Rebecca Solnit, a writer, culture critic and activist with a long list of books and several literary awards, is indisputably one of the intellectual matriarchs of modern American feminism. Among other things, she gets much of the credit—or blame, if you prefer—for the now-ubiquitous term “mansplaining.”
Solnit did not coin the word, but its birth on the Internet followed her much-discussed 2008 article skewering patronizing males, “Men Explain Things to Me,” which later became the title piece in Solnit’s acclaimed 2014 book of feminist essays.
Solnit’s new essay collection, The Mother of All Questions—already hailed as a shining light in the post-election Dark Ages—celebrates the feminist revival that she pinpoints as starting in 2014, with the #YesAllWomen campaign in response to Elliot Rodger’s shooting spree fueled by rage at female rejection. #NotAllWomen, however, are quite as excited by a feminism that treats a mentally ill man’s homicidal rampage as emblematic of male-female relations and compares men to a bowl of M&Ms in which some are poisoned (a metaphor decried as “dehumanizing” and “morally bankrupt” when it’s Skittles and Syrian refugees). In fact, Solnit’s book is a pretty good summation of what some of us have dubbed “fauxminism”: the gender warfare, the wallowing in victimhood, the fake facts. Oh, and one of the essays in it is quite literally based on a falsehood. More on that later.
Solnit paints a hellish picture of female life under modern-day American “patriarchy”: misogyny and “rape culture” are rampant; women face constant danger of “humiliation, harm, and maybe even death” because of their gender and are silenced by everyone from GamerGate nerds to wife-beaters. The only good men are feminist allies ashamed of the horrors perpetrated by their fellow males.
One can recognize that sexual violence, sexual harassment and domestic abuse are painfully real problems—often poorly handled by the justice system—and still find this hyperbole absurd. Sometimes, it’s verifiably bogus. Thus, Solnit claims domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to American women; yet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that all assault, domestic or not, ranks eighth among causes of injury to women—behind not only falls and car accidents but insect stings and animal bites. She asserts that only two or three percent of rapes result in prison time for the rapist, a claim that has been previously awarded “three Pinocchios” by the Washington Post fact-checker. She also asserts that only about two percent of rape reports are found false (almost certainly too low) and that, therefore, 98 percent are true (which doesn’t follow since many cases remain unresolved).
Predictably, this mindset also colors Solnit’s view of individual cases. She sings the praises of Columbia University’s “mattress girl” Emma Sulkowicz, who carried a mattress around campus to protest the supposed mistreatment of her rape complaint, and says that “Sulkowicz was subjected to massive attacks on social media, in the men’s rights movement, and elsewhere.” She does not mention that these “attacks” included the exposure of information that, while not entirely disproving Sulkowicz’s claim of brutal rape by a fellow student, certainly cast doubt on her credibility—such as her affectionate messages to the accused in the days and weeks following the alleged rape. (I was the first journalist to bring this information to light.) Solnit even refers to the University of Virginia’s notorious hoaxer Jackie as a “victim” who gave an inaccurate account.
Solnit shows no awareness that sexual assault charges that hinge on conflicting accounts of a private intimate encounter—and, often, on alcohol-addled memories—pose legitimate difficulties for a justice system based on the presumption of innocence. Nor does she pause to consider that “affirmative consent” policies may result in requiring the accused to prove his innocence. Instead, she sums up the objections to “Yes Means Yes” as “a host of men … rais[ing] a shriek of indignation that both parties had to be consciously, actively in favor of what was going on.”
And that brings us to the part of Solnit’s book that is not just misleading or shoddy but downright dishonest. Strong language? You be the judge. (An attempt to reach Solnit for comment through her publisher was unsuccessful.)
One of the essays in The Mother of All Questions is “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” first published on the Lithub site in December 2015 as a follow-up to another piece (also included in the book) on books that are toxic for women. Some people on the Internet had the nerve to disagree, so Solnit penned another essay about how men oppress her by telling her she’s wrong. She was particularly incensed by one comment questioning her statement that, when she read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, she identified with the title character, the sexually abused teenage girl.
It all came down to Lolita, Solnit explains. She continues,
“Some of my favorite novels are disparaged in a fairly shallow way. To read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov,” one commenter informed me… The popular argument that novels are good because they inculcate empathy assumes that we identify with characters… It’s just when you identify with Lolita you’re clarifying that this is a book about a white man serially raping a child over a period of years. Should you read Lolita and strenuously avoid noticing that this is the plot and these are the characters? Should the narrative have no relationship to your own experience? This man thinks so, which is probably his way of saying that I made him uncomfortable.
A few paragraphs down, Solnit quotes the comment again, snidely referring to its author as “one of my volunteer instructors,” and mentions discussing it on her own Facebook page only to get lectured some more by two “nice liberal men.”
Five days after the essay was published, a post appeared in the comments section claiming that (1) “this man” was a woman with a gender-ambiguous name, and (2) she had not made this point to Solnit but in a discussion in her alumni group on Facebook. Two days after that, one Sidney Newton (whose Facebook page confirms she is indeed a woman) chimed in,
I am a woman and the person quoted in the article and described as a man. She left out most of what I said as well. That’s fine. What isn’t fine is claiming men are explaining things to you and supporting that by quoting a woman talking to someone else.
That’s when Solnit did a “stealth edit,” altering the text without acknowledging the changes. “One commenter informed me” became “one commenter asserted,” while “this man thinks so” became “this reader thinks so”—and the speculation about the reader’s discomfort with white-male-rapist-blaming disappeared altogether.
The paragraph has been tweaked again in the book version: all mention of Newton’s comment is now gone, with the bizarre effect that Solnit seems to be sparring against an invisible opponent. No less bizarre, the later passage where Solnit quotes the same comment with a gibe at her “volunteer instructors” remains intact; she also refers to the “instructors” as “these guys.” So the essay, whose title really should read “A Woman and Two Men Explain Lolita to Me,” still implies that the original comment criticizing her view of Lolita was posted by a man—even though Solnit knows otherwise. Apparently, “misgendering” is only a mortal sin if directed at someone transgender.
Does this sleight of hand tank Solnit’s trustworthiness as a writer? I think so. But it also illustrates a key fact about Solnit’s brand of feminism, in which women’s voices must be respected only if they are “womaning right.” Those who don’t—female gamers who support GamerGate, female critics of “Yes Means Yes,” women who like the wrong books—are promptly relegated to non-womanhood. No wonder feminism as we know it in 2017 leaves so many women cold.