Aint I a Woman? | Feminist Theory of Bell Hooks

Feminist Theory of Bell Hooks

Bell Hooks’ Feminism

Bell Hooks is the penname of Gloria Jean Watkins. She was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, USA. She is an author and social activist. Her notable works are as follows:

(1) Ain’t I a Woman? : Black Women and Feminism

(2) All about Love : New Visions

(3) We Real Cool : Black Men and Masculinity

(4) Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center

Bell Hooks has been influenced by Sojourner Truth, Paulo Freire, Gustavo Gutierrez, Eric Fromm, Lorraine Hansberry, Thich Nhat Hanh_the famous Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Guru, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. etc.

Gloria Jean Watkins was born on 25 September, 1952. She is better known as Bell Hooks a pen name (intentionally written as ‘bell hooks’ she has adopted). She is recognized as an American author, feminist and social activist. She took her nom de plume from her maternal great grand-mother Bell Blair Hooks.

Her writing focuses on the interconnectivity of race, capitalism and gender and their capacity to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and class domination. She has published over thirty books and numerous scholarly and mainstream articles. She has also appeared in several documentary films and participated in various public lectures. Primarily, through post-modern perspective, she has addressed race, class and gender in education, art, history, sexuality, mass media and feminism.

Gloria Jean Watkins was born in a working class family of five sisters and one brother. Her father Veodis Watkins was a custodian and her mother Rosa Bell Watkins was a home-maker. Throughout her childhood, she was an avid reader. Her early education took place in racially segregated public schools and she wrote of great adversities when making the transition to an integrated school where teachers and students were predominantly white. She graduated from Hopkinsville school and earned. B. A. in English from Standford University in 1973. She got her M.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin Madison in 1976. In 1983, after several years of teaching and writing, she completed her doctorate in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a dissertation or Toni Morrison. She also taught at Yale. Her teaching career began in 1976 as a professor at the University of Southern California. During her three years there, she published her first book of poems titled And There We Wept (1978). She wrote these poems under the penname ‘Bell Hooks’.

She adopted the name of her great grandmother as she was known for her snappy and bold tongue which she admired a lot. She put the name in lowercase letters “to distinguish herself from her grandmother.” She stressed that her unconventional lowercasing signified that what is important in her books is the substance of books, not who I am.

In 1981, she published her first major work “Ain’t I a Woman? : Black Women and feminism“. Actually, the book had been written earlier when she was an undergraduate student. Since the publication of the book, it has received a widespread recognition as an influential contribution to post-modern feminist thought.

Ain’t I a Woman? examines several recurring themes in her later work. These themes are as follows:

(i) The historical impact of sexism and racism on black women.

(ii) Devaluation of black womanhood.

(iii) Media roles and portrayal of black women.

(iv) The role of education system in their subordination.

(v) The idea of white-supremacist-capitalist patriarchy.

(vi) The marginalization of black women.

(vii) The regard for issues of race and class within feminism. Since the publication of this book, she has become an eminent leftist and post-modern political thinker and cultural critic. She is frequently cited by feminists as having provided the best solution to the difficulty of defining something as diverse as “feminism” addressing the problem that if feminism can mean anything, it means nothing. She asserts that “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” She says that it must be free from fear as well as fantasy.

Bell Hooks has published more than 30 books on topics ranging from patriarchy, pedagogy, sexuality, personal memoirs to feminism and politics of aesthetic and visual culture. Prevalent themes in most of her writings are the community and communion, race, class and gender inequalities by living communities.

In her book Teaching to Trangress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, she argued that teachers’ use of control or power over students’ dulls the students’ enthusiasm and teaches them obedience to authority, resulting in subjugation. She suggests that universities should evolve the pattern of teaching that everyone becomes more and more engaged in relaxing and exciting manner.

Aint I a Woman? : Black Women and Feminism is a book by Bell Hooks titled after Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. Hook examines the effect of sexism and racism on black women, the civil rights movement and feminist movements from suffrage to the 1970’s. She argues that convergence of sexism and racism during slavery contributed to black women having the lowest status and worst conditions of any group in American society. White female abolitionists and suffragists were more comfortable with black male abolitionists such as Frederic Douglas. Southern segregationists and stereotypes of black female promiscuity and immorality caused protests whenever black women spoke. Hooks pointed out that the white reformers were more concerned with white morality than that morals affected the American blacks.

Bell Hooks also argued that the stereotypes that were set during slavery continue to affect black women today. During this period, the whites considered white woman as pure goddess virgin and black women as loose moralled whores. Thus, they devalued black femininity labeling them as seductive and moralless. The rapes of black women continue because of this kind of attitude. Black women are forced to work as slaves in discriminatory work-place. Hooks argues that black nationalism was largely partriarchical and misogynist movement. It sought to overcome racial dynamism by strengthening sexist ones. It emasculated black matriarch proposed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan whose theories Bell Hooks often criticized.

Bell Hooks says, “the feminist movement in the USA was largely white middle class and upper class affair. It did not articulate the needs of the poor and non-white women. It reinforced sexism, racism and classism. She suggests that this explains the reason why low number of black women participated in the feminist movement of the 1970’s. She gives the example of Louis Harris’ Virginia Slims poll done in 1972. It says that 62% of black women supported efforts to change the status of women while 67% women sympathized with women’s rights movement compared with 45 and 35 per cent of white women.

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center is the second book by Bell Hooks published in 1984. It continues her importance as a leader in radical feminist thought. Throughout the book, Hooks uses the term ‘White supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ as a lens through which she critiques both American culture and offers potential solutions to the problems. Hooks addresses the following topics in the book:

(i) The goals of feminist movement.

(ii) The role of men in feminist movement.

(iii) The relevance of pacifism and solidarity among women.

(iv) The nature of revolution.

Hooks as a radical feminist points out the system itself is corrupt and to achieve equality in such a system is impossible. She therefore suggests a complete transformation of society and all its institutions. She envisions a life-affirming peaceful tomorrow. In the second edition, featuring a new preface Seeing the Light: Visionary Feminism was published in 2000.

A distinguishing, feature of feminist theory of Hooks is the use of intersectionality’ in her analyses: The black feminist organization of the 1970’s pioneered the intersecting of race and gender. Hooks criticizes “the sisterhood” framework of second wave feminism. She says that the emphasis on sisterhood was an emotional appeal masking the opportunism of bourgeois white women.

Hooks defines feminism  “as a movement to end sexist oppression”. Another important feature of Hooks’ feminist theory is Hooks’ enlistence on the inclusion of men in the feminist movement. She criticizes the anti-male stance of second-wave feminism. According to her, the second wave feminists reinforced sexist ideology by positing in an inverted form the notion of a basic conflict between the sexes which implied that the empowerment of women would necessarily be at the expense of men. Hooks also pointed out that by excluding men from the feminist movement, it reinforced sexual division of labour and made feminism the responsibility of women.

Hooks asserted that “men are not exploiters or oppressed by sexism but there are ways in which they suffer as a result of it.” According to her, women alone cannot achieve the goals of feminism because men are the primary agents, maintaining and supporting sexist oppression and sexism. The goals of feminism can be achieved only if men are compelled to assume the responsibility of transforming their consciousness and the consciousness of the society as a whole.

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Hooks says that “men who are against sexism are our comrades.” She also discusses the importance of black women in feminist movement. She critiques capitalism as a means of subordination and exploitation. She examines the nature of work as it applies to women. She stresses the importance of education as a goal of feminism and advocates the development of educational methodology that addresses the needs of all women. She criticizes violence of all kinds and advocates solidarity of men and women to recreate a new culture. Hooks also argues that both father and mother should take care of their children emphasizing the need for collective parenting.

The most important aspect of Bell Hooks’ approach to feminism is her understanding and critique of power. She says that power is not for domination over others but to end oppression. She argues that without changing this dominant perspective of power the goals of the feminist struggle cannot be achieved. Hooks also rejects over-intellectualism and anti-intellectualism of the feminist movement. Excessive academic pursuits often ignore the realities of life and do very little to change the conditions of women. On the other hand, anti-intellectualism is also of no value. She says that academics can help in consciousness raising through their research. However, they should abandon their highbrow attitude. She says that in order to achieve equality, people must learn to smash unnecessary stereotypes and bridge the education gap. She firmly believes that education plays a very important role in removing sexism and racism and for that education needs to be holistic and life-enhancing.

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