I found myself chuckling in amused recognition on Sunday while reading Rebecca Solnit's Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times, "Men Who Explain Things." Solnit, for those unfamiliar with her work, is the author of A Field Guide to Getting Lost and River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, among other tomes. Her Op-Ed is a wry commentary on a familiar phenomenon, per the subhead: "Every woman knows what it's like to be patronized by a guy who won't let facts get in the way." She opens with the story of an upscale party at a chalet in Aspen; most of the guests were old enough that she, in her 40s, was considered quite young. So perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising when the host mentioned he'd heard she'd written a couple of books, and condescendingly asked what they might be about, "in the way you encourage your friend's 7-year-old to describe flute practice."
Solnit has actually written six or seven books, but rather than give him a laundry list -- correctly guessing he was less interested in her work than in figuring out how he could use the topic to jump-start his own literary soliloquy -- she started to tell him about the latest book (published in 2003), on Muybridge. In record time, her host interrupted and proceeded to expound at length on the "very important" Muybridge book that had been published that year, which she really must read if she was interested in Muybridge, and launched into a summation of that revered tome for her edification. His soliloquy was delivered "with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority." (That Solnit has quite a way with words, doesn't she?) Not even the news that Solnit had written the "very important" book he was pontificating about was enough to dissuade him for long, beyond a moment of ashen-faced embarrassment. Small wonder he couldn't remember her name. He had not, it turned out, actually read the book on which he was holding forth with such authority. He'd merely skimmed an article about it in The New York Times Book Review.
Now, this sort of unmasked literary pretension is quite common in certain pseudo-intellectual circles, and is not gender-specific per se. (Frankly, certain women can be just as preening and pretentious, with the same need to hold center stage. They can also be absolutely brutal when it comes to the art of diminishing the stature of perceived rivals via the subtly condescending put-down.) Solnit is very careful to point out that she is not describing all men, only a particularly annoying sub-species, and acknowledges that "my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men... Still, there are these other men, too." Explaining Men are the in-your-face embodiment of what Solnit decries as a much broader "archipelago of arrogance." It bespeaks an underlying attitude towards women as "empty vessel[s] to be filled with their [i.e., men's] wisdom and knowledge," and the worst part is, women themselves often buy into this skewed under-assessment of their relevance and abilities.
"Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about.... Every woman knows what I mean. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating... that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported over-confidence. This syndrome is something nearly every woman faces every day, within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence...."
My own experiences with Explaining Men are a bit more complex, in part because I am a science writer, and thus quite often I want someone to explain something esoteric to me, and welcome the attempt at edification. (It helps that I am naturally curious, too.) In the male-dominated field of physics, that explainer is usually going to be a man -- although the percentage of women is inching upwards every so slowly with each passing decade -- and for the most part, those men have been very decent about it, with a few rare exceptions.
That's not what Solnit is describing, however. She's talking about the sort of patronizing condescension that pervades all kinds of daily interactions between men and women; Men Who Explain Things are among the more benign examples. So I tend to agree in principle with Solnit when she writes, "Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is, and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value...." This harsh reality hit me full force with the publication of my first book a few years ago, and my very first radio interview to promote it: an hour-long call-in program in San Francisco. Something about a former English major thinking she could effectively communicate physics concepts to a general audience stuck in the craw of one cranky male physicist, who called in specifically to harangue me on the air for my chutzpah is daring to presume to "speak for physics" (a claim I never made). He didn't actually call me uppity English major scum, but the implication was clear.
"But surely that had nothing to do with your gender," some of you might be thinking. I suspect it did. After all, he didn't merely take issue with the substance of what I said (the cornerstone of any healthy debate); he questioned my right to say anything publicly on the topic at all.
A similar incident occurred about two months later when I appeared on a radio call-in show in Washington, DC. Another male physicist called in, highly irate, to take issue with my off-the-cuff summation of the uncertainty principle. It was a nitpicky technical point, plus, it was a live show, so for all I knew, I could have mis-spoken, and said so. I hadn't, as it turns out; I'd simplified the explanation for the public radio audience, but within those constraints, it was a perfectly acceptable summation. A couple other male physicists of my acquaintance who heard the show were incensed that the caller had attacked me for no good reason -- and, frankly, a bit disappointed that I hadn't defended myself more aggressively. Mea culpa. I let self-doubt hold sway. The caller claimed to be a physicist, and I was just a first-time author, and a girl at that. Some small part of me just assumed I'd made a mistake, rather than concluding that he was being a jerk.
I have a lot more confidence these days in my right to speak and be heard; now, I'd come out swinging and make mincemeat out of that irate Explaining Man. But three years ago, I was still a bit lacking in confidence, despite all the hard work I'd done to research the book, running all the sample chapters past PhD physicists to check for technical accuracy, and so forth. Even Solnit, a far more seasoned writer, has fallen victim to this phenomenon: "There was a moment there when I was willing to believe Mr. Very Important and his overweening confidence over my more shaky certainty." And it was her book he was pontificating about!
Would I have been attacked so vigorously had I not been a young woman, with a degree in English, daring to speak about the caller's pet topic? Everyone mis-speaks occasionally when talking off-the-cuff, including the Spousal Unit. But he's a man, with a PhD in physics, so when he mis-speaks, it's assumed that he's made an honest error. When I mis-speak, it's usually assumed I am ignorant. Or sloppy. Or both. At least by men. Honestly, there were times, during the year of the First Book, when it felt less like I was being interviewed about a book I'd written, and more like I was being grilled before some self-appointed Inquisition of Popular Physics Writing to make sure I had earned the right to even be there in the first place. Generally speaking, the women who interviewed me (or reviewed the book) were interested and friendly (even if they had criticisms); several men were condescending at best, harshly critical and combative at worst.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not one of those writers who thinks her words are sacred; I rely on thoughtful, constructive criticism to improve my skills, and deliberately seek it out. I'm also a bit of a perfectionist. Like most writers, I'd dearly love to rewrite portions of that first book, so it could benefit from everything I learned in the process of writing it. That sort of input is not the same thing as a subtle power play, an attempt to put the little lady in her place, thinly disguised as helpful criticism, the better to puff up one's own ego and sense of superiority. (Jen-Luc Piquant acidly comments that if you take such faux-criticism otherwise, you're denounced as clearly "over-sensitive." Hey, must be "that time of the month!" Insert deprecating chuckle here. Cut her some slack. She's still bitter over a recent confrontation with a pompous Lacanian Avatar Who Explains Things about deconstructing Jane Eyre.)
Sometimes I envy Explaining Men this over-weening confidence in their own authority -- even when they actually know very little about the particular topic at hand. In this era of superficial dialogue, the appearance of knowledge is often all that's required. Then again, the constant reminders of my own supposed irrelevance have made me stronger, more confident with each storm I weather that yes, I do deserve to be here, and to be heard. All those years as a struggling writer have given me a hard-won expertise that no patronizing Explaining Man can take away from me.
Maybe I'm more appreciative of the freedom to speak because I had to fight so hard to find my voice in the first place. These days, I'm more inclined towards rueful amusement when encountering Men Who Explain Things. But as Solnit points out, that's because we've had to learn to publicly stand our ground as authors; millions of other women don't get that particular boost, and never learn to push back. That's the underlying tragedy of what would otherwise be an amusing oddity of social discourse. Per Solnit: "The battle with Men Who Explain Things has trampled many women... [including] the countless women who came before me and were not allowed into the laboratory, or the library, or the conversation, or the revolution, or even the category called human."
Certainly, throughout the ages, women have not enjoyed many exalted positions in intellectual circles, especially in math and science. Usually, they had to teach themselves, unless they came from wealthy and/or noble families. Such was the case with an 18th century Italian mathematician named Maria Gaetana Agnesi. The eldest of 21 children -- I was relieved to learn her father married three times, since the thought of one woman enduring that many pregnancies boggled the mind -- Agnesi was very much a child prodigy, known in her family as "the Walking Polyglot" because she could speak French, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German and Latin by the time she was 13.
Agnesi had the advantage of a wealthy upbringing; the family fortune came from the silk trade. And she also had a highly supportive father, who hired the very best tutors for his talented elder daughter. Unfortunately for the shy, retiring Agnesi, he also insisted she participate in regular intellectual "salons" he hosted for great thinkers hailing from all over Europe. The young Maria delivered an oration in defense of higher education for women in Latin at the age of 9 (she had translated it from the Italian herself and memorized the text).
There is evidence from contemporary accounts that Agnesi loathed this sort of thing and hated being put on display, even though her erudition earned her much admiration. One contemporary, Charles de Brosseslde Brosses, recalled, "she told me that she was very sorry that the visit had taken the form of a thesis defence, and that she did not like to speak publicly of such things, where for every one that was amused, twenty were bored to death."
Unlike the men in her father's salon, Agnesi didn't much care for Explaining Things. De Brosses admired her intellectual prowess greatly, and expressed his horror upon learning that she wished to become a nun. What a waste! was the implied sentiment. And perhaps it was. But I'm thinking maybe she was far too intelligent for her own good; she just couldn't take the self-aggrandizing intellectuals of her father's acquaintance seriously. And perhaps she realized that she would always be proving herself, and that her accomplishments, no matter how impressive, would always be treated with some degree of patronizing amazement. ("Look at the smart woman discoursing in Latin!")
Agnesi did, eventually, become a nun, but not before spending 10 years writing a seminal mathematics textbook, Analytical Institutions, which was published in 1748. (Most biographies, while admiring, feel compelled to note that the tome contained "no original mathematics.") She was also the first woman to be appointed as a mathematics professor at a university -- the University of Bologna -- although there's no record she ever formally accepted the position. She died a pauper in 1799, having given away everything she owned. At least there's a crater on Venus named in her memory. And she need never be forced to perform like a trained circus monkey again, or listen to any more Explaining Men eager to find some means to edify such a prodigy. She can just let her life's work speak for itself.
I'll give Solnit the last word, since she writes so eloquently:
"Men explain things to me still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don't. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another 40-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I'm not holding my breath."