What is mansplaining? Who better to provide an example than Nation Books author and TomDispatch contributor Rebecca Solnit. Solnit's now well-known post began as a joke, entitled, "Men Explain Things to Me," which doesn't name the phenomenon "mansplaining" as such but describes a classic incident. It begins as a discussion between her, her friend Sallie, and her host — an older man in Colorado. Solnit writes out their exchange,
"So? I hear you've written a couple of books," [he said]. I replied, "Several, actually." He said, in the way you encourage your friend's seven-year-old to describe flute practice, "And what are they about?"They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life. He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?" So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I'd somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book — with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.
Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said — like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr. Pelen's class on Chaucer — "gladly would he learn and gladly teach." Still, there are these other men, too. So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, "That's her book." Or tried to interrupt him anyway.
But he just continued on his way. [Sallie] had to say, "That's her book" three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless — for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing, and we've never really stopped.
Mansplaining is when a man explains something to a woman that, not only does she already know, but there could be circumstantial evidence that suggests her knowledge that the man had willfully ignored. In an interview, the anonymous creator of the tumblr "Academic Men Explain Things to Me" says, in instances of mansplaining, "[The man] assumes that he should tell her because he's a man, as opposed to some other reason like he speaks better English, or he's older. He just assumes because he's a man."
My personal introduction to the concept of mansplaining is so quintessential and absurd it could almost come from a bad television sitcom. A few weeks ago I was having a drink with a group of journalist friends. The topic of conversation meandered onto something that a female friend had written quite extensively on, but this didn't deter a mutual male friend from contradicting every single statement she asserted. Finally, frustrated, she asked him to stop mansplaining. But oh no, he claimed, "I'm not mansplaining. Mansplaining is when a man tries to explain women's issues to females." He manspained the definition of mansplaining!
Of course, it's not just my journalist friend who has experienced mansplaining. There are countless other examples of this phenomenon.
Shortly after Tammy Baldwin's historic win in Wisconsin, Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican fellow state senator, thought it necessary to explain — we might say mansplain — the federal budget to his new colleague. Quoted in the Huffington Post, he said, "Hopefully I can sit down and lay out for her my best understanding of the federal budget because they're simply the facts... Hopefully she'll agree with what the facts are and work toward common sense solutions."
Not only has Baldwin been in office a solid twelve years longer than Senator Johnson, but Baldwin says in an interview with The Huffington Post that, "I was a double major in college in mathematics and political science, and I served for six years on the House Budget Committee in my first six years in the House."
On a broader scale, suggests Jessica Valenti in her piece "Fantasy Women of the GOP," the Republican party's "War on Women" — that is, attempts to curtail reproductive freedom or change the definition of rape, to name just a few examples — is essentially male politicians deciding they know what is best for women. She describes it as follows, "Republicans can spin all they like, but what they don't understand is that women can recognize dehumanization from a mile away. We live it every day. We know what it is to talk to a person and suddenly realize they believe us stupid because of our gender. We listen while people mansplain topics we're experts in."
In academia, mansplaining is a regular occurrence and source of frustration, as evidenced by the popularity of the aforementioned tumblr, Academic Men Explain Things to Me. Its resonance is evidenced on an anecdotal level by the fact that so many of my female academic friends shared it on social media, but also that hundreds of examples have been submitted.
There is a reason why, as Sarah Seltzer reports, the call for men to be aware when they are "mansplaining" got a "thunderous ovation" at a recent NYC Feminist General Assembly.
Solnit wrote her piece back in 2008. In an updated 2012 version she writes, "Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don't. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another forty-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I'm not holding my breath."