What has no name cannot be acknowledged or shared

Jessica Valenti talked to Rebecca Solnit a few weeks ago. She asked Solnit how she felt about being seen as the coiner of “mansplaining.”

A really smart young woman changed my mind about it. I used to be ambivalent, worrying primarily about typecasting men with the term. (I have spent most of my life tiptoeing around the delicate sensibilities of men, though of course the book Men Explain Things to Me is what happens when I set that exhausting, doomed project aside.) Then in March a PhD candidate said to me, No, you need to look at how much we needed this word, how this word let us describe an experience every woman has but we didn’t have language for.

And that’s something I’m really interested in: naming experience and how what has no name cannot be acknowledged or shared. Words are power. So if this word allowed us to talk about something that goes on all the time, then I’m really glad it exists and slightly amazed that not only have I contributed about a million published words to the conversation but maybe, indirectly, one new word.

(Note that the fact that every woman has the experience does not mean that every man provides the experience. Yesallwomen but notallmen.) (That’s me tiptoeing around the delicate sensibilities of men, because there is already some notallmenning in the comments on an earlier post about Solnit.)

So does it still go on? Why yes, yes it does.

Social media are to mansplainers what dogs are to fleas, and this recent feminist conversation has brought them out in droves. I mean, guys explain ridiculous things to me like that the Louisiana Purchase gave the United States a Pacific Coast. But more than anything since I wrote Men Explain Things to Me, they’ve explained women’s experience to me and other women. With this explosive new conversation since the Isla Vista murders, there’s been a dramatic uptick in guys mansplaining feminism and women’s experience or just denying that we need feminism and we actually had those experiences.

If there were awards to be handed out, one might go to the man who told me and a woman friend that 1) women actually like all those catcalls 2) as a man who’s spent time in men’s-only locker rooms, he knows men don’t actually speak to women that way. So we like street harassment, but that doesn’t actually exist, because we’re just crazy that way, us subjective, imaginative, unreliable ladies. Just ask an expert. Who is not a lady.

Isla Vista, yes…and there were so many people, including some women, saying that was nothing to do with misogyny no nothing at all. Solnit is optimistic though.

Right now I think that a lot of people get it and a lot of people are getting more engaged with the ideas, with the issues, and with the urgency of the situation. I feel like I’ve been waiting all my life for women to be talking the way we are right now, and that many men have joined in the conversation or support from the sidelines or get it is magnificent and inspiriting. (And then, yeah, those other guys. “Not all men”.)

Yes but…I could have sworn women had already been talking the way we are right now, and that many men had joined in. So I don’t really find it magnificent and inspiriting, because we seem to keep having to talk this way over and over and over again forever. We don’t seem to get to move on to a new, better stage.


  1. surreptitious46 says

    I had not heard of Rebecca Solnit before today yet on the basis of a single piece I want to buy her book which I shall
    if it is on sale over here. One minor quibble aside I agree with every word she wrote in the Tom article. I already knew
    of the term mansplaining but if I did not it would qualify as a wonderful piece of conscious raising for she articulated it
    so perfectly. Especially with her comment about no man having ever apologised to her for doing it. So if I were in her
    company I would try not to say anything just in case I did it myself

  2. Claire Ramsey says

    Nothing new at all in the observation that men explain shit to women and it’s about the only conversational strategy they can muster. Explaining plus advising. Sociolinguists and analysts of conversation have been talking about it and analyzing it since at least the late 70s. That’s when I first started talking about it with fellow linguists if memory serves.

    I agree, I would be so happy to remove this from my radar screen and put something way more interesting in its place.

  3. johnthedrunkard says

    A good new term for an old curse. Certainly the experience of Solnit is more than enough to explain the need. BUT:
    “so many people, including some women,”
    It might be nice to develop a term for the whole world of impervious, unteachable, authortitative smugness that presses down on every thinking person.

    If even ‘some women’ are piling on, it feels odd to accuse them of ‘mansplaining.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *