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Feminist Theory

When Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center was fi rst published in 1984, it was welcomed and praised by feminist thinkers who wanted a new vision. Even so, individual readers frequently found the theory “unset-tling” or “provocative.” Today, the blueprint for feminist movement presented in the book remains as provocative and relevant as ever. Writ-ten in hooks’s characteristic direct style, Feminist Theory embodies the hope that feminists can fi nd a common language to spread the word and create a mass, global feminist movement.

A cultural critic, an intellectual, and a feminist writer, bell hooks is best known for classic books including Ain’t I a Woman, Bone Black, All About Love, Rock My Soul, Belonging, We Real Cool, Where We Stand, Teaching

to Transgress, Teaching Community, Outlaw Culture, and Reel to Real. hooks is Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, and resides in her home state of Kentucky.

Feminist Theory

FROM MARGIN TO CENTER

bell hooks

First published 2015by Routledge711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017

and by Routledge2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN

Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business

© 2015 Gloria Watkins

The right of Gloria Watkins to be identifi ed as author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First and second editions publishedby South End Press 1984, 2000

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identifi cation and explanation without intent to infringe.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

hooks, bell, 1952– Feminist theory : from margin to center / bell hooks. pages cm “New edition”—Preface. Includes bibliographical references and index. 1. Feminism—United States—Evaluation. 2. African American women—Attitudes. 3. Marginality, Social—United States. 4. Feminist theory. I. Title. HQ1426.H675 2015 305.4201—dc23 2014023979

ISBN: 978-1-138-82165-1 (hbk)ISBN: 978-1-138-82166-8 (pbk)ISBN: 978-1-315-74317-2 (ebk)

Typeset in Garamond MT Stdby Apex CoVantage, LLC

Contents

acknowledgments ix

preface to the new edition: seeing the light: visionary feminism xi

preface to the fi rst edition xvii

1. black women 1

shaping feminist theory

2. feminism 18

a movement to end sexist oppression

3. the signifi cance of feminist movement 34

4. sisterhood 43

political solidarity among women

5. men 68

comrades in struggle

6. changing perspectives on power 84

vii

viii FEMINIST THEORY

7. rethinking the nature of work 96

8. educating women 108

a feminist agenda

9. feminist movement to end violence 117

10. revolutionary parenting 133

11. ending female sexual oppression 148

12. feminist revolution 159

development through struggle

bibliography 167

index 173

1

Black Women: Shaping

Feminist Theory

Feminism in the United States has never emerged from the women who are most victimized by sexist oppression; women who are daily beaten down, mentally, physically, and spiritually-women who are

powerless to change their condition in life. They are a silent major­

ity. A mark of their victimization is that they accept their lot in life

without visible question, without organized protest, without collec­

tive anger or rage. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique is still heralded

as having paved the way for contemporary feminist movement-it

was written as if these women did not exist. (Although The Feminine Mystique has been criticized and even attacked from various fronts, I call attention to it again because certain biased premises about the

nature of women's social status put forth initially in this text con­tinue to shape the tenor and direction of feminist movement.)

Friedan's famous phrase, "the problem that has no name," of­

ten quoted to describe the condition of women in this society, actu­

ally referred to the plight of a select group of college-educated,

middle- and upper-class, married white women-housewives bored

with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products,

who wanted more out of life. Friedan concludes her first chapter by

stating: "We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: 'I want something more than my husband and my children and my

house.' " That "more" she defined as careers. She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor

2 FEMINIST THEORY

and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife.

She made her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women. In so doing, she deflected attention away from her classism, her racism, her sexist attitudes towards the masses of American women. In the con­text of her book, Friedan makes clear that the women she saw as vic­timized by sexism were college-educated white women who were compelled by sexist conditioning to remain in the home. She contends:

It is urgent to understand how the very condition of being a housewife can create a sense of emptiness, non-existence, noth­ingness in women. There are aspects of the housewife role that make it almost impossible for a woman of adult intelligence to re­tain a sense of human identity, the firm core of self or "I" without which a human being, man or woman, is not truly alive. For women of ability in America today, I am convinced that there is something about the housewife state itself that is dangerous.

Specific problems and dilemmas of leisure-class white housewives were real concerns that merited consideration and change, but they were not the pressing political concerns of masses of women. Masses of women were concerned about economic survival, ethnic and racial discrimination, etc. When Friedan wrote The Feminine Mys­tique) more than one-third of all women were in the work force. Al­though many women longed to be housewives, only women with leisure time and money could actually shape their identities on the model of the feminine mystique. They were women who, in Friedan's words, were "told by the most advanced thinkers of our time to go back and live their lives as if they were Noras, restricted to the doll's house by Victorian prejudices."

From her early writing, it appears that Friedan never wondered whether or not the plight of college-educated white housewives was

BLACK WOMEN 3

an adequate reference point by which to gauge the impact of sexism or sexist oppression on the lives of women in American society. Nor did she move beyond her own life experience to acquire an ex­panded perspective on the lives of women in the United States. I say this not to discredit her work. It remains a useful discussion of the impact of sexist discrimination on a select group of women. Exam­ined from a different perspective, it can also be seen as a case study of narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence, which reaches its peak when Friedan, in a chapter titled "Progressive Dehumanization," makes a comparison between the psychological effects of isolation on white housewives and the impact of confine­ment on the self-concept of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.

Friedan was a principal shaper of contemporary feminist thought. Significantly, the one-dimensional perspective on women's reality presented in her book became a marked feature of the con­temporary feminist movement. Like Friedan before them, white women who dominate feminist discourse today rarely question whether or not their perspective on women's reality is true to the lived experiences of women as a collective group. Nor are they aware of the extent to which their perspectives reflect race and class biases, although there has been a greater awareness of biases in re­cent years. Racism abounds in the writings of white feminists, rein­forcing white supremacy and negating the possibility that women will bond politically across ethnic and racial boundaries. Past femi­nist refusal to draw attention to and attack racial hierarchies sup­pressed the link between race and class. Yet class structure in American society has been shaped by the racial politic of white su­premacy; it is only by analyzing racism and its function in capitalist society that a thorough understanding of class relationships can emerge. Class struggle is inextricably bound to the struggle to end racism. Urging women to explore the full implication of class in an early essay, "The Last Straw," Rita Mae Brown explained:

Class is much more than Marx's definition of relationship to the means of production. Class involves your behavior, your basic as­sumptions about life. Your experience (determined by your class)

4 FEMINIST THEORY

validates those assumptions, how you are taught to behave, what you expect from yourself and from others, your concept of a fu­ture, how you understand problems and solve them, how you think, feel, act. It is these behavioral patterns that middle-class women resist recognizing although they may be perfectly willing to accept class in Marxist terms, a neat trick that helps them avoid really dealing with class behavior and changing that behavior in themselves. It is these behavioral patterns which must be recog­nized, understood, and changed.

White women who dominate feminist discourse, who for the most part make and articulate feminist theory, have little or no understand­ing of white supremacy as a racial politic, of the psychological impact of class, of their political status within a racist, sexist, capitalist state.

It is this lack of awareness that, for example, leads Leah Fritz to write in Dreamers and Dealers, a discussion of the current women's movement published in 1979:

Women's suffering under sexist tyranny is a common bond among all women, transcending the particulars of the different forms that tyranny takes. Suffering cannot be measured and compared quantitative(y. Is the enforced idleness and vacuity of a "rich" woman, which leads her to madness and/ or suicide, greater or less than the suffering of a poor woman who barely survives on welfare but retains somehow her spirit? There is no way to mea­sure such difference, but should these two women survey each other without the screen of patriarchal class, they may find a com­monality in the fact that they are both oppressed, both miserable.

Fritz's statement is another example of wishful thinking, as well as the conscious mystification of social divisions between women that has characterized much feminist expression. While it is evident that many women suffer from sexist tyranny, there is little indication that this forges "a common bond among all women." There is much evi­dence substantiating the reality that race and class identity creates differences in quality of life, social status, and lifestyle that take pre­cedence over the common experience women share-differences that are rarely transcended. The motives of materially privileged, ed­ucated white women with a variety of career and lifestyle options

BLACK WOMEN 5

available to them must be questioned when they insist that "suffer­ing cannot be measured." Fritz is by no means the first white femi­nist to make this statement. It is a statement that I have never heard a poor woman of any race make. Although there is much I would take issue with in Benjamin Barber's critique of the women's move­ment, Liberating Feminism, I agree with his assertion:

Suffering is not necessarily a fixed and universal experience that can be measured by a single rod: it is related to situations, needs, and aspirations. But there must be some historical and political parameters for the use of the term so that political priorities can be established and different forms and degrees of suffering can be given the most attention.

A central tenet of modern feminist thought has been the asser­tion that "all women are oppressed." This assertion implies that women share a common lot, that factors like class, race, religion, sexual preference, etc. do not create a diversity of experience that determines the extent to which sexism will be an oppressive force in the lives of individual women. Sexism as a system of domination is institutionalized, but it has never determined in an absolute way the fate of all women in this society. Being oppressed means the absence of choices. It is the primary point of contact between the oppressed and the oppressor. Many women in this society do have choices (as inadequate as they are); therefore exploitation and discrimination are words that more accurately describe the lot of women collec­tively in the United States. Many women do not join organized resis­tance against sexism precisely because sexism has not meant an absolute lack of choices. They may know they are discriminated against on the basis of sex, but they do not equate this with oppres­sion. Under capitalism, patriarchy is structured so that sexism re­stricts women's behavior in some realms even as freedom from limitations is allowed in other spheres. The absence of extreme re­strictions leads many women to ignore the areas in which they are exploited or discriminated against; it may even lead them to imagine that no women are oppressed.

6 FEMINIST THEORY

There are oppressed women in the United States, and it is both appropriate and necessary that we speak against such oppression. French feminist Christine Delphy makes the point in her essay "For a Materialist Feminism" that the use of the term "oppression" is im­portant because it places feminist struggle in a radical political framework (a fuller discussion of Christine Delphy's perspective may be found in the collected essays of her work, Close to Home):

The rebirth of feminism coincided with the use of the term "op­pression." The ruling ideology, i.e. common sense, daily speech, does not speak about oppression but about a "feminine condi­tion." It refers back to a naturalist explanation: to a constraint of nature, exterior reality out of reach and not modifiable by human action. The term "oppression," on the contrary, refers back to a choice, an explanation, a situation that is political. "Oppression" and "social oppression" are therefore synonyms, or rather social oppression is a redundance: the notion of a political origin, i.e. so­cial, is an integral part of the concept of oppression.

However, feminist emphasis on "common oppression" in the United States was less a strategy for politicization than an appropria­tion by conservative and liberal women of a radical political vocabu­lary that masked the extent to which they shaped the movement so that it addressed and promoted their class interests.

Although the impulse towards unity and empathy that informed the notion of common oppression was directed at building solidar­ity, slogans like "organize around your own oppression" provided the excuse many privileged women needed to ignore the differences between their social status and the status of masses of women. It was a mark of race and class privilege, as well as the expression of freedom from the many constraints sexism places on working-class women, that middle-class white women were able to make their in­terests the primary focus of feminist movement and employ a rheto­ric of commonality that made their condition synonymous with "oppression." Who was there to demand a change in vocabulary? What other group of women in the United States had the same ac­cess to universities, publishing houses, mass media, money? Had

BLACK WOMEN 7

middle-class black women begun a movement in which they had la­beled themselves "oppressed," no one would have taken them seri­ously. Had they established public forums and given speeches about their "oppression," they would have been criticized and attacked from all sides. This was not the case with white bourgeois feminists, for they could appeal to a large audience of women like themselves who were eager to change their lot in life. Their isolation from women of other class and race groups provided no immediate comparative base by which to test their assumptions of common oppression.

Initially, radical participants in women's movement demanded that women penetrate that isolation and create a space for contact. Anthologies like Liberation Now!, Women's Liberation: Blueprint for the Future, Class and Feminism, &zdical Feminism, and Sisterhood Is Poweifu4 all published in the early 1970s, contain articles that attempted to ad­dress a wide audience of women, an audience that was not exclu­sively white, middle-class, college-educated, and adult (many have articles on teenagers). Sookie Stambler articulated this radical spirit in her introduction to Women's Liberation: Blueprint for the Future:

Movement women have always been turned off by the media's necessity to create celebrities and superstars. This goes against our basic philosophy. We cannot relate to women in our ranks towering over us with prestige and fame. We are not struggling for the benefit of the one woman or for one group of women. We are dealing with issues that concern all women.

These sentiments, shared by many feminists early in the move­ment, were not sustained. As more and more women acquired pres­tige, fame, or money from feminist writings or from gains from feminist movement for equality in the work force, individual oppor­tunism undermined appeals for collective struggle. Women who were not opposed to patriarchy, capitalism, classism, or racism la­beled themselves "feminist." Their expectations were varied. Privi­leged women wanted social equality with men of their class; some women wanted equal pay for equal work; others wanted an alterna­tive lifestyle. Many of these legitimate concerns were easily co-opted

8 FEMINIST THEORY

by the ruling capitalist patriarchy. French feminist Antoinette Fouque states:

The actions proposed by the feminist groups are spectacular, pro­voking. But provocation only brings to light a certain number of social contradictions. It does not reveal radical contradictions within society. The feminists claim that they do not seek equality with men, but their practice proves the contrary to be true. Femi­nists are a bourgeois avant-garde that maintains, in an inverted form, the dominant values. Inversion does not facilitate the pas­sage to another kind of structure. Reformism suits everyone! Bourgeois order, capitalism, phallocentrism are ready to integrate as many feminists as will be necessary. Since these women are be­corning men, in the end it will only mean a few more men. The difference between the sexes is not whether one does or doesn't have a penis, it is whether or not one is an integral part of a phallic masculine economy.

Feminists in the United States are aware of the contradictions. Carol Ehrlich makes the point in her essay "The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Can It Be Saved?" that "feminism seems more and more to have taken on a blind, safe, nonrevolutionary out­look" as "feminist radicalism loses ground to bourgeois feminism," stressing that "we cannot let this continue":

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.

But if these distorted images of feminism have more reality than ours do, it is partly our own fault. We have not worked as

BLACK WOMEN

hard as we should have at providing clear and meaningful alterna­tive analyses which relate to people's lives, and at providing ac­tive, accessible groups in which to work.

9

It is no accident that feminist struggle has been so easily co-opted to serve the interests of conservative and liberal feminists, since feminism in the United States has so far been a bourgeois ide­ology. Zillah Eisenstein discusses the liberal roots of North Ameri­can feminism in The Radical Future if Liberal Feminism, explaining in the introduction:

One of the major contributions to be found in this study is the role of the ideology of liberal individualism in the construction of feminist theory. Today's feminists either do not discuss a theory of individuality or they unself-consciously adopt the competitive, atomistic ideology of liberal individualism. There is much confu­sion on this issue in the feminist theory we discuss here. Until a conscious differentiation is made between a theory of individual­ity that recognizes the importance of the individual within the so­cial collectivity and the ideology of individualism that assumes a competitive view of the individual, there will not be a full ac­counting of what a feminist theory of liberation must look like in our Western society.

The ideology of "competitive, atomistic . . . liberal individualism" has permeated feminist thought to such an extent that it undermines the potential radicalism of feminist struggle. The usurpation of fem­inism by bourgeois women to support their class interests has been to a very grave extent justified by feminist theory as it has so far been conceived (for example, the ideology of "common oppression"). Any movement to resist the co-optation of feminist struggle must begin by introducing a different feminist perspective-a new theory-one that is not informed by the ideology of liberal individualism.

The exclusionary practices of women who dominate feminist discourse have made it practically impossible for new and varied theories to emerge. Feminism has its party line, and women who feel a need for a different strategy, a different foundation, often find themselves ostracized and silenced. Criticisms of or alternatives to

IO FEMINIST THEORY

established feminist ideas are not encouraged, e.g. recent controver­sies about expanding feminist discussions of sexuality. Yet groups of women who feel excluded from feminist discourse and praxis can make a place for themselves only if they first create, via critiques, an awareness of the factors that alienate them. Many individual white women found in the women's movement a liberatory solution to personal dilemmas. Having directly benefited from the movement, they are less inclined to criticize it or to engage in rigorous examina­tion of its structure than those who feel it has not had a revolution­ary impact on their lives or the lives of masses of women in our society. Non-white women who feel affirmed within the current structure of feminist movement (even though they may form autonomous groups) seem also to feel that their definitions of the party line, whether on the issue of black feminism or on other issues, are the only legitimate discourse. Rather than encourage a diversity of voices, critical dia­logue, and controversy, they, like some white women, seek to stifle dissent. As activists and writers whose work is widely known, they act as if they are best able to judge whether other women's voices should be heard. Susan Griffin warns against this overall tendency towards dogmatism in her essay "The Way of All Ideology":

When a theory is transformed into an ideology, it begins to de­stroy the self and self-knowledge. Originally born of feeling, it pretends to float above and around feeling. Above sensation. It organizes experience according to itself, without touching experi­ence. By virtue of being itself, it is supposed to know. To invoke the name of this ideology is to confer truthfulness. No one can tell it anything new. Experience ceases to surprise it, inform it, transform it. It is annoyed by any detail which does not fit into its world view. Begun as a cry against the denial of truth, now it de­nies any truth which does not fit into its scheme. Begun as a way to restore one's sense of realiry, now it attempts to discipline real people, to remake natural beings after its own image. All that it fails to explain it records as its enemy. Begun as a theory of libera­tion, it is threatened by new theories of liberation; it builds a prison for the mind.

We resist hegemonic dominance of feminist thought by insist-

BLACK WOMEN II

ing that it is a theory in the making, that we must necessarily criticize, question, re-examine, and explore new possibilities. My persistent critique has been informed by my status as a member of an op­pressed group, my experience of sexist exploitation and discrimina­tion, and the sense that prevailing feminist analysis has not been the force shaping my feminist consciousness. This is true for many women. There are white women who had never considered resisting male dominance until the feminist movement created an awareness that they could and should. My awareness of feminist struggle was stimulated by social circumstance. Growing up in a Southern, black, father-dominated, working-class household, I experienced (as did my mother, my sisters, and my brother) varying degrees of patriar­chal tyranny, and it made me angry-it made us all angry. Anger led me to question the politics of male dominance and enabled me to re­sist sexist socialization. Frequently, white feminists act as if black women did not know sexist oppression existed until they voiced feminist sentiment. They believe they are providing black women with "the" analysis and "the" program for liberation. They do not understand, cannot even imagine, that black women, as well as other groups of women who live daily in oppressive situations, often ac­quire an awareness of patriarchal politics from their lived experi­ence, just as they develop strategies of resistance (even though they may not resist on a sustained or organized basis).

These black women observed white feminist focus on male tyr­anny and women's oppression as if it were a "new" revelation, and felt such a focus had little impact on their lives. To them it was just another indication of the privileged living conditions of middle- and upper-class white women that they would need a theory to "inform them that they were oppressed." The implication being that people who are truly oppressed know it even though they may not be en­gaged in organized resistance or are unable to articulate in written form the nature of their oppression. These black women saw noth­ing liberatory in party-line analyses of women's oppression. Neither the fact that black women have not organized collectively in huge numbers around the issues of "feminism" (many of us do not know or use the term) nor the fact that we have not had access to the rna-

!2 FEMINIST THEORY

chinery of power that would allow us to share our analyses or theo­ries about gender with the American public negates its presence in our lives or places us in a position of dependency in relationship to those white and non-white feminists who address a larger audience.

The understanding I had by age thirteen of patriarchal politics created in me expectations of the feminist movement that were quite different from those of young, middle-class white women. When I entered my first women's studies class at Stanford Univer­sity in the early 1970s, white women were reveling in the joy of being together-to them it was an important, momentous occasion. I had not known a life where women had not been together, where women had not helped, protected, and loved one another deeply. I had not known white women who were ignorant of the impact of race and class on their social status and consciousness. (Southern white women often have a more realistic perspective on racism and classism than white women in other areas of the United States.) I did not feel sympathetic to white peers who maintained that I could not expect them to have knowledge of or understand the life experi­ences of black women. Despite my background (living in racially segregated communities) I knew about the lives of white women, and certainly no white women lived in our neighborhood, attended our schools, or worked in our homes.

When I participated in feminist groups, I found that white women adopted a condescending attitude towards me and other non-white participants. The condescension they directed at bla

.ck

women was one of the means they employed to remind us that the women's movement was "theirs"-that we were able to participate because they allowed it, even encouraged it; after all, we were needed to legitimate the process. They did not see us as equals. They did not treat us as equals. And though they expected us to provide first-hand accounts of black experience, they felt it was their role to decide if these experiences were authentic. Frequendy, college-educated black women (even those from poor and working-class back­grounds) were dismissed as mere imitators. Our presence in move­ment activities did not count, as white women were convinced that "real" blackness meant speaking the patois of poor black people, be-

BLACK WOMEN I3

ing uneducated, streetwise, and a variety of other stereotypes. If we dared to criticize the movement or to assume responsibility for re­shaping feminist ideas and introducing new ideas, our voices were tuned out, dismissed, silenced. We could be heard only if our state­ments echoed the sentiments of the dominant discourse.

Attempts by white feminists to silence black women are rarely written about. All too often they have taken place in conference rooms, classrooms, or the privacy of cozy living-room settings, where one lone black woman faces the racist hostility of a group of white women. From the time the women's liberation movement be­gan, individual black women went to groups. Many never returned after a first meeting. Anita Cornwell is correct in "Three for the Price of One: Notes from a Gay Black Feminist" when she states, "Sadly enough, fear of encountering racism seems to be one of the main reasons that so many black women refuse to join the women's movement." Recent focus on the issue of racism has generated dis­course but has had little impact on the behavior of white feminists towards black women. Often the white women who are busy pub­lishing papers and books on "unlearning racism" remain patroniz­ing and condescending when they relate to black women. This is not surprising given that frequently their discourse is aimed solely in the direction of a white audience and the focus solely on changing atti­tudes rather than addressing racism in a historical and political con­text. They make us the "objects" of their privileged discourse on race. As "objects," we remain unequals, inferiors. Even though they may be sincerely concerned about racism, their methodology sug­gests they are not yet free of the type of paternalism endemic to white supremacist ideology. Some of these women place themselves in the position of "authorities" who must mediate communication between racist white women (naturally they see themselves as hav­ing come to terms with their racism) and angry black women whom they believe are incapable of rational discourse. Of course, the sys­tem of racism, classism, and educational elitism must remain intact if they are to maintain their authoritative positions.

In 1981, I enrolled in a graduate class on feminist theory where we were given a course reading list that had writings by white

I4 FEMINIST THEORY

women and men and one black man, but no material by or about black, Native American Indian, Hispanic, or Asian women. When I criticized this oversight, white women directed an anger and hostil­ity at me that was so intense I found it difficult to attend the class. When I suggested that the purpose of this collective anger was to create an atmosphere in which it would be psychologically unbear­able for me to speak in class discussions or even attend class, I was told that they were not angry. I was the one who was angry. Weeks after class ended, I received an open letter from one white female student acknowledging her anger and expressing regret for her at­tacks. She wrote:

I didn't know you. You were black. In class after a while I noticed myself, that I would always be the one to respond to whatever you said. And usually it was to contradict. Not that the argument was always about racism by any means. But I think the hidden logic was that if I could prove you wrong about one thing, then you might not be right about anything at all.

And in another paragraph:

I said in class one day that there were some people less entrapped than others by Plato's picture of the world. I said I thought we, af­ter fifteen years of education, courtesy of the ruling class, might be more entrapped than others who had not received a start in life so close to the heart of the monster. My classmate, once a close friend, sister, colleague, has not spoken to me since then. I think the possibility that we were not the best spokespeople for all women made her fear for her self-worth and for her Ph.D.

Often in situations where white feminists aggressively attacked individual black women, they saw themselves as the ones who were under attack, who were the victims. During a heated discussion with another white female student in a racially mixed women's group I had organized, I was told that she had heard how I had "wiped out" people in the feminist theory class, that she was afraid of being "wiped out," too. I reminded her that I was one person speaking to a large group of angry, aggressive people; I was hardly dominating the situation. It was I who left the class in tears, not any of the people I

BLACK WOMEN IS

had supposedly "wiped out." Racist stereotypes of the strong, superhuman black woman are

operative myths in the minds of many white women, allowing them to ignore the extent to which black women are likely to be victim­ized in this society, and the role white women may play in the main­tenance and perpetuation of that victimization. In Lillian Hellman's autobiographical work Pentimento, she writes, "All my life, beginning at birth, I have taken orders from black women, wanting them and resenting them, being superstitious the few times I disobeyed." The black women Hellman describes worked in her household as family servants, and their status was never that of an equal. Even as a child, she was always in the dominant position as they questioned, advised, or guided her; they were free to exercise these rights because she or another white authority figure allowed it. Hellman places power in the hands of these black women rather than acknowledge her own power over them; hence she mystifies the true nature of their rela­tionship. By projecting onto black women a mythical power and strength, white women both promote a false image of themselves as powerless, passive victims and deflect attention away from their ag­gressiveness, their power (however limited in a white supremacist, male-dominated state), their willingness to dominate and control others. These unacknowledged aspects of the social status of many white women prevent them from transcending racism and limit the scope of their understanding of women's overall social status in the United States.

Privileged feminists have largely been unable to speak to, with, and for diverse groups of women because they either do not under­stand fully the interrelatedness of sex, race, and class oppression or refuse to take this interrelatedness seriously. Feminist analyses of woman's lot tend to focus exclusively on gender and do not provide a solid foundation on which to construct feminist theory. They re­flect the dominant tendency in Western patriarchal minds to mystify woman's reality by insisting that gender is the sole determinant of woman's fate. Certainly it has been easier for women who do not ex­perience race or class oppression to focus exclusively on gender. Although socialist feminists focus on class and gender, they tend

I6 FEMINIST THEORY

to dismiss race, or they make a point of acknowledging that race is important and then proceed to offer an analysis in which race is not considered.

As a group, black women are in an unusual position in this soci­ety, for not only are we collectively at the bottom of the occupa­tional ladder, but our overall, social status is lower than that of any other group. Occupying such a position, we bear the brunt of sexist, racist, and classist oppression. At the same time, we are the group that has not been socialized to assume the role of exploiter/ oppres­sor in that we are allowed no institutionalized "other" that we can exploit or oppress. (Children do not represent an institutionalized other even though they may be oppressed by parents.) White women and black men have it both ways. They can act as oppressor or be oppressed. Black men may be victimized by racism, but sexism allows them to act as exploiters and oppressors of women. White women may be victimized by sexism, but racism enables them to act as exploiters and oppressors of black people. Both groups have led liberation movements that favor their interests and support the con­tinued oppression of other groups. Black male sexism has under­mined struggles to eradicate racism just as white female racism undermines feminist struggle. As long as these two groups, or any group, defines liberation as gaining social equality with ruling-class white men, they have a vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others.

Black women with no institutionalized "other" that we may dis­criminate against, exploit, or oppress often have a lived experience that directly challenges the prevailing classist, sexist, racist social structure and its concomitant ideology. This lived experience may shape our consciousness in such a way that our world view differs from those who have a degree of privilege (however relative within the existing system). It is essential for continued feminist struggle that black women recognize the special vantage point our marginal­ity gives us and make use of this perspective to criticize the domi­nant racist, classist, sexist hegemony as well as to envision and create a counter-hegemony. I am suggesting that we have a central role to play in the making of feminist theory and a contribution to offer that

BLACK WOMEN !7

is unique and valuable. The formation of a liberatory feminist theory and praxis is a collective responsibility, one that must be shared. Though I criticize aspects of feminist movement as we have known it so far, a critique which is sometimes harsh and unrelenting, I do so not in an attempt to diminish feminist struggle but to enrich, to share in the work of making a liberatory ideology and a liberatory movement.

2

Feminism: A Movement

to End Sexist Oppression

A central problem within feminist discourse has been our inability

to either arrive at a consensus of opinion about what feminism is or

accept definition(s) that could serve as points of unification. Without

agreed-upon definition(s), we lack a sound foundation on which to

construct theory or engage in overall meaningful praxis. Expressing

her frustrations with the absence of clear definitions in a recent essay,

"Towards a Revolutionary Ethics," Carmen Vazquez comments:

We can't even agree on what a "Feminist" is, never mind what she

would believe in and how she defines the principles that consti­

tute honor among us. In key with the American capitalist obses­

sion for individualism and anything goes so long as it gets you

what you want, feminism in America has come to mean anything

you like, honey. There are as many definitions of Feminism as

there are feminists, some of my sisters say, with a chuckle. I don't

think it's funny.

It is not funny. It indicates a growing lack of interest in feminism as a

radical political movement. It is a despairing gesture expressive of

the belief that solidarity among women is not possible. It is a sign

that the political naivete which has traditionally characterized woman's lot in male-dominated culture abounds.

Most people in the United States think of feminism, or the more

commonly used term "women's lib," as a movement that aims to

r8

FEMINISM 19

make women the social equals of men. This broad definition, popu­larized by the media and mainstream segments of the movement, raises problematic questions. Since men are not equals in white su­premacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure, which men do women want to be equal to? Do women share a common vision of what equality means? Implicit in this simplistic definition of women's liberation is a dismissal of race and class as factors that, in conjunction with sexism, determine the extent to which an individ­ual will be discriminated against, exploited, or oppressed. Bourgeois white women interested in women's rights issues have been satisfied with simple definitions for obvious reasons. Rhetorically placing themselves in the same social category as oppressed women, they are not anxious to call attention to race and class privilege.

Women in lower-class and poor groups, particularly those who are non-white, would not have defined women's liberation as women gaining social equality with men, since they are continually reminded in their everyday lives that all women do not share a com­mon social status. Concurrently, they know that many males in their social groups are exploited and oppressed. Knowing that men in their groups do not have social, political, and economic power, they would not deem it liberatory to share their social status. While they are aware that sexism enables men in their respective groups to have privileges that are denied them, they are more likely to see exagger­ated expressions of male chauvinism among their peers as stemming from the male's sense of himself as powerless and ineffectual in rela­tion to ruling male groups, rather than an expression of an overall privileged social status. From the very onset of the women's libera­tion movement, these women were suspicious of feminism precisely because they recognized the limitations inherent in its definition. They recognized the possibility that feminism defined as social equality with men might easily become a movement that would pri­marily affect the social standing of white women in middle- and upper-class groups while affecting only in a very marginal way the social status of working-class and poor women.

Not all the women who were at the forefront of organized women's movement, shaping definitions, were content with making

20 FEMINIST THEORY

women's liberation synonymous with women gaining social equality with men. On the opening pages of Woman Power: The Movement for Women's Liberation, Cellestine Ware, a black woman active in the movement, wrote under the heading "Goals":

Radical feminism is working for the eradication of domination

and elitism in all human relationships. This would make

self-determination the ultimate good and require the downfall of

society as we know it today.

Individual radical feminists like Charlotte Bunch based their analy­ses on an informed understanding of the politics of domination and a recognition of the interconnections among various systems of domination even as they focused primarily on sexism. Their per­spectives were not valued by those organizers and participants in women's movement who were more interested in social reforms. The anonymous authors Of a pamphlet on feminist issues published in 197 6, Women and the New World, make the point that many women active in women's liberation movement were far more comfortable with the notion of feminism as a reform that would help women attain social equality with men of their class than feminism defined as a radical movement that would eradicate domination and trans­form society:

Whatever the organization, the location, or the ethnic composi­

tion of the group, all the women's liberation organizations had

one thing in common: they all came together based on a biologi­

cal and sociological fact rather than on a body of ideas. Women

came together in the women's liberation movement on the basis

that we were women and all women are subject to male domina­

tion. We saw all women as being our allies and all men as being

the oppressor. We never questioned the extent to which Ameri­

can women accept the same materialistic and individualistic val­

ues as American men. We did not stop to think that American

women are just as reluctant as American men to struggle for a

new society based on new values of mutual respect, cooperation

and social responsibility.

It is now evident that many women active in feminist move-

FEMINISM 2.I

ment were interested in reform as an end in itself, not as a stage in the progression towards revolutionary transformation. Even though Zillah Eisenstein can optimistically point to the potential radicalism of liberal women who work for social reform in The &dical Future of Liberal Feminism, the process by which this radicalism will surface is unclear. Eisenstein offers as an example of the radical implications of liberal feminist programs the demands made at the govern­ment-sponsored Houston conference on women's rights issues which took place in 1978:

The Houston report demands as a human right a full voice and

role for women in determining the destiny of our world, our na­

tion, our families, and our individual lives. It specifically calls for

(1) the elimination of violence in the home and the development

of shelters for battered women, (2) support for women's busi­

ness, (3) a solution to child abuse, (4) federally funded nonsexist child care, (5) a policy of full employment so that all women who

wish and are able to work may do so, (6) the protection of home­

makers so that marriage is a partnership, (7) an end to the sexist

portrayal of women in the media, (8) establishment of reproduc­tive freedom and the end to involuntary sterilization, (9) a remedy to the double discrimination against minority women, (1 0) a revi­

sion of criminal codes dealing with rape, (11) elimination of dis­

crimination on the basis of sexual preference, (12) the

establishment of nonsexist education, and (13) an examination of

all welfare reform proposals for their specific impact on women.

The positive impact of liberal reforms on women's lives should not lead to the assumption that they eradicate systems of domination. Nowhere in these demands is there an emphasis on eradicating the politic of domination, yet it would need to be abolished if any of these demands were to be met. The lack of any emphasis on domi­nation is consistent with the liberal feminist belief that women can achieve equality with men of their class without challenging and changing the cultural basis of group oppression. It is this belief that negates the likelihood that the potential radicalism of liberal femi­nism will ever be realized. Writing as early as 1967, Brazilian scholar Heleieth Saffioti emphasized that bourgeois feminism has always

22 FEMINIST THEORY

been "fundamentally and unconsciously a feminism of the ruling class," that:

Whatever revolutionary content there is in petty-bourgeois femi­

nist praxis, it has been put there by the efforts of the middle

strata, especially the less well-off, to move up socially. To do this,

however, they sought merely to expand the existing social struc­

tures, and never went so far as to challenge the status quo. Thus,

while petty-bourgeois feminism may always have aimed at estab­

lishing social equality between the sexes, the consciousness it rep­

resented has remained utopian in its desire for and struggle to

bring about a partial transformation of society; this, it believed,

could be done without disturbing the foundations on which it

rested . . .. In this sense, petty-bourgeois feminism is not feminism

at all; indeed it has helped to consolidate class society by giving

camouflage to its internal contradictions.

Radical dimensions of liberal women's social protest will con­tinue to serve as an ideological support system providing the necessary critical and analytical impetus for the maintenance of a liberalism that aims to grant women greater equality of opportunity within the present white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal state. Such liberal women's rights activism in its essence diminishes feminist struggle. Philosopher Mihailo Markovic discusses the limitations of liberal­ism in his essay "Women's Liberation and Human Emancipation": .

Another basic characteristic o f liberalism which constitutes a for­

midable obstacle to an oppressed social group's emancipation is

its conception of human nature. If selfishness, aggressiveness, the

drive to conquer and dominate, really are among defining human

traits, as every liberal philosopher since Locke tries to convince

us, the oppression in civil society-i.e. in the social sphere not

regulated by the state-is a fact of life, and the basic civil relation­

ship between a man and a woman will always remain a battlefield.

Woman, being less aggressive, is then either the less human of the

two and doomed to subjugation, or else she must get more

power-hungry herself and try to dominate man. Liberation for

both is not feasible.

Although liberal perspectives on feminism include reforms that

FEMINISM 2-3

would have radical implications for society, these are the reforms that will be resisted precisely because they would set the stage for revolutionary transformation were they implemented. It is evident that society is more responsive to those "feminist" demands that are not threatening, that may even help maintain the status quo. Jeanne Gross gives an example of this co-optation of feminist strategy in her essay "Feminist Ethics from a Marxist Perspective," published in 1977:

If we as women want change in all aspects of our lives, we must

recognize that capitalism is uniquely capable of co-opting piece­

meal change . . . . Capitalism is capable of taking our visionary

changes and using them against us. For example, many married

women, recognizing their oppression in the family, have divorced.

They are thrown, with no preparation or protection, into the la­

bor market. For many women this has meant taking their places

at the row of typewriters. Corporations are now recognizing the

capacity for exploitation in divorced women. The turnover in such

jobs is incredibly high. "If she complains, she can be replaced."

Particularly as regards work, many liberal feminist reforms simply reinforced capitalist, materialist values (illustrating the flexibility of capitalism) without truly liberating women economically.

Liberal women have not been alone in drawing upon the dyna­mism of feminism to further their interests. The great majority of women who have benefited in any way from feminist-generated so­cial reforms do not want to be seen as advocates of feminism. Con­ferences on issues of relevance to women, which would never have been organized or funded had there not been a feminist movement, take place all over the United States, and the participants do not want to be seen as advocates of feminism. They are either reluctant to make a public commitment to feminist movement or they sneer at the term. Individual African American, Native American Indian, Asian American, and Hispanic American women find themselves isolated if they support feminist movement. Even women who may achieve fame and notoriety (as well as increased economic income) in response to attention given their work by large numbers of

2.4 FEMINIST THEORY

women who support feminism may deflect attention away from their engagement with feminist movement. They may even go so far as to create other terms that express their concern with women's is­sues so as to avoid using the term "feminist." The creation of new terms that have no relationship to organized political activity tends to provide women who may already be reluctant to explore femi­nism with ready excuses to explain their reluctance to participate. This illustrates an uncritical acceptance of distorted definitions of feminism rather than a demand for redefinition. Women may sup­port specific issues while divorcing themselves from what they as­sume is feminist movement.

In an article, "Sisters-Under the Skin," in a San Francisco newspaper, columnist Bob Greene commented on the aversion many women apparently have to the term "feminism." Greene finds it curious that many women "who obviously believe in everything that proud feminists believe in dismiss the term 'feminist' as some­thing unpleasant; something with which they do not wish to be asso­ciated." Even though such women often acknowledge that they have benefited from feminist-generated reform measures that have improved the social status of specific groups of women, they do not wish to be seen as participants in feminist movement:

There is no getting around it. After all this time, the term "femi­

nist" makes many bright, ambitious, intelligent women embar­

rassed and uncomfortable. They simply don't want to be

associated with it.

It's as if it has an unpleasant connotation that they want no

connection with. Chances are if you were to present them with

every mainstream feminist belief, they would go along with the

beliefs to the letter-and even if they consider themselves femi­

nists, they hasten to say no.

Many women are reluctant to advocate feminism because they are uncertain about the meaning of the term. Other women from ex­ploited and oppressed ethnic groups dismiss the term because they do not wish to be perceived as supporting a racist movement; femi­nism is often equated with white women's rights efforts. Large num-

FEMINISM 2-5

bers o f w om en see feminism as synonymous with lesbianism; their

hom op h o b ia leads them to reject association w ith any group identi­fied as pro-lesbian. Some w om en fear the w ord “ feminism ” because they shun identification w ith any political m ovem ent, especially one perceived as radical. O f course there are wom en who do no t wish to be associated with w o m en ’s rights m ovem ent in any form, so they re­ject and oppose feminist movement. M ost w om en are m ore familiar with negative perspectives on “w o m en ’s lib” than with the positive significations o f feminism. It is this term ’s positive political signifi­cance and power that we m ust now struggle to recover and maintain.

C urrendy feminism seems to be a term w ithout any clear signifi­cance. T h e “ anything goes” approach to the definition o f the w ord has rendered it practically meaningless. W hat is m eant by “anything

goes” is usually that any w om an w ho wants social equality with m en regardless o f her political perspective (she can be a conservative right-winger or a nationalist com munist) can label herself feminist. M ost attem pts at defining feminism reflect the class nature o f the m ovem ent. Definitions are usually liberal in origin and focus on the individual w o m an ’s right to freedom and self-determ ination. In Barbara Berg’s The Remembered Gate: Origins o f American Feminism, she defines feminism as a “broad m ovem ent em bracing num erous phases o f w o m an ’s em ancipation.” H ow ever, her em phasis is on w om en gaining greater individual freedom. E xpanding o n the above

definition, Berg adds:

It is the freedom to decide her own destiny; freedom from x-determined role; freedom from society’s oppressive restric­tions; freedom to express her thoughts fully and to convert them freely into action. Feminism demands the acceptance of woman’s right to individual conscience and judgment. It postulates that woman’s essential worth stems from her common humanity and does not depend on the other relationships of her life.

This definition o f feminism is alm ost apolitical in tone; yet it is the type o f definition m any liberal w om en find appealing. I t evokes a very rom antic n otion o f personal freedom that is m ore acceptable than a definition that emphasizes radical political action.

2.6 FEMINIST THEORY

Many feminist radicals now know that neither a feminism that focuses on woman as an autonomous human being worthy of per­sonal freedom nor one that focuses on the attainment of equality of opportunity with men can rid society of sexism and male domina­tion. Feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression. Therefore, it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commit­ment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires. Defined in this way, it is unlikely that women would join feminist movement simply because we are biologically the same. A commitment to feminism so defined would demand that each individual participant acquire a critical political consciousness based on ideas and beliefs.

Over time the slogan "the personal is political" (which was first used to stress that woman's everyday reality is informed and shaped by politics and is necessarily political) became a means of encouraging women to think that the experience of discrimination, exploitation, or oppression automatically corresponded with an understanding of the ideological and institutional apparatus shaping one's social sta­tus. As a consequence, many women who had not fully examined their situation never developed a sophisticated understanding of their political reality and its relationship to that of women as a collec­tive group. They were encouraged to focus on giving voice to per­sonal experience. Like revolutionaries working to change the lot of colonized people globally, it is necessary for feminist activists to stress that the ability to see and describe one's own reality is a signifi­cant step in the long process of self-recovery, but it is only a begin­ning. When women internalized the idea that describing their own woe was synonymous with developing a critical political conscious­ness, the progress of feminist movement was stalled. Starting from such incomplete perspectives, it is not surprising that theories and strategies were developed that were collectively inadequate and mis­guided. To correct this inadequacy in past analysis, we must now en­courage women to develop a keen, comprehensive understanding of women's political reality. Broader perspectives can only emerge as

FEMINISM 27

we examine both the personal that is political, the politics of society as a whole, and global revolutionary politics.

Feminism defined in political terms that stress collective as well as individual experience challenges women to enter a new do­main-to leave behind the apolitical stance sexism decrees is our lot and develop political consciousness. Women know from our every­day lives that many of us rarely discuss politics. Even when women talked about sexist politics in the heyday of contemporary feminism, rather than allow this engagement with serious political matters to lead to complex, in-depth analysis of women's social status, we in­sisted that men were "the enemy," the cause of all our problems. As a consequence, we examined almost exclusively women's relation­ship to male supremacy and the ideology of sexism. The focus on "man as enemy" created, as Marlene Dixon emphasizes in her essay "The Rise and Demise of Women's Liberation: A Class Analysis," a "politics of psychological oppression" that evoked world views that "pit individual against individual and mystify the social basis of exploitation." By repudiating the popular notion that the focus of feminist movement should be social equality of the sexes and by em­phasizing eradication of the cultural basis of group oppression, our own analysis would require an exploration of all aspects of women's political reality. This would mean that race and class oppression would be recognized as feminist issues with as much relevance as sexi�m.

When feminism is defined in such a way that it calls attention to the diversity of women's social and political reality, it centralizes the experiences of all women, especially the women whose social condi­tions have been least written about, studied, or changed by political movements. When we cease to focus on the simplistic stance "men are the enemy," we are compelled to examine systems of domina­tion and our role in their maintenance and perpetuation. Lack of ad­equate definition made it easy for bourgeois women, whether liberal or radical in perspective, to maintain their dominance over the lead­ership of the movement and its direction. This hegemony continues to exist in most feminist organizations. Exploited and oppressed groups of women are usually encouraged by those in power to feel that their situation is hopeless, that they can do nothing to break the

2.8 FEMINIST THEORY

pattern of domination. Given such socialization, these women have often felt that our only response to white, bourgeois, hegemonic dominance of feminist movement is to trash, reject, or dismiss femi­nism. This reaction is in no way threatening to the women who wish to maintain control over the direction of feminist theory and praxis. They prefer us to be silent, passively accepting their ideas. They pre­fer us speaking against "them" rather than developing our own ideas about feminist movement.

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. Diverting energy from feminist movement that aims to change society, many women concentrate on the devel­opment of a counter-culture, a woman=centered world wherein participants have little contact with men. Such attempts do not indi­cate a respect or concern for the vast majority of women who are unable to integrate their cultural expressions with the visions of­fered by alternative, woman-centered communities. In Bryond God the Father, Mary Daly urged women to give up "the securities offered by the patriarchal system" and create new space that would be woman-centered. Responding to Daly, Jeanne Gross pointed to the contradictions that arise when the focus of feminist movement is on the construction of new space:

Creating a "counterworld" places an incredible amount of pres­

sure on the women who attempt to embark on such a project.

The pressure comes from the belief that the only true resources

for such an endeavor are ourselves. The past which is totally pa­

triarchal is viewed as irredeemable ….

If we go about creating an alternative culture without re­

maining in dialogue with others (and the historical circumstances

that give rise to their identity) we have no reality check for our goals. We run the very real risk that the dominant ideology of the

culture is re-duplicated in the feminist movement through cul­

tural imperialism.

FEMINISM 29

Equating feminist struggle with living in a counter-cultural, woman-centered world erected barriers that closed the movement off from most women. Despite sexist discrimination, exploitation, or oppression, many women feel their lives as they live them are im­portant and valuable. Naturally the suggestion that these lives could be simply left or abandoned for an alternative "feminist" lifestyle met with resistance. Feeling their life experiences devalued, deemed solely negative and worthless, many women responded by vehe­mently attacking feminism. By rejecting the notion of an alternative feminist "lifestyle" that can emerge only when women create a sub­culture (whether it is living space or even space like women's studies, which on many campuses has become exclusive), and by insisting that feminist struggle can begin wherever an individual woman is, we create a movement that focuses on our collective experience, a movement that is continually mass-based.

Over the past six years, many separatist-oriented communities have been formed by women so that the focus has shifted from the development of woman-centered space towards an emphasis on identity. Once woman-centered space exists, it can be maintained only if women remain convinced that it is the only place where they can be self-realized and free. After assuming a "feminist" identity, women often seek to live the "feminist" lifestyle. These women do not see that it undermines feminist movement to project the as­sumption that "feminist" is but another pre-packaged role women can now select as they search for identity. The willingness to see feminism as a lifestyle choice rather than a political commitment reflects the class nature of the movement. It is not surprising that the vast majority of women who equate feminism with alternative life­style are from middle-class backgrounds, unmarried, college-educated, often students who are without many of the social and economic re­sponsibilities that working-class and poor women who are laborers, parents, homemakers, and wives confront daily. Sometimes lesbians have sought to equate feminism with lifestyle, but for significantly different reasons. Given the prejudice and discrimination against lesbian women in our society, alternative communities that are woman-centered are one means of creating positive, affirming envi-

30 FEMINIST THEORY

ronments. Despite positive reasons for developing woman-centered space (which does not need to be equated with a "feminist" lifestyle), like pleasure, support, and resource-sharing, emphasis on creating a counter-culture has alienated women from feminist movement, for such space can be in churches, kitchens, etc.

Longing for community, connection, a sense of shared purpose, many women found support networks in feminist organizations. Satisfied in a personal way by new relationships generated in what was called a "safe," "supportive" context wherein discussion fo­cused on feminist ideology, they did not question whether masses of women shared the same need for community. Certainly many black women as well as women from other ethnic groups do not feel an absence of community among women in their lives, despite exploi­tation and oppression. The focus on feminism as a way to develop shared identity and community has little appeal to women who ex­perience community, who seek ways to end exploitation and op­pression in the context of their lives. While they may develop an interest in a feminist politic that works to eradicate sexist oppres­sion, they will probably never feel as intense a need for a "feminist" identity and lifestyle.

Often emphasis on identity and lifestyle is appealing because it creates a false sense that one is engaged in praxis. However, praxis within any political movement that aims to have a radical transforma­tive impact on society cannot be solely focused on creating spaces wherein would-be radicals experience safety and support. Feminist movement to end sexist oppression actively engages participants in revolutionary struggle. Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable.

Focusing on feminism as political commitment, we resist the emphasis on individual identity and lifestyle. (This should not be confused with the very real need to unite theory and practice.) Such resistance engages us in revolutionary praxis. The ethics of Western society informed by imperialism and capitalism are personal rather than social. They teach us that the individual good is more impor­tant than the collective good, and consequently that individual change is of greater significance than collective change. This partic­ular form of cultural imperialism has been reproduced in feminist

FEMINISM 31

movement in the form of individual women equating the fact that their lives have been changed in a meaningful way by feminism "as is" with a policy that no change need occur in the theory and praxis, even if it has little or no impact on society as a whole, or on masses of women.

To emphasize that engagement with feminist struggle as politi­cal commitment, we could avoid using the phrase "I am a feminist" (a linguistic structure designed to refer to some personal aspect of identity and self-definition) and could state, "I advocate feminism." Because there has been undue emphasis placed on feminism as an identity or lifestyle, people usually resort to stereotyped perspectives on feminism. Deflecting attention away from stereotypes is neces­sary if we are to revise our strategy and direction. I have found that saying "I am a feminist" usually means I am plugged into precon­ceived notions of identity, role, or behavior. When I say, "I advocate feminism," the response is usually, "What is feminism?" A phrase like "I advocate" does not imply the kind of absolutism that is sug­gested by "I am." It does not engage us in the either/ or dualistic thinking that is the central ideological component of all systems of domination in Western society. It implies that a choice has been made, that commitment to feminism is an act of will. It does not suggest that by committing oneself to feminism, the possibility of supporting other political movements is negated.

As a black woman interested in feminist movement, I am often asked whether being black is more important than being a woman; whether feminist struggle to end sexist oppression is more impor­tant than the struggle to end racism or vice versa. All such questions are rooted in competitive either/ or thinking, the belief that the self is formed in opposition to an other. Therefore one is a feminist be­cause one is not something else. Most people are socialized to think in terms of opposition rather than compatibility. Rather than seeing anti-racist work as totally compatible with working to end sexist op­pression, they often see them as two movements competing for first place. When one is asked, "Are you a feminist?," it appears that an affirmative answer is translated to mean that one is concerned with no political issues other than feminism. When one is black, an affir-

32. FEMINIST THEORY

macive response is likely to be heard as a devaluation of struggle to end racism. Given the fear of being misunderstood, it has been diffi­cult for black women and women in exploited and oppressed ethnic groups to give expression to their interest in feminist concerns. They have been wary of saying "I am a feminist." The shift in ex­pression from "I am a feminist" to "I advocate feminism" could serve as a useful strategy for eliminating the focus on identity and lifestyle. It could serve as a way in which women who are concerned about feminism as well as other political movements could express their support while avoiding linguistic structures that give primacy to one particular group. It would also encourage greater exploration in feminist theory.

The shift in definicion away from notions of social equality to­wards an emphasis on ending sexist oppression leads to a shift in at­titudes in regard to the development of theory. Given the class nature of feminist movement so far, as well as racial hierarchies, de­veloping theory (the guiding set of beliefs and principles that be­comes the basis for action) has been a task particularly subject to the hegemonic dominance of white academic women. This has led many women outside the privileged race/ class group to see the fo­cus on developing theory, even the very use of the term, as a concern that functions only to reinforce the power of the elite group. Such reactions reinforce the sexist/ racist/ classist notion that developing theory is the domain of the white intellectual. Privileged white women active in feminist movement, whether liberal or radical in perspective, encourage black women to contribute "experiential" work, personal life stories. Personal experiences are important to feminist movement, but they cannot take the place of theory. Char­lotte Bunch explains the special significance of theory in her essay "Feminism and Education: Not by Degrees":

Theory enables us to see immediate needs in terms oflong-range

goals and an overall perspective on the world. It thus gives us a

framework for evaluating various strategies in both the long and

the short run and for seeing the types of changes that they are

likely to produce. Theory is not just a body of facts or a set of per­

sonal opinions. It involves explanations and hypotheses that are

FEMINISM

based on available knowledge and experience. It is also depend­

ent on conjecture and insight about how to interpret those facts

and experiences and their significance.

33

Since bourgeois white women had defined feminism in such a way as to make it appear that it had no real significance for black women, they could then conclude that black women need not con­tribute to developing theory. We were to provide the colorful life stories to document and validate the prevailing set of theoretical as­sumptions. (An interesting discussion of black women's responses to feminist movement may be found in the essay "Challenging Im­perial Feminism" by Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar.) Focus on social equality with men as a definition of feminism led to an empha­sis on discrimination, male attitudes, and legalistic reforms. Femi­nism as a movement to end sexist oppression directs our attention to systems of domination and the interrelatedness of sex, race, and class oppression. Therefore, it compels us to centralize the experi­ences and the social predicaments of women who bear the brunt of sexist oppression as a way to understand the collective social sta­tus of women in the United States. Defining feminism as a move­ment to end sexist oppression is crucial for the development of theory because it is a starting point indicating the direction of explo­ration and analysis.

The foundation of future feminist struggle must be solidly based on a recognition of the need to eradicate the underlying cul­tural basis and causes of sexism and other forms of group oppression. Without challenging and changing these philosophical structures, no feminist reforms will have a long-range impact. Consequently, it is now necessary for advocates of feminism to collectively acknowl­edge that our struggle cannot be defined as a movement to gain social equality with men, that terms like "liberal feminist" and "bourgeois feminist" represent contradictions that must be resolved so that feminism will not be continually co-opted to serve the opportunistic ends of special-interest groups.

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • acknowledgments
  • preface to the new edition: seeing the light: visionary feminism
  • preface to the first edition
  • 1. black women shaping feminist theory
  • 2. feminism a movement to end sexist oppression
  • 3. the significance of feminist movement
  • 4. sisterhood political solidarity among women
  • 5. men comrades in struggle
  • 6. changing perspectives on power
  • 7. rethinking the nature of work
  • 8. educating women a feminist agenda
  • 9. feminist movement to end violence
  • 10. revolutionary parenting
  • 11. ending female sexual oppression
  • 12. feminist revolution development through struggle
  • bibliography
  • index
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