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Rebecca Solnit on #MeToo, Mass Movements and the 10th Anniversary of “Men Explain Things to Me”

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This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rebecca Solnit’s groundbreaking essay, “Men Explain Things to Me.” In 2008, Solnit wrote, “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. … 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.” The essay has also been credited with launching the term “mansplaining,” though Rebecca Solnit did not coin the phrase. For more, we’re joined now by Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist. She is the author of 20 books.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We spend the rest of the hour with one of the nation’s most celebrated writers, Rebecca Solnit. This month marks the 10th anniversary of her groundbreaking essay “Men Explain Things to Me.” In 2008, Solnit wrote, quote, “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. … 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.” Solnit wrote those words a decade ago, long before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements swept across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: The essay has also been credited with launching the term “mansplaining,” though Rebecca Solnit did not coin that phrase.

For more, we’re joined now by Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian, activist, author of 20 books, including Hope in the Dark and, most recently, The Mother of All Questions. Rebecca Solnit is a contributing editor at Harper’s, where she’s the first woman to regularly write the “Easy Chair” column.

Rebecca, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, the effect of this essay that you wrote, oh, 10 years ago, “Men Explain Things to Me,” and the effect it’s had, and your now—your focus on writing, as it always has been, on movements, how this feeds into your understanding of the power of movements?

REBECCA SOLNIT: I’ve always thought of feminism as a subset of a human rights movement about sort of inclusion and equality. And so, yes, so this essay was about a way women are severely impacted by being treated as not credible, as not people who have something to say, as people whose voices shouldn’t count, whether they’re saying, “This is what’s going on, you know, in the office,” or “No, I don’t want to have sex with you,” or “He’s trying to kill me.” It’s funny, because I started writing with the famous opening anecdote about a man explaining my book to me, writing what I thought was going to be a very lightweight or a very funny piece, and it got pretty quickly into rape and murder. Credibility is a basic survival issue.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in a recent Harper’s piece, you write a very—something that’s very striking, saying, “It is an old truism that knowledge is power. The inverse—that power is often ignorance—is rarely discussed.” You go on to say, “There’s a large category of acts hidden from people with standing: the more you are, the less you know.” So, could you explain what you meant by that and how that applies specifically to what you just said, the impunity with which men are able to act and the ways in which women have been silenced?

REBECCA SOLNIT: Yeah, and I wrote that column thinking about everybody—servants, children, subordinates, employees, people of color—who are treated as people who aren’t important, who aren’t witnesses, whose voices don’t count, who often have people do things that they assume are off the record because these people will not be heard. And, of course, my own experience with that is as a woman, where it’s like, “Oh, nobody will believe her that I did this. I can just talk over her and say it didn’t happen.” You know, so, again, I’m trying to think about the broader spectrum of how inequality of power—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, could you talk about that, your own experience with sexual harassment, as you describe it in the Harper’s piece?

REBECCA SOLNIT: Well, you know, I’ve had thousands of incidents on the street when I was a young woman, but I wrote about something that happened to me when I was 18 and a restaurant worker. And I know, like farmworkers, restaurant workers have a really high incidence of sexual harassment. And I wasn’t an exception.

There was this kind of scary old chef, a bleary alcoholic with bloodshot eyes. He used to grab me when I was trying to wash the dishes in the café. And at that time, this was before Anita Hill changed the playing field a little bit, before some of the transformations we’ve had in the last few decades. I didn’t believe—and I think I was accurate—that anybody was going to care, that my boss was going to care, that this guy was grabbing me.

And so, what I actually did was made sure that, you know, one of the—you know, weeks or months into this happening, that when he grabbed me, I was holding a big tray of glasses right out of the dishwasher, and I screamed and dropped them. And the noise I made didn’t really matter. I didn’t really have a voice at that point. But the glasses had a voice. The sound of, you know, 40 shattering glasses brought the owner running. And I just said, “He grabbed me.” And, you know, the owner told off the chef, not so much because I should have the right to have jurisdiction over my own body, but because losing a whole tray full of glasses was expensive. And the cook was really annoyed, because he knew that I had essentially tricked him. But it was—you know, it was how I tried to have a voice when I was voiceless.

AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca, speaking of voicelessness, you know, the latest scandal of the White House involves the allegation that President Trump was involved with an adult film star, Stormy Daniels. The issue isn’t so much that. It’s that he’s trying to silence her. That’s the allegation, you know, that she would have to pay a million dollars if she speaks about this. What is your take on this, everything from that to, overall, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement about sexual harassment and rape?

REBECCA SOLNIT: Well, one of the things that should be said, and probably a lot of people know, is that nondisclosure agreements are a really common part of corporate settlements, but also kind of sexual violence settlements. They’re sometimes imposed on college students by the university. They’re often enforced in civil lawsuits. For example, the woman who charged Dominique Strauss-Kahn with rape received a settlement. She has a wonderful restaurant in the Bronx that she started, I’ve eaten at. She started it with the result—

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s amazing, a hotel worker, who challenged—

REBECCA SOLNIT: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —one of the most powerful men, former head of the IMF—is that right?—who would—

REBECCA SOLNIT: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —could have become the president of France.

REBECCA SOLNIT: That was an amazing case, that she was able to be heard. And she was, of course, attacked. She also successfully sued a mainstream media outlet that claimed she was a prostitute. And, you know, people attempted to silence her by discrediting her, calling her a prostitute, saying, “Why should we listen to her?” But a number of other women came forward because of her courage and also talked about sexual violence and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and ended his career and destroyed his reputation, which deserved to be destroyed.

But she did sign a nondisclosure agreement. What Stormy Daniels signed is a really typical thing that’s one of myriad techniques for silencing women and something that I think maybe shouldn’t exist. It’s not a victory if part of what you have to settle for is being silent. It perpetrates the problem, which is that when you said no, when you said this is not what should happen, you were silenced.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Rebecca, as you said, your own experience and as the #MeToo shows—

REBECCA SOLNIT: Yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, this, the experience of a sexual harassment, of silencing and even rape is very, very widespread. What do you think accounts for the fact that this movement took off in the way that it did, with the revelations around Harvey Weinstein?

REBECCA SOLNIT: You know, I think that this movement was a long time in coming. And I think it’s like the gun movement we’re seeing now, that there is one specific thing: the shooting in Parkland, Harvey—the revelations journalists uncovered about Harvey Weinstein’s decades of horrific assaults and attacks on women. But the ground had been prepared. With the gun movement, we had used up all the excuses and justifications and evasions, all the thoughts and prayers. With the women’s movement also, I think one factor was that women are really fed up. And we’ve seen that the last five years, because this movement goes back way beyond #MeToo. It goes to campus rape activism in 2012 and a lot of other stuff that’s happened in the last five years.

And I think it also happened because some of the slow, boring, you know, work of feminism that doesn’t get noticed—creating women who are in charge of what the news is, women who are judges, women who are producers. Women who have positions of power helped change who gets heard and what stories matter and whose rights matter. I think that we—you know, we had had stories like this before that didn’t resonate, didn’t lead to a lot of other men being fired, didn’t lead to recognition that this is a systemic problem.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, were you surprised?

REBECCA SOLNIT: I’m always surprised that this is, you know, the time, because like who knew that the Parkland shooting would be different than every other school shooting and that we’d focus on the survivors and their beautiful voices rather than the dead and the killer? You know, so I was, and I wasn’t. And, you know, these things happen like earthquakes: long building of tension, kind of laying of groundwork and then a sudden rupture.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to break, but we’re going to go to Part 2, and we’re going to post it online at democracynow.org, our conversation with Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist. She’ll be speaking at Cooper Union tonight on this 10th anniversary of “Men Explain Things to Me.”

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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