June 11, 2015
We’re back for the occasional history of feminist theory. Earlier posts are here:
Feminist Herstory Pt. 1 – It is discovered that Women are PEOPLE!!!
Feminist Herstory Pt. 2 – Here comes the FIRST WAVE
Feminist Herstory Pt. 3 – Let’s Judge Ourselves as People
Feminist Herstory Pt. 4 – The Swingin’ Second Wave arrives
Remember from Part One that modern feminism has its roots in the abolition movement. Unfortunately, the feminism that emerged in the 20th Century had a decidedly vanilla flavor. When Betty Friedan wrote about housewives stuck in suburban hell instead of having awesome careers in her seminal work, The Feminine Mystique, she was writing about upper-middle class white woman. When those women bolted for the joys self-actualization, guess who stepped in to clean their houses and feed their kids? It wasn’t the husbands. It was the women who have always worked. Women of color.
In the early 1990s I was teaching Intro Sociology at posh Emory University, but also at Dekalb Community College, where most of my students were poor and working class black women. I would talk a lot about gender socialization and patriarchal oppression and every single class black women would say, “I’m not a feminist, but…” and then say something completely in line with feminism; about exploitation at work, the pressure to be pretty, the routine experience of violence by men. The qualifier caught me off guard so I finally began asking why they felt that way, and it was always the same answer. Something like this; “Feminists are rich white lesbians that hate men and think they’re better than me.”
The sad reality is that the feminist movement completely ignored the experience of women of color. Some of the same elitism that characterized the “old boys club” could be found at NOW meetings. The official feminists were being educated at private colleges, but the women who would find the drudgery of being the housewife a luxury were not invited to the revolution. When radical black women, like Angela Davis, tried to encourage white feminists to look at the problem of race, they were accused of “diluting the message.” (The same thing happened when lesbians and gays suggested feminism should take on homophobia, or when socialists said feminism should take on classism.) “Angry black women” were seen as an obstacle to the elite image of feminism coming from the pages of Ms. Magazine or the Women’s Studies classes at Sarah Lawrence College. 1970s groups like the National Black Feminist Organization and Combahee River Collective faced opposition from both mainstream feminists and more traditional civil rights groups.
But many Asian, Native, Latina, Black and other women of color knew that feminism offered emancipation for them as well. The intersection of race and gender even made it onto the radio when, in 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released the controversial feminist single entitled, “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” When John and Yoko performed the song on the Dick Cavett Show and sang, “Woman is the slaves of the slaves,” many people got the connection. But it would take until the 1980s for black feminism to find a voice.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono – “Woman is the Nigger of the World”
The black feminist voice had been around for a long time. It had crept into negro spirituals and old blues numbers about bad men. It was there in the jazz compositions of Nina Simone and the novels of Toni Morrison. Finally, that voice found a vessel in the writings of a girl from Hopkinsville, Kentucky named Gloria Jean Watkins, better known as bell hooks. hooks escaped the segregated South for college in California at Stanford. She earned her masters at Madison in 1976 and, finally, her doctorate at UC-Santa Cruz in 1983 (writing about Toni Morrison). A prolific teacher and writer, hooks work is much of the inspiration for this blog. As a graduate student in 1994, a member of Emory University’s Black Student Alliance gave me a copy of hooks’ new book Teaching to Transgress and it immediately changed my ideas about what it meant to be a teacher. Her first work, Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism (1981) was actually written when she was 19 and explores the intersection of race and gender.
Of her many books, her second volume, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), might be the most widely read. The book is a stern critique of second wave feminism and the implicit racism of The Feminine Mystique. She points out the privileged position that mainstream feminists came from because of their skin. “Had middle-class black women begun a movement in which they had labeled themselves ‘oppressed,’ no one would have taken them seriously,” she writes. But it’s not only the implicit racism in feminism that hooks highlights. She also called attention to the anti-male position common among radical feminists of the time. “Anti-male sentiments have alienated many poor and working-class women, particularly non-white women from the feminist movement. Their life experiences have shown them that they have more in common with men of their race and/or class group than with bourgeois white women.” Advocating for the involvement in all people against oppression (which she refers to as the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy), hooks sees men as “comrades in struggle.”
The great contribution of hooks’ Feminist Theory is the idea of interlocking “vectors of oppression.” Although it would later be named and advanced by black feminists Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins, hooks was discussing intersectionality. A white working class woman, like my mother, may be oppressed in a patriarchal social system, but she still enjoys the privilege associated with her race, class, and sexual orientation. A poor black lesbian is going to have a much different experience of oppression (as is a disabled working class heterosexual male). We know inherently that working class masculinity is different than bourgeois masculinity (tractor pulls and polo matches). hooks writes, “Feminist analyses of women’s lot tend to focus exclusively on gender and do not provide a solid foundation to construct feminist theory. They reflect the dominant tendency in Western patriarchal minds to mystify women’s reality by insisting that gender is the sole determinant of women’s fate.” By exploring these vectors of oppression the many varied experiences of women (and men and transpeople) can be incorporated into feminist thought in a way that was difficult under second wave feminist discourse.
From books on black masculinity (We Real Cool (2004)) to analysis of pop culture (Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies (1996)), and even children’s books (Be Boy Buzz (2002)), hooks’ work is unified by a desire to create a “love ethic” that undoes the personal and social harm done by the experience of oppression. Her brief 2000 book, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, should be required reading for the human race. I’ve bought copies for friends and even my therapist. In it hooks covers the standard critiques of “the movement,” but also unlocks the potentials of better sex and relationships through being more in-tuned with women’s basic humanity. Plus it’s a book dudes look really cool reading.
Professor hooks is still active, recently discussing trans identities and feminism with Laverne Cox, from Orange is the New Black. She speaks to audiences all over the world. I’ve seen her at Portland State and Reed College and was this close to getting her face tattooed on my arm. A whole new generation of young people (not just my students) have discovered hooks’ ideas through the Saved by the Bell Hooks internet meme. Perhaps most importantly, her definition of feminism has become a universal starting point for how big the feminist tent can be.
Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.
The following books were mentioned in this post and are available at Powell’s books by clicking the covers below:
5 thoughts on “Feminist Herstory Part 5 – Hey Soul Sister”
Enjoyed this post but this line isn’t accurate…”elite image of feminism coming from the pages of Ms. Magazine”
I worked at Ms in the early nineties and have studied the magazine before and after as I have a sort of love affair with it and Ms was founded by MANY women and many of them were WOC. Ms cannot be all things to all feminists but even in their infancy they have been inclusive and intersectional in their approach.
Biology is sexist. This is my primary disagreement with feminism, the failure to distinguish between cultural sexism (which can be changed) and biological sexism (which cannot be changed).