One of the goals I’ve set for Feminism Makes Us Smarter (FMUS or “famous”), is to share the ideas of feminism with a broader audience. Black American writer, feminist theorist, and cultural critic bell hooks did this with verve throughout her life. bell hooks was the pen name of Gloria Jean Watkins; she spelled her name in lowercase to keep the attention on the work, rather than on the author.
Born in 1952 to a working-class family in a small segregated town in Kentucky, hooks obtained a BA in English from Stanford University, an MA in English from the University of Madison-Wisconsin, and a PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz. hooks wrote her first book, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, at the tender age of 19, but did not publish it until she was 29. She wrote 30 books and multiple essays on feminism, racism, masculinity, visual culture, and more. She began her academic career in 1976 teaching English at the University of Southern California, and went on to teach at Stanford, Yale, and the City College of New York, before returning to Kentucky in 2004 to become Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College.
hooks was a beloved professor, known for her wit and honesty. Her writing and teaching reached thousands of students, readers, and activists around the world. She died of kidney failure in December 2021 at the all-too-young age of 69. One of her many books, Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, published in 2000, is a short, easy-to-read but rich book that, in her own words, “explain[s] feminist thinking and encourage[s] folks to embrace feminist politics.” In her writing, hooks acknowledged the many ways in which feminism has been maligned or coopted and the justified criticism against various strands of feminism, but she never gave up on feminism as liberatory politics.
That’s why I keep coming back to her. I’ll devote two Digests to Feminism Is for Everybody. Part One will focus on definitions and conceptual clarity. Part Two will delve into a more detailed application of these ideas, for example to reproductive freedom, and offer a reflection on some of the (very few) aspects of the book that have not withstood the test of time quite as well.
As hooks exhorts us: “Come closer. See how feminism can touch and change your life and all our lives. Come closer and know firsthand what feminist movement [sic] is all about.
What is feminism?
hooks defines feminism succinctly as a “movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” hooks notes that feminism also seeks to end “systemic, institutionalized sexism,” known as patriarchy, rather than just individual sexist thought and behavior.
What does feminism want to achieve?
What does feminism seek to accomplish? Is it to have what men have? Equal pay for equal work, or sharing chores in the household? “Reformist feminism,” as hooks calls it, focuses on gaining equality with men in the existing system, a system she famously describes as “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.” In that system, women seek to have the same salaries as men, instead of questioning the work arrangements that make workplaces inhospitable to so many women (and other folks). In that system, as writer Françoise Vergès also explained in her book A Decolonial Feminism reviewed in my July 2022 Digest, successful (usually white) women outsource care work to racialized women from the former colonies without questioning their working conditions or the immigration system that invited them to France to take precarious, low-paying jobs. Reformist feminists “… accept […] and even collude[e] with the subordination of working-class and poor women,” as these reformists gain economicpower within the existing social structure. "Visionary" or "revolutionary" feminism, hooks explains, seeks to transform the system itself to be just and fair for everyone, so we can “live lives where we love justice, where we can live in peace.
Is feminism anti-men?
hooks’s definition “clearly states that the movement is not about being anti-male. It makes it clear that the problem is sexism. And that clarity helps us remember that all of us, female and male, have been socialized from birth on to accept sexist thought and action. As a consequence, females can be just as sexist as men. And while that does not excuse or justify male domination, it does mean that it would be naive and wrong-minded for feminist thinkers to see the movement as simplistically being for women against men.” [my emphasis]. hooks notes how the constant, extreme anti-feminist backlash from conservatives (even in 2000!) relies on the trope that feminists are a “bunch of angry women” who hate men.
Today, many younger feminists understand this deeply, which is why women and men as well as trans, non-binary, and queer persons are engaging in feminist politics together around the world, in a way that is quite different from a generation ago.
Can men and boys be feminists?
Yes. In fact, hooks thinks this is critical to the success of the feminist movement: “There has never been a time when I believed feminist movement should be and was a woman-only movement … we would never have a successful feminist movement if we could not encourage everyone, female and male, women and men, girls and boys to come closer to feminism.”
Why should men want to end patriarchy and sexism?
hooks describes how sexism boxes men into roles that harm them. “Males as a group have and do benefit the most from patriarchy, from the assumption that they are superior to females and should rule over us. But those benefits have come with a price. In return for all the goodies men receive from patriarchy, they are required to dominate women, exploit and oppress us, using violence if they must to keep patriarchy intact. Most men find it difficult to be patriarchs. Most men are disturbed by hatred and fear of women, by male violence against women, even the men who perpetrate this violence.” [my emphasis]
hooks speaks out with particular concern about the “…harmful misogynist assumptions that mothers cannot raise healthy sons, that boys “benefit” from patriarchal militaristic notions of masculinity which emphasize discipline and obedience to authority.” She adds chillingly, given the current never-ending mass shootings by white teenage boys in the US: “Boys need healthy self-esteem. They need love. And wise and loving feminist politics can provide the only foundation to save the lives of male children. Patriarchy will not heal them. If that were so, they would all be well.”
Can women be sexist?
hooks emphasizes the role that internalized sexism plays in the thinking and action of women everywhere: “We all knew firsthand that we had been socialized as females by patriarchal thinking to see ourselves as inferior to men, to see ourselves as always and only in competition with one another for patriarchal approval, to look upon each other with jealousy, fear, and hatred. Sexist thinking made us judge each other without compassion and punish one another harshly.”
This explains the often prominent role some women can play in ultra-conservative movements that seek to curtail women’s rights and freedoms and elevate men’s authority and power. Being a woman does not mean you are automatically anti-sexist.
How should women address their internalized sexism?
For anyone wishing to engage in feminist thought and action, hooks argues that one of the first steps one must take is to confront one’s internalized sexism. “Sisterhood could not be powerful as long as women were competitively at war with each other,” notes hooks. Consciousness-raising work in small groups was the approach women adopted in the ‘70s. In those groups, women often unleashed their anger about being victimized by men and used these sessions therapeutically. This was important but insufficient, and hooks notes that women could only truly commit to feminist thought and action and feminist politics after an examination of their own sexist, limiting beliefs. Importantly, hooks also writes that “feminist consciousness-raising for males is as essential to revolutionary movements as female groups.”
Even today, I regularly hear—often from other women—that women don’t support women, that an all-female environment is a nightmare, and that women bosses are the worst. Is this actually true, or is it internalized sexism rearing its ugly head? After all, many of us have had terrible male bosses, and all-male environments are hardly kind and gentle. Conversely, I’ve had many superb and supportive female colleagues and co-workers throughout my whole career. I therefore question these statements; in response, my interlocutor (sometimes!) nuances them, and we move on to discuss what makes an environment supportive for everyone.
Why is it critical for feminists to address racism and class prejudice?
hooks is, by many accounts, one of the precursors of what was later named intersectionality, the “lens, prism” developed by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw “for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality [race, gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status] often operate together and exacerbate each other.”
hooks’s discussion of racism and anti-racist struggles in the US feminist movement is a clear-eyed assessment. hooks does not sugarcoat the struggles that were (and still are) needed to ensure that race and class are fully addressed by feminist movements. She notes that “utopian visions of sisterhood based solely on the awareness of the reality that all women were in some way victimized by male domination” did not survive the confrontation with the reality of class and race. “We could only become sisters in struggle by confronting the ways women—through sex, class, and race—dominated and exploited other women, and created a political platform that would address these differences.”
Thinking back on feminist history in the US, hooks writes that white women in the 1960s “entered the movement erasing and denying difference, not playing race alongside gender, but eliminating race from the picture. Foregrounding gender meant that white women could take center stage, could claim the movement as theirs, even as they called on all women to join. … Individual black [sic – hooks did not capitalize black] women who were active in the movement from its inception for the most part stayed in their place.” But, “a younger generation of black females/women of color in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s challenged white female racism. Unlike our older black women allies we had for the most part been educated in predominantly white settings. Most of us had never been in a subordinated position in relation to a white female … We had never been in our place… Our intent was not to diminish the vision of sisterhood. We sought to put in place a concrete politics of solidarity that would makegenuine sisterhood possible. We knew that there could be no real sisterhood between white women and women of color if white women were not able to divest of white supremacy, if feminist movement [sic] were not fundamentally anti-racist.” [my emphasis]
I was (pleasantly) surprised to read that hooks saw meaningful change take place as a result of this difficult reckoning. She had been unsparing in her critique of white feminist racism in Feminist Theory: From Margin to the Center, published in 1984. Here, she sees reasons for hope: “Critical intervention around race did not destroy the women’s movement; it became stronger. Breaking through the denial about race helped women face the reality of difference on all levels. And we were finally putting in place a movement that did not place the class interests of privileged women, especially white women, over that of all other women. We put in place a vision of sisterhood where all our realities could be spoken.”
And she remarks on something I’ve heard many times over the years in transnational feminist discussions: “There has been no contemporary movement for social justice where individual participants engaged in the dialectical exchange that occurred among feminist thinkers about race which led to the re-thinking of much feminist theory and practice.” When I spoke with Uruguayan feminist activist Lilián Abracinskas for my July 2022 Newsletter, she told me no other social movement in Uruguay had done the deep thinking and reorientation on class, race, migrant status, sexual orientation, and gender identity that the feminist movement had engaged in over the last 15 years. That’s not always how things feel in the United States, where change in white feminist circles seems slower and less hopeful than bell hooks described in 2000. Nevertheless, I take comfort in her view that change is possible.
I hope you find (or find again) bell hooks’s writing useful in your reflection and action.
More in September on hooks’s reflections on reproductive freedom and abortion, masculinity, parenting, violence against women, global feminism, lesbians and trans women, and more… Come closer!
In feminist solidarity,