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February 2016

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Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Written by , Posted in Feminism, Reviews

Five Stars

menexplain

This collection of essays contains the type of work I dream of doing. The writing is fantastic, and every sentence, every word serves a purpose. It is descriptive but not flowery; the author makes her case in each essay clearly and convincingly, yet still manages to challenge the reader.

You may be familiar with the titular essay in Rebecca Solnit’s collection “Men Explain Things to Me.” The essay was born from an experience she had at a party, where someone introduced her to a man by sharing, in part, that Ms. Solnit had just written a book on topic X. Before letting Ms. Solnit speak, the man started going on and on about a book Ms. Solnit just had to read on topic X. It took her three times to get him to understand that she wrote the book he was talking about.

If you are a woman, you’ve likely had a similar experience (although maybe not so dramatically) and can pull up examples quickly. The most immediate one for me came just a few months ago. Part of my job is planning for mass fatality incidents. I started out knowing next to nothing about it; over the past five year, however, I’ve been invited to speak on the topic at conferences, and even published a small article on it. What I’m saying is, I know more about it than your average bear. But upon meeting Dude A (slightly older white guy in a somewhat similar field), when it was shared with him that I do this work, he asked if I was familiar with DMORT. That’s sort of like asking an oncologist if she is familiar with chemotherapy. Yes, dude, I’m well aware. But thanks for assuming I’m not…

This 15-page essay takes the reader from the seemingly innocuous, eye-rolling scenario presented above and carefully walks us through the slippery slope that leads to women not being taken seriously in other realms. While being underestimated at a cocktail party is annoying, being underestimated when reporting domestic violence to the police is quite another. The running theme across the nine essays in this collection is one of voice, and credibility. Ms. Skolnit explores who we pay attention to, and who we believe.

She doesn’t discuss it, but many of her essays brought to mind the Bill Cosby case. One woman isn’t credible to the world; she is always assumed to be lying; the accused always assumed to be telling the truth. Not just in a court of law, but in discussions over dinner or at the gym. The man is assumed to be telling the truth, and only when literally dozens of women tell the same story does society even begin to consider that perhaps they are the ones who are telling the truth.

My favorite essay is her exploration of marriage equality. Her central thesis is that same-sex marriage is a threat: a threat to the power imbalance that has ruled marriage for centuries. No wonder so many people who benefit from the default model of man as head of household are scared of marriage equality; those relationships offer from the start opportunities for an equitable role for each spouse. Ms. Solnit makes this argument much more eloquently than I am, and it’s a really interesting take that I hadn’t fully considered.

I love that this collection got my mind racing. It’s reminded me that I don’t just want to finish my book or throw together hastily written blog posts; I want to really explore the issues that are relevant to me in a deeper, meaningful way. I’ve already ordered two of Ms. Solnit’s books and I cannot wait to dive into them, pen in hand, furiously scribbling marginalia throughout.

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