Once again, via Susie Madrak at Suburban Guerrilla, see this post on gender and intellectual authority by Rebecca Solnit called “Men Explain Things to Me,” in which she describes the experience of being condescended to by a man who patronizingly referred her to a book that she herself wrote. It took more than one interjection from her companion–alas, another woman–telling him that she wrote that book before he got it, and shut up. The nut: “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I’m talking about. 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, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”
Solnit writes of another instance, in which she was lectured by a man (incorrectly) about the irrelevance of Women Strike for Peace in the fall of the HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities). This anecdote is kind of a two-fer: a man dismissing a woman intellectual by asserting (falsely) the irrelevance of women ‘s political activism in the Cold War. Well done, Sir! Or, as Solnit says, “Dude, if you’re reading this, you’re a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.” Her essay will resonate with those of you who have been following the conversations here and at other blogs about bullying in acdemia.
How many of you have had this sort of experience–as a student, faculty member, or professional; in class, at an academic conference, or in your work environment? I’ve been wondering about this issue in the blogosphere, especially surrounding Clinton v. Obama supporters and their blogs, but also more generally. Women get pushed around and called names as women by men in the blogosphere on a regular basis. Solnit writes only about gender, as though that’s the only operative variable when it comes to intellectual arrogance (or underconfidence), but it’s more complicated than simply gender. Age and status seems to have put an end to most of the patronizing attitudes and comments that I was subjected to as a student in my twenties, although being in my thirties, having published a book, and being tenured hasn’t insulated me entirely. (Age, of course, is something used against women on both ends–when we’re young, we’re patronized, and when we’re older, we’re dismissed as irrelevant and pathetic after age 50 or 55). I’m sure that race is another critical variable in these intellectual foodfights. Are faculty of color (men and women alike) more likely to be assumed to be students or staff by other faculty? Do white men “explain things” to faculty men of color? Are white women just as patronizing as men to women faculty of color? Does sexuality affect this phenomenon–are gay men patronized as much as women by straight men, for example?
How about y’all? And how has this experience changed (if at all) for you as you got older and achieved greater professional stature? Are you seeing the down-side of “maturity?”
25 Responses to “Please explain this to me. No, really.”