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Men who explain things

Every woman knows what it's like to be patronized by a guy who won't let facts get in the way.

April 13, 2008|Rebecca Solnit | Rebecca Solnit is the author of many books including "A Field Guide to Getting Lost," "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West" and "Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities." A longer version of this article appears at Tomdispatch.com.

Credibility is a basic survival tool. When I was very young and just beginning to get what feminism was about and why it was necessary, I had a boyfriend whose uncle was a nuclear physicist. One Christmas, he was telling -- as though it were a light and amusing subject -- how a neighbor's wife in his suburban bomb-making community had come running out of her house naked in the middle of the night screaming that her husband was trying to kill her. How, I asked the physicist, did you know that he wasn't trying to kill her? He explained, patiently, that they were respectable middle-class people. Therefore, her-husband-trying-to-kill-her was simply not a credible explanation for why she was fleeing the house yelling that her husband was trying to kill her. That she was crazy, on the other hand....

Even getting a restraining order -- a fairly new legal tool -- requires acquiring the credibility to convince the courts that some guy is a menace and then getting the cops to enforce it. Restraining orders often don't work anyway. 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. About three women a day are murdered by spouses or ex-spouses in this country. It's a leading cause of death among pregnant women in the U.S. At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.

I tend to believe that women acquired the status of human beings when these kinds of acts started to be taken seriously, when the big things that stop us and kill us were addressed legally from the mid-1970s on; well after my birth, that is. And for anyone about to argue that workplace sexual violence isn't a life-or-death issue, remember that Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, age 20, was apparently killed by another Marine in December while she was waiting to testify that he allegedly raped her twice. The burned remains of her body and her fetus were found in the fire pit in his backyard in January, and he was arrested last week in Mexico. Being told that, categorically, he knows what he's talking about and she doesn't, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world. Several years ago, I objected to the behavior of a couple of men, only to be told on both occasions that the incidents hadn't happened at all as I said they had, that I was subjective, delusional, overwrought, dishonest -- in a nutshell, female.

Most of my life, I would have doubted myself and backed down. Having public standing as a writer of history has helped me stand my ground, but few women get that boost, and billions of women are out there on this 6-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever. This goes way beyond Men Explaining Things, but it's part of the same archipelago of arrogance.

Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don't. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another 40-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I'm not holding my breath.

A few years after the idiot in Aspen, I was in Berlin giving a talk when a writer friend invited me to a dinner that included a male translator and three women a little younger than me who would remain deferential and mostly silent throughout the meal. Perhaps the translator was peeved that I insisted on playing a modest role in the conversation, but when I said something about how Women Strike for Peace, the extraordinary, little-known antinuclear and antiwar group founded in 1961, helped bring down the communist-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities, Mr. Very Important II sneered at me. The House committee, he insisted, no longer existed in the early 1960s and, anyway, no women's group played such a role in its downfall. His scorn was so withering, his confidence so aggressive, that arguing with him seemed a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult.

I had written a book that drew from primary documents and interviews about Women Strike for Peace. But explaining men still assume that I am, in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge. A Freudian would claim to know what they have and I lack, but intelligence is not situated in the crotch -- even if you can write one of Virginia Woolf's long mellifluous musical sentences about the subtle subjugation of women in the snow with your willie. Back in my hotel room, I Googled a bit and found that Eric Bentley in his definitive history of the House Committee on Un-American Activities credits Women Strike for Peace with "striking the crucial blow in the fall of HUAC's Bastille." In the early 1960s.

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