How the Push to 'Break the Silence' Fails the Feminist Movement
In her new essay collection, Rebecca Solnit, the author who gave rise to the term "mansplaining," celebrates how women have finally succeeded in telling the stories of their oppression. But she offers no perspective on what happens after that.
Illustration by Lucy Han
To Rebecca Solnit, whose 20th book, The Mother of All Questions, is out this week, silence is "the universal condition of oppression." Ultimately at fault are huge, systemic forces—patriarchy, colonialism, racism, homophobia, transphobia—from which subsidiary silencing powers emerge. Politeness and shame silence in situations that range from male-dominated office meetings to the aftermath of sexual assault and abuse. The lack of female directors and solid female roles in Hollywood is a kind of silencing, as is the treatment of women in academia, and in any arena where "men's voices count for more than women's." Online harassment, gender roles, date and acquaintance rape, rape culture, domestic violence, anti-abortion activists, poverty, murder, genocide, and slavery are all, to Solnit, silencing. Most often, the victims of silencing are women and minorities and gender-non-conforming people, though patriarchy also silences men by making them repress their emotions and commit what bell hooks calls "acts of psychic self-mutilation." The world is full of, in Solnit's words, "ghost libraries of all the stories" that have not been told.
Introduced as "a tour through carnage, a celebration of liberation and solidarity, insight and empathy, and an investigation of the terms and tools with which we might explore all these things," The Mother of All Questions covers a wide range of topics, all of which will be familiar to anyone who has partaken in the feminist internet over the last few years: not having children; race and intersectionality; male feminists (good); sexist male writers (bad); Lolita; Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi; violence against women; rape; rape jokes; the hashtag campaigns #notallmen and #yesallwomen; the artist Emma Sulkowicz's year-long Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight). The concept behind mansplaining, a term that arose from Solnit's 2008 essay "Men Explain Things to Me," appears occasionally throughout, but never by name. As on the feminist internet, themes that seem to differ dramatically in threat and seriousness are presented close together, and are occasionally connected directly. Besides a short beginning section that consists of an introduction and the title essay, the collection is divided into two parts—"Silence Is Broken" and "Breaking the Story"—that both emphasize the lens through which Solnit gets a resolutely optimistic view: The silence was once rigid and impenetrable, but the progressive movements of the last century have now, finally, broken it.
At its best The Mother of All Questions can be read as a very recent history of feminism, one that can give readers, to borrow the title of a book Solnit published during the Bush administration, hope in the dark. A four-part essay called "A Short History of Silence" details how feminists and activists have long used silence as a metaphor for oppression, and although the "desire to interrogate and annihilate" silence "came of age" in the 60s and 70s with the work of people like Betty Friedan, Tillie Olsen, and Audre Lorde, the imperative to "break the silence" has endured long past second-wave feminism's "accounts of revelations about oppressions that were not previously named or described." The flip side of oppressive silence is liberation, which, Solnit writes, "is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories." For women, the storytelling process has been going well. Feminism's "watershed" moment, Solnit argues in the essay "An Insurrectionary Year," came in 2014, when the wider world recognized "a pattern of violence that constituted a genuine social crisis," in which "enough women were speaking up and being heard that the old troubles could no longer be dismissed." It was the year of California's "Yes Means Yes" affirmative consent on campus law; the year of public downfalls for alleged rampant sexual predators Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi; the year online conversation focused extensively on topics like "kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, and a Silicon Valley millionaire caught on video battering his girlfriend," Dylan Farrow's account of being sexually abused as a child by Woody Allen, and #yesallwomen. Around this time, websites (including this one) began promising to "tell women's stories"; publications both mainstream and lesser known called for submissions from marginalized communities and journalists of color. It was also in 2014 that Rebecca Solnit herself, for years working as what a recent Elle profile called an "almost a delicious secret" among "second-wave feminists, environmentalists, and native San Franciscans," finally gained traction in the mainstream, with the publication of the book Men Explain Things to Me. Though she doesn't mention the year's impact on her career, Solnit's tone in "An Insurrectionary Year" is nothing less than celebratory. She begins the essay by saying, "I have been waiting all my life for what 2014 has brought."
If 2014 was a watershed, then 2017 is a tipping point, or a reckoning. Throughout the collection Solnit establishes her belief that "language matters," though it can be difficult to harness its power because "language is categories," and "all categories are leaky and we must use them provisionally." In other words, language can both create and destroy. "Language is a series of generalizations that sketch out incomplete pictures when they convey anything at all," she writes in "The Pigeonholes When the Doves Have Flown." "To use language is to enter into the territory of categories, which are as necessary as they are dangerous."
Given such convictions, it's strange that Solnit doesn't acknowledge at all what has happened since 2014, the ways language has failed to prevent a forceful resurgence of old-school attacks on the freedoms of women, minorities, LGBT people, and the poor. Though publishing lead times are long, and though Solnit is careful to note that we have not won—that we have not eradicated domestic violence or rape or any of the other horrors marginalized people face in our world—her optimism is nevertheless jarring. In this book, as in so much feminist media, "breaking the silence" is treated as an end rather than a means, though it is clear that breaking the silence is not enough to fight patriarchy, not least because the word patriarchy has lost its bite.
If 2014 was a watershed, then 2017 is a tipping point, or a reckoning.
While reading The Mother of All Questions, I kept thinking of bleak epilogues. Titled "Obama Says Movements Like Black Lives Matter 'Can't Just Keep Yelling'," a New York Times story from last year recounts a private meeting between the president and a group of young black activists in the White House in 2014. According to the author's retelling, the activists told President Obama they felt "their voices were not being heard." President Obama replied, "You are sitting in the Oval Office, talking to the president of the United States." Their voices were being heard—what the activists really wanted was to be listened to, a fundamental disconnect Solnit also fails to take into account. Last week, 22-year-old Daniela Vargas, an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States when she was seven and who had been granted permission to stay in 2012 under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, spoke at a news conference in Mississippi about her fears of deportation under Trump's administration. Shortly after, she was handcuffed, detained, and informed she would be sent back to Argentina without a hearing. Solnit argues, "Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished." She doesn't add that often, hypocrisies and lies flourish regardless of the shards of broken silence lying at our feet. Our voices are being heard; the people in power just don't care.
The last couple of years have been full of disappointing stories like this, tales that initially seemed like they would demonstrate the triumph of the activist spirit only to reveal that, at best, the arc of the moral universe is long indeed. Of the woman sexually assaulted behind a dumpster by Stanford student Brock Turner in 2015, Solnit notes, "She broke the silence (though she didn't break the shame and fear that often keeps rape victims anonymous)." This is undoubtedly true. I remember the furor surrounding the survivor's letter, which was posted on BuzzFeed after a judge sentenced Turner to only six months in jail. It indeed felt at the time as if the entire country was outraged by what had happened—until a couple of members of BuzzFeed staff tweeted tone-deaf responses to the traffic the letter generated. (Editor-in-chief Ben Smith said that BuzzFeed News "hasn't had anything shared like this since the dress," while a features writer marveled at the letter's "social lift.") And then Turner was released from jail three months early, and the judge, who gave Turner such a light sentence because more jail time would have had "a severe impact on him," was cleared of misconduct.
The cynical assumption of feminist principles—BuzzFeed certainly gave the survivor a supportive platform break her silence—for capitalistic gain is a problem many feminists have written about, particularly recently, but you can still argue that spreading the movement this way will help it grow and prosper. (To Solnit, hashtag campaigns, like male feminists, are unquestioningly beautiful and necessary, never tedious or naked attempts at point scoring.) Also unacknowledged in Solnit's book, though, is what happens when these newly widespread principles—the importance of having your voice heard, of telling your story, of "breaking silences"—are co-opted and used to fight against justice and equality. We saw this happen with fake news; as people on the left began identifying the role falsified news sites played in spreading largely pro-conservative misinformation, Donald Trump began accusing the New York Times of the same kind of outright lying, draining the phrase of its meaning, and therefore its power. When the repugnant alt-right celebrity Milo Yiannopoulos was protested out of several appearances at universities, and then when he was dropped as a CPAC speaker and had his book pulled by Simon & Schuster following comments he made about sex with underage boys, some figures on the right cried that he was being censored, silenced. (In 2016, Yiannopoulos was featured in a documentary called Silenced: The War on Free Speech.)
In recent weeks I have gotten into several arguments spawned by a piece in the Atlantic that ran just before the Women's March. The piece concerned anti-abortion women who, despite their inherently anti-feminist beliefs, want to call themselves feminists and be included in the feminist movement. Their perspective is rooted in, as Solnit writes, "an attack on women's autonomy, agency, and right to choose what sex means to them, to control their own bodies, to pursue pleasure and connection without submitting to the enormous demands of maternity, or to choose that maternity on their own terms." But they also want the things feminism promises: equal pay, paid family leave, respect from their husbands and male colleagues. While it's true that feminism aims to benefit all women, our messy messaging seems to have made all women feel they are entitled to the ideology.
Many people arguing against my position—which is, to be clear, that if you aren't pro-choice then you aren't a feminist, period—said they agreed with me technically, but they felt that in the time of Donald Trump we should be picking up support wherever we can get it. In a recent piece in the New Republic called "Yes All Women," Maggie Doherty argues as much, quoting a friend who works in the labor movement: "Do you want to feel good about yourself, or do you want to win?" Ideological purity is impossible, but Doherty doesn't consider how relaxing feminist regulations could backfire: If we welcome anti-abortion activists into the feminist movement, it will not be long before they want their "voices heard." If they are allowed—whatever "allowed" means in the context of a massive, mainstream political group—to call themselves feminists, they will demand that the feminist movement of which they are a part represent them, too.
To declare, "I am a feminist," is to inevitably associate yourself with infuriating banalities.
At what point does a category "leak" so much that it becomes worthless? Increasingly it seems that the word feminist is too far gone. As Jessa Crispin (who is a friend and Broadly contributor) said in a recent interview about her new book, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, the word feminist has "been used in so many marketing campaigns and to justify so many terrible things—pro-life groups are even using it. Now I could say, 'I'm a feminist' and that doesn't necessarily convey anything to you... And so, while I'm a feminist in the sense that I believe in the philosophy, I am not a feminist in that I don't think the word is useful anymore."
This problem extends to those mind-bending conservatives appropriating feminism, but it began inside what Solnit calls the "revitalized feminist movement," where two phenomena are currently dismantling the ideology from opposite sides of the political spectrum. The first is the sense that if we just present the problems of inequality in elegant enough terms, the other side will understand and empathize. This requires the other side to be willing to understand and empathize, which it is not. Solnit acknowledges failures of empathy in extreme circumstances (for example, the Isla Vista shooter who massacred six people in the name of misogyny), but it's much more pervasive than that. The Mother of All Questions is a lovely presentation of problems, and maybe one person who doesn't already agree with the ideas it contains will read it; just as liberals recognize how well-worn phrases like "protecting women and children" are crafted to disguise discrimination, so too do conservatives shut down when they hear "human rights." The term pro-choice, which only arose in 1973 after anti-abortion activists branded themselves as righteously pro-life, was meant to soften this aspect of feminist politics, to put it in an empathetic way: "We are not pro-abortion!" pro-choice insisted. "Just pro-doing-what-you-want-with-your-body!" It's an elegant term, but it doesn't matter: Anti-abortion activists have never accepted its logic, even when the imminently reasonable Tim Kaine presented it.
The second problem with contemporary feminism is that, in the mainstream, the terms and symbols most frequently representing the movement are generally not very elegant at all. To declare, "I am a feminist," is to inevitably associate yourself with infuriating banalities: Disney princesses inserted into increasingly ludicrous situations in hopes of attracting more followers; finger wagging against body shaming the fascist president or mocking his glitchy fembot of a mouthpiece; the idea that Hillary Clinton only lost the 2016 election because of sexism (which Solnit gestures towards in her January 2017 LRB essay "From Lying to Leering: Penis Power"). Led, as Solnit notes, by "the young, on campuses, on social media, in the streets," this revitalization has given feminism widespread appeal, but it's also fostered a rhetorical lameness that has alienated some of the movement's smartest members, whose incisive critiques would only strengthen the platform, in order to incorporate the hateful and misinformed. College students and 24-year-olds with large Twitter followings can be smart, certainly, but they often lack the kind of experience and background to wield complex concepts effectively. The word patriarchy appears 11 times in Solnit's book, and although her use of it is nuanced, one wonders if people who cite "the patriarchy" in the fight to allow women to post pictures of their nipples on Instagram, a platform that would earn money off those photos, quite get what they're invoking. I recently received a press release with the subject line, "On Women's Day, this Snapchat filter fights for equal pay." This disproportion pops up in Solnit's insistence on silence as a metaphor as well, to ridiculous effect: When we use the same word to describe a) a male employee talking over a female employee in a meeting and b) a man who sneaks into his ex-wife's home and kills her, we elevate the importance of the former while minimizing the seriousness of the latter. Murder is technically "silencing," sure. But more importantly, it's murder.
This bizarre disconnect is a relatively rare lapse in Solnit's work, but I think her popularity is partially to blame for—or at least indicative of—the kind of feminist critique drift I'm describing. ("Critique drift" is a term coined by Freddie deBoer.) Her quotability often means people leave out the qualifications to her ideas, allowing them to spread unfettered. Feminism is, after all, about "freedom"! She is careful to note that not all men are guilty of misogyny, that not all men conveying information to women are mansplaining, yet I can't help but think of the many smart men I know who will not present valid critiques of feminism—or even woman-related issues, like reproductive rights—for fear of being accused of silencing women's voices, of "mansplaining." Occasionally my male friends have good ideas about feminism that they "give me"; they know that good ideas about feminism are rarely received well when they come from a man. Feminism, at least the way it functions now, can be a silencer, too. (That this statement sounds absurd perhaps also contributes to its point.)
Like Crispin, I still believe in the philosophy, so I feel a little bit trapped: I know feminism can't succeed without widespread appeal, which we can't get without some kind of accessible campaign. And Solnit's optimism is not entirely or even mainly misplaced: Following the election of Donald Trump, strategies for how to resist—another historically meaningful word now being used to signify a dangerously wide range of actions—have proliferated, and as a result, unapologetically progressive ideas, like single-payer health care, prison reform, and rights for trans people, have made their way into the national discourse. The Women's March, too, was fantastically reaffirming: I remember emerging from a crowded DC subway car at 8:00 AM on a Saturday and waiting for a packed escalator as women of all ages and races erupted into cheers, ready to participate in one of the largest displays of peaceful protest history had ever seen. It was the first time in a long time that I was proud to call myself a feminist, that I felt comfortable publicly associating myself with the political ideology that has most defined my adult life. That a larger portion of the population is now able to identify permutations of patriarchy is probably ultimately more useful than relegating the movement to academia.
Nevertheless, the language nags. People often point out that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a veritable landslide, more than three million votes, which is also very heartening—except when you consider that, like the stories of "breaking the silence," this fact seems to exist in a parallel universe to our political reality, and it allows too many people to ignore massive (but well covered elsewhere) problems with Clinton's platform, the acknowledgment of which would be very instructive in the perils of rhetorical lameness, if nothing else. I still believe that speaking out and telling stories—through journalism, protest, calling your elected representatives, or even posts on social media—are essential components in creating change. But I have also come to think of these tactics as consolations—all we can do, rather than all we should.