I’ve been on an odd journey for the past two days. It started somewhere almost light-hearted and ended up somewhere dark and depressing. Let me give you the guided tour.
I was browsing poetry with no more intent than to strike a spark in my imagination and see what was there. Then I read part one of Wendy Cope’s two-part poem, ‘ Differences Of Opinion’:
It made me laugh. But only a little. Recently, the world seems to have been taken over by people who claim the world is flat, vaccines are bad, masks are tyranny and Brexit is freedom, so my sense of humour isn’t as robust as it used to be.
Then I got to wondering whether ‘Mansplaining’ was a word when Wendy Cope wrote ‘Differences Of Opinion’ in 2006.
My knowledge of the origins of Mansplaining was vague. All I’d seen were the memes like these:
I recognised the behaviour and enjoyed the way the memes made fun of it but I didn’t know where the word came from.
A few minutes on Google told me that the term had been invented by a group of young women on Livejournal as a name for a pattern of behaviour identified by Rebecca Solnit in her 2008 essay ‘Men Explain Things To Me’ – two years after Wendy Cope’s poem.
I was curious, so I bought a book of her essays:
It’s a fascinating book that manages to be accessible, engaging and challenging at the same time. The ‘Men Explain Things To Me’ is about a dozen pages long, including Rebecca Solnit’s comments on how the original essay came to be written and what’s happened to it since. As I worked my way through the essay I found myself wanting to highlight almost everything. Here are a few examples:
Yes, people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.
I love ‘confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant’, it puts a name to something that is so shocking when you first encounter it that words fail you.
The essay starts with an amusing story about a man she’d never met before embarrassing himself by explaining an ‘important book’ in Solnit’s field to her. It slowly dawned on Solnit that he was describing her own book and not only did he not know she’d written it but he hadn’t read it. He was declaring the book to be important because that’s what the review in the New York Times had said about it.
The story seems like an anecdote worthy of a mansplaining meme but there’s more to it than ‘the confrontational confidence of an ignorant man explaining something to a woman who knows more about it than he does.
On reflection, Solnit realised that even she, a woman in her forties with a dozen books to her name, was momentarily silenced by the man’s confidence. She assumed he must be talking about a book she’d missed. Her doubt let him talk on unchallenged.
That’s when I started to understand that this ‘men explain things to me’ behaviour was just a symptom of something darker and more deeply engrained.
Solnit points out that it’s part of a pattern of women:
being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever.
As she explains, the overall pattern of how some men treat women
‘goes way beyond Men Explaining Things, but it’s part of the same archipelago of arrogance.’
The book I bought was published in 2014, six years after the original essay and the coining of Mansplaining. Solnit describes the reaction to the essay and then goes on to explain her purpose in writing it:
I couldn’t get that ‘narrow end of the wedge’ out of my head. It changed Mansplaining from a label for boorish behaviour by ignorant and arrogant men into something more sinister, a manifestation of a misogynistic culture.
I went on to read the next essay, ‘The Longest War’ about the failure to recognise or address the scale of violence against women and was struck by this statement.
Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.
I thought about Jess Philips, The Shadow Domestic Violence Minister, reading out in Parliament the names of the 118 women killed by their husbands/partners in the twelve months up to March 2021 and her statement that society has ‘just accepted’ dead women as a normal part of life.
It came to me then that Mansplaining is the kind of thing that can be trivialised and deflected and used to distract from the main problem which is that Mansplaining is a symptom of a deep-rooted misogyny that silences, excludes, dehumanises and ultimately kills women.
The picture that came to my mind isn’t funny but I hope it’s powerful. It’s The Misogyny Wedge: