Rebecca Solnit is sometimes thanked — and sometimes blamed — for the word “mansplain.” Solnit’s 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me” helped give birth to the term, which has been canonized by the Oxford online dictionary, been translated into multiple languages and inspired countless memes.
In her new book, “The Mother of All Questions,” Solnit continues her incisive commentary on the ways women are silenced and other kinds of repression. In a phone interview, she talked about the evolution of mansplaining and how all of us can learn to be heard.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q. What do you think of the term “mansplaining”?
A. I used to focus on its negatives: It does get used too broadly at times, and it can imply that anything men hold forth on is mansplaining. But years ago, a woman pointed out to me that the word has been incredibly valuable in describing an experience most women have but didn’t have terminology for, beyond generics like patronizing, presumptuous and so forth. I often talk about the importance of calling things by their true name, of the value of precise description, so I’m pleased to have inspired a word that is now in many languages, including, recently, Icelandic.
Q. Why did you decide to call your new book “The Mother of All Questions”?
A. I loved that title as a kind of symmetry to “Men Explain Things,” which is men assuming they have answers when maybe they should have questions. With a lot of the things we face, having really good questions, rather than having glib answers, is important. The title is there to invoke both the way women are quizzed about what they’re doing and what they should be doing, which I think is wrong, and also as a kind of embrace of questions as a good thing.
Q. In your introduction, written before President Trump was elected, you talk about your admiration for the revitalized feminist movement and your fear of a backlash. Was Trump’s election the backlash?
A. The backlash has been here all along. The people now in power are this naked, in-your-face version of what Republicans are, which instead ends up recruiting people to the resistance. But there’s also a kind of stealth misogyny and dog-whistle conservatism that people don’t resist. What we’re seeing now isn’t a dog whistle. It’s a fire alarm. So, yes, the new regime is attacking women’s rights, and it’s stocked with horrible creepy misogynists, but I’m not convinced that they’re winning in the long run. The resistance has been far more than I expected and incredibly exciting. I’m seeing a lot of solidarity. People see the connections in ways they didn’t before Trump — how are my rights connected to immigrants’ rights, how are Jewish rights connected to Muslims’ rights, how are women’s rights connected to human rights. As Beyoncé would say, we’re getting into formation.
Q. The longest essay in the book is about being silenced. Why?
A. Silence is a form of repression. We can even talk about physical violence and oppression in terms of silence — violence is a tool for silencing people’s will and voices. Then I realized gender roles are themselves a form of silencing. I’ve been in San Francisco since I was 18, and of course not all gay men are liberated and not all straight men are repressed, but being around a lot of warm, sunny, insightful, deeply communicative gay men was a reminder that this is not in the DNA — it’s socially constructed. And maybe it can be socially deconstructed, as gender itself has been to some extent. So I really wanted to think broadly about silence and the way being silenced is disempowering.
Q. So do you think people should speak up more — wherever they are — if someone says something racist or sexist?
A. I think people have to pick their battles. If you do it skillfully you might get your uncle to believe that climate change is real. But the most important work we have to do is not arguing with people who disagree with us, but making people who agree with us engage actively in ways that will actually impact the situation. There’s a big difference between people who are going to believe that climate change is real and people who are going to block this pipeline. And that’s the distance you want to cover.
Q. When was the last time someone mansplained to you?
A. This morning.
Carole Burns is the author of “The Missing Woman and Other Stories,” which won the John C. Zacharis Award.