What does mansplaining even mean anymore? Last week, three different women allegedly fell victim to it in our nation’s capital. There was Fiona Hill, career diplomat and former Trump adviser, who was subject to a tirade from a Republican congressman during impeachment hearings. (“I thought that was some epic mansplaining that you were forced to endure by my colleague Mr. Turner, and I want you to know some of us think it was inappropriate,” Democrat Sean Maloney told her afterward.)
Then, elsewhere during impeachment proceedings, there was Republican representative Elise Stefanik, who was “mansplained” the rules of the House Foreign Intelligence Committee by Democrat Adam Schiff, at least according to conservative website the Washington Free Beacon.
And finally Republican senator Joni Ernst told reporters that she did “not need to be mansplained by Chuck Schumer,” after the Democrat declined to support her version of the Violence Against Women Act for failing to contain crucial protections for domestic-violence victims.
None of these interactions seem to have much in common, other than they involve conversations between women and men – and that they’ve been labeled “mansplaining,” despite not actually fitting the original definition of the term, coined out of an essay by feminist writer Rebecca Solnit over a decade ago. Solnit wrote about meeting a male writer at a party who interrupted her while talking about her latest project. The man butted in officiously, talking over her to ask if she’d read a new, important book on the subject — oblivious to the fact that it was actually Solnit’s own book he was referring to.
Mansplaining gained traction at first on feminist blogs, as writers and activists finally had a catchall way to talk about a specific, albeit insidious, dynamic experienced by qualified women in male-dominated fields. When I heard it for the first time, the term helped to instantly describe so many interactions I had with men over the years that left me feeling annoyed and bad about myself. Mansplaining encapsulates the sexist, condescending tendency men can exhibit in classrooms, at work, and in casual conversation to assume that they know more about a topic than a woman, no matter what it is or what her credentials are.
But as it’s become a household phrase on the internet in the last few years, mansplaining has been used to characterize an ever-growing variety of unpleasant or uncomfortable interactions between a man and a woman, even those that aren’t actually marked by sexist aggression. Maloney’s apology to Hill for the mansplaining she “endured,” for example, belies the fact that members of Congress have castigated both male and female witnesses at the impeachment hearings (as they often do at most hearings, really). Solnit herself has said that mansplaining is applied too broadly; part of this is because of how viral moments in politics and otherwise travel now, quickly and without context — something pithy and broad like mansplaining acts like a stamp, telling us how to react and share.
Which is the much more worrisome implication of mansplaining’s ballooning definition: that some people, many of whom actually oppose the goals of feminism, have figured out how to use it as a political attack, to deflect engagement with the contents of their positions.
Take Ernst’s disingenuous use of mansplaining to lambast Chuck Schumer and defend her version of VAWA. Bipartisan negotiations over her bill in the Senate broke down this month because it neglected to close the “boyfriend loophole,” an opening in the law that allows an unmarried partner to still legally buy and own firearms after a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence. Advocates have been fighting hard to amend this legislation, arguing that it disproportionately leaves women vulnerable to injury and death. When Schumer accused Ernst of being “afraid of the NRA,” which opposes closing the loophole, she had mansplaining at the ready. Even as Schumer (correctly) characterized Ernst as working against the interests of domestic-violence victims, by accusing him of mansplaining to her, a rape survivor, she had a quick way to emphasize her solidarity with other survivors in the most superficial and duplicitous of terms.
It isn’t that mansplaining doesn’t still occur, rampantly. It’s that the term has been thinned and flattened into political doublespeak, with alarming repercussions. We now live in an upside-down world in which a far-right outlet like the Washington Free Beacon, which recently peddled the misleading story that Elizabeth Warren lied about facing pregnancy discrimination, cries mansplaining, too. And in which Cory Booker is accused of mansplaining to former Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who notoriously enforced Trump’s disastrous family-separation policy at the border, during her own congressional hearing — no matter that Booker was blasting Nielsen for knowingly participating in the incarceration and abuse of thousands of women and children as Nielsen dodged accountability for her role. Ernst’s self-righteous use of mansplaining while arguing that men convicted of violence against their partners should be able to buy guns is ludicrous rhetorical whiplash to the point of insanity. It would almost be funny if it weren’t so offensive.