Of the many blows traded between Tory leader wannabes Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, perhaps the most surprising has been accusations of “aggressive mansplaining” by the former chancellor from the foreign secretary’s camp.
Sunak’s interruptions in Monday night’s head-to-head debate, his speaking over Truss, his general “shouty private school behaviour” was condemned as “desperate” and “unbecoming” by Truss supporters.
Sunak’s team hit back. Yes, the debate was lively. But it was “insulting” to suggest Truss could not look after herself in a “rumbustious” debate, insisted the deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab. Sunak was, according to others, merely explaining the deficiencies in Truss’s proposed fiscal policy. Nothing sexist about that.
So, when does merely explaining become the far more charged “mansplaining”?
According to the OED, the verb “mansplain” is defined as “Of a man: to explain (something) needlessly, overbearingly, or condescendingly , esp. (typically when addressing a woman) in a manner thought to reveal a patronising or chauvinistic attitude”.
Or, as shorthanded by Catherine Mayer, co-founder and president of the Women’s Equality Party, journalist and activist: “In its strictest sense, mansplaining is about men explaining things to women that women already understand perhaps better than the speaker.”
“Mansplaining can be pretty funny. I know we get angry about it. But, one of the perils of being co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party is the number of men who rush to tell me how to do, or not to do, feminism,” she said.
“But, mansplaining is a huge and constant thing. And there is a lot of it about at the moment”.
The term was first coined in 2008, following an essay by US author Rebecca Solnit called Men Explain Things To Me in the Los Angeles Times, in which she described a time a man explained a book to her without acknowledging that she herself wrote it. That led to the term, which was adopted initially on feminist blogs, with usage growing steadily. Now it’s mainstream.
Mansplaining, said Mayer, is “very much part of the wider culture that puts a different value on what men and women say. Men get to have big ideas, and what they say is granted an importance it may or may not have. Whereas women with big ideas get told they are pushy or are talked over, and their ideas are either co-opted or ignored. And the structural exclusion of vital ideas and perspectives is one of the reasons politics is so broken.”
She did not watch the Sunak-Truss debate, but believes both are “hopeless candidates”. And that being so, she said, “it potentially confuses the issue of mansplaining” in this case. “Trussanomics” – or Truss’s economic policy – was unworkable, Mayer believed. “And so she is likely to have given Sunak room for explanation as well as mansplanation.”
Tory MP Jackie Doyle-Price had no such hesitation, tweeting: “Most women MPs have been subject to mansplaining and being talked over in debate. Never a worse example than right now on the BBC.”
Hand in hand with mansplaining goes “manterrruption”. And Sunak definitely interrupted.
Asked on BBC Breakfast, Truss supporter Simon Clarke MP, said: “He was certainly interrupting Liz a lot”, though he declined to use the word “mansplain” saying only: “I’m not going to attach labels”. Sunak supporter David Davis, however saw it as the cut and thrust of healthy debate, saying: “Sometimes it’s important to intervene in debates.”
Manterruption is “certainly part of the same culture,” said Mayer. “Asserting yourself is great. Talking over other people is not. It’s sort of on the edge of mansplaining.”
Robert Lawson, associate professor in sociolinguistics at Birmingham City University, said the Sunak-Truss debate would inevitably see a surge in Twitter use of hashtags #mansplaining and #manterruption, as such events drive debate on the issue.
“Then it becomes a debate around ‘what is mansplaining? Did he definitely mansplain? Is it just a case he was explaining something and he’s a man?’ And so this debate becomes about what constitutes mansplaining and what doesn’t,” said Lawson, co-author of an academic paper called Gender Politics and Discourse of #mansplaining #manspreading and #manterruption on Twitter.
The definition of mansplaining in the sociolinguistics field is “a patronising and condescending explanation” to someone who we can “reasonably expect to have some degree of expertise or knowledge in that field”, he said.
“These kinds of ‘man’ terms are part of a broader strategy of how do we actually talk about and draw attention to some of the more problematic elements of how men communicate, and if they do communicate like this , what can be done about it.”
But, while she thinks this could mean one positive outcome from Monday’s debate, Mayer is less optimistic.
“One of the other things I’ve learned from activism is it is incredibly important to make people aware of stuff so you can change it. But that’s only the first step. You also have to make them care about it, and in our polarised world, those sort of hashtag debates, instead of making people care about [an issue] in terms of having a moment of revelation and thinking I will change my behaviour, it tends to reinforce people in the behaviours they already had.”