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
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Solnit could not have planned it this way but the longest and only previously unpublished essay in this well-timed book happens to be concerned with the notion of silencing.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
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