Welcome to the twenty-sixth installment of More Than Words, where I take queer words of all sorts and smash them apart and see what makes them tick. Every week I’ll be dissecting a different word, trying to figure out where it came from, how it has evolved, where it might be going, and what it all means. It’s like reading the dictionary through a prism. Feel free to send word suggestions to email@example.com.
Header by Rory Midhani
The other day, I was on a train next to a couple of twentysomething women. They were studying for a nursing school test together, quizzing each other with flashcards and being generally smart and cool and fun — easy to eavesdrop on, for those reasons. They got to “HIPAA” and one of the women took a little while to remember the answer. While she was thinking, a random older guy craned his neck over the other passengers and said “Hippocratic Oath. The Hippocratic Oath, it’s something doctors take to make sure they don’t hurt their patients.” The girls nodded and smiled, and then one of them answered correctly: “Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.” In my imaginary alternate ending, the next flashcard said “MANSPLAINING” and the man was forced to define it before he got off the train.
I’m going to give you a few beats here in which to recall your own latest mansplaining story. Feel free to put it in the comments or scribble the main points on the napkin on your desk or just quietly seethe to yourself. Doesn’t it feel good to talk about it? That’s probably why we, collectively, managed to invent a word in order to facilitate such conversations. Pretty cool. Here’s how it happened.
“Mansplaining” is a portmanteau (just like “homogay,” as we discussed last week). And it would be pretty clueless and condescending of me to assume that you, as a speaker of English, haven’t figured out that it’s specifically a mix of “man” and “explain,” so I’ll just skip directly to more interesting and pertinent parts of this conversation. The definition of “mansplaining” varies slightly depending on who you ask: some people use it to specifically “men trying to explain women’s issues to women” (like when men try to legislate birth control access). But I prefer a broader definition, because I think you can really mansplain anything. The best wording I came across is courtesy of Fannie’s Room:
“[A person’s] deadly combo of dead certainty that his point of view is completely objective coupled with that incompetent assumption that he is automatically more In The Know About Things than all women present.”
The practice of mansplaining has been around for a very long time. Last year, in her “A Cultural History of Mansplaining,” Lily Rothman quoted some early offenders. For example, remember Abigail Adams’s famous request that her husband John, and his fellow Founding Fathers, “remember the ladies” while writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? Did you ever learn what John wrote back? Here it is:
“As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh… Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude… We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.”
He also called her saucy, cementing his position as the #1 Daddest Founding Dad. (She replied: “Notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet”).
Other politicians have put their same gross feet in their mouths in similar ways, from Reagan (“[The Equal Rights Amendment] would be used by mischievous men to destroy… labor laws that protect [women] against things that would be physically harmful to them”) to Romney (“Corporations are people!” “Binders full of women!” and other gaffes, excellently positioned as mansplains by GQ’s Marin Cogan after Romney’s 2012 European tour). Rothman’s article focuses on the political, crediting the last election season with making “mansplain” a necessary and helpful word for the blogosphere and the mainstream media (in case you blacked it out, the 2012 election season was that time when Republicans couldn’t seem to go three minutes without spontaneously blurting out something ridiculous and/or talking to invisible furniture).
But, as Rothman points out, “the idea wasn’t political in origin,” or at least not entirely. The essay generally regarded as bringing the “mansplaining” phenomenon to everyone’s attention is this beautiful one by Rebecca Solnit, originally published on TomDispatch and then excerpted as an op-ed in the LA Times in April 2008. The piece, called “Men Explain Things To Me,” describes among other things how Solnit once listened as an older man, after hearing that she had recently written a book on Eadweard Muybridge, asked her if she had heard about “the very important Muybridge book that came out this year.” You can guess where this is going:
“[My friend] had to say, “That’s her book” three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a 19th century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless — for a moment, before he began holding forth again.”
Solnit quickly ties this personal anecdote into a global experience. She talks about how the propensity of certain men to assume authority, regardless of their actual knowledge, is part of the same strain of behavior and expectations that led, over the course of history, to women being locked out of “the laboratory, or the library, or the conversation, or the revolution, or even the category called human” — and that still leads, today, to everything from gaslighting to professional gender discrepancy to how insanely difficult it is to bring a sexual assault case to trial. The general mansplainingness of society, Solnit says, “crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world.”
If I remember correctly, when this essay came out, literally every woman with internet access clipped or linked or memorized-and-screamed its highlights to every other woman they had ever talked to, seen, heard of, or imagined. Ali says the article “changed her life, no joke.” It was one of those rare times that someone finally put voice to an experience a lot of people thought they were having alone. The word accomplishes something similar: Rachel, who didn’t see the Solnit essay for several years after she heard the word “mansplaining,” remembers that “when I saw the word in usage, its meaning and definition were immediately and unquestionably obvious to me.”
The funny thing is, the word “mansplain” appears nowhere in Solnit’s original essay. According to Know Your Meme!, the second piece of the puzzle happened a couple of weeks later, when a user named phosphate posted this comment on a LiveJournal blog post:
The word caught on in LiveJournal, but didn’t make that crucial leap to Urban Dictionary until 2009. Over the next few years, the term “mansplain” joined the larger cultural lexicon, riding a high in 2010 that garnered it a spot on the NY Times Word Of The Year list (it even made it into a Time.com headline!), and enjoying a resurgence in 2012, probably due to all those aforementioned idiot Republicans. It brought with it a host of related terms, which are less popular individually but prevalent enough overall that some are arguing that “-splain” constitutes a new suffix — although these linguists, and the writers they quote, often use the suffix to mean simply “explaining while ____,” with no power structures involved. In a blog post from 2009, YA author Karen Healy explains why she prefers to keep the word’s original definition:
“[Mansplaining] is not just people being ignorant and condescending, it’s people doing so through the mechanisms of privilege supporting their superiority in a given situation, even though, on the topic at hand, they have an inferior understanding. Using a term that notes the privilege is, I think, essential to calling out the perpetrator not just for bad behavior, but for behavior that is sourced in and enforces that privilege.”
Not everyone understands that, especially those accused of mansplaining — thus the proliferation of “womansplaining” as a supposedly equal and opposite term, when it, by definition, can’t be one. Because of this, some think “mansplaining” has run its course. Annie-Rose Strasser over at ThinkProgress argues that she “spends more time defending and defining the term than using it,” which undermines its usefulness. She also points out that it “doesn’t address other types of systematic repression, narrowing concern over the dynamics of condescension to male-female interactions” (this has led some to try to come up with a more general form of the word, but none of them have proven quite as catchy).
The word is definitely limited. It’s inherently gendered in a way that leaves no room for some peoples’ lived experience (which is too bad, as its whole point is to make more room). As Strasser points out, it’s not very intersectional. And its construction puts blame on “men” as a category rather than the institutions that privilege that category above others. Still, I think its intuitiveness speaks for itself. I’ve never accused someone of mansplaining — at least not out loud. Not even that guy on the train. Instead I tend to use the word when I’m telling stories to other people who already understand it. If you dig back into the roots, the word “explain” comes from the Latin “explanare” which means “to make level or smooth out.” Even if mansplaining, as an act, see-saws conversations, the availability of the term — and our ability to recognize it what it describes — gives us a tool to try to level things out again.