“Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.”
So begins Feminism is for Everybody, a pithy and accessible introduction to feminism by bell hooks. In an era when the general population can’t seem to agree on what feminism is or does or if it even exists, hooks’ task is indeed monumental – and yet, she manages in only 100 pages to clearly lay out the history of modern American feminism and to explain where our misconceptions about it come from. What began as a revolutionary movement – where women from all classes met to discuss women’s issues and call for systematic social and political changes – has been subverted by the media and left behind by privileged (generally white) women for a kind of “lifestyle feminism,” in which women embrace the spoils of feminism (such as increased economic mobility for certain women) without confronting their own internalized sexism, and without calling for a revolutionary overhaul of our patriarchal society. That is to say: sexism is a system that both men and women participate in. hooks stresses that, in such a system (in which there’s necessarily a ruler and the ruled), even feminist men and women can support oppression, particularly of women of color and of poor women. While a large academic feminist canon now exists, it remains the province of educated, privileged feminists, and hooks calls for a return to something like the “consciousness-raising sessions” of the 60s and 70s – a return to productive discussions about feminism that are accessible to people from all walks of life.
Mia: I hate to make this this one of those types of reviews, but I really can’t recommend this book enough. Lindsay and I are already discussing plans to have it airdropped to the people who need it most, who are (wait for it) everybody. Seriously, I’ll lend you my copy. I think there’s so much fear about talking about feminism because people don’t have a good definition of it or they feel like they don’t have the right vocabulary or don’t know enough of the history. All of these things ARE important, so I’m glad hooks can provide that in 100 pages, but I’m also glad she stresses that feminism shouldn’t be relegated to the ivory towers of academia. There’s no mention of the Internet in the book — which was written in 2000, so I guess that’s admissible — but I’m obviously a huge proponent of using blogging to show people how feminism is relevant to their lives.
There’s so much in this book, but what really stood out to me was hooks’ distinction between revolutionary feminists and reformist feminists (aka “lifestyle feminists”) and the idea that feminism does stand for something specific and isn’t just a catch-all ideology for women born after a certain date who want to earn as much as men. And I realized that I don’t want reform; I don’t want to jam some feminism into an inherently sexist system — I want revolution; I want a system that is fundamentally anti-sexist. I mean, the term “revolution” is so steeped in images of militarism and also imagines of earnest white kids at liberal arts schools, that I think I had stopped bothering to understand what it means. Certainly, I halfheartedly dabbled in leftist politics in college, but I definitely relate to Lindsay’s assertion from yesterday that living in D.C. can make one become extremely disillusioned and apathetic about mainstream politics. So for hooks to say that “feminist politics is necessarily radical” is a big wake-up call for me — I realized that a) as an impassioned feminist, I’m not actually apathetic about politics and that I can use feminism as a lens to consider political structure, and that b) “radical” isn’t so far-flung after all. Ironically enough, after our rousing discussion about anti-sexism that turned into a tentative discussion about anti-capitalism, I was seized with an urge to go to Burger King — which was ultimately regretful, largely for nutritional reasons and for the fact that my purse still smells like french fries. But! Baby steps. As hooks says, the first step to changing or dismantling a system is recognizing the ways in which you, personally, contribute to that system.
Lindsay: As Mia has already insinuated: upon finishing this book, we discussed the logistics of renting a couple of airplanes and dropping this book at random from the sky. It turned out to be out of our blog’s budgetary range (what put us over the edge were the tiny parachutes we’d need to affix to each book), but the sentiment remains: everybody should read this. If you’re a guy looking to get a foundation on how to talk comfortably about feminism, this book is a great place to start. If you’re a girl who can’t quite articulate the ways in which you feel society hasn’t dealt you a fair hand, this book will help you recognize and express them. Or, even if you’re pretty well versed in feminist theory, chances are bell hooks is going to lay something out over the course of this book that you’ve never been able to conceptualize in such simple and clear terms. Though her inclination towards the universal sometimes leaves you wishing for more concrete examples, and the lucid way hooks explains feminist theory is totally refreshing.
hooks covers a ton of ground over the course of the text, and it’d be impossible to outline everything she says. Here are two things that struck me in particular: First, I love the extent to which she rails against the academization of feminism and how inaccessible that has made it feel to many people. She says that feminism “became and remains a privileged discourse available to those among us who are highly literate, well-educated and materially privileged…Masses of people have not rejected the message; they do not know what the message is.” In a word: yes. I also found incredibly valuable hooks’ distinction between reformist feminists and revolutionary feminists — something that seems so obvious when you stop and think about it, but often doesn’t get broken down in such clear terms. Reformist feminists (who were mostly the type the media chose to focus rather narrowly on in the feminist movement of the 70s) “want women to gain equality with men in the existing system.” Revolutionary feminists, however, “want to transform that system to bring an end to patriarchy and sexism.” It seems like such a small distinction, but I’ve found that it — along with many of the other simple truths hooks espouses in these pages — has both clarified and restructured the way I think about feminism in my own life.