What started as a trickle has since become a tidal wave, with millions of women worldwide now shouting #MeToo. But with every new name that gets drawn into the post-Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal, the same question keeps getting asked: how could this have been happening for so long? And why did so many people stay silent?
It’s a concept that’s central to The Mother of All Questions, the new book by American writer Rebecca Solnit, whose growing legions of young female fans include Lena Dunham, Beyonce and Michelle Williams, and who is in the UK for an event at the Southbank Centre tomorrow. She first found fame when an article she wrote went viral, the brilliantly spiky ‘Men Explain Things to Me’, which inspired the term ‘mansplaining’.
The 56-year-old has become a new feminist hero, recognised everywhere from public transport on the day of our interview to a remote village on the Tibetan plateau, where a young woman from Kathmandu came up and asked, ‘Are you Rebecca Solnit?’
Watching the news about Weinstein unfold, Solnit felt ‘not quite glee. But to see how quickly his wife left him, his company kicked him out, the Academy of Motion Pictures kicked him out, and criminal charges may be filed… We haven’t seen someone fall this fast and hard.
‘Silence wasn’t a side effect,’ she says, speaking by Skype from her home in San Francisco, her long, greying blonde hair loose, and her imposing aura tangible even via a screen. ‘It’s the very nature of what things like this do. Sexual assault and humiliation are a way of saying that your voice doesn’t matter: it takes away your capacity to consent – and no one will believe you if you want to talk about it. It’s a double bind: we’ll punish and disbelieve and shame you if you tell, and we’ll blame you if you don’t.’
Whether any broader, lasting change will come from the Weinstein fallout is another question. Solnit’s latest book – her 20th – dissects other high profile sex abuse cases including Bill Cosby and Jimmy Savile, and feels eerily prescient.
‘Scandals involving public figures provide national and international versions of what are otherwise often small, local dramas about whose story will prevail,’ she writes. ‘They are often how the winds of opinion change, as they prompt conversations. Sometimes they lay the groundwork for others to come forward to speak of other damage and other perpetrators. Lately this has evolved into a process using social media to create collective tribunals, mass testimony, and mutual support.’
She could have been writing about Weinstein, or #MeToo, or the models posting on the #myjobshouldnotincludeabuse Instagram hashtag, which has snowballed since allegations made against fashion photographer Terry Richardson resurfaced last weekend (resulting in major magazines and fashion houses announcing their disassociation with him).
Solnit wrote about #MeToo on her own Facebook page, but didn’t join in: ‘I don’t feel like I owe anyone [my story], but I felt bad that so many did,’ she says. ‘Are we trying to convince men this is real? People who don’t think it’s real have been hiding from reality, and hiding really hard.’ It would be quicker, she says, to try to find someone who hasn’t experienced it. (I tried; ‘good luck,’ responded one of my friends.)
But, she adds, ‘feminism advances by seismic episodes. I’m old enough to remember the Anita Hill hearings when she testified against [US Supreme Court nominee] Clarence Thomas. The nation was drawn into this huge conversation about sexual harassment. A lot of people didn’t get that it exists, that it’s not all in good fun, that it’s not the woman’s fault. We didn’t have hashtags, but we did have a bumper sticker that I saw for many years after: “I believe you Anita”. It was a watershed: we got legislation after that.’
Solnit is no overnight success story, but although she describes herself as an introvert, and insists she was a ‘scrawny, unpopular, nerdy kid’, she seems always to have had a kind of drive to succeed. Or, at least, to escape. The third of four children, she grew up with a father who was violent (including towards her), and a mother who was also cruel. After a brief flirtation with modelling, she became a journalist, writing about everything from art to the environment, and published her first book in 1991, winning awards and plaudits along the w
But ‘Men Explain Things To Me’ (later the title chapter of another book) was different. Written before breakfast one day in 2008, it tells the story of a party she attended in which the host insisted on telling her about ‘a very important book’, bulldozing her and her friend’s attempts to tell him that Solnit was its author. When he eventually heard them, ‘as if in a 19th century novel, he went ashen,’ she wrote. ‘Mansplaining was a new concept,’ she says now, ‘and it needed a really perfect example to make the case.’
That particular anecdote is obviously not as horrific as creepy requests for massages in a hotel bedroom, but to Solnit, they’re connected. ‘I talk about violence, but also about the slippery slope: you know, that the man who talks over a woman at a dinner table may refuse to listen to her say no in the bedroom.’
The title essay of The Mother of All Questions was also inspired by a couple of frustrating experiences, in which Solnit was asked in interviews why she didn’t have children – to the exclusion of other questions about her work. People don’t ask her any more.
‘There’s a crazy evangelism of [parents] telling you how you’re missing out, which I don’t think people do about anything else. I never walk up to people and say, “until you publish your 10th book life is bleak and unsatisfying and hollow.” And men don’t get asked those things. Nobody thought George Clooney was a tragic, blighted person because he was unmarried and childless at 50. And had grey hair, to boot!’
Solnit herself has never been married, but is in a relationship: ‘I keep him as a dark secret for his protection. And because I wouldn’t want to sound boastful. It’s a funny thing that I’ve often written about terrible things that have happened to me, but I never want to write, “I’m having a torrid love affair with a handsome, successful…” I’ve decided to keep that stuff private.’ She’s amused by people who think, given what she writes about, that she must be ‘bitter’.
‘But I haven’t seen that accusation in a while. Maybe that’s because I turned off public comments on Facebook,’ she says, and laughs again.
Source: The Telegraph