bell hooks’ “Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center”: Chapter 4.
Chapter 4- Sisterhood: Political Solidarity Among Women
Hook states that sexism, of which women are most affected by, like other forms of oppression are institutionally perpetrated by social structure, by “individuals who dominate, exploit, or oppress; and by the victims themselves who are socialized to behave in ways that make them act in complicity with the status quo.” (Hooks, p. 43, Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center, 2000) Hooks uses some strong language here, continuing that it is male supremacist ideology that encourages women to feel valueless, and further only able to obtain value in relation to, or in bonding with men. Women are taught that other women are “natural enemies”, with a goal to ultimately keep women from forming cohesive bonds with each other. Hook urges women to overcome and create bonds, but states this will be difficult, as women are divided by their own sexist attitudes, racism, class privilege, and many other prejudices, only once they have been faced, can these walls be knocked down. Hooks states that feminist movement must align under a common banner, that “Sisterhood” will strengthen and increase feminist exposure, without this unified front, there can be no movement to end sexist oppression, solidarity Hook states “strengthens resistance struggle.” (p. 44) Moreover, it is upon women that this power of solidarity is ultimately thrust, and must be pushed forward by women, by showing that the aforementioned barriers separating women can be destroyed, this will show society as a whole that women can come together, under the banner of solidarity to transform and change established and oppressive paradigms.
Hooks states that women are enriched when they bond with each other, but the model of sisterhood created by bourgeois white women, cannot be used to create sustaining ties, or political solidarity. Hook states that such women used victimization as a basis for shared bonding, and common oppression which Hooks believes to be a male supremacist concept, which teaches women to be the victim. This method alienated strong, assertive women from feminist movement, and does not address what Hooks calls “the enemy within”, namely privilege. This prevented the bourgeois white feminists from the first, most important part of a political feminist movement, honest critique and open evaluation of ones social status, values, political beliefs etc. Moreover Hooks states that these women’s idea of sisterhood were informed by racist, classist assumptions about “white womanhood”, that:
the white “lady” (that is to say bourgeois woman) should be protected from all that might upset or discomfort her and shielded from negative realities that might lead to confrontation. (Hooks, p. 46, Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center, 2000)
Hooks states “their” version of sisterhood required they unconditionally love each other, avoid conflict and minimise disagreement, which Hooks believe did create an illusion of unity for a short time, but through negative means (suppression, hostility, abusive criticism etc). This is necessarily divisive though, and antithetical to the positive message Hooks believes feminist movement to be about, and reflects the kind of competitive in-fighting seen most often in women’s groups operating under patriarchy. Hooks wants to set herself apart:
To develop political solidarity among women, feminist activists cannot bond on the terms set by the dominant ideology of the culture. We must define our own terms. Rather than bond on the basis of shared victimization or in response to a false sense of a common enemy, we can bond on the basis of political commitment to a feminist movement that aims to end sexist oppression. (Hooks, p. 47, Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center, 2000)
Hooks states that to resist male domination women must address, and remove their own attachment to sexism, this must be done by examining, exposing and eliminating sexist socialization within themselves. Sexism is most often expressed as male domination, says Hooks, which leads to discrimination, exploitation and oppression; male supremacist values are presented as suspicion, defensiveness and competition. This leads women to feel threatened by one another; sexism teaches women that they need to be sex objects for men, while simultaneously creating an air of superiority in women who have understood this to be the case. Sexism also leads to a devaluing of parenting work, while accentuating the importance of career, and can lead to a passing on of sexism to children by teaching them that there are only two possible behavioral patterns: domination or submission. Hooks states that build a politicised feminist movement women must overcome the alienation that exists due to sexist socialization (usually expressed as homophobia, judging by appearance, conflicts between women with diverse sexual practices).
Racism, Hooks believes, is another barrier in the way of women’s political solidarity, that historically many black women have seen white women as the dominant authority over them, that although in white supremacist, patriarchal rule, many black woman have a white woman as their immediate superior. Because of this many black women haven’t been interested in supporting feminist movement, as they saw it as a movement to support bourgeois white women, and although racism has become more prevalent in feminist discussion it has only done so because white women have allowed and encouraged it, which Hooks states to be “a process which is indicative of how racism works.” (p. 52) Racism becomes feminisms problem when we realise that it is so interconnected with sexist oppression (and indeed, western philosophical foundations), it teaches an inflated sense of self-importance and value, particularly when coupled with class privilege. Hooks states that the U.S has always had an interest in maintaining white supremacist, sex-role divisions, but when “white women attack white supremacy they are simultaneously participating in the struggle to end sexist oppression.” (p. 54) The raising of awareness is needed to make white women aware of the daily race privilege they experience, as they may not even be consciously aware of their behaviour and attitudes, which is dangerous because we can not change attitudes if we are unaware of them. Hooks does not believe, however only white women need to change their attitudes, she also believes that women of colour must confront their absorption of white supremacist beliefs, their “internalized racism” (p. 57), which may lead them to feel:
“self-hate, to vent anger and rage at injustice at one another, rather than at oppressive forces, to hurt and abuse one another, or to lead one ethnic group to make no effort to communicate with another. (Hooks, p. 57, Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center, 2000)
Finally for this chapter Hooks discusses poverty and wealth, she pushes for a redistribution of wealth and resources in America, in an effort to remove class privilege:
… it is evident that large numbers of individual white women (especially those from middle-class backgrounds) have made economic strides in the wake of feminist movement support of careerism and affirmative-action programs in many professions. However, the masses of women are as poor as ever, or poorer. (Hooks, p. 61, Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center, 2000)
High salaries became the ‘success-story’ to bourgeois white women, but to the many other women, working below the poverty line, it meant continued class exploitation, which class privilege is based on. The people who suffer most by this are poor, and underprivileged women and children. Hooks states it can be dehumanizing, painful and/or threatening enough to be a woman, but to also be poor and concerned with basic modes of existence (food/shelter) and unable to obtain medical care is almost unimaginable. If poor women had been able to set the agenda of feminist thought, class struggle might have received more prominent focus, but instead bourgeois white women were never shown how class privilege is linked to sexist oppression and hence under the purview of feminist movement. Hooks believes this left feminism to be focused on the white male left, in discussing connections between Marxism and feminism or explaining that socialist methods are the best for feminist struggle.
Hooks, B. (2000). Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center (Second edition).Cambridge MA. South End Press. Pp. 43, 44, 46, 47, 52, 54, 57, 61 .
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