This collection of feminist essays covers a wide range of topics including literature, the silencing of women’s voices, sexual assault and motherhood – which is The Mother of All Questions.
Rebecca Solnit talks about male interviewers being dismissive and not focussing on her books, instead focussing on why she doesn’t have children: “No answer I gave could satisfy him… it was incomprehensible that I did not” (page 4). The question being asked is really how can a woman have a truly fulfilled life if she chooses NOT to be a mother? As every woman knows, such a question would never be asked of a male writer.
For me the most powerful essay in the book is A Short History of Silence which examines the many ways in which women are silenced daily which could be anything from a snide comment to physical violence. To counter this there is a long tradition of feminist storytelling, which formed an important part of consciousness-raising among second wave feminists in the 1960s and 70s. But it is worrying when we see how pervasive this silencing has become when the #MeToo campaign clearly demonstrates that if all these years of storytelling had the power to change how women were treated we wouldn’t need a #MeToo campaign in 2018.
Solnit argues that our sense of self-worth comes from being able to speak our own truth, that liberation comes from story-telling and this is particularly the case when speaking about domestic/sexual violence. The author makes the very valid point that such violence flourished in silence as when family violence was dismissed as a ‘domestic dispute’ by the police and sexual abuse of children was covered up/silenced by institutions.
The author believes that the efforts of feminism and women speaking out have been incredibly successful but while they are nowhere near complete, telling our stories will bring about sustainable change and improvements. I am far less convinced that either individual stories or a groundswell of women’s voices will effect lasting changes especially for individual women who don’t have a powerful or privileged position. Sadly, it seems the need to speak out and tell our stories won’t become irrelevant as long as having the power to speak out is no guarantee that the enduring and often indifferent, societal status quo will actually listen and act to bring about lasting change.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 8
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: October 2017
RRP: $24.99 hardcover