The Mother of All Ques­tions: Fur­ther Fem­i­nisms by Re­becca Sol­nit

From ha­rass­ment to ‘mansplain­ing’ – an el­e­gant, timely col­lec­tion of es­says on women’s frus­tra­tions in the 21st cen­tury

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction -

SMichelle Dean

erendip­ity might well ex­ist, for I opened Re­becca Sol­nit’s col­lec­tion of es­says sub­ti­tled “fur­ther fem­i­nisms” at a mo­ment that de­manded what you could call “fur­ther fem­i­nist” thought. The al­le­ga­tions against Har­vey We­in­stein had hit the news cy­cle, and scan­ning it had be­come a hot and stuffy ex­pe­ri­ence. Opin­ion writ­ers tended to de­clare the mo­ment a tri­umph, call­ing #MeToo a move­ment that would fi­nally give voice to the voice­less, but if there was a prize to be won from all this, it is still dif­fi­cult for a lot of women I know to see. Sto­ries such as these don’t feel like vic­to­ries. In­stead, they shut you up in a room with your own un­com­fort­able mem­o­ries, the things you’ve kept silent about.

Sol­nit could not have planned it this way but the long­est and only pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished es­say in this well-timed book hap­pens to be con­cerned with the no­tion of si­lenc­ing. Sol­nit is un­abashedly in favour of end­ing all our si­lences, which she sees as dis­pro­por­tion­ately fe­male. “The his­tory of si­lence is cen­tral to women’s his­tory,” she claims in “A Short His­tory of Si­lence”. Sex­ual vi­o­lence, in par­tic­u­lar, is a thing women are silent about, and it flour­ishes, Sol­nit be­lieves, in the space of that si­lence.

She ar­gues her case by way of a koan fa­mil­iar to writ­ers: a per­son de­rives her sense of self-worth from be­ing able to speak. And un­der that rubric, a per­son frees her­self by telling her truth. Story is key to that process. “Lib­er­a­tion is al­ways in part a sto­ry­telling process,” Sol­nit writes, “break­ing sto­ries, break­ing si­lences, mak­ing new sto­ries.” This is some­thing like a para­phrase of Joan Did­ion’s oft-re­peated line about telling sto­ries in or­der to live, al­though Sol­nit’s lacks the de­pres­sive tail­wind of Did­ion’s state­ment. There are, from Sol­nit’s po­si­tion, no epis­te­mo­log­i­cal is­sues that at­tach to telling one’s story; the story is pre­sumed to have a sin­gle mean­ing, and that mean­ing, in Sol­nit’s view, will open up the world.

As I read this es­say – and the oth­ers in this col­lec­tion, which, though they touch on ev­ery­thing from Lolita to rape jokes to the 2014 mas­sacre per­pe­trated by El­liot Rodger in Santa Bar­bara, are the­mat­i­cally sim­i­lar – I felt my­self both car­ried along by Sol­nit’s el­e­gant polem­i­cal rhetoric and more than a lit­tle un­sat­is­fied, at prose’s end, by the sim­ple so­lu­tions her anal­y­sis im­plied and en­dorsed. Per­haps that’s me, per- haps it’s my years of im­mer­sion in the on­line fem­i­nist re­nais­sance that peo­ple have been declar­ing a world-chang­ing rev­o­lu­tion since at least 2008, though the US is still in­ca­pable of, for ex­am­ple, elect­ing a woman to the pres­i­dency. Per­haps it’s my im­mer­sion in a fem­i­nist his­tory that stretches back – as Sol­nit traces it here – to Vir­ginia Woolf and

A Room of One’s Own . But there is a point where it starts to feel that women have been speak­ing and telling cer­tain sto­ries – if not all the sto­ries – and though some change has come, there has also been some stag­na­tion. And as some­one who, like Sol­nit, wants to see change, I of­ten feel the stag­na­tion also needs to be ad­dressed.

It’s im­pos­si­ble, for in­stance, to read the piece about Rodger (“One Year Af­ter Seven Deaths”) with­out think­ing about how few peo­ple seemed to be con­vinced that his ram­page was the re­sult of misog­yny. In “Cas­san­dra Among the Creeps”, Sol­nit chron­i­cles the al­le­ga­tions of both Anita Hill and Dy­lan Far­row, then ad­mits that these women “don’t al­ways pre­vail in our time”. In “Men Ex­plain Lolita to Me”, Sol­nit records some of the “bat­shit” (her word) thrown her way when she dared to sug­gest that there was more than one way to read Lolita. And so for all Sol­nit’s in­sis­tence on the lib­er­a­tory pos­si­bil­i­ties of women’s sto­ries, there is al­ways this un­der­cur­rent, the ev­i­dence that the change is not quite so clear-cut as we think. Most dispir­it­ing is the fact that many of her ob­ser­va­tions here mir­ror the work of many other fem­i­nists, from Woolf to Adri­enne Rich to Jes­sica Valenti: cer­tain things have ac­tu­ally been said, loud and clear, for a long time.

It’s not that I dis­be­lieve Sol­nit when she says that words and sto­ries can change things. For me, she once did. The first time I read her now fa­mous es­say on “Men Who Ex­plain Things”, the ex­pe­ri­ence qual­i­fied as a rev­e­la­tion. It was not, sadly, that I was un­fa­mil­iar with the phenomenon she de­scribed. But I was un­fa­mil­iar with any­one de­scrib­ing it as clearly as she did.

I was not the only per­son who felt this way, plainly. Sol­nit did not coin the ne­ol­o­gism that came to de­scribe the be­hav­iour she’d iden­ti­fied: “mansplain­ing”. But the in­ven­tion of that word sim­ply proved that the con­cept stuck, mov­ing past amus­ing ob­ser­va­tion to ar­ti­cle of rhetor­i­cal faith. Men con­tin­ued, of course, to Ex­plain Things, but be­cause of Sol­nit women now knew their amuse­ment at the phenomenon was col­lec­tive. And they be­gan to poke fun at it, with some ef­fect. By the time Repub­li­can se­na­tor Mitch McCon­nell said of Demo­crat se­na­tor El­iz­a­beth War­ren in Fe­bru­ary that “she was warned. She was given an ex­pla­na­tion. Nev­er­the­less, she per­sisted”, the slo­ga­neer­ing po­ten­tial of his con­de­scen­sion was ob­vi­ous. That it was im­me­di­ately vis­i­ble was some­thing we can at­tribute di­rectly to Sol­nit.

If there is a hint of that Sol­nit in

The Mother of All Ques­tions, it ap­pears only in flashes. In places I see her power to ar­tic­u­late things that don’t yet have names, as in “Es­cape from the Five Mil­lion Year-Old Sub­urb”, where she rips apart the spe­cious logic of evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy. She doesn’t like, she says, “the un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tion in all these sto­ries: that we are doomed to re­main who we were a very long time ago”. I don’t like that idea ei­ther. It will just take a lot more work to change.

Sex­ual vi­o­lence is a thing women are silent about, and it flour­ishes, Sol­nit be­lieves, in the space of that si­lence

The power to ar­tic­u­late … Re­becca Sol­nit

176pp, Granta, £12.99

To or­der a copy of The Mother of All Ques­tions for £11.04 go to guardian­book­ or call 0330 333 6846.

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