Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks: a review by Charles Dickey [50BPT]

Today's entry is a cross-post from Fiercely Independent. Charles Dickey was born near Columbus, Ohio in 1976. He has lived in Ohio, South Carolina, Georgia, and Washington State, and has worked as a bookseller, crisis phone worker, and environmental restoration technician. He is currently living and working in Virginia, where he reads, writes, sells books, and needs a jobby-job to provide steady income. He previously contributed to 50BPT with a review of Ceremony, by Leslie Silko.
Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks

Twenty-five years ago, bell hooks offered this book to the public, her insights plain on the page and capable of blazing a trail through the minds of those with a capacity for critical consciousness. Perhaps it’s natural that a book like this molders in the public sphere, buried under the millions of volumes of books of every genre and academic discipline and popular trend that our society, bloated on information and entertainment, produces. Or perhaps that’s not what happened to this book at all; a quick search on shows that the 2nd edition of this book, published in 2000, is currently ranked “#21,539 in Books”, which is actually quite good, considering amazon’s cataloged rankings reach down to 6 or 7 million. Why then have the critical and incredibly insightful passages of this book not manifested in our shared public life? Where is the “Revolutionary Parenting” called for in chapter 10? How come we have still not rethought the nature of work as a society (chapter 7)? Why do we still think largely of revolutions as critical moments in time or in terms of violence, when in her conclusive chapter 12 hooks has voiced what we all should know to be true:
Revolutions can be and usually are initiated by violent overthrow of an existing political structure. In the United States, women and men committed to feminist struggle know that we are far outpowered by our opponents, that they not only have access to every type of weaponry known to humankind, but they have both the learned consciousness to do and accept violence as well as the skill to perpetuate it. Therefore, this cannot be the basis for feminist revolution in this society. Our emphasis must be on cultural transformation: destroying dualism, eradicating systems of domination. Our struggle will be gradual and protracted. Any effort to make feminist revolution here can be aided by the example of liberation struggles led by oppressed people globally who resist formidable powers.
Our society is as fragmented, competitive, and unable to meet human needs as ever. When we look around us in 2009, we see a variation on the same post-WW II, post-Vietnam theme that plagued us when hooks first published this book in 1984. An overwhelming crunch of information, entertainment, and compulsive consumerism perpetuates the atomization of the individual and works to keep us alienated and isolated from any meaningful sense of community; moreover, it holds us as slaves of a kind to an unjust economic order. hooks wrote the book on countering our alienation, beginning to struggle against that atomization, and working together towards an emancipation of ourselves along with all people–and this is that book. Reading it is not enough. We must act to bring about social change, and before we can act intelligently and strategically, we must communicate meaningfully with each other. To do that, we could take our cues from early feminist consciousness-raising groups.
Yet even in 2009, after all of the gains of the 1970s and the solidification of those gains in our culture, feminist movement remains at the margin of society. The type of feminist movement that hooks advocates in this volume is revolutionary in the sense of that protracted struggle mentioned in the quote above. It is revolutionary in its character of never arriving, but always recognizing that there is more work to do to create a joyful, creative, and just society. In the following passage, hooks offers a perspective on parenting that I think generalizes out to our culture of authority and domination, which whether it includes women in its hierarchies of exploitation and force or not, remains the same:
Many parents teach children that violence is the easiest way (if not the most acceptable way) to end a conflict and assert power. By saying things like “I’m only doing this because I love you” while they are using physical abuse to control children, parents are not only equating violence with love, they are also offering a notion of love synonymous with passive acceptance, the absence of explanation, and discussions. In many homes small children and teenagers find their desire to discuss issues with parents sometimes viewed as a challenge to parental authority or power, as an act of “unlove.” Force is used by the parent to meet the perceived challenge or threat. Again, it needs to be emphasized that the idea that is is correct to use abuse to maintain authority is taught to individuals by church, school, and other institutions.”
The expectation of “passive acceptance, the absence of explanation, and discussions” is on full display in the corporate capitalist culture of America, and it is even further displayed outward through the imposition of that model across the globe as international corporations continue to “develop” the world, profiting as they do so. But I digress.
The point hooks makes with this collection of essays is that, while the gains of feminism may be clear and visible to white, middle- or upper-class professional women who desire to participate in an economics rooted in corporate capitalism, the failures of feminist movement are clear and visible to women of color and lower-class women, and possibly to men of color and lower-class, or otherwise marginalized men. Feminism, as hooks perceived it back in 1984, had largely become a movement whereby privileged white women declared their independence from men in order to self-actualize as individuals striving within a competitive culture–and this remains true today. Feminism, in short, has been stalled; feminism became stunted and has been easily incorporated into the existing economic structures of hierarchy, which it began its career rebelling against.
hooks suggests that feminist movement needs to be rethought and re-engaged, and encourages us to build an inclusive movement in which “revolutionary impulses must freely inform our theory and practice” so that we can come to come together as women and men, and as human beings opposed to classism, racism, sexism, and all forms of violence, “to transform our present reality.”


  1. Great review! I've always wanted to read bell hooks but she always ended up on the back burner of my lengthy "to read" list. But now she is moved right up to the top!

  2. Thank you; I'm glad the review has inspired you to read hooks. I think she is one of the most insightful social critics I've come across. What I especially like about her is that she does more than critique; she suggests alternatives. I would also recommend a later book of hers, All About Love (2001).


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