Catching Up on Feminist Theory, 1: bell hooks

I’m your classic Second Waver–I came to feminism reading this familiar canon: The Feminine Mystique, Sisterhood is Powerful, The Female Eunuch, Lesbian Nation, The Second Sex, Against Our Will, Women and Madness, Sexual Politics, Towards a Recognition of Androgyny, Ms. magazine (I especially loved Jo Freeman’s essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”), Chrysalis and Heresies magazines, and anything Gloria Steinem wrote.

But since those days, I’ve gotten way behind in feminist theory. Aside from Ms., Steinem’s books and Susan Faludi’s Backlash, I garnered my feminism through experience, conversation and popular media rather than going to primary sources. I didn’t really know where the stairway was to feminism’s Ivory Tower, and no one came down to give me a map.

Last year, though, some scholarly feminist friends offered me a list of “30+ Feminist Must-Reads,” which would take me from the 70s through the present  day. I had already become more comfortable with words like “heteronormativity” and “intersectionality” simply by working with women’s studies scholars in my job editing Ms. magazine and now the Ms. Blog, so I felt I was finally ready to tackle the academic literature.

And so I begin my journey–which I’ll blog about here. I’m starting with our woman-of-the-past-week, bell hooks, and Chapter 2 of her 1984 book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. In this chapter–“Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression” [pdf]–hooks simply and clearly defines feminism. She points out that:

Without agreed upon definition(s), we lack a sound foundation on which to construct theory or engage in overall meaningful praxis.

In other words, if we can’t define feminism, we can’t develop a theory or practice of it (I had to stop for a moment and look up “praxis”–which means the practice of an “art, science or skill”). hooks quotes Carmen Vasquez, writing with frustration in the essay “Towards A Revolutionary Ethics”:

Feminism in America has come to mean anything you like, honey.

That, to hooks, indicates a “growing disinterest in feminism as a radical political movement.” And this is 1984, when “women’s lib” was still a common term for the movement, so imagine the struggle we’ve had to keep the movement radical for the past 26 yers!

hooks’ next point is critical: Most people, she writes, think of feminism “as a movement to make women the social equals of men.” But “which men do women want to be equal to?” she asks. Men of any race or class? Obviously not. Furthermore, hooks writes:

Women in lower-class and poor groups, particularly those who are non-white, would not have defined women’s liberation as women gaining social equality with men since they are continually reminded in their everyday lives that all women do not share a common social status. Concurrently, they know that many males in their social groups are exploited and oppressed. … [T]hey would not deem it liberatory to share their social status.

And that’s why, hooks notes, women in those lower-class groups were suspicious of feminism from the get-go: because they realized the limitations in its definition, which would make it apply primarily to middle- and upper-class white women.

An “anything goes,” sloppily defined feminism focuses by default on social equality (which, as hooks points out, is quite problemmatic) and an individual woman’s right to freedom and self-determination. And I stopped here in the chapter to reflect on the faux feminism being espoused by the Sarah Palins of the world: Theirs is  a sort of me-me-me feminism that doesn’t recognize the greater need for collective action. It’s a “romantic notion of personal freedom,” in hooks’ words, and it ignores the need to speak out against race and class oppression as well as sexism.

hooks lobbies for a different definition of feminism than social equality:

Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women. It does not privilege women over men. It has the power to transform meaningfully all our lives.

Considered as a movement to end sexist oppression, feminism then “directs our attention to systems of domination and the interrelatedness of sex, race and class oppression.” Ah ha!! Now I understand where the notion of “intersectionality” arises–not just from a philosophical or humanitarian desire to have an inclusive women’s movement, but from a realization that we must make a broader analysis if we truly want to end oppression. hooks writes:

[Feminism as a movement] compels us to centralize the experiences and the social predicaments of women who bear the brunt of sexist oppression as a way to understand the collective status of women in the United States.

It’s perfect to start my quest to understand feminist theory with a definition of feminism itself. Perhaps I’ll come upon other ones along the way. This one works just fine for me now, though: It’s a good lens to focus through.

Thoughts? Suggestions for further reading or discussion?

Photo from Flickr user quinn.anya under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. Dominique Millette says:

    To me, a crucial aspect of feminism is to expose the practice of Othering. In debunking the exceptionalism of privilege, we also return to the common roots of all humanity and abolish double standards. In some cases, challenging dualist views of gender will also signify deconstructing those barriers which make equality an unequal experience.

  2. Looking forward to following your journey on the blog! On intersectionality, you may enjoy reading Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Kimberlé Crenshaw.

  3. yoteech2002 says:

    All this philosophizing is well and good. However, the internal experience of feminism was inborn in me. The huge mental NOOOOOO when I first heard the grammar rule of masculine by preference for pronouns. The experience of growing up in a household run by women: my grandmother and two aunts and my mother which showed me that women are not helpless critters who must have men to lead the way.
    Endless philosophizing is in itself a masculine (left brained) endeavor to talk, talk, talk and talk rather than act.

    • So what if philosophizing is masculine? People say math and science is, too. Simply saying, 'oh, that's what men do, women do something better' is going against the whole idea of equality.

      It's great for you that you are a perfectly innate feminist, but personally, for me, reading all this 'inactive' 'philosophizing' made me able to articulate my rage and understand why, exactly, things like the grammar you mentioned made my blood boil.

  4. yoteech2002 says:

    Feminism is the strength of women to identify ourselves as we are – not as men have defined us.

  5. heatheraurelia13 says:

    Wow, I can't wait to read her books this is amazing!!! Thanks so much for writing this!!!

  6. Feminism needs a present-day goal that is achievable, that would make a difference in bettering the lives of females, and that would change American and world society for the better. I have proposed just such a goal in a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would guarantee Supreme Court Gender Equality: http://supreme-court-gender-equality-pac.blogspot

    I am doing my best to beat the drum. In fact, The New York Times has today posted my proposed amendment in a comment I made to the Opinionator commentary "An Invisible Chief Justice" by Linda Greenhouse:

    I made comment #126:

    Steven A. Sylwester

  7. When I studied Feminist Therapy in the 80's, which was essentially studying psychotherapy AND women's studies together (and trying to integrate doing feminism while entering a very male-normed, patriarchal profession…), bell hooks was required reading. So were many other women of color. One book I recall was THIS BRIDGE CALLED MY BACK. We also spent a lot of time understanding lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender issues. I've recently decided that I have to re-read some of the early classics in feminist psychology because I was young when I read them (I'm now 56) and may not have really understood the layers of "intersectionality" already present in the thinking of these women. One that I just returned to is TOWARD A NEW PSYCHOLOGY OF WOMEN by Jean Baker Miller. It was originally published in 1976 and a 2nd Edition pubbed in 1986 with a new Introduction by Miller. Miller and hooks are/were very much on the same page, understanding that a whole new value system is required in order that feminism really change the world. Yes, more and more women realize that they don't want what patriarchy has to offer; it's bankrupt, it's soul-killing, it's lacking authentic relationships and any consciousness of interdependence. Unfortunately, I find that these ideas, although having been around for decades, have not been integrated into what is popularly conceived of as "feminism." Even today, as a feminist activist artist involved in online feminism, I find that the idea of feminism is still perceived as operating within the political realm. I think there are more powerful arenas; exactly how to have this conversation with other feminists has been challenging. Old paradigms die hard. I'm less and less interested in using ye olde battering ram to knock down the doors to patriarchal institutions, shouting "Let us in! Give us parity!" Don't get me wrong, parity would be a good thing. But we have to change consciousness…we have to be able to see patriarchy, we have to be able to discuss internalized misogyny, we even need to look at how education perpetuates patriarchy. We need to look at neuroscience to see if it's possible that oppression/suppression is hardwired into the human brain and if we can consciously evolve past these splits. That's where my questions lie these days. Frankly, I think we need to stop practicing 20th century feminism/womanism. We need to convene to critique ourselves. Can I get a minyan here?

  8. Intriguing points, MadamaAmbi! I especially love the notion that if oppression/suppression is hardwired into the human brain we could consciously evolve past the split!! Delicious food for thought… – Michele

  9. Growing up my mother (a strong Black woman) told me that being Black had nothing to do with feminism. I think what my mother was trying to say is that she could not see her struggle in the words of certain writers. Just after College I discovered bell hooks – reading Sisters of the Yam, Black Looks, Yearning and so many other of her books – I could re-purpose the language that had been distant to me – connect with another part of myself.

    I have introduced many young women to her work to give them what she gave me – language.

    Thank you for sharing and opening up language and meaning here.

  10. I second This Bridge Called by Back.

    For relatively recent feminist scholarship, I would also like to recommend:

    Benita Roth, "Separate Roads: Black, Chicana and White Feminist Movements in America's Second Wave" (2004)

    Jo Reger, ed., "Different Wavelengths: Studies of the Contemporary Women's Movement" (2005) especially Ednie Garrison's essay, "Are We On a Wavelength Yet?"

    Nancy Hewitt, ed., "No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism" (2010)

    Claire Snyder's essay in Signs Journal (Vol 34, No 1, 2008) "What is Third Wave Feminism: A New Directions Essay"

  11. "Theirs is a sort of me-me-me feminism that doesn’t recognize the greater need for collective action"
    Does feminism have to be leftwing? As defined here, it certainly is. What's rightwing feminism look like, then?

  12. hooks' definition of feminism has always been the one that resonated most deeply for me. It succeeded in being inclusive (and genuine about said inclusiveness) where others' attempts failed. Thanks you for writing this wonderful piece!

  13. Some of my favorite/most thought-provoking readings:

    Saba Mahmood’s essay “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Cultural Anthropology 16 (2001)

    Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference

    Also, I think that Janet McCabe’s book, Feminist Film Studies: Writing the Woman Into Cinema, provides a really comprehensive account of feminist theory.

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