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belle hooks: comments and questions

February 8, 2012

I like bell hooks. I agree with almost all of her statements, including her definition of feminism. But she is repetitive and she seldom excites or inspires me.

I agree with hooks’ insistance that we must change how society works rather than simply, as women, achieve the same power that some men have within it. I agree that those of us who are white and relatively priviledged by our race and class must not seek personal advantages in claiming to speak for all women. I agree with her criticism of women who consider themselves feminists who act this way. I am compfortable with her claim that feminism must be the struggle to overthrow our sexual oppression by the Patriarchy—the over-arching structure of power that priviledges white men and has done so for centuries.

But I do not think her description of feminism would be convincing to non-feminists. I think, in real ways, she is writing primarily for other feminists, trying to shape the movement away from the direction that women like Judith Butler would take it. The concepts of oppression and patriarchy which shapes hooks’ thought are simply no longer as relevant for large swaths of the population, as they were when she first wrote about them in the 1980s.

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I was not able to get a copy of Feminism is for Everybody (meaning that I was unwilling to break my pledge not to spend more than $5 on any one book and that I had used up my ration of interlibrary loan requests.) Instead I re-read hooks’ first two books, Ain’t I a Woman and Feminist Theory. I came away my reading with a couple of questions that bothered me. Maybe hooks has addressed these in her laest book, although the reviews from those of you who have read it don’t indicate she did. I am curious about how she or you would respond to them.

1. Given that racism and sexism are as important as feminism, what is there unique and compelling about feminism?

2. Not enough has changed since hooks published her first book in 1981. One thing that has changed is that our understanding of history has expanded to include women generally and black women in particular. This change has occurred because women have earned respect within the history profession. Otherwise, books like Tera Hunter’s T’Joy My Freedom, or others in the Real Help list would not be possible. Does this change suggest that working within patriarchal institutions like academia may not be as inadmissible as hooks claims?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2012 12:36 pm

    Your opening to this post caught my attention because it captured my experience with bell hooks as well (“I like bell hooks. I agree with almost all of her statements, including her definition of feminism. But she repetitive and she seldom excites or inspires me.”). I read my first bell hooks book this fall, where we stand: class matters (I have a short review on this page under 3 star reads: http://booksandmiscellany.wordpress.com/2011/12/16/brief-thoughts-on-recent-non-fiction-reads/). I also agree with most of what she says but found her rather repetitive and not all that exciting. I am reassured that I am not the only one who felt that way.

  2. February 9, 2012 10:15 am

    Feminism is for Everybody is the first book by hooks that I’ve read, but I agree with you so far regarding her as an author. I’m not done with it yet, so my opinion could change, but I doubt it.

    Anyway, I though I’d take a shot at your questions.

    1. Feminism is set up in opposition to sexism and racism. At its best, feminism recognizes the intersectionality of these two modes of oppression and combats them both at once. It does not force adherents to choose one identity or struggle over the other.

    2. I don’t know enough about hooks’ ideas about working within academia to exactly answer this, but I have some ideas nonetheless.

    There are always a few exceptional women who gain acceptance within patriarchal systems. I don’t think that a list of 20 or so books changes the fact that the system itself is hostile to women, especially women of color. That said, I do generally believe in trying to work within systems. I mean, I went to law school. I like knowing the rules, so I know where to push on them. In reading hooks (so far), I am struck by her lack of references to research and her tendency to use others books she’s written as her authority. There’s a whole argument that would support this, but I find it less than convincing. Simply because academia has been and continues to be hostile to women does not mean that the entire system and its methodology should be discarded. So is it possible to work within academia? Yes, I think so. Is progress being made? Yes, but not nearly enough.

  3. February 9, 2012 8:30 pm

    To answer question 1, racism looks at race, classism looks at class, so we need feminism to look at gender. Feminism is the study of sexism, she says throughout the book. Personally I find all of hooks’ books – or at least the two that I’ve read, have been absolutely fantastic and inspiring, so that is interesting to hear she’s not for you!

    I’d also argue, to your question 2, that the authors and books you mention have had to struggle and fight against the system to be published, wouldn’t you say? I mean, they may be in academia but they’re certainly not celebrated like those who study and write on ‘approved’ subjects!

    Loved hearing your thoughts, I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on the book of the month as it does talk about some of what you mention!

  4. February 10, 2012 4:04 pm

    Thanks to all of you.
    1) What I like most about hooks is how she shows the need to unite our struggles on all three fronts. Black women shouldn’t be forced to chose between feminism and loyalty to black men. But as one of the comments on Amy’s FemCl blog said, hooks can be vague about why we need feminism. I agree with her definition, but she doesn’t push me into to action with it. Perhaps that is part of why we seem to agree she wouldn’t be convincing to non-feminists.

    2) I am totally committed to working within institutions, like academia and the law. That was what I have done most of my life. For years I got criticised for having “sold out” by women of color and radical lesbian separatists. Sorry, if I am still defenisive.
    It is not just that there are “always exceptions.” Until about the 1970s, almost all professionals were men who wrote about men’s history. Since then women and people of color have entered and literally changed the professions. Yes, Hunter and the others still struggle, but because they are there in critical numbers, we can have research like that read for Real Help. We have a broader history today and I am gratful. Yes, we need more, but we have made a difference.

    I don’t think hooks is primarily an academic writer. Maybe Amy can fill us in on that.

  5. February 18, 2012 8:46 am

    It seems to me that hooks feels really ambivalent about academia, at least, it seemed that way in Feminism is for Everybody. She definitely criticizes the academic co-option of feminism and its distance from cooperative, diverse groups of women, but at the same time, she writes about her own experience with women’s studies classes and makes it clear that this is where she started out, and that she things these programs should be preserved despite attacks on them.

    And I’d argue that hooks is indeed an academic writer, because the arguments she’s engaging with are scholarly ones, and her rhetoric and overall approach are also academic. She surveys the literature, cites her sources, and carefully builds up a nuanced argument around it. But I also think that because I’ve so often seen her cited in the work of other academics!

    • February 19, 2012 9:11 am

      Definitely ambivalent, as academics have been about her. But I think she’s an outsider, not a professional scholar/teacher. She writes in the language and concepts of the “New Left” of the 1970s and 1980s–college-educated but in the streets, not the offices of power. And she isn’t engaged in any particular academic discipline as she would need to be to survive there. She is not part of the community of black women who have become professors and do reseach in various fields. Such as the Association of Black Women Historians who put out the Real Help list that Amy and her group have been reading. Yes, academia is full of obsure heirarchies that you have to live through from the other side of the desk to notice.

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