Just as the 1-21-17 Women’s March on Washington started me wondering where women stand now, Rebecca Solnit’s 2015 book Men Explain Things to Me came into my hands to provide the answer. Solnit starts her book by relating an experience in which a man talked over her on a subject in which she was an expert and he wasn’t. Reflecting on the incident, she realized that this common experience is one end of the misogyny spectrum, with rape and murder at the other…The tendency of some men to dominate conversations and undervalue/question women’s contributions, Solnit says, “crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. Credibility is a basic survival tool. For example, getting a restraining order requires the credibility to convince the court that someone is a menace and then getting the cops to enforce it. Violence is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert control over their right to exist…At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible. I believe women acquired the status of human beings when these kinds of acts started to be taken seriously, from the mid-1970s on…I think we’d understand misogyny and violence against women better if we looked at the abuse of power as a whole rather than treating domestic violence separately from rape, murder, harassment, and intimidation – online, at home, in the workplace and in the streets; seen together, the pattern is clear. Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.
There is a reported rape in the United States every 6.2 minutes [the total number of rapes may be five times that number – one a minute], and one in five women will be raped in her lifetime. There’s a pattern of violence against women that’s broad, deep, horrific – and incessantly overlooked. Occasionally, a case involving a celebrity or with lurid details gets attention in the media, but such cases are treated as anomalies, while the abundance of incidental news items about violence against women in this country, in other countries, and on every continent including Antarctica, constitute a kind of background wallpaper for the news.
So many men murder their partners and former partners that we have well over a thousand homicides of that kind a year, meaning that every three years the death toll tops 9/11’s casualties, though no one declares a war on this particular kind of terror.
It’s not that I want to pick on men. I just think that if we noticed that women are, on the whole, radically less violent, we might be able to see where violence comes from and think about we can do about it a lot more productively. Clearly, the ready availability of guns is a huge problem for the United States, but despite their availability to everyone, murder is still a crime committed by men 90% of the time.
Here’s a single incident that happened in my city while I was researching the subject in January 2013, one of many local incidents that made the local papers that month in which men assaulted women: “A woman was stabbed after she rebuffed a man’s sexual advances while she walked in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood late Monday night, a police spokesman said today. The 33-year-old victim was walking down the street when a stranger approached her and propositioned her. When she rejected him, the man slashed the victim in the face and stabbed her in the arm.” The man, in other words, framed the situation as one in which his chosen victim had no rights or liberties, while he had the right to control and punish her. This should remind us that violence is first of all authoritarian. It begins with this premise: I have the right to control you. Murder is the extreme version of that authoritarianism, where the murderer asserts he has the right to decide whether you live or die, the ultimate means of controlling someone. This may be true even if you are obedient, because the desire to control comes out of a rage that obedience can’t assuage. Whatever fears, whatever sense of vulnerability may underlie such behavior, it also comes out of entitlement, the entitlement to inflict suffering and even death on other people. It’s a system of control,” acted out by men of all nationalities, races, and social classes.
“A woman is beaten every nine seconds in this country. It’s the number-one cause of injury to American women; of the two million injured annually, more than half a million of those injuries require medical attention while about 145,000 require overnight hospitalizations, according to the Center for Disease Control. Spouses are also the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the United States. ‘Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war, and traffic accidents combined,’ writes Nicholas Kristof, one of the few prominent figures to address the issue regularly.
Rape and other acts of violence, up to and including murder, as well as threats of violence, constitute the barrage some men lay down as they attempt to control some women, and fear of that violence limits most women in ways they’ve gotten so used to they hardly notice – and we hardly address. The usual guidelines in such situations put the full burden of prevention on potential victims, treating the violence as a given. There’s no good reason (and many bad reasons) colleges spend more time telling women how to survive predators than telling the other half of their students not to be predators.
There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed. There are lovely and wonderful men out there, and one of the things that’s encouraging in this round of the war against women is how many men I’ve seen who get it, who think it’s their issue too, who stand up for us and with us in everyday life, online, and in marches. Kindness and gentleness never had a gender, and neither did empathy. Domestic violence statistics are down significantly from earlier decades (even though they’re still shockingly high), and a lot of men are at work crafting new ideas and ideals about masculinity and power. Women’s liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game only one gender at a time could be free and powerful. But we are free or enslaved together. Surely the mindset of those who think they need to win, to dominate, to punish, and to reign supreme is far from free.”
Solnit goes on to point out the connection between misogyny and other forms of oppression, using the example of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, “the extraordinarily powerful head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a global organization that’s created mass poverty and economic injustice, sexually assaulting Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel maid and immigrant from Africa, in a hotel’s luxury suite in New York City…Her name was Africa, his was IMF. He set her up to be pillaged, to go without health care, to starve. He laid waste to her to enrich his friends. Her name was Global South. His name was Washington Consensus. But his winning streak was running out, and her star was rising…The IMF’s assault on the poor is part of the great class war of our era, in which the rich and their proxies in government have endeavored to aggrandize their holdings at the expense of the rest of us. Poor countries in the developing world paid first, but the rest of us are paying now, as those policies and the suffering they impose come home to roost via right-wing economics that savages unions, education systems, the environment, and programs for the poor, disabled, and elderly in the name of privatization, free markets, and tax cuts…His name was privilege, but hers was possibility. His was the same old story, but hers was a new one about the possibility of changing a story that remains unfinished, that includes all of us, that matters so much, that we will watch but also make and tell in the weeks, months, years, decades to come.”
Next Solnit theorizes that the real reason many conservatives oppose gay marriage is that it represents marriage equality. “The phrase ‘marriage equality’ is ordinarily employed to mean that same-sex couples will have the rights different-sexed couples do. But it could also mean that marriage is between equals – not what traditional,” patriarchal marriage has been. “A marriage between two people of the same gender is inherently egalitarian – one partner may happen to have more power in any number of ways, but for the most part it’s a relationship between people who have equal standing and are free to define their roles themselves.”
Solnit devotes a chapter of her book to the ways women have been made to “disappear.” Taking their husbands’ names and wearing veils are the first two examples of this. “Veils go a long way back. They existed in Assyria more than 3,000 years ago, when there were two kinds of women: respectable wives and widows who had to wear veils, and prostitutes and slave girls who were forbidden to do so. The veil was the marker of a woman for one man, a portable architecture of confinement.
In Argentina during the ‘dirty war’ from 1976 to 1983, the military junta ‘disappeared’ dissidents, activists, left-wingers, and Jews, men and women. The first voices against this disappearance, the first who overcame their fear and became visible, were those of mothers of the disappeared. Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo began appearing in front of the presidential mansion at the Plaza de Mayo in the capital, Buenos Aires, and, having appeared, they refused to go away. Forbidden to sit, they walked. Though they were attacked, arrested, interrogated, and forced out of this most public of public places, they returned again and again to testify openly to their grief, and to demand that their children and grandchildren be returned. They wore white kerchiefs embroidered with the names of their children and the date of their disappearances. Motherhood was an emotional and biological tie that the generals in charge of the country couldn’t portray as leftwing or criminal. It was a cover for a new kind of politics, as it had been for the US group Women Strike for Peace, founded in the shadow of the Cold War in 1961, when dissent was still portrayed as communist. Motherhood and respectability became the armor, the costume, in which these women assaulted in one case the generals and in the other a nuclear weapons program and war itself.
When I was young, women were raped on the campus of a great university and the authorities responded by telling women students not to go out alone after dark. Some pranksters put up a poster announcing another remedy: that men be excluded from campus after dark. It was an equally logical solution, but men were shocked at being asked to disappear, to lose their freedom to move and participate, because of the violence of one man.
Every woman who appears wrestles with forces that would have her disappear, that would tell her story for her or write her out of the story. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.”
Solnit’s next chapter, on the liberatory thinking, both political and artistic, of Virginia Woolf, has much to say about the uncertain times we’re living in.
“‘The future is dark [obscure], which is the best thing the future can be, I think,’ Woolf wrote in her journal in 1915 as the First World War began to turn into catastrophic slaughter on an unprecedented scale.” In 1938 Woolf discussed war and its roots in Three Guineas. She began the book by answering the question “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” with the statement, “As a woman I have no country,” a stand much like that of the international communist movement, urging loyalty among workers of all nations in times of nationalist wars.
Solnit includes the thinking of writer, filmmaker, and political activist Susan Sontag in this discussion. Sontag wrote that people who haven’t experienced war can’t understand the reality of it, and may be numbed by reading about it or looking at war photographs. Like Woolf, Solnit says, Sontag called on us “to embrace the darkness, the unknown, the unknowability. She doesn’t imagine the contradictions can be ironed out; she grants us permission to keep looking at the photographs; she grants their subjects the right to have the unknowability of their experience acknowledged. And she acknowledges that even if we can’t completely comprehend, we might care.”
When Solnit visited Sontag, the latter “made the case that we should resist on principle, even though it might be futile. I had just begun trying to make the case for hope in writing, and I argued that you don’t know if your actions are futile. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you can’t foresee or even imagine, perhaps long after your death. Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting.”
Next, Solnit addresses “the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.” There have been so many mass shootings in recent years that I had to go to Wikipedia to recall this one. I found this: “On May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, California, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara, before taking his own life. The attack began when Rodger stabbed three men to death in his apartment. Afterwards, he drove to a sorority house and shot three female students outside, killing two. He drove to a nearby deli and shot a male student to death inside. He then began to speed through Isla Vista, shooting and wounding several pedestrians and striking several others with his car. The rampage ended when his car crashed into a parked vehicle and came to a stop. Police found him dead in the car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Before driving to the sorority house, Rodger uploaded a video to YouTube in which he explained that he wanted to punish women for rejecting him and to punish sexually active men for living a more enjoyable life than his.” In an email to friends and family, he also described “his frustration over not being able to find a girlfriend, his hatred of women, his contempt for racial minorities and interracial couples, and his plans for what he described as ‘retribution.’”
Solnit thinks the subsequent discussion of this event on Twitter was significant. Apparently, some men were saying they “weren’t the problem.” Solnit recalls that “an exasperated woman remarked to me, ‘What do they want – a cookie for not hitting, raping, or threatening women?’ Women are afraid of being raped and murdered all the time and sometimes that’s more important to talk about than protecting male comfort levels. Or as another woman tweeted, ‘Sure #NotAllMen are misogynists and rapists. That’s not the point. The point is that #YesAllWomen live in fear of the ones that are.’” A bit more from Twitter: “#YesAllWomen because I’ve seen more men angry at the hashtag rather than angry at the things happening to women. #YesAllWomen because if you’re too nice to them you’re ‘leading them on’ & if you’re too rude you risk violence. Either way you’re a bitch.”
Solnit declares: “Language is power. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it. If you lack words for a phenomenon, an emotion, a situation, you can’t talk about it, which means that you can’t come together to address it. Vernacular phrases – ‘Catch-22,’ ‘monkeywrenching,’ ‘cyberbullying,’ ‘the 99 percent and the 1 percent’ – have helped us to describe and reshape our world. This may be particularly true of feminism, a movement focused on giving voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. One of the compelling new phrases of our time is ‘rape culture.’ The term came into widespread circulation in late 2012 when sexual assaults in New Delhi, India and Steubenville, Ohio, became major news stories. As one definition put it: ‘Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety. Rape culture affects every woman. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape.’
The term ‘sexual entitlement’ was also used in 2012 in reference to sexual assaults by Boston University’s hockey team, though you can find earlier uses of the phrase. I first heard it in 2013 in a BBC report on a study of rape in Asia. The study concluded that in many cases the motive for rape was the idea that a man has the right to have sex with a woman regardless of her desires. In other words, his rights trump hers, or she has none. This sense of being owed sex is everywhere. Many women are told, as was I in my youth, that something we did or said or wore or just the way we looked or the fact that we were female had excited desires we were thereby contractually obliged to satisfy. Male fury at not having emotional and sexual needs met is far too common, as is the idea that you can rape or punish one woman to get even for what other women have done or not done. After the killings in Isla Vista, the term ‘sexual entitlement’ was suddenly everywhere, and blogs and commentary and conversations began to address it with brilliance and fury. On that Friday in Isla Vista, our equilibrium was disrupted, and like an earthquake releasing tension between tectonic plates, the realms of gender shifted a little. They shifted not because of the massacre, but because millions came together in a vast conversational network to share experiences, revisit meanings and definitions, and arrive at new understandings.”
Solnit acknowledges that progress in the fight against misogyny can be uneven, but concludes, “There’s no going back. You can abolish the reproductive rights women gained in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion, or rather ruled that women had a right to privacy over their own bodies that precluded the banning of abortion. But you can’t so easily abolish the idea that women have certain inalienable rights…Revolutions are made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies…
Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out, or that if there is you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have. We have so much further to go, but looking back at how far we’ve come can be encouraging. Domestic violence was mostly invisible and unpunished until a heroic effort by feminists to out it and crack down on it a few decades ago. Though it still generates a significant percentage of calls to police and enforcement has been crummy in most places, the ideas that a husband has the right to beat his wife and that it’s a private matter aren’t going to return.
Feminism and women continue achieving advances that threaten and infuriate some people. Rape and death threats are the blunt response; the decorous version is all those articles telling women who we are and what we may and may not aspire to. Casual sexism is always there to rein us in, too. ‘Careerism,’ for example – the pathological need to have paid employment – is an affliction that only affects women, apparently. Then there are all the tabloids patrolling the bodies and private lives of celebrity women and finding constant fault with them. Get back in the box, famous ladies. Conservatives are now largely fighting rearguard actions, however. Thanks to demographics, their regressive conservative push isn’t going to work – the United States isn’t going to be a mostly white country again. Neither are queer people going back in the closet or women about to surrender.
Feminism sought and seeks to change the whole human world; many men are on board with the project, but how it benefits men, and in what ways the status quo damages men as well, could bear far more thought. As could an inquiry into the men perpetrating most of the violence, the threats, and the hatred and the culture that encourages them. Perhaps this inquiry has begun. A nationwide movement organized by mostly female college students, many of them survivors of campus sexual assault, has sprung up, to force change in the way universities deal with such assaults – as has a movement to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the military that’s succeeded in forcing real policy changes and prosecutions.
There’s more that we need to be liberated from – like a system that prizes competition, ruthlessness, short-term thinking, and rugged individualism, that serves environmental destruction and limitless consumption – the arrangement we call capitalism. It embodies the worst of machismo while it destroys what’s best on Earth. Men fit into it better, but it doesn’t really serve any of us. Look to movements, such as the Zapatista revolution, which has a broad ideology that includes feminist as well as environmental, economic, indigenous, and other perspectives. This may be the present and future of feminism that isn’t feminism alone. The Zapatistas rose up in 1994 and are still going, as are myriad other projects to reimagine who we are, what we want, and how we might live.