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Mansplaining: Feminists fight back with language

Annette Henry is all too familiar with “mansplaining.”

A language and literacy education professor at the University of B.C., Henry has a PhD and was previously head of her department.

Still, she often experiences situations where men patronizingly explain things to her, under the supposed assumption that she couldn’t possibly understand because she’s a woman.

“Just the other day a co-worker was explaining teaching to me,” Henry said, adding with a laugh: “I mean, I’ve been teaching for 30 years. It’s amazing to me that somebody would think I need a primer on teaching.”

The issue of sexist language has been hotly debated within feminist circles since the 1960s, but today women are fighting back in a new way, inventing catchy words to call out sexist behaviour that many may not even be aware of.

“Mansplaining,” a portmanteau that combines the words man and explaining, can be traced back to a 2008 article in which writer Rebecca Solnit detailed an experience at a party in which a man patronizingly attempted to tell her about a new book that, unbeknownst to him, she actually wrote.

Although Solnit never used the term in her piece, it soon emerged within the feminist lexicon. A plethora of other portmanteaus soon followed, from manspreading to manslamming, manterrupting and bropriating.

The terms highlight a real phenomenon women face on a daily basis, but that many people remain oblivious to, said Henry.

Henry said she doesn’t believe men are being intentionally “malicious or mean” when they mansplain or manterrupt a woman.

“I think often men don’t realize,” she said. “Sometimes, once they’re told, they do, but not always. It’s hard to undo a lifetime of habits and socialization.”

But Janni Aragon, a political science professor at the University of Victoria, is concerned the terms have evolved to become an “attack” on men, which can undermine their effectiveness.

“It’s like the shrill feminist,” she said. “Now it’s, ‘Oh, you’re just a mansplainer.’”

She hopes the terms spark dialogue on how words are used to label both men and women.

When women display leadership qualities, Aragon said they are often labelled “bossy,” while a man in the same position will be praised for being “hands-on.”

“Why is bossy bad?” she said. “One of the things that comes out of this is having discussions about the adjectives that come out that are used for men and women and how they vary.”

So what does mansplaining mean for the future of feminism?

With the coinage emerging at a time when dozens of women are also now breaking their silence, coming forward with claims of sexual assault by high-profile men like Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi, Henry said it could be a sign we are entering a new phase of the feminist movement.

For too long, she said women have excused what they considered sexist or misogynistic behaviour as, “this is just how men are.”

Putting a name to bad behaviour can be empowering for women, but Henry said there’s still a lot of work to do to bring about social change.

“I think it’s too early to tell (if it will make a difference) because they’re relatively new terms,” she said.

Is this a good thing?

Learning the terminology:

Mansplaining: A term to describe when a man patronizingly explains something to a woman, under the supposed assumption that she couldn’t possibly understand because she’s a woman.

Manspreading: The male habit of sitting with legs apart and taking up too much space on the subway.

Manslamming: When a man is unwilling to make way for a woman coming in the opposite direction on a sidewalk and pummels into her.

Manterrupting: When a man interrupts a woman while she’s trying to speak.

Bropriating: When a man takes credit for a woman’s idea at a meeting.

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