I was recently loaned a copy of a Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center by the illustrious bell hooks aka Gloria Jean Watkins.
Watkins chose the pseudonym bell hooks in honor of her mother and great-grandmother. She elects to not capitalize her pseudonym in order to shift focus toward her work and ideas, rather than her name or personality.
Regrettably (maybe, even embarrassingly), my eyes have never been opened to the message that bell hooks puts out to the world. I’ve never even heard the name bell hooks. I can’t believe that I have made it 32 years in this world (and, as a woman, no less) without hearing her name or words. The book was simply amazing – the first of many of her books now added to the pile of my ever-growing TBR mountain. I am, of course, just now delving into the world of feminism. I am by far an expertise or well-versed on the subject or even, dare I say, extremely familiar. If anything, I am barely familiar and barely versed . I did however want to discuss just a few notes and ideas that stuck with me while reading Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center – just a few things to take away from the book and it’s message. Please do yourself a favor and go read this book. Don’t think that it only applies to women either. Hooks claims that feminism is the movement to end sexist oppression of all.
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 woman . it does not privilege women over men. it has the power to transform into meaningful way all our lives. (hooks, 2015, p.28)
hooks begins by pointing out how feminism in the US was founded upon one major flaw: many women were left out of the focus of the movement. The movement was originally initialized by middle class white women. The majority of these women: women who had no jobs, married, upper or middle-class, kids at home, educated, and to some extent, bored and wanting more out of life. The message was geared toward those women in the same walk of life rising up against being victimized by sexist oppression, completely ignoring women of color or any women in the working or poor class – the women with pressing concerns for economic survival or ethnic and racial discrimination. This was the true majority of women in the US at the time. They were left out of the movement. This may not have been the true intention from the beginning of the movement, but through erroneously assuming that concerns being addressed within the movement represented the concerns of all US women, racism and classism toward those women were reinforced.
Just think about that. Think about the societal environment that existed for the majority of women in this country (then and now).
The single mother (who happens to be an Irish immigrant) exhaustingly working 3 jobs trying to keep food on the table for her kids. She cannot afford to see herself as being victimized by sexist oppression because her and her children’s survival depends on her ability to continue on with whatever personal strengths she exercises.
The woman of color (who had the opportunity for college education) being discouraged from regularly attending meetings and groups surrounding the feminist movement due to her race.
It is easy to see the extent of such a flaw in the foundation of the movement. hooks even touches on some of her own personal negative experiences as a woman of color trying to become involved with movement in the first chapter of a book. The diversity of women – our different experiences, our different backgrounds – should be learned about and appreciated. Long lasting change – a true end to sexist oppression – cannot and will not be achieved until inclusion of feminist movement is welcome to women from every walk of life.
All those “isms”
“The process begins with the individual woman’s acceptance that American women, without exception, are socialized to be racist, classist, and sexist, in varying degrees, and that labeling ourselves feminists does not change the fact that we must consciously work to rid ourselves of the legacy of negative socialization.” (hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center, 2015)
All women learn forms of racism, classism, and sexism through life and accept/perpetuate certain forms of it subconsciously. hooks explains that women are the group within our society that are most victimized by sexist oppression, which is perpetuated by the structure of our society. We have been socialized (as women) to act in a compliant manner. Good girls avoid confrontation. It’s not polite. This subservient sex role is one that we are taught constantly while growing up. No, being polite, is obviously not a bad characteristic to be taught, but we should focus more on teaching to act in a respectable manner than simple politeness/non-confrontational in hopes of avoiding conflict or violence.
“…Women can face one another in hostile confrontation and struggle and move beyond the hostility to understanding. Expression of hostility as an end to itself is a useless activity, but when it is the catalyst pushing us onto greater clarity and understanding, it serves a meaningful function.” (hooks, 2015, p.66)
In fact, we need this experience in order to rid ourselves of such forms of sexist ideology that we all learn and perpetuate. Furthermore, it is not difficult to make the leap from being taught to act in this manner throughout adolescence to being the victim – passive, helpless, powerless … victim.
“Sexist ideology teaches women that to be female is to be a victim”. (hooks, 2015, p.45)
We learn this as children. There are 2 types of sex roles to enact in a household: dominant or subservient. Dads are dominant. Moms are subservient. This snowballs into MEN are dominant and WOMEN are subservient. These roles are learned through our formidable years. They become ingrained in our minds until we simply assume those roles in adulthood, have children of our own, and continue the cycle. This obviously exemplifies a very traditional mindset and family structure. We have come a long way from 20, 30, 40, 50 (etc…) years ago. Gender roles have become more expanded. Family structures have become a bit more dynamic. We have social media, entertainment media, 24-hour news (etc…) constantly presenting us with information, stories from around the world, issues affecting us such as sexism/racism/classism, giving us the continued opportunity to re-examine how we are perpetuating these isms subconsciously.
Am I acting in such a manner about something in particular that teaches my child that it is acceptable to act in such a manner and should therefore act like that themselves?
Is that how I want them to behave?
Is that what I want them to see from me?
Like I said, we have come a long way as a society, but unfortunately, the struggle still remains. It will probably always remain to some extent. Unfortunately, sayings such as “boys will be boys” remains a common excuse for a man (a grown man) acting in a very sexist manner (ugh).
Sexism teaches us women to be defensive and competitive in our views of other women, and thus, we act on this form of sexist ideology everyday. This concept needs a lot of improvement in our society. We are all guilty of this as women. I mean, who has not engaged in malicious gossiping, trash-talking, or judging another woman’s appearance at one point or another? All that is doing is reinforcing such sexist ideology.
Likewise, racism and sexism teach an “inflated sense of self-importance and value”, particularly when coupled with class privilege. We must acknowledge this in ourselves and how it may present itself or shape how we think. Difficulty and discomfort lie within the self reflection required to truly acknowledge our own prejudices formed from racism, sexism, and classism, but we can not change attitudes if we are unaware of them. Without this acknowledgement, misguided perspectives can often be assumed. The diversity among all the women in our society must be learned and appreciated in order for the personal growth and societal transformation needed for feminist movement to occur. Education in all walks of life and criticism, re-examination, and exploration of new possibilities are absolutely essential to the movement. Education + understanding + change = solidarity.
All men are the enemy?
“All men are the enemy” – popular notion of women’s liberation movement in the past. In fact, this is what comes to my mind when I think of the word “feminism”. This rhetoric has led to the whole men-are-misogynistic-oppressors (the enemy) mentality, which leaves women as “the oppressed victim”. Sexist ideology is then reinforced by creating the assumption that the empowerment of women would most definitely be at the expense of men.
“Separast ideology encourages us to believe that women alone can make feminist revolution – we cannot”. (hooks, 2015, p.83)
hooks believes it was a mistake of former women’s liberationists to encourage (solely) women into joining the feminist movement. Emphasis on this ‘all men are the enemy’ approach undermines feminism and takes focus away from improving the relationships between men and women. hooks proposes that men should be encouraged to assume responsibility for the end of sexist oppression as well, and explains the following:
“Like women, men have been socialized to passively accept sexist ideology. While they need not blame themselves for accepting sexism, they must assume responsibility for eliminating it. (hooks, 2015, p. 73)
How can we (men and women) work together and help each other unlearn forms of sexism (let alone, bring awareness to the possibility of any personal actions that we take might be perpetuating sexism)?
“Men who actively struggle against sexism have a place in feminist movement. They are our comrades. (hooks, 2015, p. 82)
Men have a major role to play in eradicating sexism. Like women, they must involve themselves with “exposing, confronting, opposing and transforming” the sexism of them and their peers. If you are a man supporting feminism and thus striving to see the end of sexist oppression, become vocal about it. Be public about your opposition. Participate in a men’s consciousness-raising group. Really consider the way you think about things and the reasons behind that thinking. Find ways to really educate yourself about such matters. ETC…
Hooks, B. (2015). Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center. New York, NY: Routledge.