22 Jun 2018

Rebecca Solnit -- Until now, we’ve treated feminism and women’s rights as yet another project for women

Celebrated feminist Rebecca Solnit discusses #MeToo and whether men can carry some of the burden in the struggle for women's rights.

Rebecca Solnit --  Until now, we’ve treated feminism and women’s rights as yet another project for women - NewsMavens
Rebecca Solnit, WikiCommons

--The following selections from Karolina Domagalska and Paulina Reiter's interview with Rebecca Solnit appeared in the Polish weekly "Wysokie Obcasy".

KD & PR: Have you shared a story with the #MeToo hashtag?

Rebecca Solnit: No, because it disturbs me that now women are forced to reveal the most difficult moments of their lives and defend themselves from public attacks. 

The solidarity of women who have spoken out and said, “me too,” is extraordinary, but really, who are we trying to convince? Men? If they didn’t listen to our voices before, if they didn’t read the horrifying statistics, it’s their fault. We don’t have to reveal our own tragic stories on demand.

We may ask why, with the Harvey Weinstein case, women’s rage has exploded with such strength? I don’t know. But it would not have happened if feminism had not laid the foundation for people to hear these stories and react responsibly.

What else made #MeToo possible? It is that women now occupy leadership positions in the media, and men in leadership positions are prepared to listen to women. Journalists from The New York Times tried to write about Harvey Weinstein thirteen years ago, but no one was willing to publish it. So it's not a single individual who made this revolution possible, but a change in the whole system. This system is evolving, and men are part of it too.

KD & PR: Do you think of #MeToo as a revolution that can bring about real social change?

I think that it is a big step and that it is a part of the larger social revolution that began in the 1960s. I’m not just thinking of the hippies and drugs, but of the general turn against authoritarianism. It was a time of questioning authority, criticizing scientists who promoted the use of pesticides and toxic chemicals in our food. Criticizing rulers who tested atomic bombs and started wars. Students questioned the decisions of universities. Citizens challenged the norms of the nuclear family, heterosexuality, and racial segregation. We unleashed an enormous intellectual revolution, and the women’s movement was part of it.

What changed is that prior to 2012, the struggle for women’s rights played out mainly in the courtroom. Now suddenly a very intensive phase of public conversation has arrived and women are sharing their stories.  New accounts of sexual violence are appearing every day.

With these events, we hear many stories of how this method makes men feel threatened, that they feel uncomfortable and that, God forbid, some innocent man may be falsely accused.

I hear all the time that this protest can have a negative influence on men. But why don’t we ask about the positive influence on them? One positive influence is that while it has been difficult for women around the world to function in the workplace, now many people are glad that at last they can feel safe, certain, and treated equally as never before. #MeToo is making many workplaces into safe and egalitarian spaces.

KD & PR: Today one can hear many voices from feminists themselves that #MeToo is a new puritanism. Some women, such as Catherine Deneuve, are worried that #MeToo is a witch hunt that is killing pick-ups and flirting.

And how old is she? Maybe she’s forgotten that it is mainly young women who encounter harassment, particularly those who do not yet have their own strong voices. 

I would answer Catherine Deneuve with a tweet I read that said flirtation is like a dance -- you try to seduce someone, please him, and respond to his signals. It’s a two-sided game. Sexual molestation, as we all know, looks different. Someone tries to grab you, and you try to turn, get away, avoid eye contact, and even if you can’t or are afraid to say “no,” nothing you do or say reflects desire.

Many men don’t understand what consent is or think about women as people. They’ve never wanted to pay attention to what we want.

One of the consequences of the anxiety that men feel after #MeToo is that they will have to start thinking about what women want, and they will finally be forced to make the shocking discovery that women are people too.

KD & PR: In the book, Men Explain Things to Me, you write about the silencing and disbelief of women and the undermining of their opinions as part of a larger phenomenon, one in which the consequences can be fatal.

Of course, from a legal perspective, these acts are very different. Many behaviors that are the beginnings of violence, are not subject to any legal regulation, like constantly chatting someone up, interrupting them, or ignoring what they say. Then, sometimes, there is physical violence and death threats. And in the end, physical violence leads to extremes such as murder. In the United States, more than a dozen women are murdered each week by their husbands, boyfriends, former husbands, or former boyfriends.

Such extreme violence results from enmity toward women, from a lack of respect for women as human beings who are entitled to their inalienable human rights, and who have a right to dignity and self-determination.

In my other book, The Mother of All Questions, there is an essay, “A Short History of Silence,” in which I write that the term, “domestic violence,” is often used in connection with physical violence, which is only one of the components in a system of control and destruction of victims as free independent persons. This system is composed, for instance, of the prohibition of work outside the home, taking away the right to control one’s own money, the prohibition against driving, having male friends, etc.

In my opinion, this leads to the question, “Why do men hate us? Why do they have such a need to control women?”

I would very much like for men to answer this question, because it is truly difficult for me to understand it. I am not a man. I’ve never wanted to beat anyone, never wanted to control anyone in this way, never dreamed of having sex with someone without their consent. Women are raised to satisfy the needs of others, to please others, so the idea of having sex with someone who is terrified is repulsive to us. It’s an unimaginable situation, certainly not particularly sexy, and we don’t think it will reinforce our identity as women.

Until now, we’ve treated feminism and women’s rights as yet another project for women.

We’ve regarded it as a female matter. As for myself, I realized not long ago that I had always thought that it was women who were responsible for the struggle for women’s rights. But because it is men who violate these rights, because it is their behavior that must change, it is unwise to shift the whole burden onto women.


Rebecca Solnit -- journalist, historian, and activist. She is the author of twenty books on such varied topics as Native American policy, the history of activism, the history of walking, the phenomenon of communities that form out of disasters, social movements, and hope. Solnit’s work reached a turning point in 2008 with the essay, “Men explain things to me,” which popularized the idea of “mansplaining”. Her newest book, The Mother of All Questions, develops the conception that the silencing of women leads to violence. She writes, “Being unable to tell your story is a living death, and sometimes a literal one.”

-- translated from the Polish by David A. Goldfarb


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