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Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics
bell hooks
London: Pluto Press, 2000.
£9.99, 128 pages, ISBN 0-7453-1733-2.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

The writer bell hooks is currently Professor of English at City College, City University of New York. No, the spelling of her name in small type is no typo, she adopted that e.e. cummings style coquetterie some while back (she spells “god” in the same way). The press release for Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics recalls that bell hooks’s Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981) was named one of the “twenty most influential women’s books of the last twenty years” by Publisher’s Weekly in 1992. I would agree to renew the statement, replacing “twenty” with “thirty”. Besides, four of her numerous other books seem equally important to me, namely Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989), Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (1990), and the tremendous Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992). Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “influential”, and by “women’s books”. I lack data concerning the circulation figures of her books, but I can vouch for the fact that anyone involved in American feminism, Women’s Studies, and Gender Studies knows and often uses them.

As a cultural critic, hooks also delights Cultural Studies aficionados, with her insights on popular music, advertising, television, movies, etc. Her piece on Madonna, splendidly entitled “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister” has become a classic of the genre, as well as her essay on voguing and Jennie Livingston’s film Paris Is Burning.

Everywhere she went, hooks explains, she told “folks” she was a writer, a cultural critic, and a feminist theorist. People could relate to the first two, but found it hard to apprehend the third:

Instead I tend to hear about the evil of feminism and the bad feminists: how “they” hate men; how “they” want to go against nature—and god; how “they” are all lesbians; how “they” are taking all the jobs and making the world hard for white men, who do not stand a chance. [vii]

So every time she left one of these encounters, she wished she had a little book that she could hand out, saying, “read this book, and it will tell you what feminism is” [viii]. That is why she wrote Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. I wonder if she carries dozens of copies with her all the time… In the Introduction she proposes a definition, quoting her own book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center: “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression”. As a matter of fact, she lets us know, she loves that definition; which is indeed quite acceptable. It is notably to men that “this short handbook” is destined, and such a definition is as good a start as any. She does exaggerate a little, though, when she writes that she spent more than twenty years waiting for such a book to appear. It is not exactly as if this were the first attempt of the sort; I’m thinking for instance of What Is Feminism?: An Introduction to Feminist Theory, by Chris Beasley (1999). Admittedly, hooks’s is the broadest (in the best sense of the word), and the most accessible (again, in the best sense of the word). Neatly divided into nineteen chapters, it encompasses every feminist issue, and alludes to every bone of contention between feminists from different schools of thought.

Naturally, hooks does not claim to be objective—which is impossible the second you speak the word “feminism”. She expounds her own personal views throughout the book, notably her idea that a better world will not be created by a feminist revolution alone, “we need to end racism, class elitism, imperialism” [x]. She repeatedly asserts that men are not the enemy, sexism and the patriarchy are. She laments at great length the frequent appropriation of feminism by “privileged white middle-class women”. She makes a great many pronouncements that several feminist writers I can think of will no doubt dislike intensely, such as “without males as allies in struggle feminist movement will not progress” [12]. On the other hand, no “true” feminist could possibly disagree with statements like “the anti-choice movement is fundamentally anti-feminist” [29], or “challenging the industry of sexist-defined fashion opened up the space for females to examine for the first time […] the pathological, life-threatening aspects of appearance obsession” [33].

But when hooks writes that “capitalists investors in the cosmetic and fashion industry feared that feminism would destroy their business” and consequently “put their money behind mass-media campaigns which trivialized women’s liberation” [32], it makes you wonder how documented that is, and wish she had cited her historical sources. Of course, a cursory look at the corporate world will probably show that some media groups also own cosmetics factories, but still…

Having just returned from a Third Wave Feminism conference in Exeter, I remain more convinced than ever that there are as many kinds of feminisms as there are feminists. Of the five hundred or so female feminists there, I do not believe I could have found two agreeing on absolutely every feminist issue. Unless you count the issue “what is a feminist issue?”, which does tend to generate something approaching unanimity. To my mind, the two most divisive topics are prostitution and pornography, but there is also “power feminism”, “stiletto feminism”, etc., and the central question: can a woman be a feminist if she is very ambitious, competitive, and makes a lot of money? Some of the speakers who seemed to answer negatively are notorious and wealthy “stars” of academe and the publishing world.

One of the statements that shocked me most when I read the book for the first time is: “Early on many feminist women decided that they would choose celibacy or lesbianism over seeking after unequal relationships with sexist men.” [79]. I thought I had misread, or there was some typo in the sentence. But then I read: “Individual women who moved from having relationships with men to choosing women because they were seduced by the popular slogan ‘feminism is the theory, lesbianism the practice’” […] [87] As a rabid constructionist myself, I believe that sexuality is just as constructed as gender, but in my twenty-five years of mixing with feminists and lesbians, I have never met anybody who thus decided, one morning, “hey, that’s an idea, why don’t I become a lesbian?” hooks should beware, that sort of sentence might very well be used by homophobic anti-feminists against her, and against feminism. A bit further, hooks does write:

The utopian notion that feminism would be the theory and lesbianism the practice was continually disrupted by the reality that most lesbians living in white supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture constructed partnerships using the same paradigms of domination and submission as did their heterosexual counterparts. [97-98]

In spite of these few reservations, I strongly recommend Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. In particular, students and teachers in Women’s Studies departments and elsewhere might start with that and then move on to hooks’s prior work. But that book is, like feminism, for everybody.

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