You can imagine Rebecca Solnit might hate the term fearless feminist, might see it as patronising – in much the same way she explains the situation in the title essay (a piece that, written in 2008, went viral, it’s collected here with a handful of more recent essays; two exclusive to this updated text). But she is a fearless feminist – and that is absolutely what is needed, a fearlessness, because, as her essays explain – according to their variations on the theme – women, so often are silenced. Women are talked down to – by men. Not all men. But by men in power.
We need think only of the current Bill Cosby situation to see the power of one man’s voice – and in this case his refusal to speak up in defence against the voices of so many women. Why, as more than one talk-show host has asked, is it so hard to believe women?
Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me essay has an intended comic tone – but also, in accordance with one of comedy’s great weapons, it’s scathing. It tells of an encounter where a man mentions he’s aware she might have written a book or two. She has in fact written half a dozen at this point – but doesn’t wish to boast. He asks about her latest and she briefly explains the book. He cuts in, asking if she has in fact read the very important text about that very issue. The book, and we obviously can see this coming long before this guy ever does, is hers. He hasn’t read it, he’s quoting from some radio spiel he half-listened to, a review he skim-read; Solnit, the woman he is talking to at the party, is the author of the book he is referencing. He presses on, unembarrassed. She used that situation – a lot of writers will have had some version of that – to explore this theme of being talked to by men. Always on their terms. Of being talked down to by men. Of being talked at by men rather than being talk to.
It’s funny – in an aching way. It’s sharp. Barbed. But it’s also the lightest thing in this book – it serves as a wonderful introduction to further essays that show men (in power – or perceived power) shutting down a woman’s or women’s ability to count; to be counted.
The essays in this trim book pack a lot of punch, deal with hefty subjects, reveal heavy and horrible truths. Solnit is a fearsome writer and she brings with facts with her – numbers, dates, the awful truth – when discussing marriage in/equality, rape and domestic violence and the male culture of condescension.
It’s a book that should be read by anyone. By everyone. Because the subject is important – the themes never more important than right now. But also because Solnit is such a great writer. She has several very good lines, in reflecting on Virginia Woolf, in studying versions of violence, in reminding people that the best criticism is that which opens the door, suggests a conversation – one that may never end. Solnit’s essays here are talking points as well as potted histories. They’re ideas to be further discussed, not just lessons to live by.