The many ways women have been kept quiet

Rebecca Solnit has a new book.

Rebecca Solnit has long been known as a pithy and wise writer, a feminist whose reach spans the personal and political. During the past several decades, she’s explored the ways language has been used and misused; the ways gender has been constructed to privilege men; the condescension of mansplaining; and the ways that all-too-many men have used their perceived dominance to belittle and marginalize women.

Her latest effort, The Mother of All Questions, continues this work. The book is a collection of 11 essays (many of them previously published in the Guardian, Harper’s and Literary Hub), that investigate the many means by which people are silenced. It’s a stellar collection, touching upon men’s burgeoning involvement in feminist movements; the never-funny rape joke; increased campus activism against sexual violence; literary and film representations of women; gun violence; and linguistic missteps.

In the title essay, first published in 2015, she sets the table for the rest of the intellectual buffet and channels “the angel in the house,” first described by poet Coventry Patmore in the 1850s to honor his self-sacrificing wife. “Man must be pleased; but him to please is women’s pleasure,” he wrote. Solnit further notes that like other feminists, Virginia Woolf found the description so offensive that she publicly decried it, writing in 1931 of the necessity of killing the angel and silencing that beleaguered inner voice that tells women to submissively devote their lives to men, whether bosses, colleagues, fathers, husbands, or other relatives.

Or clients, or guys on the street. One of the ways women are still expected to devote their lives to men is the hotness-mandate. Women are always subject to rebuke or harassment or outright violence for failure to be sexually and aesthetically pleasing enough to men. That expectation has grown and entrenched as expectations about dish-washing and shirt-ironing have receded. Ok, the deal seems to be, you don’t have to do more than your share of the domestic work, but you by god had better be fuckable, or the deal’s off.

Solnit’s look at silencing—she credits earlier feminists including Michelle Cliff, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Susan Griffin, Audre Lorde, Tillie Olsen, Muriel Rukeyser, Susan Sontag, and Virginia Woolf for their work on the subject—addresses the many ways that women have, and continue to be, kept quiet. She chronicles everything from women’s removal from history books to the denial of the vote; from a lack of educational access to the silencing that comes from fear of rape, sexual harassment, and molestation. Being denied a role in policy making, as well as being disbelieved when we testify about abuse, she concludes, can be as silencing as a literal muzzle and has a deleterious impact on girls and the women they become.

And now everything is so much worse than we ever thought possible.

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