View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Books
18 September 2019

Rebecca Solnit and the museum of misogyny

Rebecca Solnit steps into the culture wars with her new essay collection Whose Story is This?

By Melissa Benn

What a pity that Rebecca Solnit does not get a chance in this engaging essay collection to give us her take on the extraordinary furore surrounding Geoffrey Boycott’s knighthood. True, it’s a story with unmistakably English accents: a cricket-loving, female ex-prime minister, applauded for introducing a domestic violence bill into parliament,  granting a top honour to a man with a conviction for violence. But in other ways, the Boycott disaster treads familiar ground for Solnit, who here examines an Anglo-American culture that has changed out of all recognition,  thanks to serial waves of activism, yet so often proceeds as if it is business as usual. Under the old rules, powerful or talented white men are honoured and protected, whatever their private actions, while those they harm too often remain marginalised or victimised for telling the truth.

It has become fashionable to lampoon anger at a white, male establishment as an irrational excess of political correctness. Solnit largely evades this charge through her attention to detail, and the lightness of her writing. She eschews the kind of outraged prose that makes even sympathetic readers recoil in defensiveness or yawn at impending overkill. This is not accidental. In one essay entitled “All the Rage”, she concludes, “Most great activists – from Ida B Wells to Harvey Milk are motivated by love… their urges are primarily protective, not vengeful. Love is essential; anger is perhaps optional.”

In place of righteous fury, she pokes gentle fun. “Unconscious Bias Is Running for President Again” is a shrewd exploration of how we judge political charisma and how few women are deemed to have it, all of which means we keep choosing the same kind of leaders over and over again. (Joe Biden for president anyone?) 

Each of these essays circles the simple, central message of the title: who gets to tell what story, and why the old narratives urgently need to change. Solnit wants to bring to the fore all those who have been for so long pushed to the back of our political and cultural life, and to celebrate those movements that have made it possible: MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion. While she insists on the importance of collective effort, there are paeans of praise here for new kids on the block such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg, and she includes a moving letter of thanks to Christine Blasey Ford, whose anguished evidence in the Brett Kavanaugh Senate hearings in 2018 transfixed a nation.

Solnit can be sharp-tongued when needed. In “The Fall of Men Has Been Greatly Exaggerated” she forensically analyses a single tweet, later deleted, relating to early accusations against Kavanaugh, perfectly unpacking the “loopily malicious self-delusion” of the writer, who is trying to excuse another man’s bad behaviour through grossly stereotyping women: a tweet which belongs in “the museum of misogyny”. She is brilliant on the assault on abortion rights in the US,  and the appalling propagation of lies and double standards that now underpin growing legislative control of women’s bodies.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

But Solnit ranges far wider than the deeply depressing current political scene. Like the nature writer Robert Macfarlane, she explores landscapes and language: meditating on the varied meanings of single words, from “country” to “invade”, “isolate” to “alienate”. Listening to an older friend’s recollection of long-forgotten political activists, “I felt the long reach of a city that we both inhabited… the coherence of a storied landscape.” Travelling the New York subway, passing near to the Rockefeller Center, Columbus Circle and Washington Square,  she notes how “a horde of dead men with live identities haunt New York City”. Women, meanwhile, figure less as actual people whose achievements deserve to be marked than as “allegories and nobodies”, as in the Statue of Liberty.

Solnit speaks such considered, quotable sense, it is tempting to see her as an early victor in our ugly culture wars, here producing a first draft of a new sort of history. I am not so sure; the fate of the intersectional movements that Solnit represents and celebrates still depends on the outcome of any number of battles currently being fought around climate, democracy, race and gender. But, at the very least, Solnit’s work alerts us to the all-important task of recording and elucidating the challenges of our age, so that today’s campaigners may not be interred by their most vengeful enemies, and their wisdom, wit and courage lost to future generations. 

Melissa Benn’s most recent book is “Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service”  (Verso)

Whose Story is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters
Rebecca Solnit
Granta, 192pp, £12.99

Content from our partners
Labour's health reforms can put patients first
Data science can help developers design future-proof infrastructure
How to tackle the UK's plastic pollution problem – with Coca-Cola

This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU