DIGEST September 2022

bell hooks in focus

In the August 2022 Digest, I highlighted Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, the short primer that writer, teacher, and cultural critic bell hooks wrote in 2000 to make feminism more accessible. I reviewed the definitions and concepts put forward by hooks, with a promise to come back this month with the application of these concepts to key topics.

There are two issues central to hooks’ writing that she views as closely intertwined: reproductive rights (interestingly, she doesn’t use reproductive justice, a concept developed by Black feminists such as Loretta Ross, and that was already well known) and economic justice. Other areas of inquiry include parenting, masculinity, violence against women, fashion and the body, and the interaction between US and global feminisms. I’ve once again organized this as a Q&A, with some of my own thoughts on how this resonates today, and what may be missing. My comments or clarifications inside hooks’ quotes are in brackets.

bell hooks in college with her friend April

Can a feminist be anti-choice?

No, says hooks. “Granting women the civil right to have control over our bodies is a basic feminist principle. Whether an individual female should have an abortion is purely a matter of choice. It is not anti-feminist for us to choose not to have abortions. But it is a feminist principle that women should have the right to choose.”

I remember in January 2017, when “pro-life feminists” tried to become official partners of the global Women’s March. After some back and forth, the organizers heeded the words of bell hooks, and turned them down. Amen.

Why has the anti-abortion movement gained so much ground in the US?

hooks points to the constant backlash by organized ultra-conservatives, but also to complacency by feminists: “No feminist activists in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s imagined that we would have to wage a battle for women’s reproductive rights in the ‘90s [and much less in the 2020s!]. Once feminist movement [sic] created the cultural revolution that made the use of relatively risk-free contraceptives acceptable and the right to have a safe, legal abortion possible, women simply assumed those rights would no longer be questioned. The demise of an organized, radical feminist mass-based political movement coupled with anti-feminist backlash from an organized right-wing political front which relied on fundamentalist interpretations of religion placed abortion back on the political agenda. The right of females to choose in now called into question.”

Why did US feminists focus so much on abortion rights, rather than reproductive rights or justice?

“In retrospect, it is evident that highlighting abortion rather than reproductive rights as a whole reflected the class biases of the women who were at the forefront of the movement…individual white women with class privilege identified most intimately with the pain of unwanted pregnancy.”

That’s because privileged white women did not experience other violations of their reproductive rights as acutely. They could afford to buy contraceptives, or were not typically subjected to forced sterilization the way poor, Black, indigenous or disabled women were.

What are the issues of concern to Black or low-income women when it comes to reproduction?

“The right to have an abortion was not a white-women-only issue: it was simply not the only or even the most important reproductive concern for masses of American women… These issues ranged from basic sex education, prenatal care, preventive health care that would help females understand how their bodies worked, to forced sterilizations, unnecessary cesareans and/or hysterectomies, and the medical complications they left in their wake.”

State funding for abortions was another of these key issues: “Masses of poor and working-class women lose access to abortion when there is no government funding available for reproductive rights health care. Women with class privilege do not feel threatened when abortions can be had only if one has lots of money… but masses of women do not have class power.”

hooks issues a potent and prescient warning about the consequences of the breakdown of class solidarity amongst feminists on the issue of abortion and reproduction: “If we return to a world where abortions are only accessible to those females with lots of money we risk the return of public policy that will aim to make abortion illegal.” [my emphasis]

Is paid work outside the home the key to women’s liberation?

hooks is critical of the (mostly white) “reformist feminists” who, in rejecting homemaking, merely sought to gain social and economic equality with men―men of their class, needless to say. They did not advocate for a rethinking of economic conditions for all women. Many of these reformists did move into well-paid, professional jobs, but “[t]heir success has not altered the fate of masses of women.”

“Coming from a working-class, African-American background where most women I knew were in the workforce, I was among the harshest critics of the vision of feminism put forth by reformist thinkers when the movement began, which suggested that work would liberate women from male domination… I knew firsthand that working for low wages did not liberate poor and working-class women from male domination.” She also notes how women everywhere are struggling under the burden of “long hours at the job” and “long hours at home.”

hooks argues for “economic self-sufficiency” as the model, with solutions such as job sharing, increases in wages for teachers and service workers, state financial support and online college courses [even before COVID!] for stay-at-home parents, and a universal basic income.

She is scathing when she discusses the lack of feminist action on the 1995 federal Welfare Reform Act that dismantled cash assistance for women and children across the US. The law promoted work, and marriage to a man (seriously!), as alternatives to receiving welfare. “The most profound betrayal of feminist issues has been the lack of mass-based feminist protest challenging the government’s assault on single mothers and the dismantling of the welfare system. Privileged women, many of whom call themselves feminists, have simply turned away from the ‘feminization of poverty.’” As a result, “Poverty has become a central woman’s issue.”

Indeed, in 2019, 22 million women officially lived in poverty in the US , that is, at the absurdly low annual income of $13,064 for a single woman below the age of 65, and $25,465 for a family of four (two adults and two children). Black, Latina and indigenous women are overrepresented amongst the female poor (58%) vs. their share of the female population (41%). More than 50 million households struggle to buy food or pay rent.

Which issue can serve as a platform to unite women in their quest for justice?

hooks feels that economic self-sufficiency is that platform. “Early on feminist movement did not make economic self-sufficiency for women its primary goal. Yet addressing the economic plight of women may ultimately be the feminist platform that draws a collective response. It may well become the place of collective organizing, the common ground, the issue that unites all women.”

The resurgence of trade unions in the US, the important labor organizing by Ai-jen Poo’s National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, the rethinking of working conditions, the demand for better pay, the renewed political attention to caregiving programs (even if we haven’t funded them yet!) strongly suggest that hooks was on to something powerful. Let’s not miss this opportunity to rebuild a “mass-based” women’s movement that fully integrates race and class.

What is feminist parenting?

To raise children without sexism, hooks is clear that attention should not only be given to girls to build their self-esteem and combat the bias they face, but also to boys to reject sexist thinking. She returns here to her concern about women’s own internalized sexism: “…women who head households in patriarchal society often feel guilty about the absence of a male figure and are hypervigilant about imparting sexist values to children, especially males.” In the introduction to the book, hooks actually describes her mother as “the strongest patriarchal voice in [her] life.”

Feminist parenting requires rejecting “patriarchal masculinity [which] teaches men that their sense of self and identity, their reason for being, resides in their capacity to dominate others.” It also requires rejecting the practice of subjecting male children “to abuse when their behavior does not conform to sexist notions of masculinity.” Throughout her work and in this book, hooks is deeply concerned about violence against children, including corporal punishment by parents. “It is especially vital that parents learn to parent in nonviolent ways. For our children will not turn away from violence if it is the only way they know to handle difficult situations.”

“Children need to be raised in a loving environment. Whenever domination is present love is lacking. Loving parents, be they single or coupled, gay or straight, [...] females or males, are more likely to raise healthy, happy children with sound self-esteem.” Interestingly, given that the right-wing portray themselves as the true defenders of the “family,” hooks describes the feminist movement as the true “pro-family” movement, because “ending patriarchal domination of children, by men or women, is the only way to make the family a place where children can be safe, where they can be free, where they can know love.” [my emphasis]

What are the links between violence against women and other forms of violence?

hooks feels that tackling the great scourge of violence against women requires the feminist movement “to have as an overriding agenda ending all forms of violence,” because all violence is rooted in “patriarchal thinking, …an ethics of domination which says the powerful have the right to rule over the powerless and can use any means to subordinate them.”

She returns to the question of boys’ upbringing: “As long as sexist thinking socializes boys to be “killers,” whether in imaginary good guy, bad guy fights or as soldiers in imperialism to maintain coercive power over nations, patriarchal violence against women and children will continue. In recent years as young males from diverse class backgrounds have committed horrendous acts of violence, there has been national condemnation of these acts but few attempts to link this violence to sexist thinking.”

This is true even today, with mass shootings by young men at an all-time high in the US: while most of the shooters have a history of physical violence against women, the media rarely highlights that fact.

bell hooks in 1984 - credit: Art by Monica Ahanonu for TIME

What is at the root of violence against women?

“…domestic violence is the direct outcome of sexism… it will not end until sexism ends.” Yet hooks notes that many people who believe in women’s equality still have a hard time making the logical leap to connect violence against women and sexism, because it would require “challenging and changing fundamental ways of thinking about gender.” No, it’s not just lone violent men that are the problem, it is the system that assigns lower value and power to females, and requires so-called real men to dominate them.

I remember, many years ago, hearing Charlotte Bunch, an American feminist who has devoted herself to combat violence against women, put it this way: “Violence against women is the enforcement mechanism of gender inequality.”

How should feminists approach fashion and the beauty industry?

hooks remembers the momentous time in the ‘60s and ‘70s when women challenged sexist norms about female clothing: “Women stripping their bodies of unhealthy and uncomfortable, restrictive clothing – bras, girdles, corsets, garter belts, etc.―was a ritualistic, radical reclaiming of the health and glory of the female body. Females today who have never known such restrictions can only trust us when we say that this reclaiming was momentous.” I could hear hooks' playful voice as I read this…

Does that mean that true feminism must shun all fashion?

hooks doesn’t think so: “There was a period in the early days of feminism when many activists abdicated all interest in fashion and appearance. These individuals often harshly critiqued any woman who showed an interest in frilly feminine attire or make-up.” But she notes that this has not stopped the proliferation of oppressive models of thinness and youthfulness. She advocates not the condemnation of fashion as a whole, but rather to renew our engagement with it: “While feminist movement produced many types of pro-female magazines, no feminist-oriented fashion magazine appeared to offer all females alternative visions of beauty. To critique sexist images without offering alternatives is an incomplete intervention.”

“Young girls and adolescents will not know that feminist thinkers acknowledge both the value of beauty and adornment if we continue to allow patriarchal sensibilities to inform the beauty industry in all spheres. Rigid feminist dismissal of female longings for beauty has undermined feminist politics… Until feminists go back to the beauty industry, go back to fashion, and create an ongoing, sustained revolution, we will not be free. We will not know how to love our bodies as ourselves.”

What should be the relationship between US feminists and feminists from other countries, especially in the global South?

hooks bemoans the superiority complex of US feminists vis-à-vis their counterparts in the global South. It is grounded in “the major fantasy […] that women in the United States have more rights than any group of women globally, are ‘free’ if they want to be, and therefore have the right to lead feminist movement and set feminist agendas for all the other women in the world, particularly women in third world countries.” Under pressure by Black and women of color feminists and radical white feminists, this began to change, and “large numbers of feminist activists adopted a perspective which included race, gender, class, and nationality…”

“However, feminist women in the West are still struggling to decolonize feminist thinking and practices so that these issues can be addressed in a manner that does not reinscribe Western imperialism. Consider the way many Western women, white and black, have confronted the issue of female circumcision in Africa and the Middle East. Usually these countries are depicted as ‘barbaric and uncivilized,’ the sexism there portrayed as more brutal and dangerous to women than the sexism here in the United States. A decolonized feminist perspective would first and foremost examine how sexist practices in relation to women’s bodies globally are linked,” for example by linking circumcision to the life-threatening eating disorders common in the West.

This hit the mark for me, as I’ve witnessed multiple occasions where Northern/Western feminists (American, Italian, French…) campaigned against sexist practices in countries in the global South without connecting those to sexism in their own context. A few years ago, American feminists campaigning against child marriage in India and sub-Saharan Africa were shocked when an Indian colleague pointed out to them that child marriage also took place in the US! Did you know that right now only seven US states ban underage marriage without exceptions, and that about 300,000 minors were legally married in the US between 2000 and 2018, the vast majority underage girls married to adult men? Self-reflection is in order.

hooks isn’t asking US feminists to abandon the scene, but rather to learn from feminists in the global South, and support their efforts: “No one can deny that Western women, particularly women in the United States, have contributed much that is needed to this struggle and need to contribute more. The goal of global feminism is to reach out and join global struggles to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” [my emphasis]

What is the contribution of lesbians to feminism?

In the chapter aptly entitled Total Bliss, hooks recounts being stunned by attacks by Black lesbian women when her first book, Ain’t I a Woman, came out in 1981: “I was accused of being homophobic because there was no discussion of lesbianism in my book. That absence was not an indication of homophobia. I did not talk about sexuality in the book. I was not ready. I did not know enough. And had I known more I would have stated that so no one would have been able to label me homophobic.”

This time, hooks is more than ready to discuss lesbianism. She acknowledges the profound contributions of lesbians to the feminist struggle, and their pivotal role in radical feminism—that is the feminism that sought and seeks to transform society, rather than merely demand equality with men. “Our freedom as women to choose who we love, who we will share our bodies and lives with, has been deeply enhanced by the struggles of radical lesbian women both on behalf of gay rights and women’s rights.” Hear hear.

And she adds, “When it came to issues of difference, of expanding feminist theory and practice to include race and class, visionary lesbian thinkers were among those women most willing to change their perspectives… Visionary lesbians were far more willing to take on the issue of interrogating white supremacy than their straight comrades.”

Do trans persons have a place in hooks’ feminist thinking?

This is the aspect of the book where I feel Feminism Isn’t quite for Everybody. hooks relies on traditional sex binaries (male, female, man, woman, boy, girl) throughout the book, and does not mention gender identity, gender expression, or trans persons. To be fair, understanding of these issues was much less common in 2000 than it is today, but I was nevertheless surprised about how dated this made the book feel.

Laverne Cox and bell hooks in conversation at the New School in New York City, October 2014

Fast forward to 2014: watch this wonderful video of hooks in lively conversation at the New School in New York City with Black trans activist and actor Laverne Cox. The affection and support they offer each other is palpable as they discuss Cox’s TV hit show Orange Is the New Black, finding one's political voice as a Black trans woman, the leadership role of trans persons in social justice movements, whether blond wigs reaffirm white patriarchy, how to combat erasure and ensure one's visibility, queerness as the alternative, taking risks, finding love and more… Cox emphasizes the impact of hooks’ work on her own understanding that “attacks on trans persons are attacks on femininity,” and that “we can’t end homophobia without ending patriarchy.” “Right on!” replies hooks, who calls Cox "a goddess for justice." So much to think about!

In feminist solidarity and love, and in honor of bell hooks,