Men Explain Things to Me is a series of essays written by Rebecca Solnit, an American writer and activist. I read the updated version that was released in 2015 (the original was published in 2014). The new version contains two additional essays; Cassandra Among the Creeps and #YesAllWomen: Feminists Rewrite the Story. Despite the amusing title, this book is not just about men explaining things to women. The book is a series of essays by Solnit that cover a number of topics pertaining to feminism, with Men Explain Things to Me being the first essay in the book.
The opening essay – Men Explain Things to Me – begins by describing an interaction Solnit had with a man who she encountered at a party. During the conversation Solnit mentioned a book she had published. The man proceeded to inform her that a very important book on the same topic was published at the same time, and then went on to explain it to her. As Solnit and a friend were listening, they realized he was talking about her book. After repeated attempts to draw his attention to this, Solnit’s friend was finally able to interject that he was actually talking about Solnit’s book. They then found out that he hadn’t actually read Solnit’s book, which he was explaining to her; he just read a review of it in the New York Times. In a postscript to the essay, Solnit describes how the original publication of this essay struck a chord with many women and a nerve with some men. As a result of the dialogue that ensued, Solnit has been credited with inspiring the term mansplaining, although she never uses this term in the essay.
From here Solnit dives into a number of dark and serious issues, such as gender inequality, domestic violence, workplace harassment, and rape. Solnit describes the endemic silencing of women, whether through discrediting, interrupting or even – in its most extreme form – murder. Near the end of the book she discusses the #YesAllWomen movement, and counters the arguments presented by those who responded with, “Not all men.” Solnit is clear that, yes, it is true that not all men engage in these behaviours. However, merely not engaging in these acts is not enough. As one woman said to her, “What do they want – a cookie for not hitting, raping, or threatening women?” (p. 125). Furthermore, a man who discredits women because he feels he doesn’t engage in misogyny or violence against women (bystander males) completely misses the point of the movement. The point isn’t that all men are like this; it’s that all women live in fear of those who are. Solnit also points out that men play an important role in the feminist movement.
“Like racism, misogyny can never be adequately addressed by its victims alone. The men who get it also understand that feminism is not a scheme to deprive men but a campaign to liberate us all” (p. 153).
Solnit manages to end on a positive note. While some of the stories and statistics may make the present and future seem bleak, Solnit points out that feminism will indeed take time. But these ideas and values are out of Pandora’s box, and we’ve made significant strides in the last few decades. Solnit argues that while policies may change over time, the notion that women have rights is now a very difficult idea to abolish.
“We have so much further to go, but looking back at how far we’ve come can be encouraging. Domestic violence was mostly invisible and unpunished until a heroic effort by feminists to out it and crack down on it a few decades ago. Though it now generates a significant percentage of calls to the police, enforcement has been crummy in most places– but the idea that a husband has a right to beat his wife and that it’s a private matter are not returning anytime soon.” (p. 144)
At just 130 pages, Men Explain Things to Me is a quick read that weaves together statistics, current events, history, feminist literature, and personal anecdotes. It’s simply written compared to some other books I’ve read. While some academics may see this as a drawback, I think it’s positive because the clarity and simplicity of Solnit’s writing style allows for her message to come across clearly to a wide audience. You don’t have to be an academic to appreciate this book.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I do have a few critiques. While this may be just a matter of writing style, I found the lack of citations for specific statistics frustrating. This partially bothered me because as a researcher I like to be able to appraise the credibility of a source, but also because I think it would have strengthened some of Solnit’s points.
The flow between the different chapters was sometimes disrupted. Namely, partway through the book there is an essay entitled Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable that discusses Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag who were both notable writers and have been influential within the realm of feminism. This essay felt a little out of place given the writing style of the other essays, and admittedly I skimmed through it rather quickly. I also found there was some mild repetition between some of the chapters, although this is likely inevitable when presenting a collection of individual essays on related topics. I imagine the reader would be less likely to notice this if they took more than a 24-hour period to read the book. (I have a tendency to binge on both books and Netflix).
While I found this book highly relatable, it is also important to note that this is based on my experience as a white, heterosexual, cis woman who is well educated. I’m not sure this depiction of feminism and the lived experience of women would necessarily reflect the experiences of all women; for example, transgender women, women with disabilities, and women of colour. It is also pretty focused on the Western world, although some stories from other countries (e.g. India) are discussed. While I imagine many of the major themes would likely resonate with most women, readers should continue their feminism literary journey by reading books authored by women from a wide variety of different perspectives.
Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me is one of the more accessible books on feminism that I’ve read. I highly recommend this book – particularly to men – as an introduction to feminism and why we still need it.