I come from a large Catholic family that has little patience for listening. Family gatherings are loud and result in a lot of talk but little change. Newcomers, my husband included, are often surprised by the sheer madness, but I’ve grown accustomed to having to talk over others to be heard. I rarely questioned this practice until I was in my late 30s.
When I pursued my Ph.D., I realized that being loud was not necessarily a good thing. I remember my first class, a seminar on how to be a Ph.D. candidate. I interrupted and talked over others, and that resulted in few people interested in what I had to say – in short, this was not a family get-together, and it called for a different strategy. So, I started to practice listening. And after a few semesters of this, I noticed something revolutionary happening: The more I read, discussed, and listened to others, the less I felt I knew. That’s right, instead of loudly stating my position, I learned that there are many positions to adopt.
In Reading for (a) Change, I will study this contemplative practice: listening to others as an opportunity to grow and broaden my understanding. Every reading provides opportunity to question what I think I know. One particular book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, is a great place to start because it discusses the danger of silencing, something I am still guilty of doing.
If you haven't read the titular chapter, this powerful (and short) piece, it opens with a reminiscence. Solnit and a friend attend a party where the male host, upon meeting the writer for the first time, asks about the books she's written. She no sooner lists a few when he interrupts her to say that he's reading a book about the same topic. Solnit's friend tells him several times that it's her book. When he finally listens, he goes "ashen" and is “stunned speechless" (3). For the full effect, watch Solnit read it here.
The brilliance of this and Solnit’s other essays is often overshadowed by the term “mansplaining.” This essay is often credited with the birth of this term, and The Atlantic provides a wonderful analysis of its history.
But here’s one way to think about “mansplaining”: the term’s overuse minimizes the pain caused by what Solnit describes as "the battle for women to be treated like human beings with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of involvement in cultural and political arenas" (14). This isn’t much of a leap, is it? When women are talked over and not given credit for their work, it starts a cycle that results in silencing contributions that could change how we think, feel, engage, and explore the world.
Although I am an unabashedly loud woman, I have withdrawn when a male co-worker feels the need to explain what I already know. When that happens, it feels something like Wendy Cope’s poem “Differences of Opinion”:
He tells her that the earth is flat --
He knows the facts, and that is that.
In altercations fierce and long
She tries her best to prove him wrong,
But he has learned to argue well.
He calls her arguments unsound
And often asks her not to yell.
She cannot win. He stands his ground.
The planet goes on being round.
But here’s the thing, women of academia: We can disrupt mansplaining. I’m not so naive to think that we will have an immediate effect on those life-long mansplainers, but perhaps we can affect change by working with young men – and young women – on our campuses.
Only recently, my daughter, a junior in college, recounted a story from a friend. This friend told her boyfriend (who worked in Silicon Valley) about the term and how mansplaining makes women feel. Weeks later, he called her in a panic. He realized after the fact that he mansplained to a female colleague. Once he realized what he did, he asked his girlfriend how to undo it. Her suggestion? Go back to the colleague and apologize. Be better. Try harder.
Toward the end of Solnit’s essay, she makes a promise to try to end this war: “I’m still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope they will get to say it.”
Yes. Opportunities abound for us to help end this silencing – and that means also giving younger women, who perhaps already have some insight on how to work with their male counterparts, the opportunity to fight and be heard as well. Let us not become “adultsplainers.”
In creating proFmagazine, we flipped the script, often working with younger women as our mentors. On college campuses, today, undergraduate students like my daughter provide sexual assault awareness information for college deans and professors. This generation of college women has a lot to share if we’ll hear them. This loud woman has come to understand that the key is to listen more, talk less, and see how my own silence actually stops silencing.