His face goes ashen…
Man reading a letter to a woman, Pieter de Hoogh, 1674-1676
From New Republic:
The opening scene of Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me” is, by now, a familiar one, not only because it’s repeated so often whenever Solnit is written about, but because it describes a type of encounter that has become, for most women, routine. At a party, a bloviating man approaches Solnit and, upon learning that she just wrote a book about early film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, begins to lecture her on a “very important Muybridge book.” While ostensibly educating her, he assumes “that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth,” she writes, “eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.” The book he’s going on about is Solnit’s own. When this fact finally dawns on him, his face goes “ashen.”
Female readers who endured a lifetime of being similarly diminished, both in and out of academia, online and in person, in their homes and in their workplaces, greeted “Men Explain Things to Me,” and Solnit’s essay collection of the same title, with a mixture of gratitude and glee. Lots of women have extensive knowledge on various topics, but few have written the books to prove it; here, at last, the offending man received and actually registered correction. The moment wasn’t simply resonant—it generated a host of new ways to describe sexism. The term “mansplaining”—a man talking down to a woman about a subject she knows as well as or better than he does—made its first known appearance on a LiveJournal blog one month after Solnit published her piece, and has passed into common use, along with “manspreading”—sitting with knees wide apart on a crowded subway—and other under-examined “man-” behaviors.
Despite her canny take on gender dynamics, Solnit did not exactly set out to become a prominent feminist figure. The author of 20 books and hundreds of essays, she didn’t make her name from years of blogging or op-eds on “women’s issues,” which is partly why her writing retains a mercifully non-pundit-like quality. One year she releases a collection of environmentalist essays and the next, a biography of a nineteenth-century photographer. Aside from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, it’s difficult to think of a living writer who is quite so adored for her advocacy of women’s rights without having fashioned an entire career around it. Solnit was initially “ambivalent” about the coinage “mansplaining,” she told The Guardian, because she worried “about typecasting men with the term.” It was only after a female student convinced her “how much we needed this word, how this word let us describe an experience every woman has but we didn’t have language for” that she embraced it.
The Mother of All Questions, Solnit’s newest collection of essays, reads like a second offering to the passionate contingent of female readers she never expected to have.