What Feminism Is and What It Should Be (with a little help from bell hooks)

This is a section from my Diversity paper (intro here) about what it means to be a “good woman” or a “good wife” and why a few women seemed to feel the need to coach me toward their idea of it.  All comments/ideas/responses welcomed.

These contemporary myths surrounding feminism lead people to take on varying views of feminism, which can lead to confusion when two would-be feminists interact.  The woman who told me that I was too bold and too independent to be a good wife did, in fact, consider herself a feminist.  She had hyphenated her last name, keeping hers first in the order, and going by her maiden name within the professional sphere.  It wasn’t until I was reading an official document of hers, a few months after I met her, that I realized she had hyphenated her name.  However, she had completely situated herself within the traditional role of a good wife to her husband, and wasn’t afraid to tell me to do the same.  I, however, thought that by keeping my maiden name, I would be symbolically asserting the fact that I am my own person, regardless of my marital status.

Why are there these different views of feminism?  Why was mine so different than hers?  In her article “Feminism: A Transformational Politic,” bell hooks writes that “[m]ultiple and contradictory definitions of feminism create confusion and undermine the effort to construct feminist movement so that it addresses everyone” (713)*.  She suggests that the female experience of being dominated within a patriarchal society is not entirely universal, hence the creation of varying ways of seeing the feminist movement.  Feminists, or at least white, middle-class feminists, tend to assume that the patriarchal society is the root of the feminist agenda, and “Such an assumption has fostered the notion that elimination of sexist oppression would necessarily lead to the eradication of all forms of domination” (710).  Focusing solely on the sexism that exists in our society does not help the racism, classism, ageism, or any other form of discrimination that leads to domination.  hooks suggests that feminists need to look at other forms of domination and how they play into those forms before anyone can truly be free of oppression, and we all need to recognize “…that we all have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized)” (712).  In other words, no matter how much we feel we agree with the equality of all humans, and no matter how much we fight institutional oppression, we can, and do, still oppress others on a smaller scale.  We can identify with activists all we want, and share common political goals, but unless we take into account all forms of oppression and work against them in both large- and small-scale ways, we will never accomplish said common goal.  In hooks’ view, my coworker could have called herself a feminist, and asserted certain legal positions a feminist might take on – like not taking her husband’s last name – but could still function as an oppressor to me and my independence on a smaller scale.

If this is the case, why don’t people who hold common political goals work together on a small scale?  If this woman and I held similar large-scale political views, why couldn’t we coexist  as feminists on a smaller scale?  According to hooks, “[f]ear of painful confrontation often leads women and men active in feminist movement to avoid rigorous critical encounter, yet if we cannot engage dialectically in a committed, rigorous, humanizing manner, we cannot hope to change the world” (715).  This is perhaps why our relationship simply deteriorated at the end of my tenure at the school.  We were both afraid to sit down and talk critically about what had ensued between us – maybe because we were afraid of being hurt, or maybe because we were afraid of questioning our own belief system.  Either way, the lack of critical communication between us regarding our feminist statuses most definitely lead to the collapse of our friendship.  In order to prevent this from happening in the future if and when I find myself in this situation again, hooks recommends that we, as women, “want to begin … seriously addressing ourselves, not solely in relation to men, but in relation to an entire structure of domination of which patriarchy is one part” (716).  Women can, and do, dominate other women for various reasons, even if they hold the same large-scale political beliefs.  In order to avoid the dilemma that results from several different views of the feminist agenda, we must look at how domination and oppression plays out between everyone, not just between men and women.  We must, also, “learn how to be in solidarity, how to struggle with one another” (716), not against.

*Full citation: hooks, bell. “Feminism: A Transformational Politic.” Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study. Ed. Paula S. Rothenberg. New Jersey: Worth Publishers, 2004. 710-717.

2 thoughts on “What Feminism Is and What It Should Be (with a little help from bell hooks)

  1. Dawn. on

    I don’t know what to say except: this is very, very good. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read so far on your blog.

    The only thing that rubbed me the wrong way was your correlation of patriarchy with sexism exclusively. Patriarchy as a social system is deeply, deeply heteronormative and classist to me, as well as sexist.

  2. Ashley on

    Dawn,

    Thank you! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog.

    I reread this post and, you’re right, I do lean toward an exclusive correlation of patriarchy and sexism here. I did this inadvertently, I promise. Definitely a cause for a revision of this section. In the article I reference in this post, bell hooks actually argues that patriarchy and power are at play across all forms of oppression – class, race, gender, sexuality, etc. I focused on the gender issue here because I didn’t want to get off-focus in my paper, but I do think that all forms of oppression deserve a nod here. Thank you for bringing this to my attention!

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