In the introduction to “Feminism is for Everybody,” African American scholar bell hooks describes her discovery of feminism as an opposition to “the strongest patriarchal voice in my life — my mother’s voice” (Feminism is for Everybody, X). Identifying the internalized sexism that pervades social and cultural values, hooks can grapple with feminism in its particularities. To be able to completely eradicate this internalized patriarchal narrative, feminism must acknowledge the realities of race, ethnicity, sexuality and income. To be inclusive (and consequently effective) feminism must be radical.
Growing up in a small town in Kentucky in the Southern United States, hooks felt the need for feminist discourse early on. Despite being one of five sisters, sexist rhetoric and gender roles were prominent in her early learning and life at home.
hooks describes the beginnings of her academic and discursive feminist thinking in her second year of college, when she began studying at Stanford University. Having transferred from a small women’s college, Stanford was a stark environment for female scholars. Women were much less vocal in large groups, and hooks felt that her ability and her knowledge were constantly scrutinized — particularly as one of few black women on campus.
Despite this bleak beginning, there was a radical change in the academic atmosphere as feminist thinking swept the campus in the early 70s. Women were louder, more authoritative and better understood. Students and teachers alike demanded better policies and practices for the inclusion of women, but the movement quickly became divisive.
White, upper middle-class women were the faces of the feminist movement, and a regression to patriarchal ideals of competition and domination allowed women of privilege to gain (albeit limited) equality to white men of their status — but other women, minoritized women, were left behind. It then, at age 19, that hooks started to write her first book.
Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism describes the experience of racially and socially divisive feminism, and the need for a movement which radically overturned the “patriarchal assumption that the powerful should rule over the weak” (Feminism is for Everybody, 16). We all have to eradicate internalized sexism in order to confront a radically unequal society. In a supportive, progressive sisterhood, no one can be left behind. Women of privilege must actively use their social influence to support the work of minoritized women.
When she published Ain’t I a Woman in 1981, hooks, born Gloria Jean Watkins, adopted her pen name to honour the legacy of outspoken women in her family. Borrowing the name of her maternal great-grandmother, hooks uses lowercase letters to bring attention to her work, rather than to her as an individual.
After finishing her undergraduate studies in English Literature at Stanford, hooks completed her MA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Going on to become an acclaimed professor at various American universities, hooks has published over three dozen books of critical theory, essays, poetry and children’s literature. She has received numerous awards for her writing, including the American Book Award. In the 1980s, she started Sisters of Yam, a group to support and celebrate black women.
In 2014, she helped to establish the bell hooks Institute in Berea, Kentucky. The institute displays and celebrates hooks’ work, as well as influential artefacts, combining academia with public discourse on intersectional feminism.
hooks’ later work focuses on accessible and engaging feminist practices — acknowledging that restricting feminism to spaces for higher education and formal, academic practices makes it inaccessible for most people — underprivileged, minoritized women in particular. She aims to use simple, engaging language that speaks to a variety of audiences — including young children and men.
Targeting non-traditional feminist allies, she says, also requires radical thinking. As a man, searching for feminist masculinity is incredibly difficult within the confines of patriarchal thinking: “how can you become what you cannot imagine?” (Feminism is for Everybody, 70). She continues, “no significant body of feminist literature has appeared that addresses boys, that lets them know how they can construct an identity that is not rooted in sexism” (Feminism is for Everybody, 70). hooks constantly pushes the boundaries of identity that divide and weaken the feminist movement, developing a shared vision of a more inclusive, accessible future for feminist ideology.
Much of hooks’ work reiterates that a partial reformation of the system within which we currently exist is not enough. We must look beyond the binds of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy for a future of possibility and justice. Together, we can use our anger, our compassion and our individuality to create a better future for all.
By Katie Clarke, WAVE Intern
“About bell hooks.” The bell hooks Institute. http://www.bellhooksinstitute.com/#/about
“bell hooks.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/bell-hooks
Goodman, Elyssa. “How bell hooks Paved the Way for Intersectional Feminism.” Them., March 12, 2019. https://www.them.us/story/bell-hooks
hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody. Pluto Press, 2000.
hooks, bell. “Postmodern Blackness.” Postmodern Culture, vol. 1, no. 1, 1990.