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Mansplainers Anonymous

Is 'mansplaining' really a thing? Let's examine the facts.



At a dinner party several years ago, my friend Whitney was excitedly describing a memoir I'd recently edited about Anna Yegorova, a badass Russian airwoman who flew dozens of combat missions for the Red Air Force during World War II. Anna won tons of medals, Whitney told the group. She was shot down and captured, and survived a Nazi POW camp.

After Whitney finished her story, one of the men emitted a noisy sputter of condescension. "That never happened," he mansplained to the assembled diners. "There weren't any female combat pilots in World War II."

In fact, there were hundreds. They flew more than 30,000 wartime sorties for the Red Air Force, in fighters and bombers.

But according to Whitney, the mansplainer was just so sure. Now, admittedly, he did not know me, but how could he assume that I — the researcher and co-author of the book — had made some mistake? That I'd been duped by these elderly veterans, these women I did shots of pink wine with on a boat plying the Moscow River? That I'd imagined that incredible autumn afternoon in Lt. Anna Yegorova's tiny Moscow apartment, when we sipped homemade vodka from a canteen while paging through photographs? That those photos of her in uniform with her regimental comrades, or by her massive Ilyushin Il-2 attack plane, weren't real? That I — or worse, she — fabricated her war stories?

I witnessed Yegorova's angry tears as she recalled being treated as a traitor by the Soviet secret police for the "crime" of being a POW. I was appalled that someone would question Yegorova's existence, let alone my secondhand account of it.

Some people do not require any facts to bolster their certainty. And from this trait, the term "mansplaining" was born. A 2010 Urban Dictionary entry for "mansplain" defines the word thusly: "To delight in condescending, inaccurate explanations delivered with rock-solid confidence of rightness ... because he is the man in the conversation."

At the aforementioned dinner party, the argument mostly broke down along gender lines. The women tended to side with Whitney, and the men with the cocksure male skeptic, even though Whitney was the only person present who had any actual knowledge of the topic. Apparently, the party disbanded in a female walkout — and I'm going to guess it wasn't because anyone truly cared about whether or not Russian airwomen actually shot down Nazis. It was the uninformed certitude itself, I'll wager, that divided the house.

But really, aren't we women being a tad oversensitive about male condescension? To be fair, it isn't only men who exhibit what Orwell called, in one of his wartime diary entries, an "utter non-interest in the facts." A 2009 Urban Dictionary entry offers this conciliatory aside: "Either sex can be guilty of mansplaining."

Indeed, I know people of both sexes who feel compelled to Know Everything, and at everyone else's expense. But I think there's something deeper at work here, something described in a 2014 article in The Atlantic titled "The Confidence Gap," where ABC correspondent Claire Shipman wrote that she "routinely deferred to the alpha-male journalists around her, assuming that because they were ... so much more certain, they just knew more."

"But were they really more competent?" the co-authors ask. "Or just more self-assured?"

In the article (and their book, Womenomics), the authors claim they've identified a "vast confidence gap" between the sexes. They cite surveys suggesting that many males tilt toward overconfidence in their abilities, while females may often underestimate what they can do.

The existence of a gendered confidence gap is tough to prove. But if it is a thing, it matters, because even though both beliefs are delusional, overconfidence is rewarded in the world, and underconfidence is not. If you apply for the job you're not sure you can do, you're more likely to get it (and learn the ropes along the way). And if you speak with self-assurance, you're more likely to be believed.

A hero of mine, with whom I once drank vodka out of a canteen, did not give a fuck about any of that. She was so sure she could fight brilliantly in the USSR's wartime skies, she presented herself before various male officers and womansplained to them why they needed to recruit her. One of them finally listened.

And it turned out, she was right.

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