Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center
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Cover of the first edition
Throughout the book, hooks uses the term white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy as a lens through which to both critique various aspects of American culture and to offer potential solutions to the problems she explores. She addresses topics including the goals of feminist movement, the role of men in feminist struggle, the relevance of pacifism, solidarity among women, and the nature of revolution.
Hooks can be identified in her discussions of these topics as a radical feminist because of her arguments that the system itself is corrupt, and that achieving equality in such a system is neither possible nor desirable. She promotes instead a complete transformation of society and all its institutions as a result of protracted struggle, envisioning a life-affirming, peaceful tomorrow.[further explanation needed]
A second edition, featuring a new preface, "Seeing the Light: Visionary Feminism", was published in 2000. In the preface to the first edition, hooks, talking about black Americans in her hometown, discusses the meaning of her title's "From Margin to Center:"
Living as we did—on the edge—we developed a particular way of seeing reality. We looked from both the outside in and the inside out. We focused our attention on the center as well as the margin. We understood both. This mode of seeing reminded us of the existence of a whole universe, a main body made up of both margin and center (hooks 2000:xvi).
A distinguishing feature of Feminist Theory is hooks' use of what is contemporarily called intersectionality in her analyses. An analysis of oppression that considers the intersecting nature of race and gender was pioneered by black feminist organizations of the 1970s (Springer 2005:114). hooks criticizes the "Sisterhood" framework of second-wave feminism, saying that the "emphasis on Sisterhood was often seen as emotional appeal masking the opportunism of bourgeois white women" (hooks 2000:44). In "Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression", chapter two, hooks offers a thorough critique of feminism as defined by the feminist movement at the time, citing the racism and classism within it.(hooks 2000:32) hooks proposes defining feminism "as a movement to end sexist oppression" (hooks 2000:33) Additionally, hooks suggests saying "I advocate feminism", as opposed to "I am a feminist", in order to avoid the misconception of women's issues taking precedence over issues of race, class, etc. (hooks 2000:32)
Another distinguishing feature of Feminist Theory is hooks' insistence on the inclusion of men in the feminist movement. hooks criticizes the anti-male stance of second-wave feminism, asserting that this position "alienated many poor and working-class women, particularly non-white women, from feminist movement" (hooks 2000:69). According to hooks, the second-wave feminists "reinforced sexist ideology by positing in an inverted form the notion of a basic conflict between the sexes, the implication being that the empowerment of women would necessarily be at the expense of men" (hooks 2000:68). hooks also points out that, by excluding men from the feminist movement, second-wave feminists essentially reinforced the sexual division of labor by making feminism the solely the responsibility of women (hooks 2000:68).
hooks asserts that, "Men are not exploited or oppressed by sexism, but there are ways in which they suffer as a result of it" (hooks 2000:73) hooks suggests using the negative effects of sexism on men as a way to motivate them into participation in feminism (hooks 2000:77) According to hooks, women alone cannot achieve the goals of feminism, because, "men are the primary agents maintaining and supporting sexism and sexist oppression, they can only be eradicated if men are compelled to assume responsibility for transforming their consciousness and the consciousness of society as a whole" (hooks 2000:83). Conclusively, hooks assert that, "Men who actively struggle against sexism have a place [in the] feminist movement. They are our comrades" (hooks 2000:82).
hooks also addresses several other issues relevant to feminism. She discusses the importance of black women in the feminist movement (hooks 2000:1–17). hooks states that African-American women are important, yet they are plagued by racism in the movement: "Racism abounds in the writings of white feminists, reinforcing white supremacy and negating the possibility that women will bond politically across ethnic and racial boundaries" (hooks 2000:3). In fact, hooks states that "had middle-class black women began a movement in which they had labeled themselves 'oppressed,' no one would have taken them seriously" (hooks 2000:7). She states that this concept has been accelerated by "the assertion 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" (hooks 2000:5). hooks states that although sexism is institutionalized, it cannot determine in an absolute way the fate of all women in this society (hooks 2000:5).
Levels of oppression are different for every individual woman: "being oppressed means the absence of choices" (hooks 2000:5). Because many women do have choices, better words to describe women in the United States are exploitation and discrimination (hooks 2000:5). hooks states that the feminist emphasis on 'common oppression' in the United States was less a strategy for politicization than an appropriation by conservative and liberal women of a radical political vocabulary (hooks 2000:6). This appropriation masked the extent to which these same women shaped the movement so that it addressed and promoted their class interests. Hooks states, "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 the masses of women" (hooks 2000:6).
hooks discusses power as it pertains to women and oppression. Incorporating a critique of capitalism into her critique of second-wave feminism, hooks analyses the nature of work as it applies to women (hooks 2000:96–107). hooks stresses the importance of education as a goal of feminism and advocates the development of "the development of an educational methodology that addresses the needs of all women." (hooks 2000:116). Criticizing second-wave feminism for focusing on violence only in the form of male violence against women and defining militarism as an expression of male violence, hooks asserts, "we must acknowledge that men and women have together made the United States a culture of violence and must work together to transform and recreate that culture. Women and men must oppose the use of violence as a means of social control in all its manifestations: war, male violence against women, adult violence against children, teenage violence, racial violence, etc" (hooks 2000:131–2). hooks also argues for feminist advocacy of child care, to "emphasize the need for collective parenting" (hooks 2000:147). Regarding sexuality, hooks states,
A shift that will undoubtedly emerge as the struggle to end sexual oppression progresses will be decreased obsession with sexuality...sexuality will no longer have the importance attributed to it in a society that uses sexuality for the express purposes of maintaining gender inequality, male domination, consumerism, and the sexual frustration and unhappiness that deflect attention away from the need to make a social revolution (hooks 2000:158).
In addition, bell hooks focuses on the importance of all races learning to conform with one another. She states that women of color must learn to "confront [their] absorption of white supremacist beliefs", which could lead to self-hate and anger at one another instead of at the oppressors (hooks 2000:57). She states that this trend can be demonstrated by viewing multiple races of women and how they bond with whites by hating the other races. hooks argues that this trend must be eliminated by women of color assuming responsibility of uniting to "learn about [their] cultures, to share [their] knowledge and skills, and to gain strength from [their] diversity" (hooks 2000:57).
hooks acknowledges that interaction is made difficult by a failure to recognize that "a behavior pattern in one culture may be unacceptable in another and that it may have different signification cross-culturally" (hooks 2000:57). hooks explains that by "learning one another's cultural codes and respecting [women's] differences, [women of color] feel a sense of community, of Sisterhood" (hooks 2000:58). hooks continues by stating "that women must also acknowledge that [they] all suffer in some way, but that [they] are not all oppressed nor equally oppressed. Her student, Isabel Yrigoyei, wrote:
We are not equally oppressed. There is no joy in this. We must speak from within us, our own experiences, our own oppressions—taking someone else's oppression is nothing to feel proud of. We should never speak for that which we have not felt" (hooks 2000:59).
In her class, hooks discovered that many of the women had different experiences, even if they had a common ethnic background (hooks 2000:59). hooks states that "by no longer passively accepting the learned tendency to compare and judge, [women of color] can see value in each experience" (hooks 2000:59). This concept relates to the political needs of women. hooks concludes that the different experiences of women means that they have different needs and that "there is no one strategy or formula for the development of political consciousness" (hooks 2000:59).
A noteworthy aspect to bell hooks approach to feminism is her understanding and critique of power.[according to whom?] She states power cannot be understood as domination over others, but rather, it needs to be redefined and transformed to be understood as power to end oppression (hooks 1984). While hooks is speaking to the feminist movement, this transformative approach is a powerful tool to all social justice movements seeking to end some form of legitimized oppression.[according to whom?]
hooks argues that without changing the dominant perspective of power, the goals of the feminist struggle are jeopardized. Seeking to end oppression requires the acquisition of power. If power is to be understood as domination, the movement does not challenge underlying capitalist structure which perpetuates oppression. Rather, it has a destructive potential even when it is in the hands of the oppressed. Key political figures she notes that are exemplary of this are Margaret Thatcher and Sandra Day O'Connor and their actions that undermine feminist struggles (hooks 1984).
In chapter 8, hooks criticizes two contradictory tendencies she considers problematic in the feminist movement: excessive intellectualism and anti-intellectualism. In the case of the former, this author argues that feminist intellectuals (overwhelmingly white academics) focus too much on their research and academic pursuits, the effects being that their research fails to reflect the experience of the majority of women and that they neglect the activism that is central to ending gender oppression (109). Excessive focus on academia has meant that feminist scholars have been able to pursue their work without coming to terms with the privileged position they exercise from the security of their desks behind the walls of the university. Excessive attention paid to academic pursuits thus does little to change the condition of women and men and only reaffirms hierarchal relations—which are the basis of patriarchy (118)—in a different form (i.e. between the subject and object of research).
On the other had, hooks warns that going to the other extreme, that is anti-intellectualism, is no better. Academic research has value, and ignoring this only reaffirms the notion that it is the realm of privileged white women and that women of color are incapable of doing theoretical work (113-14). The point is not to reject academic research as a whole, but to value the kinds of labor that capitalism devalues both in a monetary and intangible sense (102-03) and to make academic knowledge more accessible to those for whom it is produced. hooks claims, for instance, that academics can engage in consciousness raising and share the findings of their research without using jargon (111). Rather than act in a condescending manner and reaffirming her or his privilege, the academic in this sense speaks in the terms of the oppressed—and thereby empowers them—and places herself or himself below and at the service of moral forces seeking change.
The oppressed who work within the structure to obtain power do not necessarily achieve the goals of the movement. It may serve as a symbolic power, but it does not serve as a means to challenge the status quo. As bell hooks argues, this destructive potential can mean maintaining the status quo, or perhaps even undermining the feminist struggle as a whole. This critique of power is crucial as it challenges not only the feminist movement, but society as a whole - it is a critique of the fundamental values of society. Most importantly, it demonstrates that power does not necessarily have to rest in the hands of the dominant. Rather, it gives power accessibility in this sense: where power was once absent is now present. The oppressed do not have to seek power where it has traditionally worked against them, but can draw from other resources, challenging the prevailing assumptions of where power is centred in society. This transformative approach to the understanding of power can be understood as a redistribution of power. Thus, bell hooks demonstrates that seeking an end to sexist oppression cannot necessarily be worked from within the current underlying structures, but rather the structures themselves also need to be challenged. By presenting a different perspective to power, the feminist movement also sees gains in accessibility and can see greater participation from society as a whole. It challenges the notion that it is a singular movement with a singular goal, but rather it is a multifaceted movement with multiple goals that pose a challenge to not only one oppressed group of society, but to all oppressed by a sexist, capitalist structure.
According to hooks, women wanted equal rights and to be put on the same social level as men by "emphasizing women's powerlessness and condemning male exercise of power as denomination" as well as raising the banner of "women power" demanding equal rights (hooks 2000:88). Women wanted to rise to power as easily as men could. hooks points out that assuming that women would be better leaders than men because of their different values was not a valid reason because women could "imitate men, and in the process become the oppressors" of others; there is absolutely no way to know whether women lust for power as much as men do and if that could potentially affect the outcome of a woman leader" (hooks 2000:85). Unfortunately, those who begun the movement were mostly white bourgeois white women who believed that in order to gain power, they needed a job to be contributing to society. They believed that the key to liberation was a job because this way, they could provide for themselves and would not be limited to just household work (hooks 2000:86). hooks has a different opinion. She states that the real power lies in the involvement of "the reconstruction of the entire society for the benefit of the greater majority and for the advancement of humanity" (hooks 2000:91). This excluded lower-class women, mostly black, who already had jobs to help their own household out of necessity while white bourgeois women viewed it as an "escape from leisure." The feminist movement during this time excluded a great amount of people, mostly lower class or minorities, due to their occupation status. Because they already had a job, they were dismissed from the activism as those who had already reached liberation when, in reality, most of the people working had miserable jobs who paid lower than minimum wage. The jobs they mostly worked were dehumanizing and not liberatory" (hooks 2000:98). In addition, black women and men felt threatened by the movement instead of feeling empowered. The reason to this was because as soon as white bourgeois women began acquiring jobs, there would be more competition on the job market. To them, this meant that jobs would be handed over to a white candidate, regardless of gender, versus a black male revealing the white supremacy existing in the community" (hooks 2000:99). According to hooks, an effective way of acquiring power could have been by resisting exploitation and oppression and/or to build political and economic structures to benefit women and men equally. Another way could have been to boycott by turning off electronics or to temporarily suspend shopping since women's fashion was one with the highest market. This could have addressed the problems the community was having such as having low paying jobs with dehumanizing conditions causing psychological exploitation. As time went on, more and more women had to enter the work force and begin at jobs such as these. If the problem would have been addressed since the beginning, this could have prevented bourgeois women who entered the work force to face conditions as such.
In Chapter 10, hooks addresses the root of the problem as parenting. She contrasts the ideas of motherhood between white women and black women. Some women, generally white, middle-class, college educated, argued that motherhood was a trap confining women to the home which forced them to do most of the household chores such as cleaning, cooking, and taking care of the children. Black women, however, viewed motherhood as a way to prevent women from entering the "world of paid work because [they had] always worked" (hooks 2000:133). For black women, work outside the home was often low paying and dehumanizing. This is why they viewed motherhood as a way to escape the degrading jobs outside of the home and take care of their children. hooks believes that motherhood was not given enough significance and value during the movement. It was always two opposing views: a woman was meant to bear children and nurture them and this was the main role of women or they would focus on empowering themselves and refusing to bear children for a while for the fear of having to be taking care of the children and fulfilling the expected women role. This makes it seems as though this is a woman's vocation in life. However, when it comes to parenting, men do not equally share roles. Both parents are equally important in a child's life. In order to have the men share the parenting job with women, he must "trade places with women part of the time" meaning he should know what he is doing. The biggest problem in parenting for males is that they were never taught to do basic tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and caring for the child. This is associated with society's expectations on gender roles. Men will only share parenting equally when they are taught that motherhood and fatherhood have the same importance and the same meaning. However, men are rarely introduced to this idea because of society norms. In their families, as they are growing up, they are not expected to perform anything that would be considering a woman's task. Similarly, when men are adults, women believe that they are better suited to raise children. Women tend to equate pregnancy to the "idea that women's parenting is superior to men's" (hooks 2000:137). Many women in the United States still believe that "men cannot parent effectively and should not even attempt to parent" (hooks 2000:140). Gender roles are quickly defined as a child. The media has a significant role in shaping children's views of women and men. In order to create effective fatherhood, hooks suggests to "act out the role of a caring parent with [a boy's] dolls" and provide the idea that parenting is for both genders; not necessarily suited for strictly women" (hooks 2000:141). Beginning when boys are young, fatherhood is set up in the future and the boys could be effective fathers.
- hooks, bell (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center (1st ed.). Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
- hooks, bell (2000). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. ISBN 978-0-89608-613-5.
- Springer, Kimberly (2005). Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980. Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-3493-3.