Rebecca Solnit's latest collection of essays - The Mother of All Questions - is comprised of pieces written between 2014 and 2016, before the seachange in American life that followed the election of Donald Trump. It seems ironic to be reading, now, of Solnit's guarded optimism on some of the goals of feminist action, such as this passage from her introduction:
"This book deals with men who are ardent feminists as well as men who are serial rapists, and it is written in the recognition that all categories are leaky and we must use them provisionally. It addresses the rapid social changes of a revitalized feminist movement in North America and around the world that is not merely altering the laws. It’s changing our understanding of consent, power, rights, gender, voice, and representation. It is a gorgeously transformative movement led in particular by the young, on campuses, on social media, in the streets, and my admiration for this fearlessly unapologetic new generation of feminists and human rights activists is vast."
I say guarded, because she does follow this with a comment expressing her "...fear of the backlash against it, a backlash that is itself evidence of the threat feminism, as part of the broader project of liberation, poses to patriarchy and the status quo."
Well, the backlash is ramping up - defunding of Planned Parenthood, insane laws surrounding access to abortion that harass not only women who seek to terminate pregnancies but also those who suffer miscarriages, attempts to deny health insurance coverage to all kinds of women's health issues including childbirth - and so it is the more pessimistic parts of these essays, rather than the ones that look at some degree of progress and hope tor more, that resonate with me in my reading. Maybe some day I'll be able to reread this volume and feel the hope.
The cornerstone of the collection is a long essay on silence - the meanings of silence, who is silenced and when, and why, who does the silencing, who is not silenced. It opens thus:
"Silence is golden, or so I was told when I was young. Later, everything changed. Silence equals death, the queer activists fighting the neglect and repression around AIDS shouted in the streets. Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard. It surrounds the scattered islands made up of those allowed to speak and of what can be said and who listens. Silence occurs in many ways for many reasons; each of us has his or her own sea of unspoken words.
"English is full of overlapping words, but for the purposes of this essay, regard silence as what is imposed and quiet as what is sought. The tranquility of a quiet place, of quieting one’s own mind, of a retreat from words and bustle, is acoustically the same as the silence of intimidation or repression but psychically and politically something entirely different. What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought is as different from what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great as swimming is from drowning."
What follows is a discussion of the ways that the voices of the marginalised - Solnit focuses on women but acknowledges that her observations are true of any similarly oppressed and silenced group - are dismissed, ignored, repressed, and stopped, so that they cannot speak the truths of their lived experience, of discrimination, of targeted violence, of injustice and unregarded pain and suffering.
Other essays in the collection take on a variety of feminist issues, from the prevalence of rape jokes, to the expectation of motherhood for all women to the falsehood of the anthropological myth of man the hunter as the ingrained template of our gender-based social roles and expectations.
Solnit is always readable, and her critiques of misogyny and patriarchy are as always well thought out and expressed. I do, however, find myself wishing for more acknowledgement of intersectionality and the ways that the issues she addresses affect women of colour, queer and disabled women as distinct from 'women' - which too often means white women. But it must also be said that she does make such acknowledgements more often than other white feminists whose work I've read.