Naming the ProblemRebecca Solnit on Activism, Outrage, and a Way Forward

Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (And Essays) by Rebecca Solnit (Photo credit: Haymarket Books/Bitch Media Illustration)

Women’s anger has fueled every political movement in the United States, from suffrage to Civil Rights to #MeToo. Women’s anger is a powerful, unshakeable force that sends people from marginalized communities into the streets, the courtrooms, the classrooms, and beyond to fight for the more just world that our ancestors fought for and our descendants will fight for long after we’re gone.

“The Future is Furious” is a weeklong series about women’s anger—and, more specifically, about how that anger is policed, dismissed, and overlooked because its potent, transformative social and political power terrifies people. We get to decide how we wield our anger, and this series is a mere entry point for a canon of work about women’s rage. It is our hope that by the end of it, you’re revved up and ready to rage in a time when it’s more important than ever to put women’s anger to work.

Editor’s note: For the first time ever, we are sharing a full interview in audio form in hopes that our readers, and listeners, can have the best experience possible. Listen on the go after work, during your workout, or in the comfort of your living room. Whenever and wherever you listen, we hope you enjoy! 

Even if you’ve never heard of Rebecca Solnit, you know who she is. It was Solnit’s 2008 essay at the blog TomDigest that identified the concept we know today as mansplaining. (“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being.”) But long before Solnit became a patron saint of the extremely online, she was an activist, a historian, a mapmaker, and a prolific author of books on a dizzying breadth of topics: the history of walking (2000’s Wanderlust); the motion-photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge (2004’s River of Shadows); the emerging evidence of climate change (2018’s Drowned River); and ambient cultural misogyny (2015’s essay collection Men Explain Things to Me).

Solnit’s new book of essays, titled Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (And Essays), connects the Trump administration, economic inequality, indigenous history, police brutality, and gentrification gracefully, tying them together with meditations on American exceptionalism and the importance of precise language that gets right down to the lived facts of politics. Call Them By Their True Names doesn’t boil over with long-simmering ire on behalf of democracy and social justice, but rather deploys Solnit’s trademark precision, dry wit, and enduring optimism toward an absorbing whole. All the more reason to get her on the phone to talk about the role, and the necessity, of anger in a world that tosses up fresh outrages at least once a day.

Rebecca Solnit, it’s so great to have you here. Your new book is called Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (And Essays). I really love how sort of tongue-in-cheek but accurate the idea of American crises, “and also essays” is.

Thank you.

It reminds me of [people] who have been talking for the last few years about how it’s become hard to really trust people who don’t experience what we’re living through now as a crisis. And I was wondering if you could speak to that.

It’s interesting because it feels like part of understanding that it’s a crisis is having enough historical perspective, enough long-term frameworks to see big things like climate change that are terrifying; big things, like feminism, that are actually transforming things in really exciting ways; and how different things are than they were 10 years, let alone 50 years ago. And then the fact that, in terms of the federal government, we’re in some kind of crazy, exciting clusterfuck of monstrosity that’s utterly unprecedented.

So do you feel like people you know, people you talk to every day, are experiencing the world as a crisis? If so, how are they living their daily lives?

Well, I’m on the board of Oil Change International, a climate action group, and my wonderful team is trying to shut down all fossil-fuel corporations, which is a really nice way to respond to being anxious. And, you know, I’m around a lot of feminists who are doing their bit to destroy patriarchy and liberate all beings. Then I know a lot of people who don’t have a specific bailiwick, some of whom are doing a lot, some of who aren’t. And it often seems like it’s the people who are doing the least who have the most anxiety.

People often think I do things out of sheer virtue, and I’ll take a point or two for it. But I think it’s also a really good way to deal with anxiety that not participating, not taking action, not finding out where your power lies, makes it worse in a way. I think that the levels of stress, anxiety, hypervigilance, etc.—particularly around this administration and some of the related things, the attacks on immigrants, the attacks on Black people by the police. You know, that there’s constituents who have specific things, but I feel like everybody’s kind of ratcheted up. But the people I know who are doing something about it, it’s a good coping strategy.

Yeah, it takes your mind off of immediate things that are developing.

I don’t think it’s so much [that it] takes your mind off it as it gives you a meaningful way to respond so you don’t feel thwarted and powerless and voiceless. And it also connects you to heroic communities, and that’s very helpful.

I feel like—having been not necessarily in but adjacent to the activist world for more than 20 years—a big positive thing that’s happened in recent years is that there’s been a lot of demystifying of what activism looks like and who can participate. I think that’s something that we’re certainly seeing a lot of now. And I was wondering if you had thoughts on that.

I think one of the exciting things about Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement and some of the related stuff is a sense that, to quote a Climate Action slogan, “To change everything, we need everybody”—that we’re all participants. You can participate on the side of the status quo by doing nothing. You can participate by addressing transgressions as you see them arise, by speaking up for vulnerable communities, by holding those truths, by being inclusive in your curriculum if you’re a teacher. We’re starting to recognize that activism isn’t just marching on special occasions but about the nuances of everything we do, and that everything we do in some sense is political. I think that’s been really valuable in helping people see that they’re already participating, even if not [always] as they would hope to.

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You’ve written so many books on a lot of different things, but I’m guessing a lot of people may know you best for introducing the world to the concept of mansplaining. Mansplaining itself has taken on a life of its own since you wrote the initial essay. I’m wondering what it’s been like to witness that, and whether you feel any kind of—I’m not even sure it’s ownership, but whether you feel invested in people using the phrase in the spirit in which it was intended.

I had a very funny moment on social media a few weeks ago where some people were arguing about whether or not something was mansplaining. And I got to just weigh in and say, “I am the world’s leading expert on mansplaining, and I say this is mansplaining.” So, you know, I get that perk. And I have seen it misused, but overall I just am incredibly thrilled and proud and astonished that I was able to make a significant contribution to the discourse.

David Roberts did a beautiful piece about #MeToo, a kind of dude-to-dude screed about why men need to get on board and stop whining. And he [wrote that], obviously, not everything is in the same point on the spectrum, but the point is that it is the same spectrum, that these little things come out of the same motives as the big things. And being able to talk about the way that women are silenced and shut down and discredited and treated as incompetent witnesses to their own lives is such an important part of the story.

Looking at the Les Moonves story, the CBS CEO who was just pushed out—there’s two pieces to it. The conventional way to tell the story is [that] he sexually assaulted all these women. But the impunity with which he did it and the way in which they were rendered incapable of bearing witness to the atrocities committed against them is equally criminal in its own way. You can only do these things if people are voiceless. And what makes women voiceless is all these subtle, complex ways they’re shut down [and] discredited. Mansplaining comes out of the assumption that he has authority on the subject at hand and she doesn’t.

And I talked about it [in the essay] particularly as it relates to intellectual things: the very important book on [Eadweard] Muybridge that got explained to me, having not bothered to ascertain that I actually wrote it, you know, and other things. The guy who explained to me that Women Strike for Peace was not a significant organization, who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but was very harsh and condescending and intimidating.

But that stuff matters. Rudeness in the academy and at the dinner table matters because it also happens when a woman says, “He’s trying to kill me. He assaulted me. He stole my work.” And the crucial sentence in that essay is [about] credibility as a basic survival skill. I feel like [“Men Explain Things to Me”] contributed to this conversation about the part of gender violence that needed addressing, which is the assault on credibility, on women’s rights, and the capacity to bear witness [to what] we see around rape, domestic violence, workplace harassment, and all these other things.

You wrote a great essay for Harper’s a few months back, and the line in it that really stuck with me is: “Young women are categorically inaudible.” That’s something I think about a lot in the context of [how] feminism has developed and been amplified online. Social media, in particular, has given young women a volume that didn’t really exist before. It’s making them audible. But it’s very hard to translate that into real life. So you can be a young woman who’s incredibly opinionated on the internet and doesn’t hold back, but it’s a completely different context if you’re at your job and you really feel that you can’t speak up.

I wonder whether the experience of having credibility in your online community and an audience of like-minded people might fortify your sense that you can speak up and have the right to do so. Because so much of it is not only the forces that come from men and institutions that shut women up, but their own self-doubt.

I just read Educated by Tara Westover in a kind of frenzied gallop the other day. I picked it up and then I just stayed up till 1:00 a.m. because I didn’t want to stop. A crucial part of that book is tremendous family violence that, because it’s a male person against female people, the patriarchal family insists [that violence] didn’t happen. To be a member of the family, you have to deny that it happened. [There’s] this incredible struggle between speaking your truth and defending yourself against something horrific that happened—and even being sane, which is trusting your own perception of reality. The price of membership in [Westover’s] family was surrendering all that. It was amazing to read an extreme version of a struggle that I think most women have had some degree of, being told [things] didn’t happen.

I feel like there’s a kind of Greek chorus of millions of women reinforcing each other. One of the things I’ve mentioned, but feel I could give a lot more attention to, is the extraordinary generosity of spirit behind what’s happened in the last several years, when people like Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby, and various other things [that] happened even before #MeToo. As the stories broke, women came forward to support other women and to say, “She’s being discredited, but he assaulted me too. I can vouch for her that he is a person who does these things.” Also, you had these wonderful hashtag choruses of #YesAllWomen, for example, after the Isla Vista killings in 2014. And a number of hashtags: #IBelieveHer, #WhyIStayed, #WhyILeft that were millions of women finding a space to bear witness to their own brutalization but also to the truth of these stories. There’s been a real generosity and solidarity.

One of the ways misogyny depicts women is as catty competitors for male favor. And of course that happens, but the antithesis of that is this incredible solidarity, and it’s been a big part of this movement. And I think it has given women more strength, though what actually comes to mind is a wonderful story from my book A Paradise Built in Hell. A young woman who helped defuse bombs dropped on London by the Nazis said that there was a lot of leveling of hierarchies during The Blitz, as there often [are] in disasters and catastrophes. And she said, “I felt like if I could defuse a bomb, I could speak up to my boss.” So she told off her boss she’d been intimidated by. And I think there’s a practical assessment a lot of young women are able to make—that we are now in an era where I can say this happened and people will not automatically disbelieve, discredit, slut-shame me for being raped, assaulted, beaten, etc.

So, it’s partly that the rules of the game have changed themselves. But I do think that these experiences of speaking up in other arenas can reinforce you in ways that count, and that so much of, as I mentioned—was it in that #MeToo essay? Maybe it was in another Harper’s essay—these wonderful, endless conversations I had as a young woman—oh no, I talked about them in my essay on preaching to the choir—reinforce the legitimacy of our feelings. But more than that: the legitimacy of our rights as human beings to have feelings, to have interpretations, to have stories, to live and bring and think and do. I think that they’re not necessarily unconnected.

Rebecca Solnit on #MeToo, Mass Movements and the 10th Anniversary of “Men Explain Things to Me”

We’re facing a huge amount of women’s anger, and we’re also in a moment where women’s anger is having a moment. Rebecca Traister’s book that’s just come out, Soraya Chemaly’s book…

Yeah, and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, which came out a little bit earlier. I just reviewed the three of them, or wrote an essay related to the three of them, for The New Republic. So I have been thinking about anger.

Just the reactions to the fact that these books are coming out—not even the content of them—have been really, really outraged [about] women having venues to express anger and people taking their anger seriously. I was just looking at comments on Traister’s recent New York Times piece, and I think the specter of women being angry, and being angry together, terrifies people. That’s so much of how we got here—there’s so much misogyny because there’s so much fear.

You know, I might be a divergent thinker on anger. One way to address anger is to try and overcome the things that make us angry, frustrated, miserable, thwarted, resentful, which is the work that feminism has been doing all along. If there’s less violence against women, we have less to be angry about.

A second thing is the struggle to legitimize not only the anger of women, but of nonwhite people and other constituencies whose anger is discredited. Because there’s a way in which women’s anger is treated as a subjective expression of inappropriate emotion, which is a way of not talking about what we’re angry about. The caricature of angry feminists always had implicit in it [that] there’s no reason why women should be angry about women’s lot. And therefore women’s anger is unreasonable, which, of course, ties back to our inability to have authority about and witness to our own lives, [and] not being granted the credibility to have a basis for what [we] say, do, think, and feel.

But then there’s also this thing: How can we respect the right of people of color, women, non-straight people to be angry without idealizing anger as this good thing and confusing it with power? I’ve spent a lot of time around lifelong activists, and I don’t think of them as particularly angry people. But I see now, often, an equation that anger is the force that changes the world. I think we should value our right to be angry without thinking that anger is a positive experience. Being angry is a really miserable experience.

And [we should] also recognize that the motivating force of great activism is really love. I’m indignant about what’s happening to migrant children because at some level I love them, and I love rights and justice and equality and decency. I’m against gender violence because I love the rights of women and a world in which women are free and equal. I’m against fossil-fuel corporations because I love the earth and its ecosystems and the elegant orchestral coordination of working ecological systems as well as the climate-vulnerable [ones]. So I’m indignant when somebody attacks those things, but it’s just also an interesting thing: Do we foreground that indignation?

And then one more point, as long as I’m being dissenting about anger: I think we call a lot of different things anger. There’s a physiological reaction when you’re under attack that animals have: If you kick a dog, it feels attacked. But if I say that the dog has the wrong religion or hair color, the dog doesn’t feel attacked, but you might. And there are all kinds of things [that are] different from indignation, outrage, resentment, dissent, etc. that conflate physiological reactions to threat, short-term reactions to insult, and long-term commitments to changing things. I think by using the same word for all of them, we see them all as the same thing. I think they might be a number of different things.

I was going to say that the very idea that women expressing themselves—or people of color pushing back on racism, or other marginalized communities speaking up—is often interpreted as violence by the mainstream media. Serena Williams is the most recent example, but this happens constantly, where a woman expressing an opinion that may or may not have outrage behind it is interpreted as being angry simply because they’re speaking and calling attention to an injustice.

It’s really interesting to think about that as a kind of transference where, like, I say that three women a day are killed in domestic violence–related crimes and that offends somebody who doesn’t want to hear that patriarchy isn’t a picnic. They’re angry, but since they don’t even want to acknowledge that they’re angry, they decide that I’m angry. Which is a way to say I’m illegitimate, since ladies shouldn’t be angry. It’s interesting how often calling somebody angry is a way of dismissing their facts. It certainly happened massively with Black Lives Matter: “Why are those people angry?” was a way of not [asking], “Why do the police keep shooting people of color?”

The Williams incident was really interesting for a number of things, and some of it’s been called out—the unfairness of the standards, the unequal standards [imposed by] the referee or the judge. But the part of the story that was most interesting to me, as a person who has never watched a tennis match and knows very little about sports, is that although [Williams] was indignant—and I think it was partly out of love [for] her own dignity, but also a love of justice and fairness—she did this really beautiful thing when the crowd booed the young woman [Naomi] Osaka. She went and told them to stop booing and stood with [Osaka]. She might have been angry at the referee, but she wasn’t angry at the other woman for playing beautifully.

It was such a model of this thing that I see a lot in women’s action, which is [being] a competitor or a dissident without being an opponent or an enemy. There was also this generosity and solidarity that was a big part of what happened at the beginning and the end of the game. That was also very defining of who [Williams] is and really something I wanted to give her kudos for.

It tied very much to a wonderful review I just read in the London Review of Books of two new books about the British suffrage movement. About how the constitutionalists and the militants, who would conventionally be assumed to be in conflict with each other, with their different strategies for getting women the vote, declined to be opponents. I feel like I’ve seen a fair amount in these moments of women coming to voice and taking action.

How can we respect the right of people of color, women, non-straight people to be angry without idealizing anger as this good thing and confusing it with power?

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Oh, definitely. And it’s really notable, in the case of Williams, how little coverage that [solidarity] moment got. The fact that [Williams] tried to deflect what people interpreted as anger and [wanted to] make about two women catfighting. Because that takes the spotlight: Portraying women as [being] against one another has always been an effective strategy.

Yeah. But I think, also, if it were men playing tennis or boxing or anything, people expect that you’re hostile to your opponent—that you’re a competitor. The model of “We can compete with each other without being opponents” was really important and was about something that, in some ways, is antithetical to anger. It’s about an inclusion of generosity and a precision in [Williams’s] behavior that I’ve seen in other places and that I think models [a] better set of possibilities, [ones that] we don’t get most of the time, whether it’s in sports or political combat or anything.

We have had some nice moments of surprise losses in Democratic primaries, like the guy who lost to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, [who] was pretty gracious. [Update: Apparently, this geniality did not last.] He played “Born to Run” and dedicated it to her, which was pretty good. It’s that model—which I don’t recall in the Democratic primary, but never mind—of how do you regard this other person as part of a larger whole [where] you’re on the same side, even though you’re competitors? And it’s one of the nice things about these competitions within parties where it’s like, “Well, you won. But we share a lot of goals, and I wish you well.”

Right, and ideally that would be the case in politics because, in theory, the end goal of everyone should be that the world gets better or that improvements are made. But we’re also living in a time where’s there a sort of zero-sum idea that there has to be a winner and a loser. I just saw a headline about the Les Moonves thing that said Shari Redstone came out the winner in the whole debacle. If you’re talking about an epidemic of sexual harassment as though there is a winner, you’re really not focusing on the root problem.

There is a winner in a way, in that I feel like the termination of the careers and reputations of the most powerful patriarchs in our country is edifying for all of us. For women, that maybe your voice is going to count going forward. And for men, that, hey, the era where you could get away with this stuff isn’t something you can count on anymore. So in a sense, I think that there’s a win in a way, but to turn it into this kind of sports thing of, Oh, somebody’s career got a bounce out of this.

There’s a win for me in that 12 women were treated as valuable and credible belatedly. With all of these #MeToo stories, the fact that these distinguished, competent, professional women—and this goes for the janitors who marched on Sacramento, as well as [for] the actresses and TV producers and things—had no recourse for decades, and before that for centuries, and maybe for millennia. And that we’re just coming out of an era that almost has no beginning of women’s silencing is pretty staggering. But it feels like a victory to come out of it.

You’re definitely changing my mind.

I am, but I have two main jobs. I’m the hope lady and I’m a feminist writer, and those two things kind of inflect each other in interesting ways. I look at lots of horrible gender violence, and I am also pretty hopeful. Partly because I’m 57 now, and the world I was born into has fallen away. Patriarchy is not over, but the condition of my mother’s life, which was wretched in so many ways even though she was a middle-class white person, have mostly been transformed. Marriage is not such a deeply unequal relationship. Domestic violence is addressed. Workplace equality and other equality of access and things are still cultural problems, but have been [legally] redressed to some extent. I often hear people being despondent because this year isn’t better than last year, but this year is a hell of a lot better than 1961 for women.

When we’re talking about these sort of masters-of-the-universe types like Harvey Weinstein and Moonves and the otherwise faceless CEOs of hotel chains or other employers whose workers are routinely exploited—these are people who built entire structures to insulate themselves from being found out. So what comes next? Is there a process of restorative justice that goes beyond Les Moonves saying, “Oh, let me throw a big chunk of money to a bunch of charities that I’ve never heard of that my assistants will [research]?” What would that look like?

There’s two pieces of it, one of which is [that] women increase in power, credibility, and audibility through the work we’re doing. But I think that ultimately, the transformation I want to see is men losing the desire to harm and degrade women and losing the belief that they have the right to do that. Until that happens, I don’t think that fear and punishment and counterforces are adequate to end misogyny.

[For] most of my life, feminism has been yet another thing that’s women’s work, but [it’s] men [who] need to change whatever it is that makes them believe they have the right to harm and degrade women. You know, obviously not all men, and being a San Franciscan and spending my life among gay men has been very helpful in seeing that masculinity and patriarchy are socially constructed and can be socially deconstructed. But I think that’s the transformation, ultimately, that we need to see, and it’s not easy and immediate.

It’s happening in some ways by how people raise sons as well as daughters, by teachers who don’t give boys primacy in the classroom, by a lot of things. But I feel like we still have a long way to go, and a lot of problems built into the system, like misogynist porn and an online culture generally that feels like [it’s] taking a lot of men backward as young women move forward. That, for me, is what needs to happen: a world in which it doesn’t even occur to a man, any man, that they can do it, and they want to do it.

It’s part of where you realize how different the production of human beings is. Because the idea of doing these things, to me, is just inconceivable as well as repulsive. I’ve never desired to have sex with somebody who’s being traumatized and nauseated by my bodily presence, for example. How are boys and young men socialized? How do we deform human nature in these ways? How can we stop doing it? I was going to say, early on in this conversation I quoted a climate slogan: “To change everything, it takes everybody.” I could end with it as equally useful as a feminist slogan.

You can also listen to this full interview in audio form. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.