Let me be up-front: I love bell hooks. I loved her when I was doing my first master’s degree, training as a progressive educator. Back then, I thought the first chapters of her Teaching To Transgress articulated the core of progressive education—everyone has the right to his or her own story, and sharing these stories is the backbone of learning, empathy, and right action—more clearly and succinctly than anything else in the small library of textbooks I accumulated. And after reading Feminism is for Everybody, I love bell hooks even more.
As a clueless feminist, I was thrilled to hear about this book and—admittedly—even more thrilled to discover it was only 118 pages long. But the treatise surprised me. Firstly, I didn’t understand exactly how 118 pages could take me four hours to read. But they did. More importantly, “feminism is for everybody” doesn’t translate to “everybody can be some kind of feminist” or “you probably already are a feminist.” I believe these ideas, but hooks doesn’t. She asserts that certain convictions—such as the belief that abortion should be legal—should be givens for feminists, and that feminism is a conscious choice that requires vigilant soul-searching and self-critique. For hooks, “feminism is for everybody” means “the feminist movement promotes the good of all people.”
hooks reacts against the fact that women with power frequently bend feminism to meet their own needs rather than rallying for the elimination of sexism, racism, classism, and all other forms of injustices. For example, many educated upper-class women used feminism as a way of breaking (or at least raising) the glass ceiling or reaching the boardroom. Once they arrived, they declared “goal achieved!” rather than pushing forward for working class women and men.
Furthermore, while the growth of university Women’s Studies programs has ensured that feminism stays dynamic and present, it often means that women need access to the academy to encounter feminist writing and philosophy. Many women simply don’t have the flexibility or resources to enroll in college; the result is that feminism started to become less grassroots and more ivory tower.
Often, women of color found themselves alienated from feminism because of the predominantly white face of the movement. hooks’ goal is to rearticulate feminism as a struggle against sexism and all other forms of systemic injustice. She asserts—correctly, I believe—that only when sexism and racism are purged from our social and individual consciences will we be able to work, parent, and love in a healthy and honest way.
Fortunately, we’re making slow progress, largely due to the work of non-white feminists like hooks. They remind us that we are working for a new and improved society, not just a few band-aid changes. And the internet has helped a great deal as well. In the sixties and seventies, “consciousness raising groups,” provided an introduction to feminism. These groups met in homes and made feminism accessible to a wide range of women. As feminists started shifting into universities and Women’s Studies programs, becoming a true feminism became more expensive and exclusive. Internet feminism has opened up the movement to a more diverse group of men and women and helped move it away from the ivory tower and back to the grassroots. Gloria Steinem, one of the “mothers” of Second Wave feminism, claims the internet has been a source of power for disenfranchised voices, particularly Black and gay feminists. Some news sources—especially British ones– claim that online feminism has opened feminism to a new generation or “Fourth Wave.”
Feminism is for Everybody is a helpful, thought-provoking book. But it is not a book for everybody.
Whether you find the book helpful and inspiring or strident and off-putting depends on what type of clueless feminist you are. If you are a clueless feminist curious-type, it provides clear, no-nonsense answers in a succinct way. But if you are a clueless feminist reluctant-type, it may not be the best introduction to feminism for you.
What do I mean by “curious type” and “reluctant type”? Let’s say you’re clear on the fact that you’re pro feminist and suspect you already are a feminist. Let’s also say you’re new to the movement. You don’t have enough info to leap in, or you’re not sure what feminist action looks like. You’re what I call “curious type.” Feminism is For Everybody is a perfect book for you.
But let’s say your situation is different. Let’s say you’re in the position I was in for many years. Let’s say you agree profoundly with many of the goals of feminism—such as greater health and autonomy for families and equal pay for equal work—but are hesitant about some of the other goals such as reproductive rights or certain types of safe spaces. You might be deeply uncomfortable telling women what to do with their bodies, but you might also feel that being openly pro-choice is a betrayal of your conservative or religious family. Similarly, you may believe in safe spaces in theory but worry that badly-designed safe spaces can stifle healthy debate. Or, you might be sorting out the myths and realities of feminism. In that case, you qualify as a “reluctant type” clueless feminist. In your case, this book may not be the best “starter” book for you. Feminism is for Everybody is not so much a hand on your shoulder as a kick in the pants.
But perhaps Feminism is for Everybody is good because it isn’t gentle. Even if you’re already on board, it forces you to re-evaluate the state of your feminism. For example, when I write this blog, my goal is to welcome in as wide an audience as possible, and I try particularly hard to respect and appeal to the fundamental decency of conservatives and non-feminist men. Reading hooks makes me re-evaluate this decision; by doing so, am I actually revealing a desire for acceptance into the current system rather than advocating for a new system? I’m not sure. On the one hand, I am not being as revolutionary as I (secretly) am. On the other, I am acutely aware that, as a thirty-three year old graduate student and a TA, I occupy a position of relative power at this university, and I believe that my devotion to not using that power to in an aggressive or controlling way is part of my feminism.
hooks has certainly made me think uncomfortable thoughts. And I believe that’s the greatest good a book on social justice can do.