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One evening over dinner, I began to joke, as I often had before, about writing an essay called “Men Explain Things to Me.” Every writer has a stable of ideas that never make it to the racetrack, and I’d been trotting this pony out recreationally every once in a while. My houseguest, the brilliant theorist and activist Marina Sitrin, insisted that I had to write it down because people like her younger sister, Sam, needed to read it. Young women needed to know that being belittled wasn’t the result of their own secret failings; it was the boring old gender wars. So lovely, immeasurably valuable Sam, this one always was for you in particular. It wanted to be written; it was restless for the racetrack; it galloped along once I sat down at the computer; and since Marina slept in later than me in those days, I served it for breakfast and sent it to Tom later that day.
That was April 2008 and it struck a chord. It still seems to get reposted more than just about anything I’ve written at TomDispatch.com, and prompted some very funny letters to this site. None was more astonishing than the one from the Indianapolis man who wrote in to tell me that he had “never personally or professionally shortchanged a woman” and went on to berate me for not hanging out with “more regular guys or at least do a little homework first,” gave me some advice about how to run my life, and then commented on my “feelings of inferiority.” He thought that being patronized was an experience a woman chooses to, or could choose not to have—and so the fault was all mine. Life is short; I didn’t write back.
Young women subsequently added the word “ mansplaining ” to the lexicon. Though I hasten to add that the essay makes it clear mansplaining is not a universal flaw of the gender, just the intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.
The battle for women to be treated like human beings with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of involvement in cultural and political arenas continues, and it is sometimes a pretty grim battle. When I wrote the essay below, I surprised myself in seeing that what starts out as minor social misery can expand into violent silencing and even violent death. Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to women, two Liberians and a Yemeni, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Which is to say, that safety and full participation is only a goal.
This is a struggle that takes place in war-torn nations, but also in the bedroom, the dining room, the classroom, the workplace and the streets. And in newspapers, magazines and television, where women are dramatically underrepresented. Even in the online gaming arena women face furious harassment and threats of assault simply for daring to participate. That’s mostly symbolic violence. Real violence, the most extreme form of silencing and destroying rights, takes a far more dire toll in this country where domestic violence accounts for 30 percent of all homicides of women, annually creates about 2 million injuries, and prompts 18.5 million mental healthcare visits. It’s in Cairo’s Tahrir Square too, brutal gender violence where freedom and democracy had been claimed.
Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity and to liberty. I’m grateful that, after an early life of being silenced, sometimes violently, I grew up to have a voice, circumstances that will always bind me to the rights of the voiceless.
—Rebecca (August 19, 2012)