bell hooks (1952– 2021)

A cultural critic, feminist and writer, Gloria Jean Watkins (better known by her pen name, bell hooks) has emphasised that feminist theorising must take account of intersectionality and be approached from the lenses of gender, race and social class. In her book Ain’t I a Woman (1985), hooks examined the history of black women in the USA. Arguing that in the USA racism takes precedence over sexism, she advanced a powerful critique of the implicit racism of the mainstream women’s movement. This has not only focused primarily on the concerns of white, college-educated and middle/upper class women, but also portrayed feminism as a lifestyle choice rather than a political commitment. Her other books include Feminism is for Everyone (2000). This critique focused not only on the tendency of the feminist movement to be dominated by the concerns of white, college-educated and middle/upper class women but also on the limitations of viewing feminism as a lifestyle choice. Hooks has claimed that women of colour tend to be ignored by both the feminist and black liberation movements. Since the former mainly articulates the needs of white women, while the latter primarily addresses the needs of black men, black women end up being invisible in political terms.

bell hooks was born Gloria Watkins. She adopted the name of her great-grandmother, Bell Hooks, whom she admired hugely. She does not use upper- case letters for her pen name so she will not be confused with her great-grandmother. hooks is a radical black American feminist. She is best known for her work in intersectionality. In her analysis of the inferior position of women she begins from the starting point that society is completely disfigured by inequality in general. Different groups in society, not just women, suffer from inequality.

These include not only the poor, but also ethnic minorities, gays and religious minorities. It follows from this that seeking to create equality for women in isolation will not work, instead equality must be fully established in society as a universal principle. In that way women too will become equal.

hooks criticises many feminists for not recognising this reality. They have concentrated too much on women, especially white, middle-class women. Using her perspective as a black woman, she asserts that women like her will achieve equality only if black people as a whole also achieve equality. Furthermore, she and all black women face problems that white women do not. The same is true of gay women, the poor and other minority groups.

This idea is called intersectionality. This confluence of multiple forms of discrimination and oppression makes feminist aims more complex than the movement had appreciated. It also means that men have a valid role to play because they can enter the struggle against inequality between all groups.

Patriarchy has taught women to hate themselves, to see themselves as inferior. In her influential work Feminism is for Everybody (2000) she wrote:

‘We all knew first hand that we had been socialized as females by patriarchal thinking to see ourselves as inferior to men, to see ourselves as always and only in competition with one another for patriarchal approval, to look upon each other with jealousy, fear, and hatred. Sexist thinking made us judge each other without compassion and punish one another harshly. Feminist thinking helped us unlearn female self- hatred. It enabled us to break free of the hold patriarchal thinking had on our consciousness.’

For hooks, the struggle against patriarchy should have two elements. The first is the creation of a more equal society so that the multiple disadvantages that women face can be reduced and then eliminated. The second concerns the direct relationships between men and women. Men must come to understand the patriarchy that they are imposing, while women must break free of the preconceptions about themselves which are the product of men’s domination of sexual culture. In her more romantic passages, hooks speaks of the power of love to conquer the current unhealthy relationships, but above all she argues that women need to ‘unlearn self-hatred’ and ‘no longer see ourselves and our bodies as the property of men’.

In the history of feminism, bell hooks belongs mainly in the contemporary branch of the movement known as post-modern feminism, as she is attempting to break the movement free of its traditional perspectives and to accept modern realities.