Feeling Tentatively Optimistic

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Good news, feminists! Not all hope is lost! Pick up a copy of this slim book and carry it with you to be reminded that yes, really, yes, things might get better one day!

Just look! A book by a woman whose cover shows nothing but a bold white typeface on a blue background – no soft-focus photograph of laundry on a clothesline in a field of wildflowers, no black high heels, no pink font, no cursive, none of that shit. Not even a picture of Solnit with her long, lovely hair and some sexy, smoldering look in her eye. We’ve come so far!

At least, that is the impression I got after finishing Men Explain Things to Me.

But, wait, don’t get me wrong. Solnit’s essays are depressing as hell.

In fact, this collection of seven essays, written from 2008 to 2014, is so upsetting that it can be exhausting. Solnit knows her facts, and she isn’t afraid to drown the reader in statistics: there is a reported rape every 6.2 minutes in the United States; one in five women will be raped in her lifetime in the United States; there are over a thousand homicides a year where men murder their partners and former partners. She lays out graphic and brutal examples that can, at times, be redundant. The repetition is the whole point though: these are the statistics. This is what is happening. These are the examples. And you can’t escape them. Stop trying to pretend this isn’t happening.

Solnit draws you in with the opening of the book’s title essay “Men Explain Things to Me” – a humorous story of the time a very self-important man couldn’t be bothered to listen to Solnit long enough to realize that the book he was insisting she had to read was, in fact, a book she had written. It’s funny, haha, we’ve all had someone talk over us, haha, we’ve all had someone refuse to listen to us, haha, oh yes, haha, us women could sit around and joke for days about all the times we’ve been talked over and ignored, haha, ha, ha.

Solnit takes something that #YesAllWomen have experienced and gives us a good chuckle, but then she slowly and methodically drains the humor out of it to show it for what it really is: the silencing of women. Though her essays range specifically from violence and rape to marriage equality and Virginia Woolf, they are all about the same thing in the end. Because, as Solnit writes, “There are other things I’d rather write about, but this affects everything else.” This is the thing that every woman has to write about first. This is the thing that every woman has to overcome to get her voice out there in the world at all.

But don’t despair. That is Solnit’s point. Yes, the statistics are depressing, yes, sometimes as a woman writer you will scream and curse because god damn it you just want to write and think about something that isn’t violence, rape, and silence. But the over all message is positive: keep going.

Feminism is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth – and in our minds, where it all begins and ends. That so much change has been made in four or five decades is amazing; that everything is not permanently, definitely, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure. A woman goes walking down a thousand-mile road. Twenty minutes after she steps forth, they proclaim that she still has nine hundred ninety-nine miles to go and will never get anywhere. It takes time.

The fact that Solnit’s book exists is a sign of this progress. But, as Solnit writes, “Like racism, misogyny can never be adequately addressed by its victims alone.” So, women and men everywhere: read these essays and hold onto your hope. “Even in our own lives we regress, fail, continue, try again, get lost, and sometimes make a great leap, find what we didn’t know we were looking for, and yet continue to contain contradictions for generations,” Solnit writes. We’re moving slowly, but we are on our way.

E.B. Bartels is a native of the Boston area, currently living in New York City. Her nonfiction has appeared in Agave MagazineVitamin W, The Wellesley Review, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35. She is a regular contributor to Wellesley Underground, and her piece “Just a Trim” was a nonfiction honorable mention in New Millennium Writings 36th Competition. http://www.ebbartels.com

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  1. Pingback: Feeling Tentatively Optimistic: Review of Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit | E.B. Bartels

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