Wednesday this week was International Women’s Day—a full day of action and activism in cities across the world. To talk about how a revitalized feminist movement is changing things, we turned to Rebecca Solnit. She’s got a new book out, The Mother of All Questions. Rebecca is a writer, historian, and activist. She’s written something like 20 books about popular power, uprisings, art, environment, place, pleasure, disaster, and hope. They include Men Explain Things to Me, the definitive work on mansplaining. She’s received a Guggenheim, a National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, and a Lannan Literary Award. She writes for The Guardian, and she’s a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine. Her official bio declares that she’s a product of the California public education system from kindergarten to grad school. This interview has been edited and condensed; listen to the full conversation on the Start Making Sense podcast.
Jon Wiener: We want to talk about the big picture. A revitalized feminist movement is changing things, despite what we see in the White House. How would you describe it?
Rebecca Solnit: There was an extraordinary set of years, 2012, 2013, 2014, where the rules really changed. There were a couple specific cases, the Steubenville rape case involving a high-school football player, and the New Delhi rape case, which was horrific and resulted in the victim’s death, and then the Bill Cosby scandal. (“Scandal” is kind of a tasteful word for serial-rape crime spree.) A bunch of cases drew attention to the broader problem of violence against women in a way I had never seen before. It was kind of amazing, because this stuff happens all the time and pretty much always has, but finally women were in a position to say, “We’re not going to take this anymore. You can’t pretend it’s not happening.” And then to make some changes.
You could see some guys being baffled—like, “What? I can’t punch her? What? I can’t rape unconscious people? What? They have human rights? This is so confusing.” It was a huge shift. It had a lot to do with Obama’s Title IX enforcement on college campuses, but the movement to address campus rape was really led by students, many of them rape survivors. At the other end of the spectrum, there are pop-culture figures, from Emma Watson to Beyoncé, who have had a lot to say about feminism. It was a shift in visibility and in setting standards of acceptability and appropriateness, a shift in how we would describe things, who was going to be heard. It was huge.
JW: Let’s talk about silence. You call silence “the universal condition of oppression.”
RS: Yeah. The longest essay in the book, almost 12,000 words, is about silence. I thought at the beginning I was going to write about how women are silenced. But then I realized that gender as it’s socially constructed is really a set of reciprocal silences. I had to write about the ways in which men are silent and silenced too, that patriarchal power is a trade-off for a certain kind of deadening, a certain kind of absence from kinds of emotion and expression maybe, sometimes from empathy and compassion. That’s a silence that demands other kinds of silence from other kinds of people.