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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.

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.”

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

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship

Harry Styles performing in London on April 11. Photo: Hélène Pambrun
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How Harry Styles’ European tour was transformed into a LGBT-positive safe space

And all thanks to two fans, 50 volunteers and 28,000 pieces of paper.

After 21 dates, 20 cities, 19 suits, 14 countries and one kilt, Harry Styles’s European tour came to a close last night in Dublin. Some of his most dedicated fans attended a handful of dates in a row, organising their own queuing systems, and arranging tributes to the Manchester terror attacks. “Feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room,” Styles said at every gig, always bringing an LGBT flag on to the stage as he performed. As ever, his shows were a always collaboration between artist and audience to create a safe space for teenage girls and LGBT fans.

On this tour, two fans in particular went above and beyond to create a visually striking, affirmational statement. Ksenia, 17, and Luna, 20, came up with the Rainbow Project, a labour-intensive and involved plan to invite those attending the London dates of the tour to participate in a giant rainbow running around the circumference of the O2 Arena. The project involved distributing 14,000 pieces of differently coloured paper and instructions each night to different seat sections: fans were then invited to put the paper over their phone torches during the song “Sweet Creature” to create a rainbow light effect.

Ksenia and Luna tell me they have been fans of Harry's since his One Direction days: in 2014 and 2012 respectively. “We are really proud of how far he’s come,” Luna explains, “from being afraid of what people thought of him, to confidently pulling off wearing a dress!” The two say they were inspired by Harrys support of the LGBT community: “We just wanted to do something for him.”

Such fan projects aren’t new. As the writer Aamina Khan explains, One Direction fans – who are known for collectively organising to win polls, drive obscure songs to become chart hits, or raise money for charities the band have supported in the past – have been organising fan projects around the rainbow flag since 2014. As the presence of such flags became more and more visbile, Styles in particular started engaging with both the symbol and its message: draping flags around him speaking of love and equality to the crowd. Last year, fans brought hundreds of #BlackLivesMatter signs to Harry Styles concerts.

But Ksenia and Luna’s project seems by far the most complex and challenging so far. “It took us three months to prepare the project,” Luna explains. “We had a group of about 25 volunteers for each show who helped us to hand the colours out. Almost everyone in the arena got a colour, so we made 28,000 pieces in total for the two days.”

Aside from the hours and organisation needed to produce, print, cut out and distribute close to 30,000 small pieces of paper, they both feared that the strict security teams at venues like the O2 wouldn’t take too kindly to their plan. “Obviously you are scared that what you planned doesn't work out,” Luna explains. “But we were pretty optimistic.”

“The venue sadly did take 5,000 pieces away from us on the first night, as we needed permission to do the whole thing – which we didn’t know. The next day, the O2 and its venue manager Rachael reached out to us, and we were happy to have official permission. That night everything worked out perfectly and we’ve never seen something more stunning. It left us speechless.”

“Harry creates wonderful safe spaces each night he steps on stage,” they tell me. “We think we speak for everyone when we say that we’re thankful for that.”

Luna says that the inclusive feeling of Harry Styles concerts is a collaboration between both audience and artist:  “He brings a message, and we as fans chose what we can identify with or look up to. The combination of that creates the feeling at a concert.”

The Harry Styles tour has left Europe, but it’s far from over. As it moves on to Australia, Asia and America, more creative fan projects are undoubtedly on the way.

All photos by Hélène Pambrun.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.