Feb 27, 2012

Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks

Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks

bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics was the opening choice for the second edition of the Year of Feminist Classic reading project. As this month’s host, Amy, explains in her introduction, Feminism is for Everybody promised to be the perfect book to “highlight that feminism, and this project, is for everyone”: that even though, as last year’s reading project showed us, the feminist movement has a history of not always being inclusive of anything other than white, middle-class, cisgendered or able-bodied perspectives, we can address these gaps without throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

Early in the book, hooks explains that she wrote Feminism is for Everybody because she wanted to created the kind of short, accessible introduction to feminism she’s always wished she could recommend to others:
I want to have in my hand a little book so that I can say, read this book, and it will tell you what feminism is, what the movement is about. I want to be holding in my hand a concise, fairly easy to read and understand book; not a long book, not a book thick with hard to understand jargon and academic language, but a straightforward, clear book – easy to read without being simplistic.
Her definition of feminism follows the same simple, accessible, and straight to the point approach: hooks defines it as “a movement to end sexist oppression”. As Feminism is for Everybody progresses, it becomes clear that she intends this definition to be both inclusive and politically committed, with an element of activism at the forefront. This is, I think, what she means by “passionate politics”. And as MJ explains in her excellent comment on the Year of Feminist Classics discussion post, this doesn’t necessarily mean that if you identify as a feminist you’re required to
be out in the street raising banners. It can be as simple as not laughing or responding to sexist jokes, or those that prop up rape culture. It can be actively examining your language and purging it of gendered slurs or idioms.
hooks emphasises living according to our principles in whatever ways are accessible to us – after all, every little bit helps.

I love bell hooks because she never hesitates to ask difficult and challenging questions, but at the same time she never gives up on people. She sets high standards without shutting anybody out and truly believes that we can overcome racism, classism, male privilege, etc. to come together for a common goal.

I was particularly interested in the perspective on men and feminism hooks offers in Feminism is for Everybody because it addresses questions that have been on my mind over the past few weeks. At one point she says:
No significant body of feminist literature has appeared that addresses boys, that lets them known how they can construct an identity that is not rooted in sexism. Anti-sexist men have done little education for critical consciousness which includes a focus on boyhood, especially the development of adolescent males. As a consequence of this gap, now that the discussion about the raising of boys is receiving national attention, feminist perspectives are rarely if ever part of the discussion. Tragically, we are witnessing a resurgence of harmful misogynist assumptions that mothers cannot raise healthy sons, that boys “benefit” from patriarchal militaristic notions of masculinity which emphasise discipline and obedience to authority. 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 have so many thoughts about this paragraph that I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, I love the last bit. Secondly, I think things have changed in the past decade or so when it comes to the existence of a significant body of feminist literature addressing non-patriarchal expressions of masculinity. I agree with hooks that this literature is important – as someone who wrote an entire MA dissertation on how adherence to strict definitions of hegemonic masculinity might influence teenagers’ attitudes towards reading, I’m well aware of the importance of adding feminist voices to these debates. However, this doesn’t mean I believe that it’s legitimate for people to come into feminist spaces and demand that feminists spend 50% of their time campaigning on behalf of boys and men. (Yes, I realise that this is probably the tenth time I link to this post. Clearly I like it a lot.)

There is a widespread tendency for issues to only be taken seriously if we emphasise the fact that they also affect men, and that’s part of the whole problem. Still, I don’t want to dismiss the idea that patriarchy hurts men too, because no matter how much of a cliché it has become, it also happens to be true. The only thing I dislike is how this idea is sometimes used as an excuse for drawing attention away from long ignored issues that are specific to women, or for turning feminist conversations into replicas of the rest of the world: conversations in which men always come first.

There has been lot of debate over the years about whether the kind of questioning of hegemonic masculinity hooks discusses should fall under the feminism umbrella, or whether it should be part of a completely separate movement. I find hooks’ approach useful because it acknowledges that these are dimension of the same problem; and also because I worry that divorcing the two completely will only lead to more misogynistic train wrecks such as Men’s Rights Activism. I really like the fact that hooks’ vision of feminism leaves room for both.

I’ll end this post by answering Amy’s questions about whether or not I think Feminism is for Everybody does what bell hooks hoped: I’m not sure if this is the first book on feminism I would personally choose to hand to someone completely new to the topic. Despite hooks’ attempts to keep it free of jargon, this is a book that relies on a certain level of previous knowledge about what feminist is and of where it has historically gone wrong, as well as on a pre-existent interest in how it can go further. This makes it, to me, a more rewarding book than a strictly 101 text would be, but I’m not sure how accessible I’d have found it ten years ago. For this reason, I think that books like The Equality Illusion or Reclaiming the F Word (which unfortunately I never got around to reviewing) might work better for the purposes hooks had in mind - and they have the additional advantage of being more recent. But Feminism is for Everybody is nevertheless a great book to recommend to young or not so young feminists.

Other interesting bits:
No anti-feminist backlash has been as detrimental to the well-being of children as societal disparagement of single mothers. In a culture which holds the two-parent patriarchal family in higher esteem than any other arrangement, all children feel emotionally insecure when their family does not measure up to the standard. A utopian vision of the patriarchal family remains intact despite all the evidence which proves that the well-being of children is no more secure in the dysfunctional male-headed household than in the dysfunctional female-headed household. Children need to be raised in loving environments. Whenever domination is present love is lacking. Loving parents, be they single or coupled, gay or straight, headed by males or females, are more likely to raise healthy, happy children with sound self-esteem.

Yet even when large numbers of feminist activists adopted a perspective which included race, gender, class and nationally, the white “power feminists” continued to project an image of feminism that linked and links women’s equality with imperialism. Global women’s issues like forces female circumcision, sex clubs in Thailand, the veiling of women in Africa, India, the Middle East, and Europe, the killing of female children in China, remain important concerns. However feminist women in the West are still struggling to decolonise feminist thinking and practice so that these issues can be addressed in a manner that does not reinscribe Western imperialism. Usually these countries are depicted as “barbaric and uncivilised”, the sexism there portrayed as more brutal and dangerous to women than the sexism here in the United States.
You can visit the Year of Feminist Classis blog for other readers’ thoughts on this book.

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. I just added this to my wishlist yesterday and now want to read it even more! I'm really interested in the 'mothers can't raise healthy boys' bit, but others too and have been looking for a general book on the subject.

  2. Wonderful review, Ana. I will order this as well. I like the idea that every little bit counts this means that those little daily battles I fight which get me into a lot of trouble, will still help. This may sound a bit cryptic but I might write a post on these issues in a little while - it's basically about sexism in the work place that has so many different faces that people do not even recognize all of them. My approach is to comment, to not just stay quiet anymore. This may not seem like much but it makes people think.

  3. I agree hooks has a lot of jargon but she covers the issues so thoroughly and intelligently I would still go for her for an introduction to the field. Re the bit about boys, she has an article about rap music that is excellent and points out that the attitudes boys have, as expressed through music (and accompanying videos) are very influential, and as such, deserve a great deal more attention by those trying to effect change.

  4. I have this book out of the library and have been meaning to get to it. You already answered one of my questions, which is that it may not be the right book to give my kids, who make jokes about feminism because they get irritated by the no-sense-of-humor strident tone of some of the old-school stuff.

  5. Just had a long conversation with my trainer this morning about the rap culture and the effect it has on young boys...drugs, women and money. My teenage daughter is no picnic these days, and is really hard to keep her on the path, but my son isn't any easier. i'm not sure if I would have ever labeled myself as a feminist, but I am. Some of the books you review intimidate me, but this one sounds like a perfect place to start.

  6. This was the first book I ordered for my upcoming Women's Month display at the library :). It's been a while since I've read it (and my copy seems to have disappeared), so I'll probably be borrowing it myself.

  7. I know you've talked about it in other posts, but I think that a lot of your (and the author's) points are related to what people think about when they hear the word "feminism". Currently it's stock-full of stereotypes and misunderstandings. IMHO, changing that would be half-way there to making it more inclusive.

    I remember when we first started dating, I said something and my boyfriend laughed and said "you're a feminist!" and I looked at him surprised and said "aren't you?!". Lots of people (including him at the time) seems to think that it's all about putting women in power and not about equality. We actually had to go to the dictionary for him to be persuaded of the real meaning of the word.

    If most boys and men believe in equality, why are they so afraid to be called a feminists?

  8. Joanna: I look forward to hearing what you think!

    Caroline: I can't wait to read your post. Speaking up takes a lot of effort and courage, and I admire those who do it so much. I mean, I think it's completely legitimate to sometimes feel that you can't put yourself in that place emotionally or deal with all the questions or baffled looks that follow and therefore deciding to keep quiet - goodness knows that's been me on several occasions where I witnessed sexism at its ugliest. But that only makes me even more grateful to the women who DO say something.

    Jill: I actually think hooks managed to keep the book free of jargon just fine, but some of what she says seems to assume the reader has previous knowledge. Or maybe it's just me :P Still, I'd definitely put it in a "feminism for beginners" reading list, and I completely agree that she explains things extremely well. Also, the article about rap music and culture sounds so interesting!

    Jeanne: I didn't think it would be the ideal first book, but then again, Jill above disagrees :P I look forward to hearing what you think.

    Sandy: bell hooks is definitely not intimidating, and that's part of what I love about her. Rap culture is so complicated complicated. I wish I could find a good book to read about it.

    Gricel: That sounds like a great display! Enjoy your re-read :)

    Alex: I know what you mean, but I strongly suspect that if we replaced the term with something new, that something new would acquire a negative connotation in no time at all. As for men hesitating to call themselves feminists, I've actually just read an interesting post about it by a male book blogger. Would love to hear your thoughts!

  9. Ana, I find your explanation of this book better than the book. And I still am not sure why I didn't embrace it as I felt I *should*. Thank you once again for making me THINK.

  10. Ana, I find your explanation of this book better than the book. And I still am not sure why I didn't embrace it as I felt I *should*. Thank you once again for making me THINK.

  11. I bet this would be the perfect place for a feminist newbie to start, and that excites me, because often I feel behind the curve and not intelligent enough to catch on. I also wonder why bell hooks doesn't capitalize her name? Was that already addressed, and I missed it?

  12. I know I say this every time anyone says anything about bell hooks but I LOVE HER SO HARD. She's so sensible and articulate and awesome. I remain deeply jealous of the girls in my gender studies class who met her at a convention in Washington DC one time. They had pictures with her and they said she was really nice and friendly and welcoming.

  13. Care: There's no such thing as "should"! Sometimes a book just doesn't connect with us even though at first glance it seems all the right ingredients are there. I'm glad you enjoyed my post :)

    Zibilee: I wondered the same at first! "bell hooks" is a name she adopted in homage to her grandmother, but to differentiate herself from her she decided not to capitalize it.

    Jenny: I think I'd seen you tell that story before, but I DEFINITELY don't mind you telling it again because it always makes me smile :D It's so wonderful when people you admire turn out to be every bit as lovely as you hoped in person.

  14. I'm really glad I wrote my review before you did, otherwise I'd probably never post mine! This is so great and thoughtful. I love the links you provided, too.

    I thought that each of the chapters had one or more strong, powerful ideas, but they just didn't go far enough or weren't fleshed out enough for me. I was left hungry for more, and wishing that hooks had sacrificed a bit of readability and brevity of some more substance.

    "Patriarchy will not heal them. If that were so they would all be well."

    Yes, I loved that bit too. So smack-you-in-the-face obvious, but the patriarchy wants to blame it on mothers.

    As far as that comment of mine you quoted, I'm glad you found it useful. I debated whether or not to post it, because it does seem like so little to ask people to do. But then, it's those little things, like realizing how often certain words are used, that can really open your eyes to the sexism that is everywhere. It gets to be a lot sometimes. I'm so glad that I've found other like minded people in the blogosphere, because the struggle can sometimes seem quite lonely.

    Ugh. Didn't mean to end on such a downer. Let's fix that: hypoallergenic potty trained puppies for everyone!

  15. I need to read this one and the others you mention here. I have been a feminist forever (kind of joking, but not really). I've had a very strong feminist viewpoint since I was about 11. I'm sad to say that outside of a college course I took I have read little of the literature and I really need to!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.