Tag Archives: bell hooks

Feminism is for Everybody: Threshold Essays

Cover of Feminism is for Everybody

Title: Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics

Author: bell hooks

Publication Date: 2000

LC Classification: HQ1190 .H67

There are so many things about this book that I really love. I love that it’s the book we’re using to start off the second Year of Feminist Classics, because it is a very simple, clear, and inclusive description of feminism. It’s great to start out with a work like this that provides a focus for the whole year.  I love the historical perspective that it provides. I love that it was written by bell hooks, who has been very critical of racist and classist elements of mainstream feminism, and continues to be so here.  She doesn’t make any excuses for things that are messed up.  I love that she presents feminism not as a monolith, but as a series of struggles, some internal and some external. I love the introduction, in which hooks explains that she wanted this book to exist, so she wrote it, and in which she explains why she wanted to write the book, and for whom.  I love the way the book is organized—in short, clear chapters with straightforward titles.  I love the way each chapter ends with a sentence that drives the point home in a strong, memorable way, like this:

As long as females take up the banner of feminist politics without addressing and transforming their own sexism, ultimately the movement will be undermined.  (12)


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. (36)


The goal of global feminism is to reach out and join global struggles to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. (47)


Clearly we need new strategies, new theories, guides that will show us how to create a world where feminist masculinity thrives. (71)


To choose feminist politics, then, is a choice to love. (104)

Many of them are calls to action, and many bring us back around to the overarching idea of the book that feminism should be universally embraced because we (all of us) need it.  As I wrote above, I really just want to take it and hand it out to everyone who goes around saying things that betray awful misunderstandings of feminism or internalized sexism and racism.  I can’t believe it isn’t in my library and will fix this problem.

Amy asks whether this book would convince someone who didn’t identify with feminism to do so.  Well… that’s a really complicated question.  For me, identifying with feminism was a very long process; I think I was always feminist really, but there was a long period of education and thinking and reading to really understand what it was all about before I was able to begin thinking of myself as a feminist.  After all, it would be rash and foolish to call myself something without a good idea of what it really means, who else is using this label, how people think of it, and so on. And to me, really understanding something requires a long period of engagement with it. There is, of course, a lot I still don’t know.  I’m a very cautious person, but I don’t know what I would think of someone who had no engagement with feminism or was even antifeminist, and after reading this book suddenly began to identify with it.  That’s a bit too quick and a bit too simple for me, and I think hooks knows that. She describes her mother’s change of heart as a slow process: “Mama has come around to feminist thinking” (x).

But I don’t think the book is meant to be that. Rather, it’s an introduction. It should draw in people who might not have otherwise considered feminism important and relevant to their lives, and if they find it compelling and if they really care, they will read further and find out more, and perhaps eventually become deeply involved in feminism.

So, if I reframe it in those terms, can the book accomplish that? It’s still complicated, because it depends on who the reader is.  It’s very persuasive, very accessible, and very honest, which is a huge part of its persuasive potential.  If it’s found by the right reader at the right moment, I think it can change lives.  In the introduction, hooks gives some idea who the right reader is—the right moment is the moment at which someone is willing to seriously and honestly consider something that person had previously overlooked or avoided.  There’s no way to guarantee that everyone hooks is trying to reach will find themselves in such a moment… but if they do, I would love for this book to be there.

As I was reading, I also wondered what hooks thinks about feminist blogging. She writes throughout the book about the loss of spaces where feminists can get together and talk with each other outside of academia; to me, blogs are that space.  Of course, blogs can present a barrier to those on the wrong side of the digital divide, and it’s really easy for the internet to forget that (surprise!).  On the other hand, it has gone some way toward counteracting the physical distances that separate people, and for many, it can be less intimidating than trying to meet people in person.  Of course, the book was published in 2000, which means it was probably written in 1999, when this internet thing, while certainly a cultural force, was very far from being what it is today.


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Feminism is for Everybody: Copyright Tangent

Happy 2012!

2011 on this blog was dominated by the Year of Feminist Classics; this makes sense, since it was a big part of my decision to start a blog in the first place. I’ve enjoyed it very much, and this year, I’ll be participating in the second Year of Feminist Classics. I’m really excited about the upcoming reading list, especially Whipping Girl, Borderlands, and also Jane Eyre, which I haven’t read for years and which I really need to revisit for several reasons. So, if you want to know what I think about books on that list, you’re definitely in the right place, especially if you are patient.
Last year, I wasn’t very punctual about getting the entries up; this year, I’ll try to be a little better about it. With any luck, this will let me engage more with the discussions going on around the books!

The February book this year is Feminism is for Everybody, by bell hooks, which takes the reader carefully and gently through the history and the major aims of feminism, never shying away from the controversies within it. It’s kind of odd, I know, but let’s start at the very beginning, with the copyright notice (I promise I am going somewhere with this):

Any properly footnoted quotation of up to 500 sequential words may be used without permission, as long as the total number of words quoted does not exceed 2,000. For longer quotations or a greater number of total words, please write to the South End Press for permission. (iv)

I felt a little troubled when I read this, because I was thinking of the sort of thing I do here: writing about a book and frequently pulling out quotations to illustrate my points. Notices like this one bother me in that context, because I rely on fair use for quoting works here. Fair use does not rely on permission from the copyright holder and is based on an analysis of the four factors*, rather than a strict word count, and I initially read this as a misconception of a type that I find very frustrating, because as a librarian, I’m pretty deeply invested in the notion that we need to vigorously exercise our fair use rights in order to keep them. It’s even worse given the mission of the book, to spread information about feminism to everyone!

But then I actually started reading the book, and it suddenly made more sense. It’s a short book, in simple language, which addresses different aspects of feminism in short chapters that can stand almost on their own. They have titles like “Feminist Class Struggle,” “Women at Work,” “Ending Violence” and so on. They are models of clarity and uncompromising at the same time. As I was reading, I just wanted to take them and give them to people. Here, I wanted to say, this explains everything. So I’m hoping that this copyright notice is not intended to place a limit on fair use, and that instead, it’s allowing other uses that wouldn’t necessarily fall under fair use, like, I don’t know, copying a paragraph and leaving it around on a table for people to pick up. (And now I kind of hope someone has done that!) I don’t know if that is really true, but it’s what I hope.

I have more substantial thoughts about this book, which is quite a remarkable one, but I don’t want them to be overshadowed by this technical concern, so another post is on its way.

*The amount of the work used, the purpose of the use, the nature of the work, and the economic effects of the use.

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Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism: A More Complete Picture

Cover of Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism

Title: Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism

Author: bell hooks

Publication Date: 1981

Library of Congress Call Number: E185.86 .H73

Okay. So I’m a middle class white woman who grew up in a rural and rather monoracial area, and even though I realize that intersecting oppressions are really important, I’m a little shy about writing about race, because seriously, what do I know about it? (This is not to say that race has not influenced my life; I realize that I have white privilege and it has probably had a lot to do with how I live. But it works in such a way as to render it difficult for me to see, and I’m still working on seeing it better.) I don’t want to say something racist that might hurt someone, and I certainly don’t want to come off like the author is criticized in this piece. Of course, not writing about it is also racist… What I’m trying to say here is that I’m a little intimidated, I realize fully that I am not an expert, and that this is me learning.  Tell me if I get something wrong. But of course, this isn’t about me. This is about the history of racism in the United States and how it’s affected both feminism and black women’s (lack of) participation therein.  And actually, one of hooks’s major arguments is that it is both more accurate and more honest to talk about white feminists’ rejection of black women rather than black women’s failure to participate.

Ain’t I a Woman gives a history of sexism-racism against black women in the United States and shows very clearly how sexist-racist attitudes continue to pervade both discourses about history and social justice analyses in the contexts of feminist and anti-racist movements. Slavery is an important part of hooks’s analysis, and she approaches it not only from a historical point of view but also theoretically.  I do think that there’s more awareness now of the way that slavery depended on sexism as well as racism; at any rate, there is much greater recognition of the role that rape played in slavery than there was in 1981 when this book was published.   However, hooks goes a step farther and connects the abuse of black women under slavery to the idealization of white women under the ideology of the “cult of true womanhood,” which was very powerful in the nineteenth century. She writes:

19th century white women were no longer portrayed as sexual temptresses; they were extolled as the “nobler half of humanity” whose duty was to elevate men’s sentiments and inspire their higher impulses.  The new image of white womanhood was diametrically opposed to the old image. She was depicted as goddess rather than sinner; she was virtuous, pure, innocent, not sexual and worldly. … The message of the idealization was this: as long as white women possessed sexual feeling they would be seen as degraded immoral creatures; remove those sexual feelings and they become beings worth of love, consideration, and respect.

The shift away from the image of white woman as sinful and sexual to that of the white woman as virtuous lady occurred at the same time as mass sexual exploitation of enslaved black women—just as the rigid sexual morality of Victorian England created a society in which the extolling of woman as mother and helpmeet occurred at the same time as the formation of a mass underworld of prostitution. As American white men idealized white womanhood, they sexually assaulted and brutalized black women. (31-32)

A lot of this ideological shift was covered by de Beauvoir’s discussion of perceptions of women in The Second Sex, but she left out the other half of it.  Feminine virtue has to be defined by its opposite, so when black women began to represent feminine depravity, that freed up white women to represent virtue.

The idea that all generalized representations are defined against their opposites is not at all a new one to me. I took a theory class in which I was briefly exposed to Lacan, Derrida and Said, who all emphasized this same idea, and while I certainly can’t claim that I have a deep understanding of any of these philosophers, I did take this much away from it.  Every idea that is socially understood is defined as not being something else, but this understanding is often unstated and not even consciously considered. So, for instance, when Said talks about Orientalism, he’s saying that in literary and artistic works of the European colonial period, the notion of the effeminate, treacherous, etc., Middle Eastern or Asian person was used mostly to affirm ideas about white men as a model of straightforward masculinity (and to define what that is supposed to mean), even if no white man actually appears in the works in question, and this can make it difficult to pick up on the fact that this is happening. It’s an extension of a binary system of understanding, in which we know what good is because it isn’t bad, ugly because it isn’t beautiful, and so on and so forth, but it’s deployed in service of colonial/patriarchal/racist/kyriarchal ideology really, really often. De Beauvoir made some references to it as well in her analysis of Woman as Other.

This idea, as I say, wasn’t new to me, so I was actually very surprised that it had never occurred to me to use it to look at gender and race together the way that hooks does.  Ideology is a very, very sneaky thing.  She points out an ideological duality between white women and black women ; white women get to be saintly and asexual as described above, but also passive, helpless, dependent, etc. while black women get stuck with the other side of this coin and get to be seen as controlling, overbearing, oversexualized, unrapeable, and so on.  When it’s spelled out like this, it seems obvious how sexism and racism work together against black women, but somehow our culture has made it invisible.  It’s also clear, of course, that this is not great for white women either, but hooks points out that for them, it’s a much more ambiguous situation for them; it has certain benefits that prevented white women from speaking out against the abuse of black women.

In any case, when we put these together, we get a much clearer picture of the ideology of womanhood. There are two sides to it, which I’ve characterized above (and both of which de Beauvoir had recognized—hers is the text to which this called back the most clearly), but American ideology split it neatly in half and allotted one half to white women and the other to black women.  It’s interesting here to think of other women of color—how does this work for Asian women? Latinas?

In any case, this gets overlooked because “woman” has been redefined as “white woman;” hooks provides several examples of these terms being used interchangeably (my example: I recently read an introduction to a book on race and gender based oppression in the US in the nineteenth century that stated “women could not be enslaved.” NOPE WRONG FAIL. They meant “white women could not be enslaved.”).  The Sojourner Truth speech from which the title of the book is drawn makes the same point.  But looking at the stereotypes of what white women are supposed to be and what black women are supposed to be together provides a much clearer picture of what ideologies of femininity mean, and a much more compelling explanation of the shift that de Beauvoir had noticed than de Beauvoir had herself provided.

(Am I making any sense here?)

This is getting long, so, briefly, there are a couple other things I noticed… First, hooks’s description of the resistance of anti-racist movements to feminism made me think of the Frank Chin’s attacks on Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, in which he objected to their portrayals of Chinese culture as misogynistic.  Surely there is an agenda here somewhere?  Second, when I was first thinking about this book and before I read it, I was careful to look for the way that hooks labeled herself in relation to her philosophy of gender—that is, I wanted to see whether she identifies as a feminist, a womanist, or something else.  So I was gratified to find that she addresses this question in the book. While she is very critical of feminists and feminist history, she is opposed to self-segregation and believes that it’s important to use feminism to fight the problems of sexism-racism, colonialism and capitalism (which she also attacks). I like this argument very much, but it reminds me too of how many fights the Year of Feminist Classics couldn’t address, and how much is out there.  Looking forward to year two 😉


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