Every so often, an author articulates a common experience that has never before been openly discussed in the public sphere. Those moments can have the transformative feeling of a wildfire taking hold: The unspoken is suddenly spoken, and the landscape feels eternally changed. That's the case with Rebecca Solnit's "Men Explain Things to Me," a 2008 essay about the propensity for men to explain everything, anything, to her, as though they are somehow more expert than the woman. These words desperately needed to be said:
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.
In a postscript, Solnit marvels over the response to her essay, which seems to have inspired the coining of the word "mansplaining." (Solnit admits that she has "doubts" about that word "and don't use it myself much.") Not all the response was positive. "Some men explained why men explaining things to women wasn't really a gendered phenomenon," she writes. Sometimes identifying a phenomenon brings it right out.
Solnit's new collection may take its name from that singular, explosive essay, but the other works in Men Explain Things to Me (Haymarket Books, $11.95) prove that the title essay is anything but a fluke. Her essays don't always set the internet on fire, but they're all intelligent, passionate arguments for a fact that should be as obvious as the sun rising in the east but that has been in dispute for as long as there's been a humanity to dispute it: Women are human beings who deserve just as much respect and dignity as men.
Explain Things is a short book that can, and probably should, be read in a single sitting. The essays range from a meditation on why society accepts pervasive male violence toward women ("The Longest War") to a discussion of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case as a symbol of the history of colonization ("Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite") to an essay about Virginia Woolf and depression ("Woolf's Darkness"). There's not a lot of good news here, but even the sourest realities, when delivered by a remarkably intelligent human, can feel like something hopeful.