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In New Book of Essays, Rebecca Solnit Tackles the Silencing That’s Quieted So Many Women

Eleanor J. Bader

In The Mother of All Questions, Solnit draws on an equation that has preoccupied women writers from Virginia Woolf to Audre Lorde: that silence is a form of marginalization.

Rebecca Solnit has long been known as a pithy and wise writer, a feminist whose reach spans the personal and political. During the past several decades, she’s explored the ways language has been used and misused; the ways gender has been constructed to privilege men; the condescension of mansplaining; and the ways that all-too-many men have used their perceived dominance to belittle and marginalize women.

Her latest effort, The Mother of All Questions, continues this work. The book is a collection of 11 essays (many of them previously published in the Guardian, Harper’s and Literary Hub), that investigate the many means by which people are silenced. It’s a stellar collection, touching upon men’s burgeoning involvement in feminist movements; the never-funny rape joke; increased campus activism against sexual violence; literary and film representations of women; gun violence; and linguistic missteps.

In the title essay, first published in 2015, she sets the table for the rest of the intellectual buffet and channels “the angel in the house,” first described by poet Coventry Patmore in the 1850s to honor his self-sacrificing wife. “Man must be pleased; but him to please is women’s pleasure,” he wrote. Solnit further notes that like other feminists, Virginia Woolf found the description so offensive that she publicly decried it, writing in 1931 of the necessity of killing the angel and silencing that beleaguered inner voice that tells women to submissively devote their lives to men, whether bosses, colleagues, fathers, husbands, or other relatives. 

Solnit concedes that it’s not easy to quell the angel’s commands; after all, said angel is pesky, irritating, and even in the 21st century routinely uses her influence to prod women to take care of others before tending to themselves. Worse, the angel’s pronouncement that there is just one route to success—marriage and motherhood—remains potent and even in 2017, the angel’s wings periodically flap in the stomachs of women who, by choice or circumstance, are child-free. Solnit herself was subjected to a query about women’s reproductive duty when the moderator of a talk she was giving about Virginia Woolf turned the conversation into a debate about whether the prodigious author “should” have had children. Rather than appreciating Woolf’s versatility or acumen, the moderator introduced the taint of disapproval into the room. Later, Solnit was asked about her own reproductive life and why she, too, lacked progeny.

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Astounding? Intrusive? Irrelevant? You betcha.

Yet it led to what has now become Solnit’s reflective response: Would you ask a man that question? “The question was indecent,” Solnit writes, “because it presumed that women should have children, and that a woman’s reproductive activities were naturally public business. More fundamentally, the question assumed that there was only one proper way for a woman to live.”

Most of us know—in our heads, if not always in our guts—that this assumption is hoary hogwash. But it nags. And both women and men have been slow to cast off countless cultural expectations, not only about childbearing, but about every other choice we make.

In the worst cases, men have responded violently when rebuffed or ignored by women whose attention they expected. It’s become a recurrent theme, and Solnit’s penetrating essay, “One Year After Seven Deaths,” revisits one particularly awful incident, the 2014 massacre in Isla Vista, California.

In that case, a disturbed 22-year-old California man, Elliot Rodger, went on a killing spree that left seven young adults dead. “He had planned a bloodbath as revenge on a world he thought owed him sex, adoration, friendship and success,” Solnit writes. “His hatred was particularly directed at women and girls and the men who enjoyed their company.” After buying a handgun, she continues, Elliot Rodger felt powerful. His journal notes his reaction: “I was now armed,” he wrote. “Who’s the alpha male now, bitches?”

It’s a chilling revelation, and one can only wonder what might have happened had Rodger not been able to buy a weapon. Certainly, as Solnit explains, his assumed male prerogative intersected with his ability to acquire a gun, a terrible combination that ended in slaughter. “Ninety-one Americans are killed by guns every day in this country; there are twelve thousand gun homicides a year in the United States, more than twenty times the level of other industrialized nations,” Solnit reminds readers. Her plea for more stringent gun laws is an impassioned call for peaceful conflict resolution over reliance on arms.

But can stronger gun laws stem misogyny—and stop men from literally silencing women by killing them? Of course it’s not a comprehensive solution, but had Rodger been denied gun access, it’s likely that most, if not all, of the people he murdered would be alive today.

That said, the horrific nature of Rodger’s rampage and other well-publicized violent acts of overt gender bias has led to an all-points bulletin of sorts, sending an understanding of sexism and sexual violence beyond its previous borders and into the wider world. In addition, news coverage surrounding the backlash against Anita Sarkeesian, a media analyst who received countless death threats after she spoke out about sexism in the video game industry, and many high-profile campus rape cases, have opened many eyes to the impact of a sexual standard that blames alcohol and skimpy clothing, rather than men, for the crime of rape. Call this enhanced, expanded understanding a silver lining.

Indeed, Solnit reports that numerous men are beginning to contest the notion that “boys will be boys” and are now working to promote feminism among their peers. They’re also opposing the idea of male supremacy. Lastly, she writes, they’re taking on the idea that women are liars who concoct wild, false tales of rape designed to destroy good men, and they’re organizing educational campaigns to denounce behavior that used to be considered normal. It’s an encouraging turn.

Solnit’s look at silencing—she credits earlier feminists including Michelle Cliff, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Susan Griffin, Audre Lorde, Tillie Olsen, Muriel Rukeyser, Susan Sontag, and Virginia Woolf for their work on the subject—addresses the many ways that women have, and continue to be, kept quiet. She chronicles everything from women’s removal from history books to the denial of the vote; from a lack of educational access to the silencing that comes from fear of rape, sexual harassment, and molestation. Being denied a role in policy making, as well as being disbelieved when we testify about abuse, she concludes, can be as silencing as a literal muzzle and has a deleterious impact on girls and the women they become. Add in racism, homophobia, transphobia, and media misrepresentations, and the layers of silencing become even more complex and difficult to tease apart.

Still, silencing is not always as straightforward as it seems, a fact illustrated by the murder of New Yorker Kitty Genovese in 1964. Although neighbors reportedly heard Genovese’s screams and passersby saw her being stabbed, they did not intervene. Fifty years later, writer Catherine Pelonero discovered a possible reason why: The howls of battered women were so ubiquitous in Genovese’s apartment complex that it did not occur to anyone something unusual was happening.

Even when we are audible, we are not necessarily heard.

It’s shocking and revealing: Despite the fact that many people no longer see male aggression and violence as innate, women continue to shoulder the lion’s share of blame when they are raped or assaulted. Even more appalling, it continues to be common to wonder why the woman was out so late; why she had so much to drink or smoke; and why she went out of the house wearing that, whatever that means in a particular context.

Which leads me to my one major criticism of The Mother of All Questions. Women are often the enforcers of these standards; some, like Camille Cosby, Bill Cosby’s wife, take “stand by my man” to a hard-to-fathom extreme, while others ignore the cries of their sisters, whether they’re coming from rape victims or asylum seekers about to be deported. Solnit beautifully interrogates male privilege and how it has been used to diminish women; nonetheless, she sidesteps women’s complicity in maintaining the status quo. That topic needs to be mined more fully to interrogate why sisterhood has been so hard to achieve. My hope is that it will become fodder for another book, for it is only in understanding this dynamic that we will be able to vanquish it and finally make feminist solidarity the powerful and liberatory force we know it can be.

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