Nov 17, 2011

Ain’t I A Woman by bell hooks

Ain’t I A Woman by bell hooks

bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism was first published in 1981, and it takes its title from Sojourner’s Truth famous speech from 1851. As hooks points out, Sojourner Truth is an example of an early black feminist campaigner who up until then had been erased from the history of feminism. One of the main arguments of Ain’t I a Woman is that “the struggle to end racism and the struggle to end sexism are naturally intertwined”, as both facets of human identity cannot be divorced; but hooks also deals extensively with racism within the feminist movement.

One of the things bell hooks does is draw attention to the racism inherent to the assumption that white experience equals universal experience. It is common to find books where “women’s history” is implicitly taken to mean “white women’s history”; it’s only if another group is discussed that ethnicity is specified. The feminist movement seems to be more inclusive now than it was in the early 1980’s (no doubt thanks to the work of bell hook and other activists over the past few decades), but in no way does this mean that racism has been eradicated or that Ain’t I a Woman is not still as relevant as ever.

For example, the original reading list for the Year of Feminism Classics did not include any books by non-Western women or women of colour. We were happy to correct this once it was pointed out to us (and one of the books we added was this one), and I like to think we wouldn’t make the same mistake again in the future. But the fact that this blind spot was at all possible is an excellent reminder of the relevancy of hooks’ points: we are trained to think that what is in fact a distorted and very limited picture of reality is natural and all-encompassing.

On a similar note, bell hooks highlights the fact that the word “woman” is taken to mean white woman, and the word “black” black men. This implicit reading of the terms reveals the fact that racist and sexist oppression are often conceptualised in terms of either/or; a conceptualisation that completely erases black women. This is what makes problematic comparisons between the status of women and “blacks” at all possible – and such comparisons are far from being a thing of the past.

The implications behind these readings of the terms tie in with racist and sexist stereotypes that date back to slavery and are still current today. These include the stereotypical image of the black man as a sexual predator and a threat to white women in particular; and of the black woman as either not properly feminine (an idea that has to do with the fact that black women were forced to do hard labour during slavery) or as hypersexual and universally available (which, also during slavery, was used as a justification for sexual exploitation). bell hooks draws links between these stereotypes and a devaluation of black women that continues until the present day.

Although Ain’t I a Woman predates Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work and the coining of the term “intersectionality” [pdf], it’s nevertheless one of the best illustrations of the concept I’ve come across so far. In very accessible writing, hooks communicates ideas that are crucial to an accurate understanding of contemporary feminism, sociology, and cultural studies. Ain’t I a Woman invites readers to question their assumptions, and hopefully it will help those of us who are privileged enough to remain unaware of these issues to avoid some of the most common racist traps in the future.

Memorable bits:
Although the women’s movement motivated hundreds of women to write on the woman question, it failed to generate in depth critical analyses of the black female experience. Most feminists assumed that problems black women faced were caused by racism – not sexism. The assumption that we can divorce the issue of race from sex, or sex from race, has so clouded the vision of American thinkers and writers on the “woman” question that most discussions of sexism, sexist oppression, or woman’s place in society are distorted, biased, and inaccurate. We cannot form an accurate picture of woman’s status by simply calling attention to the role assigned females under patriarchy. More specifically, we cannot form an accurate picture of the status of black women by simply focusing on racial hierarchies.

Sexist historians and sociologists have provided the American public with a perspective on slavery in which the most cruel and dehumanizing impact of slavery in the lives of black people was that black men were stripped of their masculinity, which they argue resulted in the dissolution and overall disruption of any familiar structure. (…) To suggest that black men were dehumanized solely as a result of not being able to be patriarchs implies that the subjugation of black women was essential to the black male’s development of a positive self-concept, an idea that only served to support a sexist social order.

It in no way diminishes our concern about racist oppression for us to acknowledge that our human experience is so complex that we cannot understand it if we only understand racism. Fighting against sexist oppression is important for black liberation, for as long as sexism divides black women and men we cannot concentrate our energies on resisting racism.
They read it too: Eclectic/Eccentric, Howling Frog Books



  1. Cool -- I've been on a bit of a feminist kick lately, so might definitely add this to the TBR pile. Thanks!

  2. Really interesting post, especially with that Slut Walk link in there. Thanks so much for highlighting resources that could expand my understanding.

  3. Oh I love love love bell hooks! She is so amazingly good. I like Kimberlé Crenshaw too but she just doesn't have the passion of hooks. Lovely post!

  4. What a coincidence! A friend of mine just finished this book and it initiated a very interesting discussion with friends over beer last weekend (how intellectual are we? :P). You'd be surprised how often the argument "It's not possible to fight *all* battles at once" came up...

    The only complaint my friend had was the lack of footnotes - maybe it was a problem of her edition?

  5. This sounds like an important book to read. I'm very intrigued. I haven't done well at keeping up with the Year of Feminist Reading as I'd intended.

  6. I've only read excerpts and have been wanting to read the complete thing for a while. I don't think I'll have problems keeping my brain occupied after uni ;)

  7. Oh man I LOVE intersectionality! This book is really fantastic and I should finish it soon and get my own post written as well. Great review - and so great to point out how it affected our own project even. I think another issue, as hooks says, is the lack of books even about women of color and feminism when it comes to classic texts.

  8. I read hooks's All About Love a few years ago and it totally changed the way I think about what "love" means and how it intersects with behavior. I've been meaning to read more of her work ever since then, but somehow have never gotten around to it. Given what a classic this book is, it's high on my list, though. Loved your post and the quotes you pulled, particularly her point about the sexism of sociologists' emphasis on how slavery deprived black men of their "rightful" place in the patriarchal structure. Fascinating.

  9. bell hooks! bell hooks! bell hooks! bell hooks! I have the world's hugest crush on her. One of my college friends met her at a convention or something and said she was very nice and warm and friendly. I need to renew my acquaintance with bell hooks, it has been way long since I read anything by her.

  10. I have never even heard of a book about this subject, and I wonder what rock I have been hiding under! It sounds fascinating and like something that I would like to explore further. Very thought provoking review.

  11. Wow. This sounds like an absolute *must must must* read. I suspect my eyes will be opening in many a way.

  12. I was really enjoying this one, and then suddenly it went on the back burner, and I haven't picked it back up since. I'll definitely go back to it one day though.

  13. I should read this one; the only hooks I have read was too academic or something.

  14. Fancy Terrible: In that case this would definitely be an excellent choice!

    Jodie: You're most welcome. You do the same for me.

    Jill: Yes, her passion really did come through. I can't wait to read more of her work! I'm thinking of picking Feminism is for Everyone next, just because I love the title (and the idea) so much.

    Alex: Sadly I don't think I would be, as I've witnessed similar conversations so many times! This edition had annotations at the end, but it was a 10th anniversary edition and may be different from the original one.

    Rebecca: You're definitely not alone - I haven't been able to keep up either despite being one of the hosts! Anyway, do read this when you have the chance :)

    Bina: You definitely won't!

    Amy: I can't wait to read your post! And yes, very true about the lack of books.

    Emily: You've made me extremely curious! Off to see if the library has All About Love...

    Jenny: Between you and Jill and Emily, it definitely sounds like I should read more of her stuff asap! She's definitely crush-worthy: so smart, and such a good communicator too.

    Zibilee: Sadly I don't think you need to live under a rock at all to miss a book like this - like hooks herself says, part of the problem is that perspectives like hers never make it to the mainstream. But hopefully that's beginning to change.

    Debi: As mine were! I'm not sure what you're covering this year and whether it would be appropriate, but I can imagine this being an excellent choice for homeschooling.

    Trisha: That happens to me too sometimes!

    Care: This one is still a bit scholarly, but I think she also writes with a general audience in mind. Besides, she first wrote it as an undergraduate (how amazing is that?).


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