bell hooks’ “Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center”: Chapter 1.
I’ve been meaning to do a review and discussion of Hook’s views on feminism for a while, but due to uni, and general laziness I have not as yet engaged with her work. Let us look at her book chapter by chapter.
Chapter 1- Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory
Hooks states that Feminism in the U.S. did not arise as a result of victimized women who are so by sexist oppression, standing up. She states they are the silent, beaten down (physically, mentally, spiritually) majority, that the “mark of their victimization is their acceptance of their lot in life, without visible question, without organized protest, without collective anger or rage.” (Hooks, p. 1, Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center, 2000) Hooks states feminist movement arose from what she will come to call “bourgeois white women” (this means generally “college-educated, middle- and upper-class, married white women, housewives bored with leisure, with home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life”, p. 1). She begins her scathing analysis of this sub-group with Betty Friedan’s classic The Feminine Mystique, Hooks states this book is heralded as paving the way for contemporary feminist movement but was written as if the aforementioned women did not exist. It was written for women who wanted careers, nevermind the small problem of who would bear the burden of taking care of the children, and maintain the home if said women were freed from house labour. Hooks states Friedan ignored the plight and indeed existence of non-white, and poor women. Friedan’s problem, Hooks states is she erroneously assumed her concerns were congruent with those of all American women, in doing so she deflected attention from her own classism, racism and sexist attitudes toward those American women. To Friedan women’s struggles were limited to college-educated white women who were compelled by sexist conditioning to stay in the home.
It is here Hooks points out, lest she be brandished uncharitable that the specific problems of the “leisure-class white housewives” Friedan discussed were real problems that merited consideration, but were simply not the pressing concerns for the majority of women. Their concerns were for economic survival, ethnic and racial discrimination etc. It was Friedan’s lack of self-awareness on this issue that seems to balk Hooks, and it is Friedan’s perspective which is still largely held in feminist thought today. White women in feminist movement Hooks states rarely question their privilege, or whether they have the best handle on the collective suffering of women, racism abounds in the writings of said feminists, which reinforces white supremacy negating the possibility of a political bond across ethnic and racial boundaries. Hooks goes further though, stating the root of class structure in American society has been “shaped by the racial politic of white supremacy; it is only by analysing racism and its function in capitalist society that a thorough understanding of class relationships can emerge.” (Hooks, p. 3, Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center, 2000) It is clear early on she means to challenge the status quo, she might consider herself a radical, a reformer.
It is on race and classism that Hooks wants to focus for now, as these two things have been demonstrated to create differences in quality of life, social status, and lifestyle, she does this by discussing “oppression”. She defines oppression as the “absence of choices” (p. 5), and is the primary contact between oppressor and oppressed. She is quick to state however that many women in the U.S do possess choice, as inadequate as that may be so the terms “exploitation and “discrimination” perhaps more aptly describe their plight. It is this wiggle room in definition that Hooks believes may be the cause for a lack of organised, collective effort from many women; sexism has not left them with no choice, only limited choice. Hooks states, importantly, that under capitalism, patriarchy is structured so that sexism restricts women’s behaviors in some avenues while liberating them in others, this is what makes it so tricky a prison, in the absence of extreme restrictions many women “ignore the areas in which they are exploited or discriminated against; it may even lead them to imagine that no women are oppressed.” (Hooks, p. 5, Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center, 2000) Hooks wants to stress that it is within a strict political framework that she feels oppression, and indeed feminism should be discussed, and that the white women who shaped feminist thought were doing so to cater to their own class interests. They possessed different social status than poor or middle class black women, they were in universities, had access to mass media and money which they could use to shape their message; in creating a rallying cry around oppression they made their experience seem as if it was the only game of oppression in town. Hooks believes that if poor, or middle class black women had come out vocally stating their oppression they would not have been taken seriously (one would wonder how they would have been able to get said message out, given their social and class disadvantage). White bourgeois women legitimately wanted equal pay with their male counterparts, social equality with men of their class, or an alternative lifestyle, but even this would only seek to promote domination via patriarchal, capitalism. Radicalism in feminist thought needed to move beyond simply capitalistic notions, it needed to move beyond supporting the very system that oppresses women (and men), because by doing so feminism could become a political power for change, a challenge to the status quo. Hooks states that feminists can resist hegemonic dominance of feminist thought by insisting that it is a theory in the making, that criticism, re-examination and exploration of new possibilities are essential to the movement.
Hooks elaborates on her experiences coming up in feminist movement and how condescending white women were toward her and other non-white participants. This was done so to remind her and others that feminist movement belonged to “them”, that participation by members outside their class, and race was only because they allowed it. Equality was nowhere to be seen. Black women were called upon for their experiences, to help validate the movement, but it was white women who would deem which experiences were authentic. If black women did not fit their essentialism, their preconceived notions (that being: uneducated, poor, streetwise etc), or if they attempted to criticise, or assume responsiblity for shaping feminist ideas, they were dismissed, or silenced, which Hooks states is the dark, unspoken reality of feminist movement. In fact Hooks states the racism prevalent in feminist movement has discouraged many black women from regularly attending meetings, and groups, and although there has been discourse on the problem lately, Hooks states it has not had an effect on white women’s treatment toward black women. To Hooks this is not surprising as white women, generally promote white feminism, for a white audience. To Hooks this has limited the reach of feminist movement, privileged feminists are unable to speak to or with diverse groups of women because they do not possess, or understand the interrelatedness of sex, race and class oppression or refuse to take said interrelatedness seriously. There has been too high a focus on gender in women’s liberation movement which is not, according to Hooks, a solid basis for constructing feminist theory. Unfortunately Hooks states, this analysis tends to reflect Western patriarchal thought and mystifies women’s reality by suggesting gender is the sole determinant of women’s fate.
Hooks closes this chapter by stating the voice of black women in feminist movement is important because they are at the bottom of the occupational ladder, and whose social status is lower than any other group, thus they bear the brunt of sexist, racist and classist oppression. Black women are not in a position to be allowed an “institutionalized other”, they can not assume the role of “exploiter/oppressor” for who could they exploit or oppress? White women and black men have it both ways, they can act as oppressor or be oppressed, black men may be victimized by racism, but sexism allows them to exploit and oppress women. White women may be victimized by sexism, but racism allows them to be exploiters of black people. Hooks states both parties have led liberation movements that have promoted self interests and acted as oppressor to other groups. The failure of both of these groups lies in them defining liberation as social equality with ruling-class white men, which means, by proxy, they have an interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others. Black women have no “institutionalized other” that they may discriminate against, exploit or oppress, which means they possess a lived experience that challenges the racist, classist, sexist social structure prevalent in Western society. From this marginalised vantage point black women have a unique perspective with which to criticize the dominant hegemony and to create a counter-hegemony.
Hooks, B. (2000). Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center (Second edition).Cambridge MA. South End Press. Pp. 1, 3, 5.
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