Girdles, Power, and Violence: Feminism is for EVERYBODY by bell hooks

Dear Reader:

I started this book as part of the Year of Feminist Classics Challenge.  I’d read and likeed bell years ago in a women’s studies class.

155) Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks
Although she is a university faculty member, bell purposely writes in clear, forthright, accessible language.  Part of her “project” is opening the feminism door to people (working class, lacking college education) who might not be attracted due to intimidation.

I believe in making ideas and information broadly accessible.

Bell ostensibly wrote this book to provide an overview book about “feminist thinking, practice, and politics” (viii) that could be read and understood by people previously unexposed to feminism.  In the Feminist Classics discussion, people asked whether we thought the book would convince someone to come over to feminism.  I don’t think so – but I’m not sure that was the point.

It defines and describes feminism’s history and discusses its many dimensions: race, class, gender, sexuality.  To me this book would be valuable to an individual who already held feminist values, but was unsure whether the feminism label effectively described these values.  A young, progressive man or woman might find the book to be an effective entrance into feminist politics.

I’ve always like hooks’ big tent orientation.  It therefore disenchanted me to read her definitions.  She begins by saying that “‘Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (viii).  So far, so good.  But then she defines “institutionalized sexism” as patriarchy.  That bothered me.  Sexism, to me, implies unfair judgement based on gender – male, female, or other.  Patriarchy is institutionalized male power.  I understand that, in today’s world, institutionalized sexism does tend to be patriarchal. But it doesn’t have to be – in some places, at some point, it could be matriarchal.  So, that definition rankled me a bit.

I very much enjoyed her discussion of the history of feminism.  As a 50 year old born in 1961, I’ve lived through this time period and certainly enjoyed the fruits of this movement.  I was on the cusp of the generation that (in theory and often in reality) removed limits to females.  Around 13 years old my mother stopped insisting on me wearing dresses everyday.  I got to play on excellent female soccer teams in high school.  I was able to attend elite colleges.  Several years of my 20s were spent supervising crews building park cabins, cutting wildland fire lines, and constructing trails.  Nearly all of my college education was paid for once I started getting good grades.  I’ve had a successful career as a professor.  If I’d been born 10 or more years earlier or without feminism, some of these doors would have been closed to me.

We’ve come far, but hooks reminds us we’ve got farther to go.  And it was interesting to pick up a few books in my near future TBR pile, perusing them to see what’s next and see what used to be acceptable, not so long ago.  For instance, 438) The Romans by R.H. Barrow (1949) begins: “Chapter I (a) WHAT MANNER OF MEN? What manner of men were the Romans?” (9).  Today it happily sounds weird to use “men” in place of “society” or “humanity.”  Another book: 450) Life in the Third Reich by Richard Bessel, editor (1987, Oxford University Press) is an edited volume with NO female authors.

Sunday’s New York Times Book Review has an excellent essay by Meg Wolitzer “The Second Shelf: The Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women” (check it out!) about the dismissive manner in which much literary fiction written by women is still treated.  I know that the NYT Book Review discusses few books that interest me.  I frequently look at their reviews: book after book of nonfiction about dry,”important” topics likely interesting to less than 1% of their readers and wonder why?  Today’s NYT has this article: “Giving Women the Access Code” by Katie Hafner about Harvey Mudd’s efforts to attract women to computer science.  I am, to my knowledge, the second woman in the history of my department to be promoted to full professor.  So yes, we have a ways to go.

Hooks includes chapter on class, global feminism, race, gender, and violence.  By her definition, feminism is not only anti-patriarchy, but also anti-capitalism, anti-third world oppression, anti-racism, anti-poverty.  Well…. yes, I suppose…  What’s the difference between feminism and social justice, then?  She makes feminism synonymous with radical progressivism.

Like many people, I started out fairly radical in my youth and eventually became more moderate – today, I see myself as a moderate liberal.  I’m grateful for the fruits of radical movements, but I don’t self-identify with them anymore.  They’ve brought me insights and sensitivities that are important (for instance, when I’m collaborating with Mexican or Brazilian scientists, I try to be sensitive to some of the power dynamics and inequalities, but I don’t assume them).  For me, to extend feminism to a critique of every power dynamic in the world (inherently) broadens the definition overly.  I’d like U.S. Republican women to feel comfortable self-defining as feminist.  But, given hooks’ definitions, I sincerely doubt they could.  That’s a shame.

On the other hand, I did finally like how she includes men in the equation – recognizing that “A feminist vision which embraces feminist masculinity, which loves boys and men and demands on their behalf every right that we desire for girls and women, can renew the American male” (71).  Now that’s a feminism I can get behind.

This book is a highly readable overview of a fairly “radical,” expansive view of feminism, its politics and history.  If you know a young woman (or exceptional young man) who you believe to be of the feminist persuasion, who may or may not already see herself or himself as a feminist, this book would be great for them.  I could also see it being useful to advocates for minorities or the working classes – people whose concerns hooks embraces, but who might not self-define as feminist.  It made me think.  It made me remember.  It made me grateful.  I folded back lots of corners, scribbled thoughts and responses, underline passages – it is a book that engaged me and that’s a good thing.

Cast aside the dreary early April grey

happy reading, ruby

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5 Comments

  1. This is one of hook’s books that I have not read. I have found her books on teaching well worth the time; I can’t always agree with her but I do find that she provides lots of ideas worth thinking about. Sounds like this remains true in this book.

    Such lovely flower pictures…on a cold, grey day like today hard to remember that flowers like this will once again bloom 🙂

  2. After your kind comments on my Wharton post, I clicked over to see who you are… and found a review of the book that’s been hanging out on my bedside table lately. Positively serendipitous! (And great review, too! Love the diagnosis of the possible problems of assuming all gender bias is patriarchy–so reductive and such a likely culprit for creating more bias.) So hi, nice to meet ‘cha, and I’ll be following along with your reading adventures!

    • Hi SBS:Thanks so much for stopping by. Great to meet a kindred spirit. These things can get so delicate. I am so happy to find your blog too, but could not find a way to subscribe or follow except via twitter. Probly missed it, Ruby

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