The Sentimental Origins of the Male Explanatory Reflex

What Women Really Think
Nov. 2 2012 3:42 PM

The Sentimental Origins of the Male Explanatory Reflex

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Campaigners, some dressed as suffragettes, attend a rally organised by UK Feminista to call for equal rights for men and women on Oct. 24, 2012 in London

Photograph by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

In her article about the cultural history of the term, "mansplaining," the Atlantic's Lily Rothman points us to this 1903 essay "Why Women Do Not Wish the Suffrage," and it is everything we could hope it to be. While I do, in fact, wish the suffrage, I also wish I lived in a time when every magazine article on every issue took as its true subject the Development of Modern Man. “What are we in the world for?” asks the essay's male author Lyman Abbot, and then goes on, with admirable confidence, to answer the central question of human existence:

Open an acorn: in it we find the oak in all its parts—root, trunk, branches. Look into the home: in it we shall find the state, the church, the army, the industrial organization. As the oak is germinant in the acorn, so society is germinant in the family. Historically, the family is the first organization; biologically it is the origin of all other organizations… These families find it for their mutual advantage to engage in separate industries, and exchange the product of their labor: thus barter end trade and the whole industrial organization come into existence. ... Such, very briefly stated, is the development of society as we read it in the complicated history of the past. 

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Briefly stating is not Abbot’s strong suit, and this argument is surprisingly labyrinthine, given that in 1903 it should have been possible to rely upon the reader’s assumptions and make a rather straightforward claim for women’s unsuitability. Rothman brings the article to our attention in the context of “mansplaining,” a portmanteau of which I cannot say I am fond. There is nothing less new to human civilization than this particular phenomenon, but our current conversation can be traced back to a 2008 Rebecca Solnit piece in which she recounts the experience of a man explaining to her basic facts from a book she had written even though he had been told, repeatedly, that she had written the book.

For reasons that probably have more to do with my own experience than objective reality, I associate this kind of casual condescension with the tendency to force strong emotional reactions into a language of “rational thought.” Lyman Abbot feels to the core of his being that women should not be able to vote, but in the course of his argument he works hard to distance himself from anything so womanly as an emotion. He recounts some natural history. He cites some statistics. He enumerates. He takes his detractors not, then, to be possessed of different intuitions, but to lack the intellectual firepower to grasp his painstakingly constructed argument. Generally, these arguments turn out to be bad ones. The point is less the strength of any argument than a style of argumentation in which the speaker mistakes his own sentimental passions for an uncommon—brave even—commitment to empiricism.

I can’t say with any confidence that this tendency is gendered, though it seems to me to describe the least likable aspects of the pick-up artist community, where garden-variety resentment mingles comfortably with watered-down discredited pop evolutionary psychology. It describes also this book, in which the author's sweet sentimentality about kids is translated into some weak arguments for having them. Perhaps the benefit of being stereotyped as the sex given to sentimentality—even while men weep over baseball, their distant fathers, and the romance of war—is that we're better able to know when we're in its grip.

Kerry Howley's work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and the New York Times Magazine. She is currently finishing a book about consensual violence, ecstatic experience, and the body.

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