voice has been respected and supported in the past. From the start, we know that Solnit is a prolific writer, as she informs the host of a party she attends, when asked, “So? I hear you’ve written a couple of books” that she has written “Several, actually.” She then becomes more specific about her achievements by naming her books, the titles strategically sprinkled throughout the essay to prove various arguments: River of Shadows, Wanderlust, an essay she wrote for the Nation, to name a few.

Solnit admits that her career has been a huge advantage in terms of having her voice respected and heard. She writes,

Having public standing as a writer of history helped me stand my ground, but few women get that boost, and billions of women must be out there . . . being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives . . .

Solnit states that despite the efforts she has taken to prove her credibility and assert her voice, “Men explain things to me, still.”

Displaying confidence in the subject matter of which she speaks and sharing the accomplishments she has already made provides a successful example of a woman who has not allowed the overconfidence of men to push her to the sidelines of important conversations. Solnit writes to show women they can and should feel confident in their voices, passions, and opinions. Solnit’s writing provides a helpful model of female confidence, and she encourages other women to believe in their own credibility and demonstrate this confidence as well.

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