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.


Erica Lorraine Williams is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. She completed her Ph.D in Cultural and Social Anthropology at Stanford University, and her B.A in Anthropology and Africana Studies at New York University. Her research focuses on the relationships between "sex tourism" and the marketing of Afro-Brazilian culture as an eroticized tourist commodity in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. She is currently working on revising her dissertation, "Anxious Pleasures: Race and the Sexual Economies of Transnational Tourism in Salvador, Brazil," into a book manuscript. After participating in the Ms. Magazine Workshop for Feminist Scholars in May 2010, she decided to try her hand at feminist blogging!