Actress, director, and activist Amber Tamblyn recently wrote two stunning, beautiful and brutal personal essays—one for Teen Vogue, and an Op-Ed for the New York Times. They detail her experiences dealing with a predatory man and the culture that enables men like him. So, with Tamblyn, women like her and womanhood in general on my mind while I was reading The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms, Rebecca Solnit’s new collection of essays, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of urgency.
Did you know that the first woman undergraduate only entered Yale University in 1969? I did not. My mother would’ve been five at that time. What about the fact that the terms ‘date rape’ and ‘sexual harassment’ were only coined so recently as 1975 and 1974-5, respectively? Or that it was only in 1993 that Oklahoma and North Carolina made raping one’s spouse a crime—and that in the US, only 3 percent of rapists serve time for their crimes? All of these preposterous facts feel antiquated, even though they are, in fact, very literally living history. And in reading those brief sentences—those blasts of unconscionable ridiculousness—you get a real sense of how reading this whole book, feels.
Women especially are used to hearing accounts of inequality and sexism and misogyny that are too often extreme, and oftentimes fatally so. It is constant; ever-present. However, coming by snippets in the news—singular, isolated pieces of a much larger picture—can dilute the effect. But in The Mother of All Questions, Solnit condenses all of those bits and presents us with a litany of wrongs. And the effect is ranging. It’s enraging and upsetting and a little bit depressing, but it’s also empowering, in that it inspires us to want better and to do something to achieve it.
Solnit has an incredibly approachable style of writing. She’s brilliantly intelligent, often funny, curious and open, but at the same time also sure and self-assured. Speaking to you, not at you, she takes simple points—like the difference between quiet and silence—and opens them up. She doesn’t blow them open explosively or combatively. She unfolds them, slowly, taking the time to introduce you to the topic, what she believes the problem is and why, where it is rooted, its reach, and what she thinks can be done to resolve it.
For young women—and I am mostly speaking from personal experience—a large part of figuring out what feminism means is about appreciating the women who blazed the trails we tread now. And this book and Solnit’s writings in general helps you, helps me, helps women, to better understand and connect with our own feminism. The points Solnit makes are so clear and concise and simple to understand and appreciate, one hopes that they could even be used to convince the previously un-convincible.
The only part of this whole book that caused me any pause was the mention of Louis C.K. as a feminist comedian. It might make you cringe (like it did me), but do keep in mind that the essay ‘Feminism: The Men Arrive’ was authored in 2014, and so, there weren’t so many unanswered questions then as there are now. Same goes for ‘The Short Happy Recent History of the Rape Joke’. Mind you, it does feel like a modest oversight; especially considering the other footnotes and post-script dotted throughout the book.
But, the aim of this book, and of feminism in general, is not harmony. It is respect and equality and conversation. The Mother of All Questions is a collection of unapologetically direct opinions, and that is entirely the point. We, women (and everyone), can and should be able to express ourselves and our opinions openly and with respect. The point is not to agree with everything—the point is to be open and engaged and to respect Solnit’s opinion in spite any differences you might have with it.
There is no real way to summarise this book for you. There is no storyline. It is a book about life—the lives of women, young and old. About how we live it, and how we can make it better, easier, and safer.
Solnit herself wraps it up best in ‘Men Explain Lolita to Me’ when she delves into the importance of books in helping us to realise, and appreciate, experiences that are other than our own. This book, like Men Explain Things to Me before it, is a piece of literature that you can treasure. It’s important to have and to have to hand. And so, even if you’re not a feminist, not a woman, not into essays, you should read this book.
I consider myself to be a feminist, and, I hope, a reasonably well-informed one at that. But this book taught me so much, and I feel a better woman and a better feminist for having had the pleasure of reading it.
The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms by Rebecca Solnit is published by Granta, an imprint of Allen & Unwin. It is available now, online and from bookstores. R.R.P.: $24.99 (hardback).
Thanks to Allen & Unwin for the review copy.