An evening with Rebecca Solnit

Ellen Birch 14 November 2017

I first heard of Rebecca Solnit when, in the dark depths of Lent term last year, I allowed myself the treat of browsing Waterstones. I stumbled across her book Wanderlust, and (second treat of the day) decided to buy it, on the grounds that her exploration of the history of walking could be useful for my Year Abroad Project. Yet my first foray into Solnit’s writing was not representative of her work; a historian and activist as well as a writer, she is best known for her books on feminism, the most famous of which is Men Explain Things to Me. Although she did not coin the term, this was the work that inspired the oh-so-useful term mansplaining which now has its equivalent in 34 languages.

As her works on walking and cities suggest, Solnit is interested in cartography and maps, and the first thing she discussed in the talk was her feminist map of New York, entitled ‘City of Women’. In a creative act which fights against the gendering of the city, the piece takes the form of a subway map where each stop is named after a great woman, paying homage to the places where they lived, walked and worked in New York. This is one way Solnit attempts to reclaim the city; it is a male-dominated space where women are harassed in the streets and where these same streets are named after prominent men who inhabited them.

The talk took the form of a conversation with the author and Emmanuel College fellow Robert Macfarlane, and the pair touched on a series of prominent issues, from feminism (of course), climate change and fighting Trump (Solnit is American). She spoke of reverting to simpler, pre-technological times as a form of resistance; to slow down and take pleasure in going for a walk, making bread from scratch or having an interesting conversation. Her comments on social inequality were also pertinent and one particular remark stayed with me, about the privileged who ‘from their mountain tops see the playing field as level’ – an enlightened analogy which earned a murmur of amused agreement from the audience.

Solnit spoke of her work Hope in the Dark, a book which tracks the positive political impact of activism. It reflects on dark events and periods which have been upturned by unexpected positive outcomes owing to political engagement, urging us to continue to have hope in sombre circumstances. Macfarlane pointed out the incredible prescience of Solnit’s writing, noting how he sometimes forgets that her books were written one or two decades ago – Hope in the Dark especially, published in 2004, takes on added significance in this era of Trump. Her talk was certainly given in this vein of optimism: hearing such positivity from a fiercely intelligent woman was a breath of fresh air, and a welcome break from the constant negativity of the news and media.

When tickets first went on sale for Solnit’s talk, they sold out in less than 24 hours, forcing the event to be moved to a bigger venue, which also sold out again almost immediately – it was certainly an impressive sight on entering the lecture theatre to find it packed to bursting, a testament to her incredible popularity and intelligent treatment of a wide range of subjects. Yet I was also struck by how the vast majority of the audience consisted of women aged 40 plus, notably lacking men and students. During a question and answer session, Solnit responded to a question regarding the place of men in feminism, saying that we should fight against the idea that feminism is something for women to do alone – she believes that men have an important part to play in this fight for social justice as well. For some reason, Rebecca Solnit does not seem to be well known among our generation which I think is a shame; her writing offers an intelligent, creative and above all optimistic take on feminism and other social issues that both men and women of all ages can enjoy and learn from.