Mansplaining: What Is It and What Is It Good For?

One of the reasons we started Feminist Fever is because Kathleen and I desperately wanted to show people why feminism is still necessary. Far too people – women included – seem to believe, quite erroneously, that women are equal in our society. “We don’t need feminism anymore! Women today can do anything!” they cry. And I get the feeling behind the sentiment, I do. It’s easier to believe that women are equal, that we no longer have to do the hard work of activism, than it is to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable and do things that may be dangerous.

Yes, I used the word dangerous on purpose and no, it is not hyperbole. When women point out the ways in which our society is unequal and unjust, we face repercussions. Sometimes these consequences are steep. They can be anything from public censure, humiliation, and silencing to the loss of our jobs, relationships, health and freedom. On occasion, we can even lose our lives. So to speak up and express our truth can be scary.

But it isn’t always the big things and I think that is what confuses a lot of people. Most people can wrap their heads around the “big” items, like equal pay for equal work or blatant discrimination, but do not understand how it is that “smaller” things matter. They do not seem to “get” that attitudes matter precisely because they lead to bigger actions, ones with great import. As such, feminists are left fighting not only the “big” things but the smaller ones as well, often with people who either love us or who should really know better (or both). Frankly, it’s exhausting. So, that is part of our goal here at Feminist Fever: to talk about the small stuff in the hopes that it leads to action against sexism both big and small.

Which leads me to mansplaining. Many people have not heard of this word but I can almost guarantee you that most women will recognize the experience and feelings it is designed to label. Mansplaining is an integration of the words “man” and “explaining.” It describes the tendency of some men to mistakenly believe that they automatically know more about any given topic than a woman does and who, consequently, proceeds to explain something to her in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner. It’s the equivalent of a pat on the head, usually when the patter is in the wrong.

The word was coined by Rebecca Solnit after an experience she had while talking to a man at a party. He asked her what she did. She replied that she wrote books and started to describe her most recent one, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West when he interrupted her to ask, “Have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?” Even though he himself had not read the actual book (he was going off a New York Times review of it), he continued to expound upon its content until a friend said, “That’s her book.” Even then, he ignored the friend who had to say it three more times before he turned pale and walked away. In other words, he mansplained.

Men who have never heard of the word seem puzzled by what it means but most women seem to not only get its meaning exactly but go on to have a story or two of times it happened to them. It is the social context in which a man is holding forth on a topic in a way that’s different (since his audience is the little lady) than he would be with someone he considered to be a peer (i.e., another man). My own most recent experience of mansplaining came from both my brother-in-law and my husband. My brother-in-law was asking about how I worked with the families I counsel. I mentioned that change is very tricky, especially when dealing with systems like families that are very reluctant to modify themselves. However, the good part is that it only takes one person to change the entire system.

By the way, my analogy for this is playing the game Ring Around the Rosy in which everyone holds hands and goes around in a circle (thereby simulating a system). If just one person goes in a different direction, it either throws the whole thing into chaos or the circle easily adjusts and follows the new path. Either way, the system is changed.

My brother-in-law didn’t buy this. He stated unequivocally that people don’t change based on what other people do; they only change if they want to. At first, I thought that if I offered examples that he would understand what I meant. After all, I have six years of graduate training and 14 years of professional experience dealing directly with change compared to his zero years in either area. But no, he started to mansplain to me how change occurs. Then my husband joined in and also started mansplaining about other kinds of systems.

The two of them had no problem interrupting me (but not each other) and, when I purposefully fell silent to see what they would do, they didn’t even notice that I had stopped talking. I was absolutely incensed. When I pointed out that both of them had been mansplaining, they (of course) disagreed and told me that I was too sensitive and misunderstood what had been going on. I neglected to point out that they were then mansplaining my feelings and beliefs.

There is somewhat of a debate in the feminist community about whether using the term mansplain is a helpful tactic. From what I can tell, the main argument against it is that women sometimes do it to men too. The problem with that contention is that the whole premise of the word rests with power, as in who has it and who does not. In the United States, men’s voices matter a whole lot more than women’s and there is ample research to support this. Thus, the whole “women do it too” argument only makes sense if there was a level playing field and clearly, there is not.

It seems like a small thing – some blowhard sounding off on his [lack of] knowledge – but the psychological ramifications of the process turn it into something bigger. Mansplaining allows men to treat women as less than without being overt about it. Other men (and sometimes women) don’t see it, so they refuse to police it at best or, at worst (like in my case) tell the woman she is too sensitive or that her observations are inaccurate. That can be crazy-making. Mansplaining also sends the message to women that our opinions don’t matter, that we should cede the floor to the more knowledgeable voice in the room and, inevitably, that voice is male. In short, mansplaining is a handy way to silence women and is just one in a million subtle ways that male dominance is accomplished.

So ok, the term mansplaining is a great description of a certain way of silencing women but what is it good for? How does it help to use the word? Well, it helps women experiencing it find a way out of that silent morass by giving us a way to not only describe what is happening but also experience it differently. The word shows us the implicit dark humor associated with the process and provides an immediate sense of in-group community. In other words, it can relieve the awfulness of the moment for the woman who is experiencing the silencing.

Mansplaining can also be used as ammunition and that is how and why I used it with my brother-in-law and husband. When I told them they were mansplaining, the focus of the conversation immediately went from their greater knowledge (about my profession no less!) to them being on the defensive. Sure, they were falling all over themselves trying to tell me that I was too sensitive and that they were just having a discussion but the key here is that the conversational shift was toward an explanation of their behavior. In that situation, the use of the word gave me power. Neat! A mere word (something small) gave me a way to combat silencing and potential loss of self-confidence (something big). That’s all I can ask of it.

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