Two men boxing after Eadweard Muybridge Credit: Wellcome Collection

Rebecca Solnit explains things to us

The writer credited with coining the term "mansplaining" tells a story with which many women will identify
May 6, 2020

The celebrated American essayist Rebecca Solnit is often wrongly credited with coining the word “mansplaining.” She was, though, the first to popularise the term in a 2008 essay about a man at a party in Aspen who explained her own book on the Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge to her. Solnit had thought the word was “a little bit more condemnatory of the male of the species than [she] ever wanted it to be,” but changed her mind when she realised that it perfectly summed up something that happened so often both to her and other women.

In her new memoir, Solnit charts her growth as a writer, from a time when words often failed her (“my words seemed useless,” she writes of her struggles to speak up against her abusers or to seek help) to a point when language became “an instrument on which many kinds of music could be played.”

Solnit has been different writers along the road. She was “punk rock in thriftstore black and crayoned-on eyeliner as a 20-something journalist,” before publishing the first of 20 books in 1991 on California artists in the Cold War, and later gaining fame with that essay, “Men Explain Things To Me.”

Her recollections start with a nod to Virginia Woolf as the author describes the joy she felt when moving into a space of her own. Writing from a dainty Victorian desk given to her by a friend who survived a murder attempt by her ex-boyfriend, Solnit reflects on the activist spirit that has driven her writing. More than a room, what the author needed was a culture, “a context that gives it meaning, and people from whom to learn and to whom to show your work.”

In her writerly evolution, Solnit comes to terms with various forms of “non-existence,” including being a woman in a hostile society. Delineating male violence, she tells a story with which many women will identify. But you can’t help feeling that in repeating a conversation that’s already been had many times before, she isn’t adding much about why the problem persists.

Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit (Granta, £16.99)