Words Matter

by Pauline Hawkins

The book finds you—the words you need when you need it. That’s what Men Explain Things to Me a book of essays by Rebecca Solnit did. I’d been having deep discussions with a friend about our voices as women, about being silenced and disregarded and minimized. She mentioned Solnit’s book.

From the first essay, I knew I found a guiding voice. Every page gave legitimacy to my own story—the story I finally realized is almost every woman’s story.

It’s not just me that sees that

“the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered” (p. 7).

Not once, but twice, I had men ask me, “Who on earth would want to read your book?” The first, a librarian; the second, a man I sat next to at a theatre performance. The first time, I was so flustered I couldn’t speak. The second time I tried to defend my book even while he snorted his disapproval after every point. What’s worse? I felt myself shrink with every snort. When I returned home, I was so small, I temporarily removed my book from my website and questioned why I even wrote it in the first place.

So, no, it’s not just me.

“This syndrome is a war that nearly every woman faces every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence, one from which a fairly nice career as a writer (with a lot of research and facts correctly deployed) has not entirely freed me” (p. 7).

If Solnit experiences it, with all her credentials, it’s no wonder that I and many other women have as well.

Essay after essay, I felt validated for all the things that had been frustrating me over the years, angry for the violence (from snorts to physical abuse) used against me and other women to silence us, and I became convicted by the need to stop even the slightest suppression.

The image of our light being snuffed out by our loved ones, friends, colleagues, and strangers became the dominating image in all of my interactions not only with men but also with women as I watched them and myself defer to men, fear the rejection of men, measure our words when speaking to men. Without realizing it, through these seemingly small acts, we were contributing to the history of abuses against women. The simple act of speaking up, of saying, “Let me finish” or “you’re not listening” or “that’s not funny” or “I disagree” can change the trajectory for all women.

In Chapter 8: “#YesAllWomen, Feminists Rewrite the Story,” Solnit shares another way to enlighten the world—through the terms we use:

“Domestic violence, mansplaining, rape culture, and sexual entitlement are among the linguistic tools that redefine the world many women encounter daily and open the way to begin to change it” (p. 83).

We can now call the abuses what they are. Naming them gives us our power, frees us from victimhood. Defining what is happening to us gives us the means to change our world.

If we are going to really change things, we have to do more than just criticize the current state of things. Do more than have deep discussions with our friends. Becoming aware of our oppression is important but staying there perpetuates our victimhood. We have to be willing to stand up for ourselves. Be willing to call out men on their oppressive behaviors. Be willing to be unpopular. Be willing to show our anger. And I don’t just mean for the physical violence against women. I mean every time we are silenced. Every time we are belittled, dismissed, described as too emotional, too pushy, too irrational. Every time.

We need to set them straight. We need to name it. Define it. Defend our right to speak, to disagree, to demand answers, to be respected. We need to let our voices be heard. Let our light shine. Own our power.

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