This chapter is a quick history of the feminist movement and a clarification of what it addresses.
Bell Hooks reiterates that she prefers her definition of feminism as:
a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.
She likes that it does not imply that men are the enemy. It highlights that feminism aims to root out sexist thinking and acting “whether those who perpetrate it are female or male, child or adult.”
Next she points out how most people learn about feminism through patriarchal mass media and as a result only see part of the story. Most people, she explains, see feminism as concerned primarily with gender equality – women seeking to be equal to men – and that many of those people believe feminism is anti-male. They know through the media that feminism “focuses on the freedom to have abortions, to be lesbians, to challenge rape and domestic violence.” And this is definitely the feminism I knew about in high school and university.
She explains that among early feminist activists there was actually quite a bit of “anti-male sentiment,” since they were responding to the oppression they experienced with anger. She points out that most of the early feminist activists had “had their consciousness raised” through working in other activist circles fighting for freedom for their class, race, or people when they realized that their male allies sought to ensure that males would continued to lead.
Just a note, consciousness raising (as far as I’m aware) is a Marxist idea that describes that most oppressed people (in Marx’s case the working class) don’t recognize that they are oppressed, taking the current state of affairs and their lack of power as natural and unchanging until something makes them aware of the oppression and the possibility of fighting it.
So Hooks says that through fighting for liberation in other contexts, many women saw the need and the chance to fight for liberation from sexist rules and norms. So this suggest that the same awareness and approaches that lead people to pick up the fight for civil rights, or for socialist ideals, or indigenous rights, equip people to fight sexism. But it seems that fighting for one does not automatically lead to the other. I think I too would have been shocked if fighting alongside other men of my race to ensure our freedom and rights I had noticed that they believed they deserved more of those freedoms or rights on account of their sex. If race is not a fair basis for discrimination, than how could gender be?
As feminism evolved, Hooks explains, it was recognized that males were not the only source of sexism, and that females could be sexist as well. Next, she explains, it was realized that other forms of oppression mattered to feminism as well, and women needed to examine how they oppressed one another through sex, class, and race if they were to unite against sexism. I’ve come across this idea under the term “intersectionality.” It’s too big a term to get into in this post, so I hope it comes up later in this book or in the next one I tackle.
Hooks points out next that the feminist movement was polarized. Between those who sought to bring about gender equality within the current system – reformers – and those who sought to transform the current system – revolutionaries. She explains that the media, and white men were far more comfortable lending an ear to reformist feminists since it did not require a complete restructuring of the system.
According to Hooks, most women, particularly privileged white women abandoned the ideas of revolutionary feminism as they gained economic power within the existing structure.
Ironically, revolutionary feminist thinking was most accepted and embraced in academic circles.
Hooks points out that although revolutionary feminism progressed in academia, it was never accessible to the public, and only “those among us who are highly literate, well educated, and usually materially privileged” could interact with it.
Next, Hooks accuses reformist feminists of helping to suppress revolutionary feminism because reformist feminism allowed them to gain freedom within the current system, largely at the expense of “a lower class of exploited subordinated women.” I’m always force to pause at claims like this. It has to do, I believe, with my philosophy that most people don’t actively do harmful things. Hooks makes it sound a little like reformist feminists struck a deal in a boardroom with white men to get a couple freedoms in exchange for leaving the more radical feminists, and less privileged women behind. However I do see and largely accept the argument that as more privileged women began to gain access to career opportunities and other freedoms it would become easier to believe that the more radical ideas for change were not as necessary. It is unfortunately easy to forget about people with less opportunities than ourselves, or to see that the current system is broken if it seems to work pretty damn well for us.
Feminist politics is losing momentum because [the] feminist movement has lost clear definitions.
Hooks concludes with a call to reclaim the definition of feminism as a movement to end sexist oppression and to start over.
One major thing I noticed in reading this chapter is that it takes for granted the assumption that mainstream society is a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and that these qualities are the source of oppression. It is not that I disagree with this assertion, or the implied assumption that these things need to be transformed; my problem is that as an introduction to feminism it might be worth taking some time to establish that this is in fact the case.
I’m assuming that many of us who are curious to learn more about feminism don’t all come into this with a solid conviction that the world is patriarchal and that that is a bad thing. It is quite hard for those of us with privilege to see sexism at work and to recognize its source. I imagine many of my friends and family don’t see much of a problem with the current relationship between genders. An ex-girlfriend of mine used to argue fiercely against the idea that females are still disadvantaged in gaining access to some careers and that equal opportunity measures were beneficial.
So in the interest of helping people come to see the value in talking about feminist ideas, in the interest of helping people see sexism and its consequences, I wish the first chapter of this book had started by making the case that sexism exists, is harmful, and can be fought.
Where do you stand? Do you believe sexism is a real and harmful part of our society? Are you skeptical? If so, what evidence would you need to see?
I think it can be hard for feminist writers, advocates for feminism, and even myself to take the time to spell out the existence of sexism and its effects because it is, for many, such a self-evident truth. Women in particular (so I imagine, and to a certain extent am told) experience it everyday. And for me, I’ve discovered that once you become aware of it, you start seeing it everywhere. I notice it in the way a male co-worker cuts off a female co-worker in a meeting without thinking, I notice a male friend joke that our female friend should get up and get us our next round of beer, I hear a comedian joke about how he tricked a women into sleeping with him (a women who gets no name, or personality traits, being described only by the size of her tits), and I see it in the debate about abortion in the US.
And let’s be honest, I’m no saint, I slip up more often then I like. I notice myself use the word bitch in a joke, I catch myself checking out a women’s body before deciding if I’d like to speak with her, I realize that I’ve raised my voice to make sure my point gets across even if it means drowning out a women, I’ve watched porn where the woman calls herself a slut because she enjoys sex. And these are just the things that I notice, and as I’ve learned, my privilege guarantees that there are tons of instances where it wouldn’t even occur to me that what I’m doing or seeing is sexist or oppressive.
I think the real point for people to accept is not that these things happen, but that they are connected, that they stem from a similar source, and that they are harmful in the long run even if any one of them in isolation may not seem that bad.
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Series Guide: Bell Hooks – Feminism is For Everybody – Series