“Mansplaining” and Political Voice

Guest author Ben White worked for WomanStats at BYU as an intern in 2016, and graduated in 2018 with a BA in Political Science. Now, as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, his research explores how gender shapes our interactions with American politics.

In recent years, “mansplaining”, the phenomenon of a man explaining a topic to a woman on the false assumption he is more knowledgeable about it, has become a widespread yet controversial issue[1]. Being a man myself, I have never experienced mansplaining, although I have certainly been guilty of it. Some argue that the term mansplaining is problematic[2] because it implies gender essentialism, but scholars agree that the term describes a real social problem that potentially diminishes women’s voices[3]. Controversy notwithstanding, I would argue that mansplaining is detrimental to women’s political engagement in two interrelated ways.

First, mansplaining sends the message that women’s voices are not a valued part of the political conversation. Women who speak up about politics are often doing so with the deck stacked against them, because politics is generally viewed as a masculine domain and women are stereotyped as being less politically knowledgeable than men[4]. Mansplaining reinforces these ideas by coopting women’s efforts to contribute to the conversation. Gender stereotypes are developed through real-world observations[5], and so when we observe mansplaining in the news or on social media, this reinforces stereotypes about women’s place in politics.

Second, mansplaining diminishes women’s political voice, both by coopting her speech in the moment and by discouraging future participation. A recent Pew survey found that one of the main reasons why people do not post political content on social media is because they are afraid of negative reactions[6]. It is fair to say that mansplaining is a negative reaction to a woman voicing her opinion or ideas, and such an experience might dissuade women from contributing to the conversation in the future. As such, it has real implications for democratic representativeness. Mansplaining is especially prevalent on social media, and social media content is often treated as public opinion by journalists and politicians[7]. To the extent that mansplaining discourages participation, women’s ideas and opinions are less visible. Social media can also change public opinion and prompt political action[8] [9], but if mansplaining diminishes women’s voices on these platforms, then women’s ability to change opinions and prompt action are diminished.

Although problematic for everyday people, mansplaining also happens to women who are clearly qualified to be talking politics as experts in their field. When I asked a professor friend (who has a PhD in political science) if she had ever experienced mansplaining when talking politics, I was discouraged but unsurprised to learn that she had. Accusations of mansplaining have even occurred between U.S. Senators[10] and other high-ranking government officials. In one prominent case, Anne Ruston, the Australian minister for families and social services, was asked at a news conference what it was like to be a woman in parliament in the wake of allegations of sexism and impropriety in Australian politics. Before she could answer the question, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison interrupted her to voice his own thoughts on a rule introduced by his predecessor that prohibited sexual relations between ministers and their staff. The irony of the interruption drew public ire, with one activist commenting: “‘It’s stunning how oblivious he is to the way in which his own behavior reproduces the very problem that they are there to discuss, which is obvious systemic gender inequality.’”[11].

In discussing how mansplaining harms women’s political voices, I do not mean to claim that all men are guilty of mansplaining, or that only men can behave in ways that diminish the political voices of others. But mansplaining remains a concern because it creates barriers to women’s equitable political participation. Like most political issues, mansplaining has no quick fix. We can’t pass a law banning the practice, but we can become more aware that it exists. We can call it out when we see it occurring (in a civil manner, of course). In my case, we can catch ourselves before we do it. Most importantly, we should remember that everyone both deserves and needs to have a political voice.

[1] McClintock, Elizabeth. n.d. “The Psychology of Mansplaining.” Psychology Today. Accessed June 23, 2021. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/it-s-man-s-and-woman-s-world/201603/the-psychology-mansplaining.

[2] Cookman, Liz. 2015. “Allow Me to Explain Why We Don’t Need Words like ‘Mansplain.’” The Guardian. February 12, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2015/feb/12/allow-me-to-explain-why-we-dont-need-words-like-mansplain

[3] Koc-Michalska, Karolina, Anya Schiffrin, Anamaria Lopez, Shelley Boulianne, and Bruce Bimber. 2021. “From Online Political Posting to Mansplaining: The Gender Gap and Social Media in Political Discussion.” Social Science Computer Review 39 (2): 197–210. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894439319870259

[4] Mendez, Jeanette, and Tracy Osborn. 2010. “Gender and the Perception of Knowledge in Political Discussion.” Political Research Quarterly 63 (2): 269–79. https://doi.org/10.1177/1065912908328860

[5] Wood, Wendy, and Alice H. Eagly. 2012. “Biosocial Construction of Sex Differences and Similarities in Behavior.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 46:55–123. Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-394281-4.00002-7

[6] McClain, Colleen. 2021. “70% of U.S. Social Media Users Never or Rarely Post or Share about Political, Social Issues.” Pew Research Center. May 4, 2021. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/05/04/70-of-u-s-social-media-users-never-or-rarely-post-or-share-about-political-social-issues/

[7] Barberá, Pablo, and Gonzalo Rivero. 2015. “Understanding the Political Representativeness of Twitter Users.” Social Science Computer Review 33 (6): 712–29. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894439314558836

[8] Bode, Leticia. 2016. “Political News in the News Feed: Learning Politics from Social Media.” Mass Communication and Society 19 (1): 24–48. https://doi.org/10.1080/15205436.2015.1045149

[9] Perrin, Andrew. 2020. “23% of Users in U.S. Say Social Media Led Them to Change Views on an Issue; Some Cite Black Lives Matter.” Pew Research Center (blog). October 15, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/10/15/23-of-users-in-us-say-social-media-led-them-to-change-views-on-issue-some-cite-black-lives-matter/

[10] “Ted Cruz Accused of ‘mansplaining’ as Hearing Goes off the Rails – CNN Video.” n.d. CNN Politics. Accessed June 28, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2021/06/24/ted-cruz-accussed-mansplaining-mazie-hirono-judiciary-committee-sot-vpx.cnn

[11] Cave, Damien. 2020. “Australia’s Struggle With ‘Bonk Bans’ and ‘Manterruptions.’” The New York Times, November 11, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/11/world/australia/morrison-ruston-bonk-bans-manterruption-sexism.html


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