Rebecca Solnit: ‘Younger feminists have shifted my understanding’

Rebecca Solnit

As you grow older you become an immigrant from a vanished country, a country some of your peers may remember but the young may find unimaginable or incomprehensible. You could call it the land of before; before some great change, before we did things this way, before we decided that was unacceptable, before we shed new light on an old problem. I was shaped by a world that no longer quite exists, so I can’t imagine myself at, say, 18 in the present moment, because to do so is to imagine someone utterly different. She does not exist, and I – as we all do – exist as the cumulative effect of my experiences, opportunities or lack thereof, and ideals.

So much of what shaped and scarred my younger self, and made me a solitary feminist, and then much later one among many, was the unspeakability of violence against women and all the denigration, harassment and silencing that went with it. It was epidemic, and yet every incident was supposed to be an isolated incident, and nobody was supposed to connect the crimes to the culture that relished violence against women as entertainment, and denied it existed in any significant way as fact, and made sure that prevention and prosecution were as feeble as they were rare. All those forces still exist, but something else does alongside them: a vigorous conversation, speaking and naming and describing and defining; rejecting the excuses and cover-ups and justifications.

That conversation is exhilarating for me. It’s also a conundrum in that I have spent much of the past dozen years reading horrific stories of rape, torture, murder, stalking and domestic violence in the news, and hearing them directly from survivors. I have been both exhilarated to see change come – although not enough – and exhausted by this immersion in (mostly) male violence and (mostly) female annihilation. But we have at least diagnosed the problem.

Conversations about generational divides try to set up feminism as a catfight – because people like it when ladies fight

There is no 18-year-old me, but there are plenty of 18 year olds to show me how much has changed, and to promise through their beautiful insubordination and high expectations that more is going to change. Last year, when a young woman I know shared an essay she wrote about accompanying her friend through the all-night ordeal of getting a rape kit from a hospital, I was amazed to see how truths and stances that were so hard-won for many of us were built into her worldview. She had this new equipment, and seemed never to have had the self-doubt that undermines people’s ability to recognise what just happened; that old voice saying “you’re overreacting”, which is another way to say “you’re having the wrong feelings”, which really means “your feelings are inconvenient for others, so strangle them at birth”.

Decades ago, I came across an aphorism that said, more or less: “Remember the respect due to youth.” One of the pernicious myths of our time is that wisdom accumulates with age in some steady, standard way, like tree rings. In this scheme, the old have it and the young lack it, and should open their little beaks and wait for a worm of wisdom to be dropped in. Told this way, wisdom is also the result of individual development, rather than of how we as a society become better at seeing something, smarter about knowing how something works. I think that conversations about generational divides miss the point, and are all too common in the attempt to set up feminism as a generational catfight – because people like it when ladies fight. This culture doesn’t know how to tell stories that don’t pit groups against each other in some warlike drama of scarcity and selfishness.

Me, I admire and am grateful to the younger feminists at work, and learn a lot from them – not any one big truth but a host of insights that have gradually shifted my understanding, and given me new tools to use. What I find in so many young women and girls – right down to toddlers in my family, as well as that young woman taking her friend to get the rape kit – is a clarity and confidence about their rights, needs, and truths that feels new and different. We can credit an older generation with sowing some of the seeds, but they are the beautiful harvest. They are the victory.

The women’s march on Washington DC, 21 January 2017. Photograph: Amanda Edwards/FilmMagic

For this collective awakening, the young often lead by being more demanding, less willing to settle, less willing to believe that something is impossible – though almost six decades on this earth have taught me that those things the status quo says are impossible do come to pass, from time to time. I remember that, 20 years ago, leaving the age of fossil fuel behind seemed impossible because solar and wind were as expensive as they were inadequate. And I remember 1992, when a total of six women in the US Senate (including the first woman senator of colour) saw it hailed as The Year of the Women, since that was more than there had ever been before. There are currently 25 women senators.

Feminism is part of an immense endeavour on all seven continents (and sometimes a space station or two) to change how we imagine gender, rights, equality, consent, voice; to create a conversation that invites participation for those who have felt excluded, silenced. It’s a conversation about race, gender, sexual orientation, trans rights, disability rights, religious freedom, neurodiversity, and so much more, and about how these things can intersect in a single person or interaction. Anyone in this conversation learns from others to look harder, see farther, ask new questions, use new terms that admit new possibilities. It is as though we’re wandering through the night, each with our small light, sometimes all shining our beams on the same problem until we see it clearly, passing descriptions from one to another, building trail maps together, sharpening the focus, until we reach somewhere new. Or become something new.

Speaking up about the men who harassed me seemed likely to make things worse. What I wanted was someone to shout with me

There have been some very literal choral moments, as when huge numbers of feminists use the same hashtag: for example, in 2014, a young Muslim woman launched #yesallwomen in response to the dismal male response to the Isla Vista massacre, when a 22-year-old incel killed six people near the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. She was responding to the widely used hashtag #notallmen, which shifted the focus to exonerating men rather than recognising how immense the threat of violence is for, yes, all women.

But it’s more often been a conversation than a chorus. Just the very simple line “rapists cause rape” – maybe coined by the website Feministing in 2010, or maybe they got it from someone else – gave us a tool and perspective to push back on all the victim-blaming; all the emphasis on what she was wearing and drinking, and what else she did wrong by not being locked inside a bank vault clad in a nun’s habit, while holding a revolver.

So I admire the young, and that seems worth saying when boomers complaining about millennials is a thing, and when some older women are so inured to the task of surviving patriarchy that they can’t break out of the “not that bad/toughen up” framework to acknowledge that, yes, this shit sucks, and it does have an effect on us, and it’s wrong. And it’s not just me, who was born when John F Kennedy was president. Mary Beard, who was born when Winston Churchill was doing his last round as prime minister, recently wrote about that lost continent of silence, saying: “One of the reasons that my students in the 2010s get anxious about reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses or the early books of Livy is that they have a much sharper idea of what those works are about. Fifty years ago, we usually did not recognise (nor were we taught to) that the Metamorphoses was a poem founded on rape. Back then, we saw it as a series of ‘ravishings’ (with an awkward hint of pleasure implied); and the transformation of the victims into trees, or whatever, was treated as just one more curious aspect of ancient mythology.”

She’s defending millennials against charges of fragility – and I’m with her in her enthusiasm for the more acute perceptions of this generation. In a superb 2018 New Yorker piece, millennial feminist Jia Tolentino revisits Ovid in the wake of the 2018 hearing for supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, because she feels “a shameful, increasing desire to stop running, to find some way to be impassive and serene”, like those women turned into lakes and trees. If younger readers like Tolentino and Beard’s students recognise that Metamorphoses is full of rape, then it is because of groundwork laid by older readers, writers and dissidents. Whether or not we stand on the shoulders of giants, we stroll on the topsoil into which the past has decomposed, and some seeds planted then are sprouting, and even blooming, now.

There was so much we couldn’t talk about then, and still some aspects and consequences we haven’t yet talked about enough. Recently I wrote a book about those things, Recollections Of My Non-Existence, about the muteness of my formative years. Because nothing I could say seemed to mean “no” in any effectual way to the men who harassed and menaced me, nothing I could do made them desist, and speaking up seemed likely to make things worse. What I wanted, for starters, was someone to shout, with me, that this was absolutely wrong. I wanted someone to ask questions with me about how we change it all, and why we must.

I had experiences that are still common. Last summer, my friend’s teenage daughter had a man threaten to kill her when she responded defiantly to his harassment – the kind of thing that happened to me, over and over, in my youth. It’s so ordinary, and there’s so much of it. The past several years have been an extraordinary collaborative exhumation and reinvention of women’s experience, and one in which the old have learned from the young at least as much as the opposite.

I still think the conversation is far from complete. But I’m glad it’s begun. When people suggest feminism has somehow been a failure, I like to hark back to the world I was born into, the world that made my mother so full of suppressed fury, the world in which women were, by law and custom, so much more deeply unequal. Marriage laws in the US, the UK, and many other countries defined wives as property of a sort, or chattel, or pets, whose bodies husbands had the right to rape and beat, and whose choices husbands controlled, from financial to medical decisions. Women were excluded from nearly all positions of economic, legal, social, educational and governmental power, and the language to even describe phenomena such as workplace sexual harassment as something serious and illicit did not exist. I could go on, but I’ll stop, after referencing how routine was the denigration of women as subjective, unreliable, incompetent creatures, undermining the foundation to participate and even to object. Not that that bit is over, but at least we’ve been pointing it out for half a century.

Even to see some of these forms of oppression was a great collective project. In one of the books I can’t call seminal – is there a feminine equivalent? ovarian? – but that was formative, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), she talks about “the problem that has no name”. We have named it bit by bit: with old words like patriarchy and gaslighting put back to work; with new words like marginalisation, mansplaining (not coined by me, by the way), Kate Manne’s himpathy, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality, rape culture, misogynoir, victim-blaming and slut-shaming.

What has been beautiful and amazing about the past several years has been the great collective research expedition to examine our lives, to turn up the volume on historically silenced voices, and turn down the volume a little on the people who always got heard. We have made a new map of who we have been, and are, and could be. To be one voice in this global conversation has been a joy and an honour; to hear others has been an education and an inspiration. And the one thing I am surest of is that we are only beginning.

Recollections Of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit is published by Granta Books at £16.99. To order a copy for £14.27, go to guardianbookshop.com.

If you would like your comment on this piece to be considered for Weekend magazine’s letters page, please email weekend@theguardian.com, including your name and address (not for publication).