It is scary that a book published almost 15 years ago can be still so relevant and yet so controversial, on a topic such as the status of feminism in today’s society.
When I posted this picture on Instagram, it collected a few defensive comments from ill-informed (coincidentally male) folks. The sight of a small, brightly-coloured book with a kind, deliberately inclusive and hardly hostile title was apparently too much to handle. The very word “feminism” had raised their hackles.
Nor did they realise the irony of their remarks. On the first page of her Introduction, hooks relates the reactions she receives when telling people who she is and what she does. When she mentions the words “feminist theorist,” she hears the same ill-informed opinions: “When I ask these same folks about the feminist books or magazines they read, when I ask them about the feminist talks they have heard, about the feminist activists they know, they respond by letting me know that everything they know about feminism has come into their lives thirdhand.”
The eternal problem we face. Everyone seems to have an opinion on feminism, its aims, its history, its mistakes, its faults and its evils, and yet so few have bothered to skim anything that will educate them properly. How do you expect to learn about feminism through a patriarchal mainstream media? The irony is bitter.
In writing Feminism is for Everybody, hooks has given us a primer, a starting point, a foundational text. It is straightforward, short and easy to read. It tells those who have only come to know the word “feminism” through a mainstream media that is essentially patriarchal, because it is not radical, what the word really means. Where feminism has come from and where it still needs to go.
She says, “I had to write it because I kept waiting for it to appear, and it did not. And without it there was no way to address the hordes of people in this nation who are daily bombarded with anti-feminist backlash, who are being told to hate and resist a movement that they know very little about. There should be so many little feminist primers, easy to read pamphlets and books, telling us all about feminism, that this book would be just another passionate voice speaking out on behalf of feminist politics.”
I think this book is also for those who have labelled themselves feminists in the wake of “successful” mainstream celebrities claiming the title. This book is straightforward and easy to read, but it is rigorous. It comes from a woman who has a background in feminist theory, history and activism. She knows it is not just about “equality,” whatever that means. She will have no watered-down feminism. Her feminism is radical and intersectional because she sees that we cannot have a feminist vision without the destruction of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Hardly something these celebrities, who have profited from such a system, will ascribe to. She reminds us that feminism should be unpalatable, because it wants to disrupt the status quo. But in this short book, she also reminds us that we need it.
So, fifteen years on, we still need this book. Anti-feminists and new feminists jumping on the bandwagon alike.
“As all advocates of feminist politics know, most people do not understand sexism, or if they do, they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media. The feminism they hear about the most is portrayed by women who are primarily committed to gender equality – equal pay for equal work, and sometimes women and men sharing household chores and parenting. They see that these women are usually white and materially privileged.”
This is a kind of feminism that can fit into patriarchy. Economic power can become more “equal” so women can participate fully in capitalism without ever thinking deeply about gender, heteronormativity or race.
Recently, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop, when asked if she was a feminist, replied “I don’t find the need to self-describe in that way…It’s not a term that I find particularly useful these days.”
While there was an uproar, she’s right. She’s not a feminist. She is part of a government that, rather than ending sexist exploitation, is compounding it. She has benefited from a patriarchal system of domination and would rather uphold it than criticise. Why do we expect every woman in a position of power to identify as a feminist? Because the word has become virtually meaningless in mainstream culture. Hooks explains this:
“Lifestyle feminism ushered in the notion that there could be as many versions of feminism as there were women. Suddenly the politics was being slowly removed from feminism.”
And Mary Barfoot, in The Coming of Black Genocide, puts it in a way that certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouth: “There are white women, hurt and angry, who believed that the ‘70s women’s movement meant sisterhood, and who feel betrayed by escalatory women. By women who went back home to the patriarchy. But the women’s movement never left the father Dick’s side… There was no war. And there was no liberation. We got a share of genocide profits and we love it. We are Sisters of the Patriarchy, and true supporters of national and class oppression, Patriarchy in its highest form is Euro-imperialism on a world scale. If we’re Dick’s sister and want what he has gotten, then in the end we support that system that he got it all from.”
So, is feminism about women occupying more positions of power and privilege within a patriarchal capitalist system of oppression? Is this the idea of “equality” we want to embrace? Should we be happy with the small number of women CEOs and political representatives? Watering down feminism in this way has meant, as hooks says, that “in the ‘90s collusion with the existing social structure was the price of ‘women’s liberation.’”
Twenty years on this still seems to be the case. In making feminism palatable to the mainstream, dragging it against its will into an acceptance of feminism as “equality,” we are on the defensive. We start out by protesting, “No, it’s not anti-men!” In fact, that should be obvious to anyone who has bothered to look into the topic. But in an anti-feminist mass media, this must be the starting point.
Suddenly, these are the women who represent feminism. As hooks points out, “Radical white women tend not to be ‘represented,’ and, if represented at all, they are depicted as a fringe freak element. No wonder then that the ‘power feminism’ of the ‘90s offers wealthy white heterosexual women as the examples of feminist success.”Here we have feminism-lite. A feminism that slots nicely into the patriarchal status quo:
“Mainstream mass media has always chosen a straight woman to represent what the feminist movement stands for – the straighter the better. The more glamourous she is, the more her image can be used to appeal to men. Woman-identified women, whether straight, bisexual, or lesbian rarely make garnering male approval a priority in our lives. This is why we threaten the patriarchy. Lesbian women who have a patriarchal mindset are far less threatening to men than feminist women, gay or straight, who have turned their gaze and their desire away from the patriarchy, away from sexist men.”
Laurie Penny puts it perfectly, echoing the same sentiments hooks had fifteen years ago: “The feminism that sells is the sort of feminism that can appeal to almost everybody while challenging nobody, feminism that soothes, that speaks for and to the middle class, aspirational feminism that speaks of shoes and shopping and sugar-free snacks and does not talk about poor women, queer women, ugly women, transsexual women, sex workers, single parents, or anybody else who fails to fit the mould.”
Feminism that actually challenges the status quo, that is intersectional, cannot, as hooks argues, “be appropriated by transnational capitalism as yet another luxury product from the West women in other cultures must fight to have the right to consume.”
This means feminism isn’t about having “the answers.” If it is global, intersectional, aware of class, race, religion, age, and so many more, it must be about listening. Hooks does a great job of explaining briefly and lucidly while feminism must be anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. Rather than being about some vague notion of “equality,” this is an awareness of the historical and invasive formation of patriarchy. It is a complex, overwhelming, all-consuming collection of forces that is impossible to get our heads around.
Zillah Eisenstein also says: “Feminism(s) as transnational – imagined as the rejection of false race/gender borders and falsely constructed ‘other’ – is a major challenge to masculinist nationalism, the distortions of statist communism and ‘free’-market globalism. It is a feminism that recognises individual diversity, and freedom, and equality, defined through and beyond north/west and south/east dialogues.”
So, if capitalism and patriarchy are so intertwined that we can’t talk about feminism without talking about capitalism, we can’t water it down to a fight for equal pay. Hooks explains: “The truth remains that consumer capitalism was the force leading more women into the workforce. Given the depressed economy white middle-class families would be unable to sustain their class status and their lifestyles if women who had once dreamed solely of working as housewives had not chosen to work outside the home.”
I have long thought that feminism must be inherently pacifist as well, but I wasn’t able to clarify my ideas until I read hooks’ chapter in this book: “Ending Violence.” She says, “I am among those rare feminist theorists who believe that it is crucial for feminist movement to have as an overriding agenda ending all forms of violence.” All patriarchal violence – that is, violence that is an effort to dominate, to make a person or a group of people feel inferior – must be targeted by feminism. That includes sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, war, and bar fights. Patriarchy tells us violence is gendered masculine. It tells men that by being born male, they must imprint their superiority on the world. But patriarchy is complex. It positions men in a hierarchy even while telling them that by right of being male, they must assert their dominance. Hooks explains how violence, class and gender intersect in patriarchy: “Since masses of unemployed and working-class men do not feel powerful on their jobs within white supremacist patriarchy they are encouraged to feel that the one place where they will have absolute authority and respect is in the home.” In patriarchy, violence is a way of asserting your dominance, and even your identity. Violence is used to regain power and control because in a patriarchal society it is associated with strength, even while it is often condemned.
So, even while the media reports on domestic violence, while politicians speak out against it and organisations aim to “educate” us, this won’t be effective. Because, as hooks sees, “even though representations of domestic violence abound in mass media and discussions take place on every front, rarely does the public link ending male violence to ending male domination, to eradicating patriarchy. Most citizens of this nation still do not understand the link between male domination and male violence in the home… In mass media everyone raises the question of why this violence is taking place without linking it to patriarchal thinking.”
It is also true that “early on in feminist thinking activists often failed to liken male violence against women to imperialist militarism. This linkage was often not made because those who were against male violence were often accepting and even supportive of militarism. As long as sexist thinking socialises boys to be ‘killers,’ whether in imaginary good guy, bad guy fights or as soldiers in imperialism to maintain coercive power over nations, patriarchal violence against women and children will continue. In recent years as young males from diverse class backgrounds have committed horrendous acts of violence there has been national condemnation of these acts but few attempts to link this violence to sexist thinking.”
I am reminded of a recent debate in Australia in which Greens senator Larissa Waters endorsed the campaign “No Gender December” which shows the harm of gendered toys. She stated that “outdated stereotypes…feed into very serious problems such as domestic violence and the gender pay gap.”
Predictably there was outrage over this “political correctness.” But if dolls are designated as “girls’ toys” what are you saying about the traits of caring and nurturing? If superheroes and toy guns are “boys’ toys” how can we deny that physical strength and violence are gendered masculine in our culture? If boys cannot dress up in fairy outfits, what are you telling him about girls and femininity? That it’s “weak,” trivial, and that he best stay away from it at all costs or he will be “emasculated” (one of the most amusing words in the English language). Emotional intelligence, creativity, and interpersonal closeness are for girls, while physical strength, dominance and violence are for boys? Great.
Hooks provides an explanation that the general public, crying “political correctness,” may want to think about: “We do know that patriarchal masculinity encourages men to be pathologically narcissistic, infantile, and psychologically dependent on the privileges (however relative) that they receive simply for having been male. Many men feel that their lives are being threatened if these privileges are taken away, as they have structured no meaningful core identity.”
Come on. Do we want to keep sticking up for an outdated patriarchal masculinity when it makes men into people like this? What would we lose by slowly ungendering toys, so that children are seen as people rather than boys or girls?
Doesn’t hooks have a better solution? “Boys need healthy self-esteem. They need love. And a wise and loving feminist politics can provide the only foundation to save the lives of male children. Patriarchy will not heal them. If that were so they would all be well.”
I will delve into the second half of hooks’ book in the next couple of weeks.