Read Men Explain Things to Me Online

Authors: Rebecca Solnit

Tags: #Feminism & Feminist Theory, #Current Affairs, #Imperialism, #Political Science, #Women's Studies, #Download-Ebook Farm, #Social Science

Men Explain Things to Me (6 page)

Those of us following the court proceedings around, for example, California’s marriage-equality battle have heard a lot about how marriage is for the begetting and raising of children, and certainly reproduction requires the union of a sperm and an egg—but those unite in many ways nowadays, including in laboratories and surrogate mothers. And everyone is aware that many children are now raised by grandparents, stepparents, adoptive parents, and other people who did not beget but love them.

Many heterosexual marriages are childless; many with children break up: they are no guarantee that children will be raised in a house with two parents of two genders. The courts have scoffed at the reproduction and child-raising argument against marriage equality. And the conservatives have not mounted what seems to be their real objection: that they wish to preserve traditional marriage and more than that, traditional gender roles.

I know lovely and amazing heterosexual couples who married in the 1940s and 1950s and every decade since. Their marriages are egalitarian, full of mutuality and generosity. But even people who weren’t particularly nasty were deeply unequal in the past. I also know a decent man who just passed away, age ninety-one: in his prime he took a job on the other side of the country without informing his wife that she was moving or inviting her to participate in the decision. Her life was not hers to determine. It was his.

It’s time to slam the door shut on that era. And to open another door, through which we can welcome equality: between genders, among marital partners, for everyone in every circumstance. Marriage equality is a threat: to inequality. It’s a boon to everyone who values and benefits from equality. It’s for all of us.

chapter 5

Grandmother Spider



A woman is hanging out the laundry. Everything and nothing happens. Of her flesh we see only several fingers and a pair of strong brown calves and feet. The white sheet hangs in front of her, but the wind blows it against her body, revealing her contours. It is the most ordinary act, this putting out clothes to dry, though she wears black high heels, as though dressed for something other than domestic work, or as if this domestic work was already a kind of dancing. Her crossed legs look as though they are executing a dance step. The sun throws her shadow and the dark shadow of the white sheet onto the ground. The shadow looks like a long-legged dark bird, another species stretching out from her feet. The sheet flies in the wind, her shadow flies, and she does all this in a landscape so bare and stark and without scale that it’s as though you can see the curvature of the Earth on the horizon. It’s the most ordinary and extraordinary act, the hanging out of laundry—and painting. The latter does what the wordless can do, invoking everything and saying nothing, inviting meaning in without committing to any particular one, giving you an open question rather than answers. Here, in this painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez, a woman both exists and is obliterated.


I think a lot about that obliteration. Or rather that obliteration keeps showing up. I have a friend whose family tree has been traced back a thousand years, but no women exist on it. She just discovered that she herself did not exist, but her brothers did. Her mother did not exist, and nor did her father’s mother. Or her mother’s father. There were no grandmothers. Fathers have sons and grandsons and so the lineage goes, with the name passed on; the tree branches, and the longer it goes on the more people are missing: sisters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, a vast population made to disappear on paper and in history. Her family is from India, but this version of lineage is familiar to those of us in the West from the Bible where long lists of begats link fathers to sons. The crazy fourteen-generation genealogy given in the New Testament’s Gospel According to Matthew goes from Abraham to Joseph (without noting that God and not Joseph is supposed to be the father of Jesus). The Tree of Jesse—a sort of totem pole of Jesus’s patrilineage as given in Matthew—was represented in stained glass and other medieval art and is said to be the ancestor of the family tree. Thus coherence—of patriarchy, of ancestry, of narrative—is made by erasure and exclusion.


Eliminate your mother, then your two grandmothers, then your four great-grandmothers. Go back more generations and hundreds, then thousands disappear. Mothers vanish, and the fathers and mothers of those mothers. Ever more lives disappear as if unlived until you have narrowed a forest down to a tree, a web down to a line. This is what it takes to construct a linear narrative of blood or influence or meaning. I used to see it in art history all the time, when we were told that Picasso begat Pollock and Pollock begat Warhol and so it went, as though artists were influenced only by other artists. Decades ago, the Los Angeles artist Robert Irwin famously dumped a New York art critic on the side of the freeway after the latter refused to recognize the artistry of a young car customizer making hot rods. Irwin had been a car customizer himself, and hot-rod culture had influenced him deeply. I remember a contemporary artist who was more polite but as upset as Irwin when she was saddled with a catalogue essay that gave her a paternalistic pedigree, claiming she was straight out of Kurt Schwitters and John Heartfield. She knew she came out of hands-on work, out of weaving and all the practical acts of making, out of cumulative gestures that had fascinated her since bricklayers came to her home when she was a child. Everyone is influenced by those things that precede formal education, that come out of the blue and out of everyday life. Those excluded influences I call the grandmothers.


There are other ways women have been made to disappear. There is the business of naming. In some cultures women keep their names, but in most their children take the father’s name, and in the English-speaking world until very recently, married women were addressed by their husbands’ names, prefaced by
. You stopped, for example, being Charlotte Brontë and became Mrs. Arthur Nicholls. Names erased a woman’s genealogy and even her existence. This corresponded to English law, as Blackstone enunciated it in 1765:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and
, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a
femme-covert . . .
or under the protection and influence of her husband, her
, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her
. For this reason, a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence.

He covered her like a sheet, like a shroud, like a screen. She had no separate existence.


There are so many forms of female nonexistence. Early in the war in Afghanistan, the
New York Times
Sunday magazine ran a cover story on the country. The big image at the head of the story was supposed to show a family, but I saw only a man and children, until I realized with astonishment that what I had taken for drapery or furniture was a fully veiled woman. She had disappeared from view, and whatever all the other arguments may be about veils and burkas, they make people literally disappear. Veils go a long way back. They existed in Assyria more than three thousand years ago, when there were two kinds of women, respectable wives and widows who had to wear veils, and prostitutes and slave girls who were forbidden to do so. The veil was a kind of wall of privacy, the marker of a woman for one man, a portable architecture of confinement. Less portable kinds of architecture kept women confined to houses, to the domestic sphere of housework and childrearing, and so out of public life and incapable of free circulation. In so many societies, women have been confined to the house to control their erotic energies, necessary in a patrilineal world so that fathers could know who their sons were and construct their own lineage of begats. In matrilinear societies, that sort of control is not so essential.


In Argentina during the “dirty war” from 1976 to 1983, the military junta was said to “disappear” people. They disappeared dissidents, activists, left-wingers, Jews, both men and women. Those to be disappeared were, if at all possible, taken secretly, so that even the people who loved them might not know their fate. Fifteen thousand to thirty thousand Argentines were thus eradicated. People stopped talking to their neighbors and their friends, silenced by the fear that anything, anyone, might betray them. Their existence grew ever thinner as they tried to protect themselves against nonexistence. The word
a verb, became a noun as so many thousands were transformed into the disappeared,
los desaparecidos
, but the people who loved them kept them alive. The first voices against this disappearance, the first who overcame their fear, spoke up, and became visible, were those of mothers. They were called
Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo
. Their name came from the fact that they were the mothers of the disappeared and that they began appearing in a place that represented the very heart of the country—in front of the Casa Rosa, the presidential mansion, at the Plaza de Mayo in the capital, Buenos Aires – and having appeared, they refused to go away. Forbidden to sit, they walked. Though they would be attacked, arrested, interrogated, forced out of this most public of public places, they returned again and again to testify openly to their grief, their fury, and to mount their demand that their children and grandchildren be returned. They wore white kerchiefs embroidered with the names of their children and the date of their disappearances. Motherhood was an emotional and biological tie that the generals then in charge of the country could not portray as merely left wing or as criminal. It was a cover for a new kind of politics, as it had been for the US group Women Strike for Peace, founded in the shadow of the Cold War in 1961, when dissent was still portrayed as sinister, as communist. Motherhood and respectability became the armor, the costume, in which these women assaulted in one case the generals and in the other, a nuclear weapons program and war itself. The role was a screen behind which they had a limited kind of freedom of movement in a system in which no one was truly free.


When I was young, women were raped on the campus of a great university and the authorities responded by telling all the women students not to go out alone after dark or not to be out at all. Get in the house. (For women, confinement is always waiting to envelope you.) Some pranksters put up a poster announcing another remedy, that all men be excluded from campus after dark. It was an equally logical solution, but men were shocked at being asked to disappear, to lose their freedom to move and participate, all because of the violence of one man. It is easy to name the disappearances of the Dirty War as crimes, but what do we call the millennia of disappearances of women, from the public sphere, from genealogy, from legal standing, from voice, from life? According to the project Ferite a Morte (Wounded to Death)
organized by the Italian actress Serena Dandino and her colleagues, about sixty-six thousand women are killed by men annually, worldwide, in the specific circumstances they began to call “femicide.” Most of them are killed by lovers, husbands, former partners, seeking the most extreme form of containment, the ultimate form of erasure, silencing, disappearance. Such deaths often come after years or decades of being silenced and erased in the home, in daily life, by threat and violence. Some women get erased a little at a time, some all at once. Some reappear. Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story, the genealogy, the rights of man, the rule of law. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.


You can tell so many stories about a woman hanging out the laundry—putting clothes on the line is a pleasurable task at times, a detour into the light. You can also tell many kinds of stories about the mysterious form all tangled up with a bedsheet in Ana Teresa Fernandez’s painting. Hanging out the laundry might be the dreamiest of domestic chores, the one that involves air and sun and the time in which the water evaporates out of the clean clothes. It isn’t done much by the privileged anymore, though whether the woman in black high heels is a housewife or a maid or a goddess at the end of the world is impossible to determine, as is the question of what it means that she’s hanging out a bedsheet, though it made me think of a string of associations involving cases of obliteration—like its own laundry line. Hanging out the laundry is generally how textiles got dry until the invention of the dryer, and I still hang it out. So do Latino and Asian immigrants in San Francisco, laundry hanging out Chinatown windows and across Mission District yards, flying like so many prayer flags. What stories are told by the worn jeans, the kids’ clothes, this size underwear, that striped pillowcase?

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