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How Rebecca Solnit Became Essential Feminist Reading

The critic's new essay collection appears early in Trump's presidency, armed with purpose and reason.

Jim Herrington

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.”

Haymarket Books, 192pp., $14.95

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. This time, the book’s opening salvo confronts the way childless women are regularly called upon to justify their state, whatever they have otherwise accomplished. Solnit recalls giving a talk on Virginia Woolf: During the subsequent question-and-answer session, she’s stunned that the audience focuses not on “the magnificent questions” posed by Woolf’s novels, but on a “soporific and pointless detour” into whether Woolf “should have had children.” It’s a question Solnit herself has been asked by journalists more than once during interviews about her books—none of which center on the subjects of parenting or conception.

The piece is resonant, but it lacks the “yes!”-evoking electricity of “Men Explain Things to Me,” perhaps because the opening incident, while irritating, is not quite as ridiculous as the scenario with the pompous man—and because women, too, are guilty of the intrusive interrogations Solnit details. As the currency of “mansplaining” suggests, it’s simpler and so much more satisfying to rail against individual men than it is to challenge systems of sexism and oppression. This is the irony embedded in Solnit’s tremendous success: that a writer so dedicated to illuminating systemic injustices, whose interests are so eclectic and wide-ranging, has in some circles become synonymous with complaining about a banal male habit.

Solnit was born in 1961 to a family she identifies both as “far Left” and “violent.” She assiduously avoids many specifics, in part to protect her three siblings’ privacy, but both her writing and her interviews make it clear that her parents’ behavior was abusive. Growing up in California, she was a “scrawny, miserable, impoverished, marginalized, unpopular teenager” who left home with a GED at 17, briefly escaped to Paris, where she was sometimes too poor to eat, came home to graduate from San Francisco State University, then earned a master’s in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley. She found work as an editor and art critic; her first book, now out of print, profiled six Californian visual artists of the 1950s.

Growing up, Solnit’s “feminism waxed and waned,” she wrote in 2014. Her mother’s Ms. magazine subscription sparked her interest, and as a teen she felt anger at being harassed on the street. But her early works established landscape and wandering as her major themes. With her second book, Savage Dreams, she explored the history of Yosemite National Park, the Nevada Test Site, and America’s ongoing war on indigenous people. Her third book detailed her travels through Ireland, tracing the country’s “tides of invasion, colonization, emigration, nomadism, and tourism.”

A fourth, Wanderlust, recounted the “history of walking,” from the moment early man learned to stand on two feet, through the Romantics, to urban walkers like Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. The prose is slow and contemplative, as if to conjure a steady, ambling pace. “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned,” Solnit writes, “as though they were three characters finally in conversation together.”

The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete—for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.

Solnit’s early books garnered comparisons not with the consciousness-raising of Betty Friedan or the literary acumen of Kate Millett, but with Thoreau, the connoisseur of the American wilderness, and Benjamin, the theorist of urban wandering. At the same time, her observations were imbued with an activist spirit formed specifically in opposition to the corporatization and homogenization of the late twentieth century: Her depiction of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, one reviewer complained, was too kind: “Solnit’s role model, the writer and activist Henry David Thoreau, insisted on nonviolent civil disobedience and would never have made an exception for throwing a rock through a window.”

With A Field Guide to Getting Lost, in 2005, Solnit experimented with the textures of prose, in discursive, autobiographical writing. The collection of essays is studded with personal moments—a drug experience (“the metallic taste of poppies in various states of refinement”), a dream about her childhood bedroom—but also with polymathic curiosity: incidents in the lives of historical figures such as Yves Klein, a sketch of the tortoise’s tenuous survival. Critics termed her “rambling” and “meandering,” but usually with approval: For her ability to draw connections between far-flung subjects, The Guardian praised her as “an intellectual nomad.” She cast her 2013 book The Faraway Nearby as an “anti-memoir,” an investigation of storytelling and narrative-making. Like Maggie Nelson—another adamant non-memoirist whose idiosyncratic personal writing is similarly worshiped by young women—Solnit gains her momentum from erudition rather than confession.

“We learn from therapy to tell stories in a way that’s lonely: Look what happened to me,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. “But I think stories are inherently empathetic, that we give ourselves these things, and see each other through them.” She often takes on the persona of an engaged citizen: She wrote Hope in the Dark during George W. Bush’s first term to rally radicals who felt nothing they did made an impact on an increasingly belligerent administration. In “moments of rupture,” she affirmed in a TomDispatch post, “people find themselves members of a ‘we’ that did not until then exist…. New possibilities suddenly emerge.” Collective actions matter, even if they do not achieve their immediate goals. “Public life enlarges you,” Solnit has said. It “gives you purpose and context, saves you from drowning in the purely personal.”

It’s this tendency to look outward and analyze the structures of society that has made Solnit’s feminist writing particularly potent. A lack of civic-mindedness has lately troubled mainstream feminism, with its emphasis on leaning in to seek individual gain and validation. “Men Explain Things to Me” does the opposite: The point of the piece is not to convey how insulted Solnit personally felt, but to show that men are encouraged and empowered to talk down to women by a society that refuses the value of women’s knowledge, experience, and testimony. It encourages us to think in big categories. “Credibility is a basic survival tool,” Solnit writes. “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.” Men need not be accurate or wise in order to outweigh a woman’s perspective; they need only be men.

Illustration by Kiersten Essenpreis

The Mother of All Questions unites some of Solnit’s sharpest feminist polemics with her decades-long preoccupation with crafting narrative. The essays here, all but two of which were previously published, each deal with the subject of women in the public sphere. This is how “Escape from the Five-Million-Year-Old Suburb,” a thoroughly enjoyable trouncing of misogynist tropes in the worst evolutionary biology (e.g., cavemen hunted and provided all food while women stayed home and provided all child care), appears alongside “Giantess,” her ode to an unexpectedly progressive film from 1956. The book is divided into two sections: “Silence is Broken” and “Breaking the Story.” The first offers up what Solnit sees as evidence of major social shifts regarding women’s place in the world, while the second points to specific cultural artifacts that exemplify either sexist or feminist sentiments.

Her essay “A Short History of Silence” is her broadest contribution to feminist theory yet, sketching out a condensed history of the mainstream movement for women’s rights from the first wave onward, alternately calling upon familiar flash points (the assault of Kitty Genovese) and largely forgotten ones (a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Louisiana law allowing a husband to dispose of jointly owned property without informing or obtaining consent from his wife). The theme she weaves through these events is silence and suppression, and she arrives once again at the importance of “stories”: who, socially speaking, says what, and what that act of saying means.

In The Mother of All Questions, as in Men Explain Things to Me, Solnit examines how violence deprives women of the chance to speak, to define themselves. She frequently takes as her subjects domestic abuse, the murder of pregnant women by their current or former partners, and rape in the military and on campus. In Men, she viewed Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sexual-assault scandal as an episode in France’s fraught and unequal relationship with the people of the countries it colonized. She also used the 2012 gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi to explore the appalling regularity of rape around the world. Mother touches upon the Isla Vista murders in 2014, and the downfall of Bill Cosby’s reputation. “Violence against women is often against our voices and our stories,” Solnit writes. “It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent, to live and participate, to interpret or narrate.”

There is, however, a playful hopefulness that occasionally surfaces throughout the book. Solnit seems to have spent the past few years immersed in the feminist internet and emerged invigorated by what she found there: women sharing their histories of assault on social media, writing blog posts shaming rapists, and mocking the CDC’s sexist guidelines for alcohol consumption. She sees Aziz Ansari’s embrace of the “feminist” label, part of the wider phenomenon of vocal male feminism, as a sign of how far we’ve come. These new fixtures in the landscape of public debate speak, to her, of progress too established and widespread to be beaten back. Through viral hashtags like #YesAllWomen, the allyship of celebrity men, and women’s unwillingness to shut up about rape, the female condition, she proposes, is finally improving. Women will never again stop telling their stories.

In some cases, Solnit is too quick to declare victories and overstates them in her enthusiasm. But after so many years spent “waiting for” this moment—as she puts it in the essay “An Insurrectionary Year”—her relief, however premature, is understandable. It took decades for the teenager distressed by public indifference to rampant street harassment to wake up in a world of the international anti-harassment campaign Hollaback, and unstoppable feminist hashtags. If younger women find less in Mother’s exuberance than they did in Men’s bleakness, it’s because the gulf between here and where we were never looks as wide as the gap between here and where we hope to arrive.

The Mother of All Questions is best understood as Hope in the Dark retooled for young feminists. Where Hope spoke to activists at their most defeated, Mother appears in the first months of Trump’s presidency, armed with purpose and reason. “It’s always too soon to go home,” Solnit counseled in Hope. “The task of calling things by their true names,” she now writes, “of telling the truth to the best of our abilities, of knowing how we got here, of listening particularly to those who have been silenced in the past, of seeing how the myriad stories fit together and break apart, of using any privilege we may have been handed to undo privilege or expand its scope is each of our tasks.” And so the storytelling continues. ⚓