Published by Haymarket on March 7, 2017
Genres: Essays + Anthologies, Feminism
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The Mother of All Questions is my first experience reading Rebecca Solnit. I requested a review copy because I read such rave reviews of her previous book, Men Explain Things to Me (which I am convinced is the greatest title ever), and also because I have been craving feminist literature since the election.
A Brief Synopsis
The Mother of All Questions is a collection of twelve essays that cover a wide range of feminist concerns.
- “The Mother of All Questions” addresses the cultural assumption that motherhood is or should be an aspiration of all women.
- “A Short History of Silence” is a four-part essay that explores the ways patriarchy silences both sexes and the consequences of that silence.
- “An Insurrectionary Year” is about the great strides that were made toward shedding light on the problem of sexism in 2014.
- “Feminism: The Men Arrive” is about the role men play in the feminist movement.
- “One Year after Seven Deaths” is about the Isla Vista massacre and the causes and impact of violence in general.
- “The Short Happy Recent History of Rape Jokes” is about–surprise, surprise–rape jokes and how comedy is now being turned around and wielded as a weapon against rapists.
- “Escape from the Five-Million-Year-Old Suburb” deconstructs questionable anthropological narratives about the origins of the nuclear family.
- “The Pigeonholes When the Doves Have Flown” talks about categories that have been used to pigeonhole women and racial minorities, but also how categories are necessary and sometimes useful to help identify discrimination.
- “80 Books No Women Should Read” is a response to Esquire’s infamous “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read” list, which included only one book by a female author.
- “Men Explain Lolita to Me” is about the power of art–how it can be used for good or evil and why it should not be immune to criticism.
- “The Case of the Missing Perpetrator” is about how language is used to distance perpetrators from their crimes, particularly rape and other gender-based crimes.
- “Giantess” is a celebration of the progressive 1956 film, Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.
Introducing Rebecca Solnit
I knew nothing about Solnit before reading The Mother of All Questions. The only vague impression I had of her was that she is young, which turned out not to be true at all. Reading this book was a process of becoming acquainted her writing style and beliefs.
While I thoroughly enjoy reading feminist literature, I don’t always agree or click with feminist authors. It’s always a joy when I discover a feminist author (or any author, for that matter) with whom I feel a real connection.
Luckily, Solnit ticks all my boxes. This paragraph from “Feminism: The Men arrive” is an excellent introduction to Solnit’s outlook, which is similar to my own.
I care passionately about the inhabitability of our planet from an environmental perspective, but until it’s fully inhabitable by women who can walk freely down the street without the constant fear of trouble and danger, we will labor under practical and psychological burdens that impair our full powers. Which is why, as someone who thinks climate is the most important thing in the world right now, I’m still writing about feminism and women’s rights.
An essay collection (or poetry or short story collection for that matter) by its very nature is always difficult to review as a cohesive whole. Each essay has a life of its own, so instead of lumping them all together, I’m going to individually explore some of the essays that spoke to me the most. Think of this as prolonged foreplay to tease you into reading the book for yourself.
The Mother of All Questions
The mother of all questions is the question that almost every childless woman will be asked in some variation at some point in her adult life: Why don’t you have children?
It is unfathomable to some people why a healthy, fertile woman would choose not to procreate. In response, Solnit writes, “There is no good answer to how to be a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.”
She uses the preoccupation with women’s role in reproduction to comment on our culture’s emphasis on personal happiness, which seems to be closely linked to the raising of children.
Other eras and cultures often asked different questions from the ones we ask now…Maybe our obsession with happiness is a way not to ask those other questions, a way to ignore how spacious our lives can be, how effective our work can be, and how far-reaching our love can be.
As a woman who plans never to have children, I found this essay particularly relatable and keenly insightful.
A Short History of Silence
Silences build atop silences, a city of silence that wars against stories. A host of citizens silencing themselves to be accepted by the silenced.
“A Short History of Silence” is the longest essay in the collection and is divided into four parts.
I. The Ocean Around the Archipelago
Part one is about how women and certain racial, sexual, and socioeconomic groups are silenced using violence, rape, intimidation, poverty, and exclusion from positions of power and influence. She also notes that “Even those who have been audible have often earned the privilege through strategic silences or the inability to hear certain voices, including their own.”
The idea of silence as an isolating force, where the true self must always be hidden, is compelling and Solnit’s imagery is striking. This ability to capture abstract ideas and turn them into concrete illustrations is one of her greatest strengths.
II. Every Man an Island: Male Silence
Part two hones in on the silence patriarchy imposes on itself–the male silence that is, as Solnit describes it, “a tradeoff for power and membership.”
At the crux of male silence is the suppression of empathy, emotion, and anything perceived as feminine. Solnit’s thesis is that this emotional self-censorship is damaging to men and dangerous to women, who are the embodiment of the very femininity men so violently hate in themselves.
In proving this thesis, Solnit makes a revelatory observation about the nature of mainstream pornography, most of which revels in the degradation and violation of women to some degree. She notes that the excitement in most porn seems “to come from homoerotic power, not heterosexual pleasure.” She states that “misogyny and homophobia are both forms of hating that which is not patriarchy” and yet the irony is that some of the most patriarchal expressions of sexuality (gang rape or imitations thereof are an excellent example) are suffused with homoerotic energy. This is not something that had occurred to me before.
III. Silence: The Cages
Part three drills down into the specifics of how woman’s voices are silenced in Western culture today. It outlines the ways in which this enforced silence hems us in and puts us in lose-lose situations. For example, in her discussion of how women are “often disqualified from participation” in public life, Solnit writes, “Women in politics must not be too feminine…but they must not be too masculine…the double bind requires them to occupy a space that does not exist…”
This chapter is full of case studies that illustrate the myriad ways that women’s voices are muted, even in twenty-first century America.
IV. The Flooded City
Part four explores what happens when women’s voices finally break through the patriarchal cone of silence. Solnit talks about “the joy in recognizing even oppression” because “diagnosis is the first step to cure and recovery.”
Silence and shame are contagious; so are courage and speech…A brick is knocked loose, another one; a dam breaks, the waters rush forth.
Solnit also considers the concept of free speech “when some speech is designed to crush others’ right and ability to speak and be heard.” This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit in the last couple months since an unpleasant Twitter exchange with an alt-righter who called me a Nazi for writing to Simon & Schuster in protest of the publication of Milo Yiannopoulos’ book. I did not appreciate the tone or inciting language the tweeter used but I did pause to consider whether or not my actions constituted endorsing censorship. (I concluded that they did not.) I appreciate how Solnit handles this topic.
Feminism: The Men Arrive
This essay emphasizes the importance of women and men working together to make the world a better and safer place for women.
Feminism needs men. For one thing, the men who hate and despise women will be changed, if they change, by a culture in which doing horrible things to, or saying horrible things about, women will undermine rather than enhance a man’s standing with other men.
It’s one of my favorite essays in the book for two reasons.
- It’s always uplifting to read about men who are speaking out about sexism and women’s rights. It doesn’t happen enough and when it does, it feels like Christmas.
- Solnit tackles the right wing rallying cry that false rape accusations are a widespread problem. This is Solnit at her best–wielding statistics, analogies, and case studies to decisively debunk a toxic myth.
I know there is some controversy about the role men should play in the feminist movement and whether they should be praised for participating. While I believe that feminism should be the default stance of all men, I have no problem celebrating men who support women’s rights. For that matter, I have no problem with celebrating anyone who supports women’s rights. This seems to be Solnit’s stance as well and I wholeheartedly endorse it.
Escape from the Five-Million-Year-Old Suburb
Escape from the Five-Million-Year-Old Suburb grapples with the false evolutionary/anthropological gender narrative that is still ingrained in the Western mind.
We need to stop telling the story about the woman who stayed home, passive and dependent, waiting for her man. She wasn’t sitting around waiting. She was busy. She still is.
This is something I feel quite passionately about. The traditional hunter-gatherer story, which justifies misogyny and male infidelity while assuming female chastity and domesticity, has always made me angry and struck me as patently and willfully ignorant.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized this narrative is not simply an unintentional mistake but a defense mechanism (conscious or unconscious, I’m not sure) designed to assuage male fear and protect the male ego. As Solnit writes, “So many of these stories, as women anthropologists later pointed out, are worried about female fidelity and male power.”
I actually wish this essay had been longer and explored the topic more in-depth. There is more anthropological and biological evidence that could have been used to bolster Solnit’s argument. Nevertheless, Solnit packs a mighty punch in the mere eight pages she devotes to the topic.Rebecca Solnit's 'The Mother of All Questions' Is Evocative + Thought-ProvokingClick To Tweet
The Pigeonholes When the Doves Have Flown
This essay deals with the danger, inevitability, and importance of categories. Categorizing people is a messy business. On the one hand,
The idea that a group is an airtight category whose members all share a mindset, beliefs, eventually culpability, is essential to discrimination. It leads to collective punishment, to the idea that if this woman betrayed you, that one can be savaged…
On the other hand, categories are necessary to recognize and define discrimination. If women are not a category, then they cannot be discriminated against as a group. If racial categories do not exist, then neither does racism. Solnit does an excellent job of unpacking the nuances of this complicated catch-22.
Men Explain Lolita to Me
I read Solnit’s essay, “80 Books No Woman Should Read” (also included in this book), when it was first published over at Lit Hub in 2015. I distinctly remember it because of the kerfuffle that sprung up when certain feminists decided any essay that included “books no woman should read” in the title was problematic.
In “Men Explain Lolita to Me” Solnit simultaneously takes on mansplaining and her feminist critics. In response to said critics:
You read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.
I think this was the crux of Solnit’s objection to the Esquire list that inspired her response essay. And I agree with her. It doesn’t mean I never read books by misogynists, but there is a limit to what the human beings can take. Women deal with enough sexism in real life. Why is it somehow up to us to read misogynistic literature when men so often fail to return the courtesy by reading books written by women?
The Case of the Missing Perpetrator
“The Case of the Missing Perpetrator” is a brilliant examination of the language that is used to distance male perpetrators of assault from their own actions.
In the wildlife sanctuaries of literature, we study the species of speech, the flight patterns of individual words, the herd behavior of words together, and we learn what language does and why it matters.
Solnit uses as her foundational case study the recent CDC guidelines on alcohol consumption for women, which lists “injuries/violence” as one of the possible consequences of drinking too much. Injuries, yes, but violence? Unless your double shot sprouts fists and punches you in the face, drinking does not cause violence. Violent people cause violence.
Now, I realize the same argument is used to justify gun ownership and I know binge drinking on college campuses certainly facilitates rape and sexual assault. It’s something I recently wrote about in my review of Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex. However, Solnit’s point that the CDC guidelines obscure the relationship between violent men and violence against women is also true.
Men are abstracted into a sort of weather, an ambient natural force, an inevitability that cannot be controlled or held accountable. Individual men disappear in this narrative, and rape, assault, pregnancy just become weather conditions to which women have to adapt.
Her point is ultimately the same as Orenstein’s. Excessive drinking may be a stupid thing to do but it does not excuse rapists from culpability. “People get hurt in part because we don’t want to talk about who does the hurting.”
Why Not Five Stars?
The Mother of All Questions is deft, insightful, and beautifully written, but it is not without flaws. There are three things in particular I wish were different.
- Solnit cites a number of studies and statistics but there are no footnotes. I feel strongly that if you’re going to site a lot of research, it’s important to have a notes section so readers can look up the original studies if they wish.
- Many of the essays were previously published, which is fine, but lumped together they often overlap. Thus, there is a fair amount of repetition. Editing could have been done to make the book flow better.
- Though Solnit’s logic is mostly unimpeachable, there are two places in the text where it seems like she is defending the idea that heterosexuality is a mere social construct. She quotes Adrienne Rich as saying, “heterosexuality is not natural ‘but something that has to be imposed, managed, organized, propagandized and maintained by force.’” Not only does the biological reality of reproduction make this idea scientifically indefensible but it also undermines the recognition of homosexuality and bisexuality as orientations that one is born with, innate and immune to harmful attempts to reshape it, such as conversion therapy. A small point in a vast sea of wisdom, but one worth considering.
The Mother of All Questions is, without a doubt, one of the most evocative and thought-provoking books I have read in some time.
The bits and pieces I have surveyed in this review are mere puzzle pieces of the whole picture. It’s definitely a book I recommend reading slowly with pen and Post-Its at hand. I greatly look forward to reading more of Solnit’s work in the near future.
Have you read any of Rebecca Solnit’s work? What did you think?