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14 November 2017

Rebecca Solnit and the renewed battle against sexual harassment

At a time when women are refusing to be silenced, the US writer is a powerful voice.

By Helen Lewis

For someone who makes their living from words, Rebecca Solnit is unusually interested in silence. The second essay in her new collection, The Mother of All Questions, calls it “the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard”. Silence can be taken as consent; silence can conceal shame; “silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished”. 

The silence of victims is particularly telling. When we meet in the lobby of a London hotel, it’s a fortnight after the New York Times published a revelatory story accusing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of harassing multiple actresses over more than two decades. Allegations against others, such as actor Kevin Spacey, theatre director Max Stafford-Clark and superstar US journalists Leon Wieseltier, Mark Halperin and Matt Taibbi, followed. Then the scandal spread to Westminster, leading to the resignation of Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and the suspension of Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins.  

Solnit sees these stories as “seismic events, where the plate of feminism moves further”. It reminds her of the Anita Hill hearings in 1991, a landmark moment in American feminism, when a young lawyer accused her boss, prospective Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment. The backlash against Hill was fierce – and Thomas still made it to a seat on the supreme court – but the case led to new laws around harassment.

“I often think that she struck Clarence Thomas dumb in some way,” says Solnit. “He’s barely spoken since… And it educated people. All those of us who had been sexually harassed didn’t need to be educated about it, but we needed space in which to have our stories of abuse taken seriously.”

This is the missing half of our current conversation on harassment: think of all the potential lost, the talent wasted, the opportunities stolen by a few powerful predators. “I’ve really been insisting on that,” says Solnit. “Let’s not talk about how sad it is that X’s career is getting smacked down… someone like Weinstein actively worked to destroy women’s voices, agency, confidence, careers.”

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Solnit mentions a recent article by the feminist writer Rebecca Traister, which outlined how journalists now revealed as sexual harassers were instrumental in creating the dominant image of Hillary Clinton: cold, sexless, overly ambitious. “A friend of mine said to me, ‘We had no idea how much they hated women.’ And Clinton is her own peculiar lightning rod, but there was a way you got attacked if you praised her, that people really went underground.”

On the left, support for insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders sometimes tipped into harassment and belittlement of Clinton supporters: “You have these white men of the left who are convinced that neoliberalism is the worst thing in the world, even as white supremacy and fascism play out,” she says. “It’s privilege. You can have disdain for what the Democratic Party does if you don’t need voting rights, you don’t need reproductive rights.”

One legacy of the Hill case was giving women (and men) a new vocabulary. I tell Solnit that a friend has just finished reviewing Sylvia Plath’s letters, and was struck by how even a writer as accomplished as Plath struggled to name her experiences. From the 1970s to the 1990s, second wave feminism gave women a framework through which to understand their oppression: coercive control, domestic violence, marital rape.

“There’s a quote in my book Wanderlust from Sylvia Plath about her desire to move freely through the world, and to sleep out under the stars, but she can’t because of her gender,” says the writer. “This year I’ve started to think about Plath, and who would she have been in a world where she had more scope, where her marriage wasn’t such a determination of her destiny… where she had slept under the stars.”

Solnit has taken full advantage of this expansion of women’s freedom. The title of her book comes from her exasperation with journalists and critics who still see childlessness as a pitiable state. After the subject came up in a lecture about Virginia Woolf, she moved the conversation on, concluding: “After all, many people make babies; only one made To The Lighthouse and Three Guineas, and we were discussing Woolf because of the latter.” 

Solnit gives a list of the reasons she hasn’t had children, from being “good at birth control” to being raised by “unhappy, unkind people” and having no wish to replicate that environment. Instead, the 56-year-old has travelled, loved and written – more than a dozen books so far. 

She was a quiet success until a 2008 essay of hers went viral. Entitled “Men Explain Things to Me”, it was a story of delicious schadenfreude: after she mentioned Eadweard Muybridge at a party, a pompous man insisted that she must read a recently published book on the Victorian inventor, his “eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority”. As the man struggled to remember further details – it turned out that he had only read a review – Solnit tried to interrupt and explain that she didn’t need to read the book. She had written it.

The anecdote led to a new word – “mansplaining” – and introduced her crisp prose to a generation of young feminists. At a time when women are refusing to be silenced, Rebecca Solnit is a powerful voice.

“The Mother of All Questions” (Granta) is out now

This article appears in the 08 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship