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Critical Review by Patricia Bell-Scott
SOURCE: "The Centrality of Marginality," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. II, No. 5, February, 1985, p. 3.
In the following review, Bell-Scott praises Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center because of its critique of American feminism and its vision of the future of the feminist movement.
Four years ago, I was introduced to Bell Hooks 'with the publication of Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. This "first book" by a courageous, young, talented social critic generated a great deal of controversy and debate—some substantive, some unmerited. Hooks was charged with being ahistorical, unscholarly (there were many complaints about the absence of footnotes), and homophobic. Whether or not one agrees with any of these charges, Ain't I A Woman was an important book for at least three reasons: it provoked discussion between and among black and white women about the issue of racism and American feminism; it represented one of few efforts at Black feminist analysis; and it was accessible to (readable by) people outside of academe. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, the latest book by Bell Hooks, is a continuation of what was begun in 1981. It reflects the maturing of a brilliant writer and is certain to have a lasting impact on feminist theory and praxis.
"To be in the margin is to be part of the whole but outside of the main body." This, the first sentence in the book, summarizes the basic theme—that the masses of poor and minority women are marginal to feminist activism and theory-building. Though some readers might find Hooks to be repetitive in her emphasis on this theme, her analysis of how racial, sexual and class oppressions are inextricably intermingled proves to be powerfully illuminating.
In twelve chapters, she provides a comprehensive, well-documented (there are footnotes for each chapter and a bibliography) critique of contemporary American feminism. Most issues considered to be central to a feminist agenda are addressed: female sexual oppression, sister-hood as political solidarity, the role of men in feminist struggle, the devaluation of women's paid and unpaid labor, the design of educational curricula, the restructuring of parenting and family life, the redefinition of power, the American culture of violence, and revolution versus reform as social change. In a discussion of these issues, Hooks offers a vision of what feminism is not and should be.
For example, she warns that contemporary feminism has taken a "dangerous direction" toward cooptation, equivalent in significant ways to the "competitive, atomistic liberal individualism" characteristic of traditional American thinking. To illustrate this point, she quotes from an essay by Carol Ehrlich, which outlines major contradictions in feminist theory and praxis:
Women need to know (and are increasingly prevented from finding out) that feminism is not about dressing for success, or becoming a corporate executive, or gaining elective office; it is not being able to share a two career marriage and take skiing vacations and spend huge amounts of time with your husband and two lovely children because you have a domestic worker who makes all this possible for you, but who hasn't the time or money to do it for herself; it is not opening a Women's Bank, or spending a weekend in an expensive workshop that guarantees to teach you how to become assertive (but not aggressive); it is most emphatically not about becoming a police detective or CIA agent or marine corps general.
Of what feminism should be, Hooks writes:
Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women. It does not privilege women over men. It has the power to transform in a meaningful way all our lives. Most importantly, feminism is neither a lifestyle nor a ready-made identity or role one can step into.
Of the book's twelve chapters, I found chapters Four, "Sisterhood: Political Solidarity Between Women," and Six, "Changing Perspectives on Power," to be especially noteworthy. Not since Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives by Gloria I. Joseph and Jill Lewis have I read such an affirming and poignant account of the barriers between black and white women. Major obstacles to women's political solidarity include a general distrust of women among women; exclusionary social bonding among women along racial and class lines; the use of the notion of women's "common oppression" as a strategy for avoiding the reality of women's varied experiences; the perpetuation of negative social stereotypes about women who are non-white and/or economically disadvantaged; internalized oppression among poor women and women of color; and intolerance for women's right to make choices about their own sexuality.
Hooks admonishes those of us who flaunt the banner of sisterhood and solidarity but practice something else:
The bourgeois woman who takes a less privileged "sister" to lunch or dinner at a fancy restaurant may be acknowledging class but she is not repudiating class privilege—she is exercising it. Wearing second hand clothing and living in low-cost housing in a poor neighborhood while buying stock is not a gesture of solidarity with those who are deprived or under-privileged.
She also explains why black women and other women of color remain alienated from the feminist movement. The reasons include a general unfamiliarity with the language and traditions of feminism, the media misrepresentation of feminists, the portrayal of all men as enemies and attacks on motherhood and family by some feminists, as well as recognition of white women's racism.
Hooks accurately points out that the elimination of the barriers among women of color, poor women and white women will be particularly difficult in light of the fact that consciousness-raising groups, once a forum for addressing such issues, are no longer popular or commonplace. Because few strategies for bridging the schisms among women exist, building solidarity is perhaps the greatest challenge facing modern-day feminism.
In Chapter Six, she calls for a redefinition of the concept of power. No longer can feminist theorists and activists accept and use patterns of human interaction characterized by control, manipulation and domination. Despite the obvious distinctions between decision-making processes which are consensual/collectivist as opposed to authoritarian/bureaucratic, many feminists find it difficult to break with traditional patterns of dominance. As an example of the way these practices undermine feminist efforts, Hooks excerpts a letter by Theresa Funiciello published in the July 1983 issue of In These Times:
Prior to a conference some time ago on the Urban Woman sponsored by the New York City chapter of NOW, I received a phone call from a NOW representative (whose name I have forgotten) asking for a welfare speaker with special qualifications. I was asked that she not be white—she might be "too articulate—(i.e. not me), that she not be black, she might be too angry. Perhaps she could be Puerto Rican? She should not say anything political or analytical but confine herself to the subject of what the women's movement has done for me."
Funiciello's account is not unlike the numerous conversations I have had with people soliciting advice about women of color who might speak on women's issues. I am often asked (in not so subtle ways) to suggest women who are articulate and congenial (the implications being that women of color—including those who are academics—have difficult personalities and poor interpersonal skills). I am especially annoyed by the carefully phrased requests to speak on black women's issues, which suggest that neither I nor any woman of color is capable of speaking about women's issues generally and that black women's experiences are outside of, marginal to, women's issues proper.
It is unfortunate that authoritarian practices as well as race and class biases continue to shape the development of feminist theory and praxis. Many of my feminist colleagues are unable to see that the exclusion of perspectives from poor women and women of color makes women's studies, feminist theory and feminist praxis less whole and therefore invalid. This means that those of us who have any measure of race and class privilege must resist the old ways of behaving and relating; we must redefine power. Though consensual/collectivistic practices are time-consuming (and difficult for some of us), the result will be a broadening of the feminist constituency base and development of inclusive theory.
Though I found Feminist Theory to be challenging and affirming, it was not an "easy read." In fact, it was unsettling: Hooks raises questions that most of us would prefer to avoid. Some readers will take issue with the chapters on men as comrades, female sexual oppression, and the feminist movement to end violence, as Hooks takes positions contrary, on the whole, to the popular feminist viewpoint. Others may be irritated by her phraseology; there is a Marxist flavor. Some readers may even react defensively to some arguments, as I did sometimes. However, we must keep in mind the author's goal, to enrich feminist discourse and "to share in the work of making a liberatory ideology," as we struggle with the uncomfortable issues she raises.
The book could have been strengthened by extended discussion of strategies for activists. Translating theory into action is a difficult task—even for the well-educated. For this reason, more discussion of how feminist education for men and women might be designed and how barriers between women of color might be eliminated, for example, would have been useful.
But in spite of these shortcomings, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center is an important book. It is a readable, comprehensive, analytical critique of American feminist theory which should be widely used in women's studies courses and read by both scholars and activists. We should all be encouraged by the author's vision of a theory and praxis, wherein
Women do not need to eradicate difference to feel solidarity. We do not need to share common oppression to fight equally to end oppression. We do not need anti-male sentiments to bond us together…. We can be … united by shared interests and beliefs, united in our appreciation for diversity, united in our struggle to end sexist oppression, united in political solidarity.
This section contains 1,661 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)