When not to listen to a woman

A few months back, the Atlantic Monthly ran an essay by Lori Gottlieb entitled, “Marry Him! The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough,” a title a former editor of mine would have termed “nothing but readers.” And read I did. Gottlieb's writing had pith and verve, but the essay's essential argument -- that a woman's dream of wanting a smart, cultured, successful husband who recognizes her for the brilliant, accomplished, potential baby-maker she is -- is just that, a dream, and one that will rarely if ever come true because men are not sufficiently complicit. The solution? Settle. Marry the okay-guy, get a child or two out of it, and complain to your friends about the husband you hate to have sex with. Hey, at least you're married, which, by the way, Gottlieb is not.

I have rarely been as incensed by an article as I was by this one. As I wrote at the time, rather than blaming men for their disillusions…

How about women of Gottlieb's ilk stepping up to the plate? Try not setting traps for guys. They know, by the way, you're doing this; they put up with it. But they don't like it. And while they might think it's sweet, for a time, that you're building this imaginary castle into which, should you be able to amplify what you like about him and amputate the rest, he will nicely fit, they really are not keen in the long-run to be thought of projects. So knock it off.

I also at the time wondered why the Atlantic, publisher (if we must split down gender lines) of the brilliant and always illuminating Sandra Tsing Loh and Virginia Postrel, would give this take on a “woman’s topic” so much space. After reading Rebecca Solnit's Opinion piece in yesterday's LA Times, Men Who Explain Things, I wonder if it's institutional.

Solnit's position is, she feels bullied by men, and it's their fault. Speaking directly to said men about this has not apparently occurred to Solnit, though it did to Amy Alkon, who wrote today over at Pajamas Media:

Solnit mewls on for 1,863 words about how women are patronized and silenced by men.

But, wait. Let me check. (Peering down into pants and then panties.) Yup, there’s a vagina in my pants, which suggests I’m either a woman or there’s a matched, escaped set of labia taken up hiding in my underwear. Most mysteriously, I don’t seem to suffer the myriad conversational injustices from men that Solnit and so many other women apparently do.

In Gavin De Becker's excellent The Gift of Fear, he explains what most of us intuitively know even when we don’t know we know it: that people who explain too much are often trying to justify what they know to be their poor behavior. This is what Solnit does, though I assume unintentionally, as it’s in opposition to her stated objective of being heard.

Telling us about her mistakes might have been constructive; she might have said, “Here was this time when I really clammed up, geez, how embarrassing. Won’t do that again!” Instead, she presents experiences in which she flopped around like a fish in a boat as the manifest insecurity of every woman in any situation that calls for her to interact with a less than attentive man. Example: when the host of a party does not acknowledge Solnit’s authorship of a book he’s discussing, Solnit does not laugh ("Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing," she writes of her friend and herself); she does not consider that maybe the guy is dim; she does not say, "Darling, why not do something useful and get me a drink?" No, she freezes, she fumbles; she's overrun with self-doubt. And whose fault is this? According to Solnit, the man’s.

Let us acknowledge there are bullies in the world, and some of them are men. My sister-in-law once mentioned that, as a sailor, she’s often crewed on boats where the guys take for granted that they know more than she and order her around accordingly. She also said that, when she sails her own boat, she often has male sailors rush out on their dinghies, wanting to know if she needs any help. Both instances can be seen as patronizing, or the natural order of things, or the product of testosterone, or idiotic, or helpful, or any number things. In all cases, we have a choice in how we act and react, and on and on bumps the world.

Solnit does not see she has a choice, which is of course her choice – but why publish it? If Solnit wants to play the victim, let her. If she wants to spend years researching and writing books and then get watery and weak-kneed when someone is dismissive, or loud, or boorish, that's her business. But what is the use in her relaying the following: when confronted by a man who knows less about a subject than she, Solnit does not argue her point; does not engage in and thus further the cultural conversation. Instead, she double-checks herself, and later, alone in a hotel room, goes on Google, where she finds… she's right! The lesson she takes from this? To call out the guy years later, in print, to wit:

Dude, if you're reading this, you're a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.

Why did she not stand up for herself in the moment? I don't know. What does she want? As far as I can tell, a sea change in order to accommodate for her weakness, though why we should embrace her passivity while rejecting men's aggression is never made clear.

The battle with Men Who Explain Things has trampled many women -- of my generation, of the up-and-coming generation we need so badly, here and in Pakistan and Bolivia and Java, not to mention 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.

One might say many things of Solnit's assumption that hers is the battle cry women should heed: that it is ludicrous, laughable, sad, counterproductive. But I won't say any of these things, only, to those tempted to follow: you're running the wrong way.


More by Nancy Rommelmann:
Previous blog post: Grab this vine
Next blog post: Rewind for the week of 4/7/08
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed