43 pages 1 hour read

Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things To Me

Nonfiction | Essay Collection | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


Men Explain Things to Me is Rebecca Solnit’s 19th book. First published in 2014, it is comprised of a collection of essays primarily concerned with gender politics. The first essay explores men silencing women. It begins with Solnit recounting a conversation with “Mr. Very Important” in which he asks her about her writing, only to talk over her and lecture her about a book that, it turns out, she actually wrote. She uses this to explore the way traditional gender roles inculcate men to believe that they are automatically better informed than women and have a right to speak over them. Examining how this works to silence women and drown out their voices, Solnit links this to wider patterns of repression, violence, and abuse.

The second essay explores violence against women, providing a variety of statistics that demonstrate the scale of rape, domestic violence, and other abuse in the U.S. and throughout the world. She observes that the vast majority of this violence is committed by men but that this pattern of gendered abuse is rarely recognized or discussed. From this she concludes that tackling violence against women will require us to properly recognize the way gender roles and masculinity help perpetuate abuse.

The third essay continues to explore violence against women, focusing on the alleged sexual assault of Nafissatou Diallo, an African immigrant working as a hotel maid, by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). She uses this encounter to explore the roles of gender, power, and privilege in enabling men to commit violence against women. She also draws symbolic parallels between Strauss-Kahn’s alleged actions and neo-colonial violence enacted by Western institutions like the IMF.

The fourth essay examines marriage equality suggesting that those who oppose same-sex marriage are motivated by a desire to maintain traditional gender roles. She asserts that same-sex marriage, which can be seen as a marriage between equal parties, should be celebrated for the way it challenges the patriarchal organization of traditional marriage in which women have effectively been the property of men.

The fifth essay explores how women are, on a symbolic and literal level, “obliterated” (70) by many cultural practices. She examines practices such as only recording men on family trees or women taking their husbands’ names when they get marriage, asserting that this removes women from history, silencing their voices and lived experiences. She connects this to wider patterns of silencing and repression experienced by women throughout the world. 

The sixth essay is a celebration of Virginia Woolf and an examination of approaches to criticism and analysis that do not seek to make the unknown known but rather subtly explore the intangible and obscure. Solnit suggests that, far from being something that we should attempt to pin down and definitively understand, the unknown or the “darkness” (86) should simply be explored without striving for fixed interpretation. With this understanding, she suggests that the darkness is a place of hope, filled with potential for remarkable progress and positive change.

In the final essay, Solnit looks at progress made by the feminist movement. She suggests that the most accurate measure of this is the way the movement has made irrevocable changes to cultural understandings of gender and women’s rights. Accordingly, while conservative forces may attempt to change legislation and restrict women’s rights, they cannot change the fact that the majority of people now believe that women should have these rights. Like the forces released from Pandora’s box, these ideas and a general belief in gender equality will not go back in the box, despite the backlash of repressive forces exerted against the feminist movement and women more broadly. 

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