For Elle, Keziah Weir profiles prolific feminist and activist Rebecca Solnit. Solnit is expert at crystalizing common experiences in such a way that lays bare deeply ingrained patriarchal influences. You can never un-see them again, and suddenly you realize how entrenched they are. Weir herself had this experience reading Solnit.
The title essay of Men Explain Things is based on an encounter Solnit had with an older man at his Aspen house party in 2003; he expounds at great length to her about a recent biography of Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneering stop-motion photographer famous for his image series of a horse galloping—talking over her friend’s efforts to tell him that Solnit herself had written the book. “I like incidents of that sort,” Solnit writes, “when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow.” Peggy Orenstein, the author of last year’s best-seller Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, likens the essay’s reception to the feminist “click moments” of the 1970s, when “something you knew deep in your bones that nobody had ever quite articulated zapped into focus.”
I can relate. Raised on the girl-power feminism of the ’90s—Spice Girls, The Vagina Monologues, Hermione Granger, Daria—my friends and I didn’t think we needed feminism. We thought the battle for women’s rights had already been won. Besides, feminism carried uncomfortable anti-man connotations, amplified by “empowered” female pop-culture icons from Katy Perry to Madonna, who denounced the term as exclusionary. “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist” was a popular refrain. But then, in Men Explain Things, I read about Solnit, six or seven or nine books into her career and still having her own thoughts explained back to her by men. In the same collection, I read her trenchant take on FBI whistle-blower Coleen Rowley, who issued pre-9/11 warnings about Al Qaeda and was ignored by her mostly male colleagues. I read about how an unnamed American university responded to campus rapes by telling young women to stay inside after dark. I started to wonder: Why do I gravitate toward books by male authors? Why hasn’t it bothered me that my academic mentors were exclusively men? Why do I feel competitive with my female classmates (and, later, colleagues) but not male? Without being conscious of it, I’d put the men in a different, more exalted category; my definition of “winning” essentially meant taking home the silver, or the bronze. The guys would land three out of four of the top jobs, and they’d dominate the conversation—whether on literature or abortion, whether at parties or in the serious matte pages of the New Yorker. Click.