Listening to bell hooks and Gloria Steinem

Can you imagine listening in on a conversation between bell hooks and Gloria Steinem? That was the pleasure that I shared with an overflowing Spelman College auditorium last week when Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall facilitated a back-and-forth between the two feminists on their aspirations and joys–and their anxieties. (Did you know Steinem has always feared becoming a “bag lady”?)

Both had harsh words for oppressive religious institutions. Steinem said:

Religion is politics in the sky. When God looks like the ruling class, we’re in deep shit.

hooks asked:

How can we say we believe in a God of love and yet deny gay people the right to optimal well-being?

She pointed out that two of the most prominent global spiritual leaders are non-Christian men of color–Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama–both of whom prioritize peace over religious doctrine.

I was taking notes rapidly as life lessons came at me thick and fast. “Integrity,” said hooks, “is congruence between what you think, say and do.” Here are some of bell and Steinem’s ideas on living a life of integrity:

1. Be well

hooks stressed the need for everyone to aspire to “optimal well-being.” This may mean waking up to meditation, spiritual readings or writing (hooks does all three every day), or simply laughing with others (something hooks and Steinem both emphasize).

2. Save, and give

The thing hooks likes the most about her life is that she has achieved economic self-sufficiency by balancing her finances:

I don’t live beyond my means. I’m not a slave to capitalist consumerism. I feel a sense of freedom at being in control of my life.

Financial freedom is also about having the ability to help others, she stresses, and everybody has something they can give:

Every time we give, we move against domination and towards love. Love is the practice of giving.

3. Eroticize equality

Echoing Toni Cade Bambara’s call to “make revolution irresistible,” Steinem said we must eroticize equality: make it appealing, alluring and attractive. Social change is certainly serious business, but it does not have to be “all work and no play.”

4. Move beyond dichotomies

“We live in an either/or world. The truth is both/and,” said Steinem, stressing the need to recognize the connections among various social movements. hooks said we must cultivate circles of love, intimacy and regard, in which we always have people who support and affirm us:

This is why we need to move away from heterosexist patriarchal thinking because it keeps us looking for ‘the One’ when we should be focused on building the circle.

Hearing hooks and Steinem talk, I was struck by how they embody the principle that differences do not have to separate us. The immense trust and solidarity they share offers a road map to recognizing and respecting our differences and being open to the lessons they can teach us.


  1. I just heard them recently at Berea College in Kentucky. They were both so funny and down-to-earth, it was a great pleasure to be there.

  2. Thanks for capturing the conversation…I could not make it but I will take these lessons with me.

  3. I am a Spelman student and I also attended this amazing event. I enjoyed every moment of it. I was blown away by these two ladies and their comforting, down-to-earth conversation. Although it was crowded it felt as if it was just a hand full of people in the room. It felt intimate like it was just us "home-girls". Their interactions, comments, and stories were intriguing and, at times, funny.

    I simply admire Ms. hooks. I would have to agree with Ms. Williams when she stated that it felt as if life lessons were coming at me thick and fast. I learned so much from hooks.

    Another part of the event that I enjoyed was Steinem's announcement for individuals to stand up and "sound the alarm". She demanded that everyone should come together and create awareness. She mentioned how people often lack awareness and that people don't get the urgency.

    Just to get a more personal feel for hooks and Steinem was an honor. This was an event that I will never forget. Priceless.


  4. i met bell on Friday at The Ohio State University where she is in residency. She told me about this event, and i appreciate this synopsis, which i will share. My students of architecture are reading Dr. hook's writings on black vernacular: architecture as a cultural practice. we can pass on the love through knowledge.

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