Feminist Theory from Margin to Center – bell hooks

hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press, 1984. Print.

In Feminist Theory from Margin to Center bell hooks outlines not only those roadblocks that are stopping feminist progress, but how those roadblocks can be overcome. She begins by arguing that one of the key roadblocks is in how feminist/feminism is defined by and used by other feminists. She initially argues that, so long as feminism is understood as an effort to gain equality with upper class white men, the movement cannot succeed. Instead, the feminist movement must be understood as movement that seeks to abolish all oppression, rather than create “equality” between gender while maintaining other systems of oppression like class, race, etc. She states, “When feminism is defined in such a way that it calls attention to the diversity of women’s social and political reality, it centralizes the experiences of all women, especially the women whose social conditions have been least written about, studied, or changed by political movements” (Chapter 2). She goes on to suggest that one possible way to shift the concept of feminism is to avoid identifying as feminist (and thus all the baggage that accompanies the term) and instead to “advocate for feminism” (Chapter 2). hooks outlines some of the ways we can advocate for feminism in the chapters that follow. In Chapter 4 she details how women can form a sisterhood that works in solidarity to end oppression. The formation of a sisterhood means acknowledging without erasing difference between individual women, races of women, classes of women, etc. She states, “respecting diversity does not mean uniformity or sameness” (56). Sisterhood means bonding on terms that were not set by the dominant ideology of the culture. Sisterhood, hooks argues, is about defining the terms of solidarity outside the bounds of sexism. She acknowledges that this effort is not an easy one, but that working through the hostilities created by the oppressive systems that have separated and divided us is essential to the success of feminist movement. Additionally, hooks advocates for women to be more accepting and inviting of men into the feminist movement. She argues that, “by making women’s liberation synonymous with women gaining social equality with men, liberal feminists effectively created a situation in which they, not men, designated the feminist movement ‘women’s work” (68). This situated all men, even those who were also living under oppression, as the enemy rather than ally (68). Thus hooks calls for women to develop strategies that include men in the struggle against sexism. hooks points out that men have also been socialized to accept sexist ideologies, and must therefore be not only made aware of how they passively perpetuate continued sexism, but must take responsibility for changing. hooks creates a situation in which women and men both have work to do in dismantling sexist and oppressive systems.

The shift from identifying as feminist to advocating for feminism that hooks details is an important one that shifts the concept of feminism from identity to agency or from what “is” to what “can be done.” This is tied up, of course, in concepts of power. hooks delineates two types of power: on that is synonymous with control over others and another that is creative and life-affirming. The first kind is oppressive and egotistical in nature. It is the “is” of power. The other is that “what can be done” that is activated by creation and uplift, of the self or of another. Hooks, of course, agues that the first kind of power does little to advance the feminist struggle, while concepts of power that equate it with the ability to act or with action bring about a sense of accomplishment and progress (90). What “is” is finite, but there is changeability and potential in “what can be done”.

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