Please explain this to me. No, really.

Once again, via Susie Madrak at Suburban Guerrilla, see this post on gender and intellectual authority by Rebecca Solnit called “Men Explain Things to Me,” in which she describes the experience of being condescended to by a man who patronizingly referred her to a book that she herself wrote.  It took more than one interjection from her companion–alas, another woman–telling him that she wrote that book before he got it, and shut up.  The nut:  “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.  Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.” 

Solnit writes of another instance, in which she was lectured by a man (incorrectly) about the irrelevance of Women Strike for Peace in the fall of the HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities).  This anecdote is kind of a two-fer:  a man dismissing a woman intellectual by asserting (falsely) the irrelevance of women ‘s political activism in the Cold War.  Well done, Sir!  Or, as Solnit says, “Dude, if you’re reading this, you’re a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.”  Her essay will resonate with those of you who have been following the conversations here and at other blogs about bullying in acdemia.

How many of you have had this sort of experience–as a student, faculty member, or professional; in class, at an academic conference, or in your work environment?  I’ve been wondering about this issue in the blogosphere, especially surrounding Clinton v. Obama supporters and their blogs, but also more generally.  Women get pushed around and called names as women by men in the blogosphere on a regular basis.  Solnit writes only about gender, as though that’s the only operative variable when it comes to intellectual arrogance (or underconfidence), but it’s more complicated than simply gender.  Age and status seems to have put an end to most of the patronizing attitudes and comments that I was subjected to as a student in my twenties, although being in my thirties, having published a book, and being tenured hasn’t insulated me entirely.  (Age, of course, is something used against women on both ends–when we’re young, we’re patronized, and when we’re older, we’re dismissed as irrelevant and pathetic after age 50 or 55).  I’m sure that race is another critical variable in these intellectual foodfights.  Are faculty of color (men and women alike) more likely to be assumed to be students or staff by other faculty?  Do white men “explain things” to faculty men of color?  Are white women just as patronizing as men to women faculty of color?  Does sexuality affect this phenomenon–are gay men patronized as much as women by straight men, for example? 

How about y’all?  And how has this experience changed (if at all) for you as you got older and achieved greater professional stature?  Are you seeing the down-side of “maturity?”

0 thoughts on “Please explain this to me. No, really.

  1. Hmmm. Actually the only people who have tried to bully me intellectually have been women. Maybe it is because in their minds they think if I disagree with them, it must mean that I don’t take women’s opinions seriously, so they figure they have to be extra assertive in order to prove their point.


  2. Just last evening in class, a male student vehemently argued with me that one of my comments was quite “problematic” and that I was basically wrong in my assessment. Not an hour and a half later in class, he began to argue for my previous point that he had so strongly advocated against, as if it was this new idea. I don’t know if it is just this particular male (but I’m sure there are others like him), but it seems that when a woman puts forth an idea, it is often problematic. However, the same exact point can be put forth by a male and it is brilliant.


  3. Now you’re catching on, Rachel! And that’s why you’ll earn only 77 cents for every dollar that guy earns. Because your ideas aren’t so good, but his ideas are teh awesumm! And it’s hard to justify those extra 23 cents he’ll get without poaching some ideas from you.

    By the way, did anyone call him on his BS? This I think is an example of what Solnit calls “a war that nearly every woman faces every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence.”


  4. From the Enlightenment, cf. the illustration in Vol. 2 of Thomas F.X. Noble, et. al., et. al., et. al., et. al., plus Kristen B. Neuschel, on p. 651 (second edition, 1998). Caption: “This illustration from Bernard de Fontenelle’s major work popularized the new science. It reveals the audience for which the work was intended. A gentleman, sitting with a lady in a formal garden, gestures to a depiction of the solar system as it was now understood; the lady is presumed to understand and to be interested in the information…” To be fair, p. 661 of the same volume does at least imply that Emilie, marquise du Chatelet, was to all intents and purposes Voltaire’s tutor on Newtonian cosmology as the translator of the Principia, while her companion “worked at his accustomed variety of writing, which also included a commentary on Newton’s work…”


  5. Well… the first person from whom I experienced and also witnessed antifeminist and in some situations racist abuse was my father, a professor – although as regards me, this was always in the personal, not the professional arena, where (of me) he has always been supportive (except on one occasion, in which case it was nevertheless intended as support – it was abuse, but it was also him expressing pain, our family is f***ed up).

    The second person was my dissertation director. My father, in a related field, thought it might have been because he had refused to be an outside reviewer for her tenure. Had he accepted, his review would have been negative, so he declined, in part because he realized that by sending her material to him her department was trying to set her up for a negative decision. When he discovered how she was treating me he regretted not having just accepted to write her review, and not having just written a positive one. He does not understand that she is just abusive no matter what. It wouldn’t have helped.

    Then in professordom I experienced and continue to experience a significant amount of abuse, and this is now despite tenure, and it is about gender.

    To David, though, I would say that when men feel “intellectually abused” by women it is sometimes because
    they are just dealing with someone intellectually stronger and they experience this as abuse.


  6. The discussions here about gender are so one-dimensional. When women are abused, it’s because men are sexists who are afraid of strong women. If men get abused, it must be their own perception that causes this. It can’t be actual abuse. This runs completely contrary to my own experience, which seems to be not worth the time of day here because of my gender.

    Professor Zero’s argument works both ways. Maybe many women who experience “abuse” are really just being outclassed by stronger intellectuals who happen to be men. When they fall behind, they blame their troubles on some hegemonic patriarchy when really their work just isn’t up to snuff. Surely, this is also happening. And it is equally the case that women who are most attuned to sexism or gender discrimination are also more likely to perceive it where it may not be relevant.

    Some of the kinds of aggressive behaviors described here also go on between women, and between men. We are in a field where people feel the need to constantly critique one another. It isn’t always about sexism. Simply because a man aggressively challenges a woman’s work does not automatically make him some caricature of the wounded male who fears women smarter than him.


  7. Now, David–people are sharing their opinions based on their personal experiences. I agree that saying that all men are always condescending to women and that women are always and only the victims of this is too extreme. Prof. Zero says that she was bullied by a female advisor, too, so not even she is proposing a “one-dimensional” view of this issue.

    I agree with your last paragraph, but I will say that in the main, academia and the other professions are still largely men’s worlds. That doesn’t mean that men aren’t also victims too sometimes. And, that’s why I asked for people to talk about how other variables, like age, status, race, and sexuality, for example, might work in all of this.


  8. Yes, I agree with all that. But it was pretty hard not to notice the implicit insult in PZ’s tack-on response to my first post.

    Is academia a men’s world? Probably. I guess it just doesn’t feel that way to this grad student who has worked almost entirely under female professors, and who has taken the most snide and insulting retorts during his career from fellow female students.


  9. Well, then, I’d say you’ve had a singular experience! Perhaps you have developed some empathy for women students in the vast majority of other Ph.D. programs who don’t see themselves reflected on the faculty or treated fairly by other students. No one here is making the argument that women are inherently kinder or gentler than men–the issue isn’t biology or chromosomes, it’s about power and authority when both of those attributes have been identified strongly as male characteristics in our culture.


  10. Pingback: Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » If You Haven’t Read Rebecca Solnit’s Essay, “Men Explain Things To Me,” You Must.

  11. Hi Historiann! This is a great post! Thanks for pointing me toward Solnit’s article. I think her article contains the seeds of an awesome book.

    I often notice that some men try to explain away sexism to the many women who experience it on a daily basis. I also notice that many white men and women try to explain away racism to people of color who experience it on a daily basis. The people who benefit from sexism and racism are often anxiously explain away the advantages they arrogantly claim not to enjoy.


  12. Yeah, I guess my perception is based on my own experience. My department has worked pretty hard to bring more female faculty into the fold in recent years, and in general I find it better to work with younger professors than older ones, because they tend to be more in tune with the best of the recent scholarship and latest trends in the field.

    Also, in general I’ve found that, for whatever reason, the best work in my field (African history) has been done more by women than men. I have no idea why that is.


  13. I have so many stories, my own and those I have collected. Here is one of mine: I was at a conference, a big one with lots of important profs in my discipline in attendance. I was chatting with two male law profs, one kind of a big deal, let’s call him Prof. Big. who is also a great person on every level, the other an ambitious juniorish fellow, lets call him Ass. Prof. :>) So here’s the transcript:

    Me: I think (blah blah blah).
    Ass. Prof.: No, you are wrong! (So on and so forth, with wild gesticulating, and no small amount of derision, intended to impress Big Prof. with his arrogant brilliance, and brilliant arrogance.)
    Me: I don’t think so. (Reasonably calm earnest and detailed explanation of why I think I am correct, drawn from an article I had recently published on the subject.)
    Ass. Prof.: Harumph, no way, no one has even suggested that in the literature!
    Big Prof.: Actually, Ann suggested that in her recent article pretty persuasively, which is why I have already cited to her work several times.

    Did I then pray to Dog that Big Prof would be one of my tenure reviewers? Yes indeed I did.


  14. Wow, Ann–that’s incredible! That’s like the scene in Annie Hall where some jackass in line for a movie is bloviating about Marshall McLuhan, and then McLuhan steps out of the movie line and says, “You know nothing of my work. How you ever came to teach a class in anything is beyond me!” Unfortunately, for most of us, it remains only a fantasy!

    And good for Big Prof. for shutting down the Ass Prof.


  15. David – how is it now – this kind of experience:

    “…the experience of being condescended to by a man who patronizingly referred her to a book that she herself wrote”

    is the experience of being outclassed by a man???


  16. Just to be clear–again–the original post asked for personal experiences. I shared mine and left it at that. You came back and suggested that what I was describing may simply be a function of intellectual inferiority. I returned by saying that such a phenomenon would work both ways–that there may be times where women perceive “sexism” when they are simply being outclassed.

    Nowhere in these exchanges did I imply that sexism does not exist, that it isn’t a real problem, or that the example you cited above was not a function of sexism.

    My point is that the power relations in academia are complex. Besides gender, there are racial components, plus the hierarchical components (masters student to doctoral student to adjunct to tenure track to tenured faculty and on and on.)

    As for my own experience, last year I presented a paper at a conference that went over well with the audience, except for one young woman who was a recent Ph.D. who, in the most condescending manner you can imagine, tried to tell me that my interpretation of a particular author’s argument was wrong. I defended myself and only later would she admit that, in fact, she had never read the book she was accusing me of misinterpreting. I’ve had similar experiences to this one over the years.

    My initial post in this thread was not intended to state that I somehow have had a rough go of it or anything like that. I was simply tossing in my own perspective based on my own experience. That’s it.


  17. When I was in my late 20’s, I looked much younger. I used to think that was why people talked down to me. I kept wondering how old and educated do I have to be before people take me seriously? As I got into my 30’s I noticed that men with the same level of education or less education were taken more seriously than I in my 30’s. Then one day I realized that as long as I have a vagina, there are some men (and women) who will always presume the one with the penis to know more than I do.


  18. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Liz–your experience is what I have feared! And, you’re right to point out that this isn’t a men-versus-women thing, it’s all of us, male and female alike, who tend to denigrate women’s achievements and authority.


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