Mansplaining. It’s not funny

Recently, I decided that I wanted two exterior walls at our house to be painted white. Not even two walls, actually: one and a half. It didn’t strike me as a particularly complicated or arduous job. I thought about doing it myself, but the tricky issue of ladders reared its head and made me think again. So I decided to get quotes from decorators to see how much it would be.

The first quote came in at a very fair price – about £300 – and I agreed to it, but then lockdown began, and the decorator went to ground. In any case, I thought, a prudent person would get at least one other quote. So when the lockdown restrictions eased a bit, I asked the decorator who was currently painting my suite of offices at work if he’d pop round and have a look. He readily agreed.

Two days later, he looked at the wall, and then he rang me at my office. During a phone call during which I reiterated several times that I just wanted a quote for the two walls to be painted white, these are direct quotes of the words he said to me.

“I wouldn’t bother. Save your money, mate, and spend it on something else.”

“I spoke to my buddy Dave who’s in the trade, and he agreed with me you’d be better off painting the woodwork white and leaving the wall brown. I can quote for the woodwork if you like.”

“It just fits in better with the street, leaving it brown.”

“The thing is, it’s an expensive job, a really expensive job. I’m not sure you’d want to pay what it’d cost you.”

“The problem is, you see, you just can’t paint it as it is. You’d want to get the whole thing rendered and start from scratch. You’d need a plasterer, not me.”

(That last statement, right there, is an outright and outrageous lie. Several houses on the same street have identical walls which are already painted white, or grey, or pale blue. I myself have painted a similar surface in the past. It requires a special soft roller and the right sort of thick masonry paint. But it is not difficult. And I had already had a quote for the work).

I listened to him talk and I realised that nothing I said was going to make any difference at all. He was not going to give me a quote for the work I wanted done. He had decided that it was a bad idea and that he knew best, and my opinion – as a prospective paying customer – was not relevant to him. He would rather tell a lie, would rather fudge facts and bluster, than simply say to me that he didn’t want the job or that it was too small for him or that he didn’t have time for however many weeks, that I might want to try someone else. He didn’t want tactfully to quote an offputtingly high price in the hope I wouldn’t hire him. He needed me to know that it wasn’t him, it was me. It wasn’t that he didn’t fancy the job, it was that my entire request was wrong, was ridiculous. Somehow, in his mind, he had decided that I was weak enough, stupid enough or just fucking irrelevant enough that telling me the truth didn’t matter, and that his opinion was more valid than mine.

In her gorgeous and so very necessary 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things To Me”, Rebecca Solnit writes:

Being told that, categorically, he knows what he’s talking about and she doesn’t, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light.

Rebecca Solnit

That is how I felt when I finished speaking with the decorator. I had been told categorically, without any room for question, that he knew what he was talking about and I didn’t. The world was an uglier place for the injustice of it. It filled me with a rage so blinding that it reduced me to tears.

When I spoke to my husband later that day about my interaction with the decorator, he was sympathetic but he was nonplussed. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re in charge. He didn’t give you a quote, so you move on and find someone who will, and you write him off as a bit of a twat.” My husband has strong feminist values; he is well educated, sensitive and has never seen our marriage as anything other than a union of two absolute equals. I don’t doubt this for a moment. But still, he had absolutely no idea why I was so deeply upset. He is a white man, with all the privilege attendant to that status in society, and he couldn’t possibly ever comprehend – on the level I needed someone to comprehend – how I felt about the encounter.

Because how can I begin to explain? That it’s everything. It’s all of it. It’s “I think you’ll find…” archly, sarcastically, from a classmate in an English lesson where I’d read the book and he hadn’t. It’s “Actually, I suspect my guess is rather better,” from a male colleague when I quipped that his guess was as good as mine. It’s the indulgent grin from the builder when I asked him to leave a Victorian brick archway in our wall as part of the structure of the kitchen extension. (“You’ve been watching too much Grand Designs!” he chuckled, and yet it’s now one of the most beautiful and commented-on features of the building). It’s the “what were you thinking? Look at this mess. Why didn’t you just move house?” from the electrician fitting out the same extension. It’s every time the men in the tyre shop spit lyrical lists of PSIs and tread depth and car makes at me, rather than giving me the three tiered price options and allowing me to choose.

I have my own privilege, which I don’t deny. I am a white woman, healthy, well educated and relatively successful; I have enough of my own money and sufficient wherewithal to make the right choices for my own benefit if I need to make them. I do not lose sight of that privilege. A man cannot say something to me that can affect my wellbeing in any direct way. But the way I am spoken to, casually, by men every day still matters. It matters because it speaks to an attitude which in societies less progressive than ours, the casual diminution of a woman’s right to an opinion is so much more serious than me swearing under my breath and grimacing into a phone handset.

Think of the painfully recent change to abortion law in Ireland. Staggeringly, until 2019 the law dictated – in essence – that a pregnant woman could not know her own mind. She could not make her own choices. The health of her fetus took legal precedence over her own mental or physical health, and that was that. The journey to the repeal of the 8th amendment was long and it was arduous, but it happened, because women’s voices were heard and their opinions were finally given sufficient weight to effect change. Contrast this with Lebanon, a country where since 1943 abortion has been illegal under a similar framework to the one previously used in Ireland (ie, banned save some medical exceptions).

In Lebanon, there has been no ceaseless campaign over many years to have the outdated and sexist law changed. Since 1969, it has not been referred to any kind of legal review in the way the Irish law was. But that is not because the women aren’t asking. “An interview with a representative of the Lebanese Family PlanningAssociation (LFPA, 2001) showed that officials from the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry ofPublic Health refuse to put the abortion issue on theiragenda though they are well aware of its magnitude”. The women have opinions. But what they hear is that their opinions are wrong, are irrelevant, are not worthy of debate. That is the fact of their lives.

I’ll get a different quote, of course I will. It’s a couple of walls and it doesn’t matter and I’m lucky to have the choice and that bloke’s just a twat. Those things that my husband said to me are true. But the way I felt? That still matters. And it needs to be remembered because being heard, having a credible opinion, it is currency. I’d like my daughters to be richer in it than I am. So we need to keep speaking up.

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