“Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.”
So many people have no idea what feminism is. Most of what people believe it to be is what they have learned by word of mouth, the mainstream media, their old racist uncle, or Beyonce (who’s feminism, by the way, has recently exploded in a very real and important way). When our culture is dominated by white capitalist patriarchy, it’s no wonder then that popular beliefs about feminism are negative. Most of the important feminist theory that has been written exists in the academy where it has, as she suggests, become depoliticized and fallen subject to patriarchal academic jargon – it’s only audience is an academic one because, really, in all honesty, they’re the only ones that can read and interpret it. Feminism has had a very important and necessary role in academia in order to legitimize it as a theoretical movement and advance its critical thought, but it required feminist thinkers to adopt patriarchal practices of holding up a veil of exclusion where only the smartest of the smart, the often white elite, could have access to, read, and understand it.
What bell hooks is doing in this book is plucking feminism out of the academic cloud and bringing it back down to earth for us: everyday lay people. She’s laying out a very general history of feminism that is mostly based on her experience with it in the 70’s and 80’s when it began to explode on the scene in academia while she was in college. Can you imagine having the experience with feminism as she does? To see it emerge in the university classroom for the first time? To have old white male professor’s syllabi being challenged for the first time for only including old white male’s for their students to read. It must have been super charged with energy and excitement to see these establishments change.
Where I will stop and critique this book for a moment, because it feels super awkward to even begin to critique the brilliant bell hooks, is that she falls short on a lot of the important history and theorization of feminism at the expense of bringing the book’s language to ground level. I would like to see a more complex and nuanced definition of sexism. She says over and over that feminism’s job is not to solely bring equality for women in the work place and in other social spaces, or to fight for gender-justice, but to confront our own sexist thoughts and behavior first and then move to dismantle sexism and oppression across class, sex, and race. But I kept waiting for her to explain what exactly sexism is. Do you know what it is? Could you identify sexism if you were to see it or experience it? Would you be able to take a look at yourself, your beliefs, and your actions and pinpoint how you have accepted and perpetrate sexism against men and other women? This is where I would like for us to begin. In order to begin this journey of understanding, believing, and accepting feminist thoughts, we must confront the ways that we have dominated and exploited other women.
If I may, I’d like to offer us a definition of sexism: it’s any type of prejudice, stereotype, or discrimination that is based on gender and leads to exclusion, exploitation, domination, and oppression. As you can imagine, this is mostly acted out against women, but be sure to understand that sexism can absolutely harm men and can be perpetrated by women. hooks suggests that more conservative reformist feminist thinkers have only chosen to emphasize gender equality – women should have the same equal rights as men. But that is not what revolutionary feminist thinkers had in mind. Feminism is not interested in merely creating equality. Actually, feminism does not necessarily believe in equality. Men and women are different, actually everyone is different! We all exist in different classes, races, geographies, ages, cultures, and genders. So equality is almost futile. What revolutionary feminism wants is to “transform [the existing patriarchal system] to bring an end to patriarchy and sexism.” In other words, feminism wants to end the exclusion, exploitation, domination, and oppression of people based on the prejudices, stereotypes, and discrimination based on gender. That’s a much more powerful action than merely seeking for more women in the work place and equal pay. In revolutionary feminism, that will be addressed and fixed and MORE. Maybe the difficult part in this feminist paradigm is that we can’t even imagine a world where patriarchy and sexism don’t exist, so how can we work for an end to it? It is possible, but first we must begin the difficult work of looking inside ourselves and confront the ways that we have internalized sexism and have exploited other women. Ugh. Do we want to even go there? To look inside and see how desperately sexism has infected our own beliefs and practices? Maybe it is easier to just demand equality- we wouldn’t have to do the ugly work of realizing how we are complicit in this system.
- How have you dominated and exploited other women? In what ways do you accept and believe sexist beliefs and practices?
- How have you been dominated and exploited by other women? Describe the ways in which you notice other women adopting sexist thinking and behavior or being at war and in competition with each other?
- Talk about how you reacted to hooks’ assertion that feminism is not an identity but is a political movement? She says that many assume that you can be a feminist without fundamentally challenging and changing themselves or the culture. How do you need to be changed? How do you see our culture needing to change?
- Finally, what moved you the most in these chapters? Where did you find yourself being challenged, confused, angry, or excited? Explain your response to what you have read.