The question ‘what brought you here?’ posed to the audience by Bonnie Greer at the Royal Festival Hall was perhaps the most important one asked during an evening based around Rebecca Solnit and her most recent book The Mother of All Questions.
It was, however, the hardest question to answer given the setting, which was set up in the basic format. Solnit read from her book, as did Greer, and the passages from her essays were moving and inspiring too about the form itself. Greer then asked some questions, held a conversation with Solnit and then opened up to the floor.
There were lots of questions, answered to varying degrees of satisfaction – one woman who raised questions from the perspective of MENA women about Solnit and Greer’s support of Hilary Rodham Clinton, and their perspective on the misogyny that erupted during the election seemed deeply unhappy with their response.
Solnit’s answer about Clinton’s war-mongering was essentially that she was scrutinised more because she was a woman. Ultimately, she was no more hawkish than male candidates, Solnit said, adding that you would think Clinton had been president for 30 years, judging by the degree she was held responsible for past policy.
There is a strange disconnect between the apparent assertion that the criticism of Clinton was misogynistic and Greer’s claim that the presidential candidate offered her and many black women hope.
There’s no doubt that misogyny and sexism was in play, but there are many valid questions that can be asked about what we might expect of a woman who is seeking to lead such a powerful country. There was discussion about the lack of choice, there was criticism of the binary system, but questions about power, about women’s participation in the structures of power, about whether simply having a woman in power is enough were not aired.
The set up of the evening itself perhaps reflects how when a small group of women frame the perameters of the debate, there isn’t space for others to delve in and begin also to make sense of things.
The one woman who responded to Greer’s question about why she was brought something into the hall that perhaps illuminates some of the difficulties and struggles that seemed to be going on.
She spoke in a gently moving way about how one of Solnit’s books in which she reflects on the chrysalis, which is both death and life, had helped her through a period of mental illness.
Her point had been that in struggling, we don’t really know which bit is the living and which is they dying,
That perhaps illuminates something of what was taking place during a discussion about activism and, ultimately, hope, that was carried out in a traditional format led from the front, with the gurus/experts on stage. Is it the mismatch between what we are trying to achieve and the structures that we are still trying to work with that creates such a sense of struggle?