FEINIST THEORY BY BELL HOOKS Explain the author’s argument and/or salient information about that topic(THE FEMINIST THEORY OF BELL HOOKS ), describe the i

FEINIST THEORY BY BELL HOOKS

Explain the author’s argument and/or salient  information about that topic(THE FEMINIST THEORY OF BELL HOOKS ), describe the implications of  applying this perspective, and discuss why you agree/disagree (or how this changes your perspective about an issue). 

Feminist Theory

When Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center was fi rst published in 1984,
it was welcomed and praised by feminist thinkers who wanted a new
vision. Even so, individual readers frequently found the theory “unset-
tling” or “provocative.” Today, the blueprint for feminist movement
presented in the book remains as provocative and relevant as ever. Writ-
ten in hooks’s characteristic direct style, Feminist Theory embodies the
hope that feminists can fi nd a common language to spread the word and
create a mass, global feminist movement.

A cultural critic, an intellectual, and a feminist writer, bell hooks is
best known for classic books including Ain’t I a Woman, Bone Black, All
About Love, Rock My Soul, Belonging, We Real Cool, Where We Stand, Teaching

to Transgress, Teaching Community, Outlaw Culture, and Reel to Real. hooks is
Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea
College, and resides in her home state of Kentucky.

Feminist
Theory

FROM MARGIN TO CENTER

bell hooks

First published 2015
by Routledge
711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017

and by Routledge
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN

Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business

© 2015 Gloria Watkins

The right of Gloria Watkins to be identifi ed as author of this work has been asserted by her
in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First and second editions published
by South End Press 1984, 2000

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any
form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented,
including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system,
without permission in writing from the publishers.

Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks,
and are used only for identifi cation and explanation without intent to infringe.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

hooks, bell, 1952–
Feminist theory : from margin to center / bell hooks.
pages cm
“New edition”—Preface.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Feminism—United States—Evaluation. 2. African American women—
Attitudes. 3. Marginality, Social—United States. 4. Feminist theory. I. Title.
HQ1426.H675 2015
305.4201—dc23
2014023979

ISBN: 978-1-138-82165-1 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-1-138-82166-8 (pbk)
ISBN: 978-1-315-74317-2 (ebk)

Typeset in Garamond MT Std
by Apex CoVantage, LLC

Contents

acknowledgments ix

preface to the new edition: seeing the light:
visionary feminism xi

preface to the fi rst edition xvii

1. black women 1

shaping feminist theory

2. feminism 18

a movement to end sexist oppression

3. the signifi cance of feminist movement 34

4. sisterhood 43

political solidarity among women

5. men 68

comrades in struggle

6. changing perspectives on power 84

vii

viii FEMINIST THEORY

7. rethinking the nature of work 96

8. educating women 108

a feminist agenda

9. feminist movement to end violence 117

10. revolutionary parenting 133

11. ending female sexual oppression 148

12. feminist revolution 159

development through struggle

bibliography 167

index 173

1

Black Women: Shaping

Feminist Theory

Feminism in the United States has never emerged from the women
who are most victimized by sexist oppression; women who are daily
beaten down, mentally, physically, and spiritually-women who are

powerless to change their condition in life. They are a silent major­

ity. A mark of their victimization is that they accept their lot in life

without visible question, without organized protest, without collec­

tive anger or rage. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is still heralded

as having paved the way for contemporary feminist movement-it

was written as if these women did not exist. (Although The Feminine
Mystique has been criticized and even attacked from various fronts, I
call attention to it again because certain biased premises about the

nature of women’s social status put forth initially in this text con­
tinue to shape the tenor and direction of feminist movement.)

Friedan’s famous phrase, “the problem that has no name,” of­

ten quoted to describe the condition of women in this society, actu­

ally referred to the plight of a select group of college-educated,

middle- and upper-class, married white women-housewives bored

with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products,

who wanted more out of life. Friedan concludes her first chapter by

stating: “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says:
‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my

house.’ ” That “more” she defined as careers. She did not discuss
who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the
home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor

2 FEMINIST THEORY

and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did
not speak of the needs of women without men, without children,
without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women
and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more
fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a
prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife.

She made her plight and the plight of white women like herself
synonymous with a condition affecting all American women. In so
doing, she deflected attention away from her classism, her racism, her
sexist attitudes towards the masses of American women. In the con­
text of her book, Friedan makes clear that the women she saw as vic­
timized by sexism were college-educated white women who were
compelled by sexist conditioning to remain in the home. She contends:

It is urgent to understand how the very condition of being a
housewife can create a sense of emptiness, non-existence, noth­
ingness in women. There are aspects of the housewife role that
make it almost impossible for a woman of adult intelligence to re­
tain a sense of human identity, the firm core of self or “I” without
which a human being, man or woman, is not truly alive. For
women of ability in America today, I am convinced that there is
something about the housewife state itself that is dangerous.

Specific problems and dilemmas of leisure-class white housewives
were real concerns that merited consideration and change, but they
were not the pressing political concerns of masses of women.
Masses of women were concerned about economic survival, ethnic
and racial discrimination, etc. When Friedan wrote The Feminine Mys­
tique) more than one-third of all women were in the work force. Al­
though many women longed to be housewives, only women with
leisure time and money could actually shape their identities on the
model of the feminine mystique. They were women who, in
Friedan’s words, were “told by the most advanced thinkers of our
time to go back and live their lives as if they were Noras, restricted to
the doll’s house by Victorian prejudices.”

From her early writing, it appears that Friedan never wondered
whether or not the plight of college-educated white housewives was

BLACK WOMEN 3

an adequate reference point by which to gauge the impact of sexism
or sexist oppression on the lives of women in American society. Nor
did she move beyond her own life experience to acquire an ex­
panded perspective on the lives of women in the United States. I say
this not to discredit her work. It remains a useful discussion of the
impact of sexist discrimination on a select group of women. Exam­
ined from a different perspective, it can also be seen as a case study
of narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence,
which reaches its peak when Friedan, in a chapter titled “Progressive
Dehumanization,” makes a comparison between the psychological
effects of isolation on white housewives and the impact of confine­
ment on the self-concept of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.

Friedan was a principal shaper of contemporary feminist
thought. Significantly, the one-dimensional perspective on women’s
reality presented in her book became a marked feature of the con­
temporary feminist movement. Like Friedan before them, white
women who dominate feminist discourse today rarely question
whether or not their perspective on women’s reality is true to the
lived experiences of women as a collective group. Nor are they
aware of the extent to which their perspectives reflect race and class
biases, although there has been a greater awareness of biases in re­
cent years. Racism abounds in the writings of white feminists, rein­
forcing white supremacy and negating the possibility that women
will bond politically across ethnic and racial boundaries. Past femi­
nist refusal to draw attention to and attack racial hierarchies sup­
pressed the link between race and class. Yet class structure in
American society has been shaped by the racial politic of white su­
premacy; it is only by analyzing racism and its function in capitalist
society that a thorough understanding of class relationships can
emerge. Class struggle is inextricably bound to the struggle to end
racism. Urging women to explore the full implication of class in an
early essay, “The Last Straw,” Rita Mae Brown explained:

Class is much more than Marx’s definition of relationship to the
means of production. Class involves your behavior, your basic as­
sumptions about life. Your experience (determined by your class)

4 FEMINIST THEORY

validates those assumptions, how you are taught to behave, what
you expect from yourself and from others, your concept of a fu­
ture, how you understand problems and solve them, how you
think, feel, act. It is these behavioral patterns that middle-class
women resist recognizing although they may be perfectly willing
to accept class in Marxist terms, a neat trick that helps them avoid
really dealing with class behavior and changing that behavior in
themselves. It is these behavioral patterns which must be recog­
nized, understood, and changed.

White women who dominate feminist discourse, who for the most
part make and articulate feminist theory, have little or no understand­
ing of white supremacy as a racial politic, of the psychological impact
of class, of their political status within a racist, sexist, capitalist state.

It is this lack of awareness that, for example, leads Leah Fritz to
write in Dreamers and Dealers, a discussion of the current women’s
movement published in 1979:

Women’s suffering under sexist tyranny is a common bond
among all women, transcending the particulars of the different
forms that tyranny takes. Suffering cannot be measured and compared
quantitative(y. Is the enforced idleness and vacuity of a “rich”
woman, which leads her to madness and/ or suicide, greater or
less than the suffering of a poor woman who barely survives on
welfare but retains somehow her spirit? There is no way to mea­
sure such difference, but should these two women survey each
other without the screen of patriarchal class, they may find a com­
monality in the fact that they are both oppressed, both miserable.

Fritz’s statement is another example of wishful thinking, as well as
the conscious mystification of social divisions between women that
has characterized much feminist expression. While it is evident that
many women suffer from sexist tyranny, there is little indication that
this forges “a common bond among all women.” There is much evi­
dence substantiating the reality that race and class identity creates
differences in quality of life, social status, and lifestyle that take pre­
cedence over the common experience women share-differences
that are rarely transcended. The motives of materially privileged, ed­
ucated white women with a variety of career and lifestyle options

BLACK WOMEN 5

available to them must be questioned when they insist that “suffer­
ing cannot be measured.” Fritz is by no means the first white femi­
nist to make this statement. It is a statement that I have never heard
a poor woman of any race make. Although there is much I would
take issue with in Benjamin Barber’s critique of the women’s move­
ment, Liberating Feminism, I agree with his assertion:

Suffering is not necessarily a fixed and universal experience that
can be measured by a single rod: it is related to situations, needs,
and aspirations. But there must be some historical and political
parameters for the use of the term so that political priorities can
be established and different forms and degrees of suffering can
be given the most attention.

A central tenet of modern feminist thought has been the asser­
tion that “all women are oppressed.” This assertion implies that
women share a common lot, that factors like class, race, religion,
sexual preference, etc. do not create a diversity of experience that
determines the extent to which sexism will be an oppressive force in
the lives of individual women. Sexism as a system of domination is
institutionalized, but it has never determined in an absolute way the
fate of all women in this society. Being oppressed means the absence
of choices. It is the primary point of contact between the oppressed
and the oppressor. Many women in this society do have choices (as
inadequate as they are); therefore exploitation and discrimination
are words that more accurately describe the lot of women collec­
tively in the United States. Many women do not join organized resis­
tance against sexism precisely because sexism has not meant an
absolute lack of choices. They may know they are discriminated
against on the basis of sex, but they do not equate this with oppres­
sion. Under capitalism, patriarchy is structured so that sexism re­
stricts women’s behavior in some realms even as freedom from
limitations is allowed in other spheres. The absence of extreme re­
strictions leads many women to ignore the areas in which they are
exploited or discriminated against; it may even lead them to imagine
that no women are oppressed.

6 FEMINIST THEORY

There are oppressed women in the United States, and it is both
appropriate and necessary that we speak against such oppression.
French feminist Christine Delphy makes the point in her essay “For
a Materialist Feminism” that the use of the term “oppression” is im­
portant because it places feminist struggle in a radical political
framework (a fuller discussion of Christine Delphy’s perspective
may be found in the collected essays of her work, Close to Home):

The rebirth of feminism coincided with the use of the term “op­
pression.” The ruling ideology, i.e. common sense, daily speech,
does not speak about oppression but about a “feminine condi­
tion.” It refers back to a naturalist explanation: to a constraint of
nature, exterior reality out of reach and not modifiable by human
action. The term “oppression,” on the contrary, refers back to a
choice, an explanation, a situation that is political. “Oppression”
and “social oppression” are therefore synonyms, or rather social
oppression is a redundance: the notion of a political origin, i.e. so­
cial, is an integral part of the concept of oppression.

However, feminist emphasis on “common oppression” in the
United States was less a strategy for politicization than an appropria­
tion by conservative and liberal women of a radical political vocabu­
lary that masked the extent to which they shaped the movement so
that it addressed and promoted their class interests.

Although the impulse towards unity and empathy that informed
the notion of common oppression was directed at building solidar­
ity, slogans like “organize around your own oppression” provided
the excuse many privileged women needed to ignore the differences
between their social status and the status of masses of women. It
was a mark of race and class privilege, as well as the expression of
freedom from the many constraints sexism places on working-class
women, that middle-class white women were able to make their in­
terests the primary focus of feminist movement and employ a rheto­
ric of commonality that made their condition synonymous with
“oppression.” Who was there to demand a change in vocabulary?
What other group of women in the United States had the same ac­
cess to universities, publishing houses, mass media, money? Had

BLACK WOMEN 7

middle-class black women begun a movement in which they had la­
beled themselves “oppressed,” no one would have taken them seri­
ously. Had they established public forums and given speeches about
their “oppression,” they would have been criticized and attacked
from all sides. This was not the case with white bourgeois feminists,
for they could appeal to a large audience of women like themselves
who were eager to change their lot in life. Their isolation from women
of other class and race groups provided no immediate comparative
base by which to test their assumptions of common oppression.

Initially, radical participants in women’s movement demanded
that women penetrate that isolation and create a space for contact.
Anthologies like Liberation Now!, Women’s Liberation: Blueprint for the
Future, Class and Feminism, &zdical Feminism, and Sisterhood Is Poweifu4
all published in the early 1970s, contain articles that attempted to ad­
dress a wide audience of women, an audience that was not exclu­
sively white, middle-class, college-educated, and adult (many have
articles on teenagers). Sookie Stambler articulated this radical spirit
in her introduction to Women’s Liberation: Blueprint for the Future:

Movement women have always been turned off by the media’s
necessity to create celebrities and superstars. This goes against
our basic philosophy. We cannot relate to women in our ranks
towering over us with prestige and fame. We are not struggling
for the benefit of the one woman or for one group of women. We
are dealing with issues that concern all women.

These sentiments, shared by many feminists early in the move­
ment, were not sustained. As more and more women acquired pres­
tige, fame, or money from feminist writings or from gains from
feminist movement for equality in the work force, individual oppor­
tunism undermined appeals for collective struggle. Women who
were not opposed to patriarchy, capitalism, classism, or racism la­
beled themselves “feminist.” Their expectations were varied. Privi­
leged women wanted social equality with men of their class; some
women wanted equal pay for equal work; others wanted an alterna­
tive lifestyle. Many of these legitimate concerns were easily co-opted

8 FEMINIST THEORY

by the ruling capitalist patriarchy. French feminist Antoinette
Fouque states:

The actions proposed by the feminist groups are spectacular, pro­
voking. But provocation only brings to light a certain number of
social contradictions. It does not reveal radical contradictions
within society. The feminists claim that they do not seek equality
with men, but their practice proves the contrary to be true. Femi­
nists are a bourgeois avant-garde that maintains, in an inverted
form, the dominant values. Inversion does not facilitate the pas­
sage to another kind of structure. Reformism suits everyone!
Bourgeois order, capitalism, phallocentrism are ready to integrate
as many feminists as will be necessary. Since these women are be­
corning men, in the end it will only mean a few more men. The
difference between the sexes is not whether one does or doesn’t
have a penis, it is whether or not one is an integral part of a phallic
masculine economy.

Feminists in the United States are aware of the contradictions.
Carol Ehrlich makes the point in her essay “The Unhappy Marriage
of Marxism and Feminism: Can It Be Saved?” that “feminism seems
more and more to have taken on a blind, safe, nonrevolutionary out­
look” as “feminist radicalism loses ground to bourgeois feminism,”
stressing that “we cannot let this continue”:

Women need to know (and are increasingly prevented from find­
ing out) that feminism is not about dressing for success, or be­
coming a corporate executive, or gaining elective office; it is not
being able to share a two-career marriage and take skiing vaca­
tions and spend huge amounts of time with your husband and
two lovely children because you have a domestic worker who
makes all this possible for you, but who hasn’t the time or money
to do it for herself; it is not opening a Women’s Bank, or spending
a weekend in an expensive workshop that guarantees to teach you
how to become assertive (but not aggressive); it is most emphati­
cally not about becoming a police detective or CIA agent or ma­
rine corps general.

But if these distorted images of feminism have more reality
than ours do, it is partly our own fault. We have not worked as

BLACK WOMEN

hard as we should have at providing clear and meaningful alterna­
tive analyses which relate to people’s lives, and at providing ac­
tive, accessible groups in which to work.

9

It is no accident that feminist struggle has been so easily
co-opted to serve the interests of conservative and liberal feminists,
since feminism in the United States has so far been a bourgeois ide­
ology. Zillah Eisenstein discusses the liberal roots of North Ameri­
can feminism in The Radical Future if Liberal Feminism, explaining in
the introduction:

One of the major contributions to be found in this study is the
role of the ideology of liberal individualism in the construction of
feminist theory. Today’s feminists either do not discuss a theory
of individuality or they unself-consciously adopt the competitive,
atomistic ideology of liberal individualism. There is much confu­
sion on this issue in the feminist theory we discuss here. Until a
conscious differentiation is made between a theory of individual­
ity that recognizes the importance of the individual within the so­
cial collectivity and the ideology of individualism that assumes a
competitive view of the individual, there will not be a full ac­
counting of what a feminist theory of liberation must look like in
our Western society.

The ideology of “competitive, atomistic . . . liberal individualism”
has permeated feminist thought to such an extent that it undermines
the potential radicalism of feminist struggle. The usurpation of fem­
inism by bourgeois women to support their class interests has been
to a very grave extent justified by feminist theory as it has so far been
conceived (for example, the ideology of “common oppression”). Any
movement to resist the co-optation of feminist struggle must begin
by introducing a different feminist perspective-a new theory-one
that is not informed by the ideology of liberal individualism.

The exclusionary practices of women who dominate feminist
discourse have made it practically impossible for new and varied
theories to emerge. Feminism has its party line, and women who feel
a need for a different strategy, a different foundation, often find
themselves ostracized and silenced. Criticisms of or alternatives to

IO FEMINIST THEORY

established feminist ideas are not encouraged, e.g. recent controver­
sies about expanding feminist discussions of sexuality. Yet groups of
women who feel excluded from feminist discourse and praxis can
make a place for themselves only if they first create, via critiques, an
awareness of the factors that alienate them. Many individual white
women found in the women’s movement a liberatory solution to
personal dilemmas. Having directly benefited from the movement,
they are less inclined to criticize it or to engage in rigorous examina­
tion of its structure than those who feel it has not had a revolution­
ary impact on their lives or the lives of masses of women in our society.
Non-white women who feel affirmed within the current structure of
feminist movement (even though they may form autonomous groups)
seem also to feel that their definitions of the party line, whether on
the issue of black feminism or on other issues, are the only legitimate
discourse. Rather than encourage a diversity of voices, critical dia­
logue, and controversy, they, like some white women, seek to stifle
dissent. As activists and writers whose work is widely known, they
act as if they are best able to judge whether other women’s voices
should be heard. Susan Griffin warns against this overall tendency
towards dogmatism in her essay “The Way of All Ideology”:

When a theory is transformed into an ideology, it begins to de­
stroy the self and self-knowledge. Originally born of feeling, it
pretends to float above and around feeling. Above sensation. It
organizes experience according to itself, without touching experi­
ence. By virtue of being itself, it is supposed to know. To invoke
the name of this ideology is to confer truthfulness. No one can
tell it anything new. Experience ceases to surprise it, inform it,
transform it. It is annoyed by any detail which does not fit into its
world view. Begun as a cry against the denial of truth, now it de­
nies any truth which does not fit into its scheme. Begun as a way
to restore one’s sense of realiry, now it attempts to discipline real
people, to remake natural beings after its own image. All that it
fails to explain it records as its enemy. Begun as a theory of libera­
tion, it is threatened by new theories of liberation; it builds a
prison for the mind.

We resist hegemonic dominance of feminist thought by insist-

BLACK WOMEN II

ing that it is a theory in the making, that we must necessarily criticize,
question, re-examine, and explore new possibilities. My persistent
critique has been informed by my status as a member of an op­
pressed group, my experience of sexist exploitation and discrimina­
tion, and the sense that prevailing feminist analysis has not been the
force shaping my feminist consciousness. This is true for many
women. There are white women who had never considered resisting
male dominance until the feminist movement created an awareness
that they could and should. My awareness of feminist struggle was
stimulated by social circumstance. Growing up in a Southern, black,
father-dominated, working-class household, I experienced (as did
my mother, my sisters, and my brother) varying degrees of patriar­
chal tyranny, and it made me angry-it made us all angry. Anger led
me to question the politics of male dominance and enabled me to re­
sist sexist socialization. Frequently, white feminists act as if black
women did not know sexist oppression existed until they voiced
feminist sentiment. They believe they are providing black women
with “the” analysis and “the” program for liberation. They do not
understand, cannot even imagine, that black women, as well as other
groups of women who live daily in oppressive situations, often ac­
quire an awareness of patriarchal politics from their lived experi­
ence, just as they develop strategies of resistance (even though they
may not resist on a sustained or organized basis).

These black women observed white feminist focus on male tyr­
anny and women’s oppression as if it were a “new” revelation, and
felt such a focus had little impact on their lives. To them it was just
another indication of the privileged living conditions of middle- and
upper-class white women that they would need a theory to “inform
them that they were oppressed.” The implication being that people
who are truly oppressed know it even though they may not be en­
gaged in organized resistance or are unable to articulate in written
form the nature of their oppression. These black women saw noth­
ing liberatory in party-line analyses of women’s oppression. Neither
the fact that black women have not organized collectively in huge
numbers around the issues of “feminism” (many of us do not know
or use the term) nor the fact that we have not had access to the rna-

!2 FEMINIST THEORY

chinery of power that would allow us to share our analyses or theo­
ries about gender with the American public negates its presence in
our lives or places us in a position of dependency in relationship to
those white and non-white feminists who address a larger audience.

The understanding I had by age thirteen of patriarchal politics
created in me expectations of the feminist movement that were
quite different from those of young, middle-class white women.
When I entered my first women’s studies class at Stanford Univer­
sity in the early 1970s, white women were reveling in the joy of being
together-to them it was an important, momentous occasion. I had
not known a life where women had not been together, where
women had not helped, protected, and loved one another deeply. I
had not known white women who were ignorant of the impact of
race and class on their social status and consciousness. (Southern
white women often have a more realistic perspective on racism and
classism than white women in other areas of the United States.) I did
not feel sympathetic to white peers who maintained that I could not
expect them to have knowledge of or understand the life experi­
ences of black women. Despite my background (living in racially
segregated communities) I knew about the lives of white women,
and certainly no white women lived in our neighborhood, attended
our schools, or worked in our homes.

When I participated in feminist groups, I found that white
women adopted a condescending attitude towards me and other
non-white participants. The condescension they directed at bla

.
ck

women was one of the means they employed to remind us that the
women’s movement was “theirs”-that we were able to participate
because they allowed it, even encouraged it; after all, we were needed
to legitimate the process. They did not see us as equals. They did not
treat us as equals. And though they expected us to provide first-hand
accounts of black experience, they felt it was their role to decide if
these experiences were authentic. Frequendy, college-educated
black women (even those from poor and working-class back­
grounds) were dismissed as mere imitators. Our presence in move

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