I have been seeing the word around a lot more recently, so I guess it has Dictionary:
Below this article is a copy of the original article in which Solnit coined the now famous term.
1. to delighting in condescending, inaccurate explanations delivered with rock solid confidence of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation2. To explain in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening. The mansplainer is often shocked and hurt when their mansplanation is not taken as absolute fact, criticized or even rejected altogether.
Named for a behavior commonly exhibited by male newbies on internet forums frequented primarily by women. Often leads to a flounce. Either sex can be guilty of mansplaining.
Author Rebecca Solnit admits that even penning a book titled 'Men Explain Things to Me' doesn't stop some men
theguardian.com, Friday 6 June 2014
Rebecca Solnit is smarter than you, and she's not sorry about it. (David Levene)
Rebecca Solnit is a prolific author (she's working now on her sixteenth and seventeenth books), historian, activist and a contributing editor to Harper's. Her most recent book, Men Explain Things to Me, is a collection of Solnit's essays, including the title piece that launched a million memes. Solnit, on the road in Seattle, took some time to explain "mansplaining", writing, and how the post-Isla Vista misogyny conversation is a little like climate denialism.
JESSICA VALENTI: How do you feel about being considered the creator of the concept of "mansplaining"? Your now-famous essay – which really gave women language to talk about the condescending interactions they've had with men – certainly gave birth to the term, but you write in the book that you didn't actually make up the word.
REBECCA SOLNIT: A really smart young woman changed my mind about it. I used to be ambivalent, worrying primarily about typecasting men with the term. (I have spent most of my life tiptoeing around the delicate sensibilities of men, though of course the book Men Explain Things to Me is what happens when I set that exhausting, doomed project aside.) Then in March a PhD candidate said to me, No, you need to look at how much we needed this word, how this word let us describe an experience every woman has but we didn't have language for.
And that's something I'm really interested in: naming experience and how what has no name cannot be acknowledged or shared. Words are power. So if this word allowed us to talk about something that goes on all the time, then I'm really glad it exists and slightly amazed that not only have I contributed about a million published words to the conversation but maybe, indirectly, one new word.
Do men still explain things to you?
Do they ever! Social media are to mansplainers what dogs are to fleas, and this recent feminist conversation has brought them out in droves. I mean, guys explain ridiculous things to me like that the Louisiana Purchase gave the United States a Pacific Coast. But more than anything since I wrote Men Explain Things to Me, they've explained women's experience to me and other women. With this explosive new conversation since the Isla Vista murders, there's been a dramatic uptick in guys mansplaining feminism and women's experience or just denying that we need feminism and we actually had those experiences.
If there were awards to be handed out, one might go to the man who told me and a woman friend that 1) women actually like all those catcalls 2) as a man who's spent time in men's-only locker rooms, he knows men don't actually speak to women that way. So we like street harassment, but that doesn't actually exist, because we're just crazy that way, us subjective, imaginative, unreliable ladies. Just ask an expert. Who is not a lady.
Speaking of Isla Vista, in the wake of that tragedy there's been a lot of talk about masculinity and toxic masculinity. The misogyny was so obvious – we have a mass murderer saying hatred for women is the reason for his attack – and yet some people still argue that these murders had nothing to do with sexism. What do you make of this?
There are a lot of ideologies out there passionately devoted to not connecting dots. There are climate denialists who think that 97% of all the scientists on earth are in conspiracy to spread lies and the weather is just fine; there are people who don't want to know that American foreign policy makes us, to say the least, a little unpopular in some places; and there are people who find that thinking about misogyny and violence against women is uncomfortable and think that they have a God-given or Constitutional right to eternal comfortableness, as far as I can tell.
Right now I think that a lot of people get it and a lot of people are getting more engaged with the ideas, with the issues, and with the urgency of the situation. I feel like I've been waiting all my life for women to be talking the way we are right now, and that many men have joined in the conversation or support from the sidelines or get it is magnificent and inspiriting. (And then, yeah, those other guys. "Not all men".)
Your essay "The Longest War" is about sexual assault and, this week, we just found out about yet another gang rape at a high school. What do you think it will take for our culture to take rape – and the notion that this is an epidemic of violence against women – seriously?
Part of what was shocking about the Steubenville sexual assault – one of the 2012 crimes that has opened up a new conversation about rape culture and sexual entitlement – is that the boys evidently thought that violating and humiliating a helpless human being made them cool. Where the hell did they get that idea from? And how do we take them out of that lad culture (in which it is indeed cool) and back to civilization where it's horrible and you'd be despised and regarded as repulsive (by enough of us if, sadly, far from all of us)? I think the culture at large is getting – post-New-Delhi and Steubenville, and post a lot of great speaking and writing by feminists like you – the idea.
But how do we undermine the lad culture, that jeering, tittering, competing, struggling realm of young men left to themselves and to the worst notions of what it means to be a man, or undermine the segregation in our culture that leaves the young to socialize as though they were another species? I mean, in some small and rural places and other cultures, teenage is not a distinct ethnicity or caste or pariah group, and teenagers are not left largely to their own devices.
Too, I think we need to make blatant misogyny widely regarded as gross and despicable and ignorant the way we have racism, and this time that we means men. And a lot of men are, as never before, stepping up. Only men can dissuade men from a misogyny that discounts a woman's right to speak, let alone what she says. The sexual assault that just happened in Tennessee: this time the authorities are responding fairly appropriately and a local male columnist wrote a column about it – a tough, clear, no-excuses for assault analysis that any feminist could love.
Finally, I think feminism has made astonishing progress over the past 50 years, so I think both that it's going to take a long time and we're well on our way.
What are your thoughts about online harassment – specifically the online harassment of outspoken women? I used to to think of just abandoning the Internet, but it's as much a public space as the street these days... there's no avoiding it and it's my space too!
There are a lot of ways the Internet needs to be democratized and made into a public commons: when it comes to protecting our privacy and not monetizing our data for advertisers or sharing it with the NSA; and not letting advertising drive what everyone does and sees and makes; as well as not letting haters try to scare women into silence or make their lives miserable. The whole raison d'être needs to be reinvented, and I'd be all for not nationalizing but some form of internationalizing (or regulating for the public good) some of the more universally used sites (Siva Vaidhyanathan has a very good book about doing that with Google's ubiquitous search engine).
My friend Astra Taylor points out in her new book, The People's Platform, "Those posting with female usernames, researchers were shocked to discover, received 25 times as many malicious messages as those whose designations were masculine or ambiguous." Way too many sites tolerate, maybe even feed, really vile forms of misogyny – from Twitter to a lot of supposedly progressive news sites – because it's all about getting the clicks or traffic that convince advertisers to give them money. Hate is profitable. And human beings are chameleons; I think that some of these sites, groups, spaces, threads, don't just give misogyny an outlet; they breed and feed and cultivate misogyny.
Two things, though: men intent on silencing women like you truly believe that you are a threat. They believe your voice matters, that you're part of changing the world, and they don't want it changed that way. So there's a weird kind of validation in it, but one I'm sure you and Mary Beard and the rest of the women under attack could live without.
The other thing is: these haters seem to be pretty irony-deficient. Helen Lewis created Lewis's Law on Twitter in 2012: "Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism." You go to #YesAllWomen on Twitter and see so many guys now showing up to mock, sneer, harass, and threaten, to just try to piss on the party, and you realize they have no idea they're demonstrating why we need feminism. We need it because some men hate women; want to violate and silence and annihilate us; can't stand us telling our truths; don't think we have any rights; think they're more important and sole holders of the truth. And they are those men. It's a parade of excellent specimens. Unfortunately.
If you could explain one thing to one man, what and who would it be?
My beloved has, with time and patience and a lot of going over the same ground again and again and some digging-in of heels, come to accept that I really need two cups of tea in the morning (and one won't do). So I've already succeeded hugely on that front.
Jessica Valenti is a daily columnist for the Guardian US. She is the author of four books on feminism, politics and culture, and founder of Feministing.com. A frequent speaker, Jessica currently serves on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America. You can find her on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook.
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Facts Didn't Get in Their Way
I still don't know why Sallie and I bothered to go to that party in the forest slope above Aspen. The people were all older than us and dull in a distinguished way, old enough that we, at forty-ish, passed as the occasion's young ladies. The house was great -- if you like Ralph Lauren-style chalets -- a rugged luxury cabin at 9,000 feet complete with elk antlers, lots of kilims, and a wood-burning stove. We were preparing to leave, when our host said, "No, stay a little longer so I can talk to you." He was an imposing man who'd made a lot of money.
He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his authentically grainy wood table and said to me, "So? I hear you've written a couple of books."
I replied, "Several, actually."
He said, in the way you encourage your friend's seven-year-old to describe flute practice, "And what are they about?"
They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.
He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?"
So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I'd somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book -- with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.
Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said -- like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr. Pelen's class on Chaucer -- "gladly would he learn and gladly teach." Still, there are these other men, too. So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, "That's her book." Or tried to interrupt him anyway.
But he just continued on his way. She had to say, "That's her book" three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless -- for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing, and we've never really stopped.
I like incidents of that sort, when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that's eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet.
When River of Shadows came out, some pedant wrote a snarky letter to the New York Times explaining that, though Muybridge had made improvements in camera technology, he had not made any breakthroughs in photographic chemistry. The guy had no idea what he was talking about. Both Philip Prodger, in his wonderful book on Muybridge, and I had actually researched the subject and made it clear that Muybridge had done something obscure but powerful to the wet-plate technology of the time to speed it up amazingly, but letters to the editor don't get fact-checked. And perhaps because the book was about the virile subjects of cinema and technology, the Men Who Knew came out of the woodwork.
A British academic wrote in to the London Review of Books with all kinds of nitpicking corrections and complaints, all of them from outer space. He carped, for example, that to aggrandize Muybridge's standing I left out technological predecessors like Henry R. Heyl. He'd apparently not read the book all the way to page 202 or checked the index, since Heyl was there (though his contribution was just not very significant). Surely one of these men has died of embarrassment, but not nearly publicly enough.
The Slippery Slope of Silencings
Yes, guys like this pick on other men's books too, and people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men.
Every woman knows what I'm talking about. 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 this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence.
I wouldn't be surprised if part of the trajectory of American politics since 2001 was shaped by, say, the inability to hear Coleen Rowley, the FBI woman who issued those early warnings about al-Qaeda, and it was certainly shaped by a Bush administration to which you couldn't tell anything, including that Iraq had no links to al-Qaeda and no WMDs, or that the war was not going to be a "cakewalk." (Even male experts couldn't penetrate the fortress of their smugness.)
Arrogance might have had something to do with the war, but this syndrome is a war that nearly every woman faces every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence, one from which a fairly nice career as a writer (with a lot of research and facts correctly deployed) has not entirely freed me. After all, there was a moment there when I was willing to let Mr. Important and his overweening confidence bowl over my more shaky certainty.
Don't forget that I've had a lot more confirmation of my right to think and speak than most women, and I've learned that a certain amount of self-doubt is a good tool for correcting, understanding, listening, and progressing -- though too much is paralyzing and total self-confidence produces arrogant idiots, like the ones who have governed us since 2001. There's a happy medium between these poles to which the genders have been pushed, a warm equatorial belt of give and take where we should all meet.
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.
Credibility is a basic survival tool. When I was very young and just beginning to get what feminism was about and why it was necessary, I had a boyfriend whose uncle was a nuclear physicist. One Christmas, he was telling -- as though it were a light and amusing subject -- how a neighbor's wife in his suburban bomb-making community had come running out of her house naked in the middle of the night screaming that her husband was trying to kill her. How, I asked, did you know that he wasn't trying to kill her? He explained, patiently, that they were respectable middle-class people. Therefore, her-husband-trying-to-kill-her was simply not a credible explanation for her fleeing the house yelling that her husband was trying to kill her. That she was crazy, on the other hand....
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. Violence is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert your right to control over their right to exist. About three women a day are murdered by spouses or ex-spouses in this country. It's one of the main causes of death in pregnant women in the U.S. At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.
I tend to believe that women acquired the status of human beings when these kinds of acts started to be taken seriously, when the big things that stop us and kill us were addressed legally from the mid-1970s on; well after, that is, my birth. And for anyone about to argue that workplace sexual intimidation isn't a life or death issue, remember that Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach, age 20, was apparently killed by her higher-ranking colleague last winter while she was waiting to testify that he raped her. The burned remains of her pregnant body were found in the fire pit in his backyard in December.
Being told that, categorically, he knows what he's talking about and she doesn't, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light. After my book Wanderlust came out in 2000, I found myself better able to resist being bullied out of my own perceptions and interpretations. On two occasions around that time, I objected to the behavior of a man, only to be told that the incidents hadn't happened at all as I said, that I was subjective, delusional, overwrought, dishonest -- in a nutshell, female.
Most of my life, I would have doubted myself and backed down. 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 on this six-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever. This goes way beyond Men Explaining Things, but it's part of the same archipelago of arrogance.
Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don't. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another forty-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I'm not holding my breath.
Women Fighting on Two Fronts
A few years after the idiot in Aspen, I was in Berlin giving a talk when the Marxist writer Tariq Ali invited me out to a dinner that included a male writer and translator and three women a little younger than me who would remain deferential and mostly silent throughout the dinner. Tariq was great. Perhaps the translator was peeved that I insisted on playing a modest role in the conversation, but when I said something about how Women Strike for Peace, the extraordinary, little-known antinuclear and antiwar group founded in 1961, helped bring down the communist-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities, HUAC, Mr. Very Important II sneered at me. HUAC, he insisted, didn't exist by the early 1960s and, anyway, no women's group played such a role in HUAC's downfall. His scorn was so withering, his confidence so aggressive, that arguing with him seemed a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult.
I think I was at nine books at that point, including one that drew from primary documents and interviews about Women Strike for Peace. But explaining men still assume I am, in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge. A Freudian would claim to know what they have and I lack, but intelligence is not situated in the crotch -- even if you can write one of Virginia Woolf's long mellifluous musical sentences about the subtle subjugation of women in the snow with your willie. Back in my hotel room, I Googled a bit and found that Eric Bentley in his definitive history of the House Committee on Un-American Activities credits Women Strike for Peace with "striking the crucial blow in the fall of HUAC's Bastille." In the early 1960s.
So I opened an essay for the Nation with this interchange, in part as a shout-out to one of the more unpleasant men who have explained things to me: Dude, if you're reading this, you're a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.
The battle with Men Who Explain Things has trampled down many women -- of my generation, of the up-and-coming generation we need so badly, here and in Pakistan and Bolivia and Java, not to speak of the countless women who came before me and were not allowed into the laboratory, or the library, or the conversation, or the revolution, or even the category called human.
After all, Women Strike for Peace was founded by women who were tired of making the coffee and doing the typing and not having any voice or decision-making role in the antinuclear movement of the 1950s. Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have certainly gotten better, but this war won't end in my lifetime. I'm still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to TomDispatch.com. She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her book A Paradise Built in Hell is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall.