I have a file on my desktop titled Mansplaining Olympic Tryouts, mostly screenshots of some of the most epic specimens I’ve come across on social media or that people have steered my way. They’re grimly hilarious: a man explaining vaginas to a noted female gynaecologist, a man telling Sinn Féin adviser Siobhán Fenton to read the Good Friday agreement (she replied with a picture of herself with the book she wrote on that agreement), and the famous incident with Dr Jessica McCarty, about which she tweeted: “At a Nasa Earth meeting 10 years ago, a white male postdoc interrupted me to tell me that I don’t understand human drivers of fire, that I def needed to read McCarty et al. I looked him in the eye, pulled my long hair back so he could read my name tag. ‘I’m McCarty et al.’”
The word mansplaining was coined by an anonymous person in response to my 2008 essay Men Explain Things to Me and has had a lively time of it ever since. It was a New York Times word of the year in 2010, and entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018; versions of it exist in many other languages from French to Icelandic, and the essay itself has appeared in many languages including Korean and Swedish. People often recount the opening incident in that almost 15-year-old essay, in which a man explained a book to me, too busy holding forth to notice that I was its author, as my friend was trying to tell him.
But pretty briskly the essay moved from the amusing to the terrifying: I then recounted an incident in which a middle-aged man explained to a very young me, chuckling, that when his neighbour ran out of the house naked in the middle of the night screaming that her husband was trying to kill her, he was confident that she was crazy and her husband was not murderous, simply because of his assumptions about gender.
Here’s what almost everyone seems to miss about mansplaining, including those doing the formal studies as well as the people telling the funny stories. It’s one corner of a colossal problem, in which biases, statuses and assumptions warp everyday life and allocate more credibility, audibility and consequence to some people than others. All this creates what I think of as inequality of voice. Whether you’re trying to convince doctors that your pain is real or neighbours that your husband is trying to kill you, it can be a life-or-death issue. It matters in offices, classrooms, conferences, boardrooms, in hospitals, on the street, in bedrooms and at dinner tables.
One high-profile recent incident of people who assumed they had the authority to control the narrative came with the police murder of Tyre Nichols, one of many incidents in recent years where video told a very different story to the one told by the police. Somehow they seem to assume that they have the impunity that comes with controlling the narrative, which in cases like this mean literally expecting to get away with murder. Inequality of voice is one of the most powerful elements of inequality of all kinds. Children and elderly people are routinely treated as incompetent witnesses to their own lives and needs. Poor people, immigrants and people with disabilities are likewise treated as subordinates and incompetents.
Non-white people are too often assumed to be less trustworthy, less qualified to speak and act in many kinds of situation, and – to state the obvious – too often regarded as criminal simply on the basis of colour.
There are a lot of stories about people of colour being assumed to have stolen the vehicles they drive or be the servants at posh gatherings; I’ve heard from some of the latter first-hand. There have been many studies about how often women and people of colour are ignored or disbelieved when they report pain, sickness and injury, and how that impacts health outcomes. Black women in the US have a disproportionate incidence of dangerous medical experiences related to pregnancy and birth because of unequal access to care – and to credibility. Even tennis star Serena Williams was at first dismissed when she reported a postpartum pulmonary embolism.
People have also tried to render the word gender-neutral, which would make it meaningless. We have lots of other words – arrogant wanker, patronising idiot, Dunning-Kruger prize winner, for example – for acts of misplaced condescension. But reducing the issue to incidents of being merely patronised in conversational exchanges misses what matters. A phrase I often use is “dosage is cumulative”. If you spend your life being assumed to be less competent, less qualified to speak and less worthy of being listened to, more likely to be mocked, ignored or insulted, it inhibits your willingness to speak up and participate. So it’s not just what happens in the moment that matters, but how it shapes how we perceive ourselves and others in the long run.
The credibility gap turns into a hugely harmful thing with sexual assault and gender violence, in which men have historically been believed over women. It often brings on victims’ despair about reporting such abuse, because if you will not be believed, and if you will be mocked, shamed, harassed or even criminalised for reporting abuse, why would you bother? Almost all sexual abuse involves a perpetrator with higher social status, and a big part of that status is the ability to control the story and suppress other versions. It’s what serial rapists like Harvey Weinstein and serial child molesters like gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar relied upon during decades-long criminal careers. Inequality of voice isn’t just what happens after such crimes; it’s too often what perpetrators count upon beforehand.
It’s great that the word mansplaining exists, along with spin-offs such as whitesplaining and westsplaining (the latter for North Americans and western Europeans explaining the invasion of Ukraine and eastern European politics with narratives centred on our political histories rather than theirs). But everything loses meaning when it loses context. Mansplaining’s meaning requires the broader context of intersecting inequalities and assumptions that play out in everyday life, with consequences that are occasionally amusing but too often nightmarish. My goal always was to advocate for a democracy of voice, for equality in who gets to speak, who’s heard, and who’s believed and respected when they speak, across all categories.
Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist