In 2008, Rebecca Solnit published an essay, Men Explain Things To Me, describing a man who, upon hearing her mention a topic, began telling her about a “very important book” written that year that explored that same subject. Turns out that was a book she herself had written. She then slowly unveils an argument, one that she is even surprised by, that stitches interactions like that into a “continuum that stretches from minor social misery to violent silencing and violent death.”
This essay was powerful for me when I first read it years ago, and poignantly powerful again as I read and re-read it over the last week, having sought it out after experiencing my own, in her apt words, “minor social misery.”
Earlier this week I was out with a group of friends — it was a joyous night as we were celebrating a big promotion for one of them. As the night wound down, we were joined by a senior colleague of one the group — someone I’d never met. He came in running hot, maybe 6–8 whiskeys deep while our table of 8 had consumed perhaps the same amount cumulatively.
The talk turned to a question about being able to get people fired up about helping out on a project. (there’s so, so much to work on these days!) and someone asked about recruiting volunteers at a community event.
“Put Tessa on a high school campus and I’m sure she’ll get the most signups.”
I’d met this man minutes before. We’d exchanged five words. He knew *only* what I looked like.
“I mean really, if Tessa is there asking you to do something or you’ve got the guy sitting next to her asking you to do something — who are you gonna talk to?”
“You guys really, seriously, Tessa will get way more volunteers. Who isn’t going to let her come talk to them? I mean, I’d let her talk to me anytime. Like, anytime.”
This awkward, drunken, stumbling monologue continued for minutes. Actual minutes.
And I froze. I completely froze.
As he talked, I made direct eye contact with my friend, the new arrival’s colleague and subordinate, across the table. He grimaced, attempting to show solidarity and displeasure at the same time.
This probably seems small to many. I know there are so many other things that have been said and actions taken that are more directly offensive, or more glaringly chauvinistic or even more clearly physically violent. I know I am not especially oppressed. There are groups of people, particularly women of color, that experience far, far worse than I ever will. But I was still frozen.
Finally, I quietly removed myself to go to the bathroom. I stood inside the locked room, staring at my reflection in the mirror, desperate for the words to react.
What could I say to respond to what I was hearing?
How desperately I wish I could say I came out of that bathroom with a full speech prepared, with an intervention to put him rightfully in his place and let the others at the table know that behavior was simply intolerable.
But I had nothing.
Here was an older, accomplished, professional man whose words, translated through my experiences as a woman in this world, telling me “you add value — but only value as I define it”. Telling me that I served a purpose now but, as soon as my attractiveness was gone, I’d be of no use.
I know, mostly, at my core how credible and valuable I am. Perhaps this is part of why I froze so completely, but even as I wrote that last sentence proclaiming my knowledge of my own value, I was flooded with the number of times I’ve been paralyzed with imposter syndrome. Flooded with the number of times I’ve questioned whether a male mentor was seeking me out because he believed in me or because he found me attractive. Or wondered if being pretty is more responsible for any of my successes than my skills. Am I welcomed into teams of all male engineers because I’m a great Product Manager? Or because I’m a fun girl who’s quick to laugh? Should I slather on these expensive anti-wrinkle creams and pray that my professional success isn’t aligned with society defining me as young and attractive?
And the truth is, I doubt this guy realized how we would all interpret his words. How his “compliments” would spiral me into a hole where I was questioning my fundamental value. He was a nice guy, a bit feisty, but well known, particularly in Progressive circles. He has made a career supporting strong women. He’s made a career being an ally and pushing women’s issues forward.
But this was still his world. A world where my value was clear to him — and a world where our collective silence only reinforced that view. A world where what may have seemed like a just drunk guy calling me pretty is one very early step on a continuum of disrespect and injustice that leads all the way to much, much worse.
It’s these minor social miseries that serve as
“the narrow end of the wedge that opens up space for men and closes it off for women, space to speak, to be heard, to have rights, to participate, to be respected, to be a full and free human being.”
To paraphrase Solnit (which I’ve done plenty of in this essay but her words have been a salve): I returned to the table and gave into the war within me, believing in my own superfluity and accepting his invitation to be silenced.
The conversation eventually shifted, but by then the mood had soured and we soon broke off. Immediately after getting into my car, I received back to back calls from my two male friends (both the subordinate and the one who’s “skills” were defined as terrible compared to me). Both were quick to apologize, to ask how I was doing and to also say they felt terrible for not having spoken up.
In that moment, still rattled, I said it was fine, that it was more than enough that they’d called. And in that moment I believed that. I felt cared for.
I said next time they could just try a diversionary tactic, “Hey guys, who wants dessert?” I said that we shouldn’t engage with someone so drunk — that it would only create conflict. I wanted to protect their professional relationships with the speaker. I wanted everyone to just be comfortable.
Waking the next morning, and reflecting alone and with a close friend, I realized I was angry. I was angry at the drunkard for what he said, I was angry with my friends for not having said anything and I was angry with myself for not having said anything and for telling my friends it was okay that they didn’t.
A “sorry” after witnessing some injustice is simply not enough. While I’m grateful to my friends for calling to make sure I was okay, I was let down when they didn’t stand up for me or for the others at that table.
Change doesn’t happen when I’m told in private confidence after the fact that something was shitty — change happens when the person who is being shitty is told that they are being shitty.
Standing up against injustice, in whatever form, is deeply uncomfortable. While a confrontation with a drunken man may not have been ideal, it was far, far worse to let a table of our friends and peers see none of us take action. We all implicitly approved and encouraged his behavior by not speaking out against it.
So what do I do now? So frequently I write and have no answers. But this one feels easy.
I will write, and prepare, and practice my script. And I will encourage all of you to do the same. Do you practice what you’re going to say before asking someone out on a date? Or think through how to ask your boss for a raise? Of course, because you have a message to get across and you don’t want emotions to get in the way.
So how could we not do the same in situations we know will almost always be deeply uncomfortable and unpleasant?
So, I’ve got my lines ready. And my lines may be different than yours. That’s okay. Just have your lines. Don’t freeze.