By Swarnima Bhattacharya:
“There should be billboards; ads in magazines; ads on buses, subways, trains, television commercials spreading the word, letting the world know about feminism.”
bell hooks’ ‘Feminism Is For Everybody’, was her attempt at bringing feminist discourse out of academic echo chambers, and inserting it into everyday conversations about power, politics and power politics. It was borne out of her observation that there simply were not enough informed conversations about feminism. As such, it came to be that thing to be scared of, hence attacked. It was this skewed perspective on feminism, that bell hooks sought to set right, through this slim, rather accessible, text.
Published at the dawn of this millennium, the year 2000, this text comes as a reminder that the feminist movement is far from over; although we are slowly getting there, universal gender equality is still elusive. Not just that, it foregrounded the significance of the new chapter in feminism: Intersectionality.
Born as Gloria Jean Watkins, the prolific writer, academician and activist decided to write under the pseudonym of bell hooks, which was the name of her phenomenal grandmother, a feisty woman who spoke her mind. hooks also decided to not capitalise the first letters of her name, and write them simply in the lower case, as she wanted more emphasis on the “substance” of her works, rather than her name. Through these important gestures, she subverted the patriarchal culture of ‘naming after the father’, and also undermined the phallocentric nature of language itself.
With over 30 published titles under her belt, bell hooks is known best for her work ‘Ain’t I A Woman’, which was published in 1981. This is one of the seminal contributions towards what came to be known as Black Feminism— calling out the ‘mainstream’ feminist movement on its homogenising impulse, and near-blindness to women of colour.
Even though the coinage of the term ‘Intersectional Theory’ is widely attributed to legal scholar Kimberley Crenshaw in 1989, hooks had already elaborated upon the spirit of intersectionality in her works, especially ‘Ain’t I A Woman’.
‘Feminism Is For Everybody’, now an essential reading for most gender studies curricula, was penned down by hooks as more of an introduction to Feminism rather than a theoretical treatise; a guide for understanding it contextually as a term, a movement, a philosophy and a lifestyle. This handy primer is a conversation with young feminists as well as its seasoned practitioners, men as well as women discussing how Feminism is a means of fighting several systems of oppression at once.
“Feminist liberation is linked to the vision of social change which challenges class elitism.”
Intersectional feminism is hooks’ central thesis— in her writings, practice as well as this particular work. She meticulously picks out instances of feminist movements world over tackling not just the issue of equality among genders, but also other systems of oppression and marginalisation such as class and colour. Wary of what she calls “institutionalised sexism”, hooks attempts to understand feminist struggles not just in terms of a male-female binary, but in terms of responding to a system of power that renders powerless, certain sections of the society.
“The freedom of privileged class of women of all races has required the sustained subordination of working class and poor women.”
She points out the classist nature of the feminist movement, which often celebrates the accomplishments of privileged white women, while rendering the others invisible. She is suspicious of the dangerous exaltation of a few women, coming from economically well-off and socially privileged classes, as case points in women’s equality and advancement, but ultimately not contributing to an egalitarian ecosystem at home or outside.
Continuing her critique of classism diluting the feminist objective, hooks re-interrogates ‘equality’ by pointing out how feminist aspirations are co-opted into capitalism. She shows how celebrating corporate accomplishments of a few women in that milieu, takes away from the grave issue of industrial capitalism being sexist and discriminatory against women. Putting in a word of caution against what she views as “Revolutionary Feminism”, hooks makes a case for “Reformative Feminism”, which seeks to forge systems of “sisterhood” among women, instead of a spirit of competition, of vying for social approval based on notions of the good woman, as framed and sanctioned by a patriarchal gaze.
“Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and sexist oppression.”
Far from reducing feminism into a tussle between men and women, hooks says that men are “worthy comrades in the struggle”. Feminism, she says, is not about how men oppress women, but how oppressive systems seek a certain performance of coded gender stereotypes, from both men and women.
“One cannot be anti-choice, and be a feminist.”
Pushing the idea of a sisterhood despite barriers, hooks exemplifies her argument by talking about the contentious issue of abortion. Even if a woman would choose not to abort, she must certainly recognise the right of other women to make their own choices in matters concerning their own bodies. Because, hooks emphasises, feminism is about choices and self-determination, shorn of social pressures and expectations. And women must most definitely support and promote a culture of autonomy.
“When we work more to make money to consume more, rather than to enhance the quality of our lives on all levels, work does not lead to economic self-sufficiency. More money does not mean more freedom if our finances are not used to facilitate our well-being.”
Continuing to demonstrate how an egalitarian system of economics is central to women’s emancipation, hooks argues for a system of living where women earn money not just to earn more in a male-dominated, patriarchal, consumerist market, but to convert financial independence into complete autonomy.
Because, well, feminism IS for everybody. Her strong explication of Intersectionality is defining contemporary feminist struggles, and rhetoric, with feminists the world over now also commenting on transphobia, body image issues, sexuality, equal parenting and alternate modes of conception and delivery.
In an interview in 2011, hooks said: “I think what’s so amazing about this historical moment is that it is bringing class to the fore and we have to think about the nature of work and hierarchy.” And this is what makes her works relevant even today, because of a deep, exhaustive engagement with issues like class, colour, economy, gender and labour which are rapidly being recognised everywhere as factors that define selfhood.
hooks’ polemic on intersectionality is especially relevant to India because of the several social identities our feminisms have to navigate. Modern Indian feminism would go nowhere without being an amalgamation of voices from all classes and castes. Because feminism is for a woman CEO leading men and mentoring younger women, as well as a homemaker raising children; for a man raising sons and daughters as well as a policeman refusing to lodge complaints of sexual harassment; for a Hijab-wearing Muslim as well as a Dalit woman in the hinterlands. The middle-class student gang-raped in a moving bus in Delhi, as well as the half-widows in Kashmir.
To read more from our ‘Decoding A Feminist Text’ series, click here.