Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks
Ah, the dreaded “I’m not a feminist, but…,” the handy way to espouse feminist politics without any of those nasty connotations the word “feminist” comes with. You know, the connotations associated with feminism by people doing their utmost to making feminists sound so icky that nobody will be one. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle based not on what feminism actually is, but on the press feminism receives in a patriarchal culture.
The solution to those dread five words is, of course, knowledge. But feminism and women’s studies have become increasingly academic and, therefore, elite, making disseminating that theory (and its proposed practice) down to the masses difficult. Thus bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody, published on the eve of the new millennium, meant to be a basic primer on feminism for any and everyone. It’s just over one hundred pages long. hooks uses straightforward, simple prose. But perhaps the most approachable thing about it is that hooks explains feminism’s historical context in order to explain how feminism’s reputation got so far off the mark. Namely, in hooks’ eyes, that feminism was appropriated by upper-class women who only wanted equality with the men of their class, not an end to sexism and other gender-related oppressions for all humankind.
It’s this lack of radicalism that the calm hooks is most concerned about. Wanting equality between the sexes is, undoubtedly, feminist, but can true equality be achieved within a system that’s built on inequality? That sounds pat, but hooks questions any hierarchal system or relationship based on domination. I thought reading Feminism is for Everybody was going to be a bit easy for me, alumna of a women’s college, general belligerent feminist, and child of a woman who shielded her from the Catholic Church for feminist reasons. And the book itself is thirteen years old at this point. But it challenged me by destabilizing me, and that’s exciting, necessary work. After all, as hooks herself says, “How can you become what you cannot imagine?” (70).
(One) case (among many) in point: hooks questions a culture that positions partnered, heterosexual sexual intercourse as the most valuable in a hierarchy of sexual expression. (Sudden question: can self-pleasure be inherently orientated? Language is magic.) Shouldn’t all forms of sexual expression, including celibacy, be considered as important as that? All hierarchies, especially those based on dominance, need to be swept aside and replaced with something more equitable, according to hooks, if we ever hope to create a truly equal society.
For the most part I agree, but I am hesitant about some of her applications. Particularly, when it comes to the hierarchical system of parents (especially mothers) and children that includes aggressive discipline. On the one hand, a little more agency for children is usually a good thing; on the other hand, I was an awful child whose self-destructive will could only be thwarted with a good smack upside the head. Does this work for every child? No, of course not, and we should be aiming at a world where that’s only one option among many, not the go-to. But I’m unsure if you can ever equalize the relationship between parents and children fully, because children aren’t adults for a reason.
I adore that Feminism is for Everybody outlines what a feminist should be doing politically as well as offering up more radical theory in an accessible way. As hooks points out, “Critique in and of itself does not lead to change” (35). She has little patience for the idea of multiple feminisms; to her, it just fractures the message, making it easier for people to appropriate and commodify it to their own ends. And, of course, it’s intersectional without ever saying the word. Some topics aren’t discussed, like transgender politics or reclaiming femme as a feminist act, but I can’t imagine anyone interested stopping here.
Bottom line: Feminism is for Everybody is an accessible look at more radical feminist theory as well as a brief guide to feminist history and what a feminist should be doing politically. Required reading.
I rented this book from the public library.