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Feminist discourse

Gloria Jean Watkins (better known as bell hooks) was a persuasive and powerful voice of black feminism. She used her maternal great grandmother‘s name, a woman she greatly admired because of her ‘bold and snappy tongue‘. She insisted on using the lower-case letter in her name as she wanted the focus to be on her ideas and not on herself. She argued that feminism was not about making women equal to men as all men were not equal in a capitalist, racist and homophobic society


Black feminism in the US is rooted in being both black and a woman. The racial discrimination faced by black women in the women’s movement and the sexual oppression they experienced vis-à-vis men gave birth to Black feminism. It stressed the following: (1) the inseparability in the black women’s experience of racism, sexism and classism; (2) the needs and worldviews of black women were divergent from those of black men and white women and (3) the need to address both racism and sexism.

Black feminist thought developed in the writings of black women writers and activists such as Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964), Alice Walker (1944-), Patricia Hill Collins (1948-) and Gloria Jean Watkins (1952-2021) well known as bell hooks. It pointed out that second wave feminism dominated by Radical feminism was narrowly conceived as it ignored racism and class oppression. It was equally critical of first wave feminism which was concerned primarily with issues that impacted white women and in particular the right to vote since the ballot was perceived to be the key to securing equity ensuring equal wages, equal opportunities in educational institutions and professions.

The reluctance and failure of the white feminists to challenge the existing ideas of gender and racial inferiority and inequality was raised by many black women in the early part of the nineteenth century. Sojourner Truth (1797- 1883)’s memorable speech ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ delivered at the second National Women’s Rights convention held in Ohio in 1851 called for equal rights for women and abolitionism.

Maria W. Stewart (1803-79) and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) wanted to end the prevailing racism within the women’s movement. Harper advocated equal rights and equal educational opportunities for black women and explained their experiences of the double burden of racism and sexism. In 1866, hurt by the attitude of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815- 1902) and Susan Brownell Anthony (1820-1906), she pointed out that the white feminists did not prioritize racial equality as a precondition in the fight for women’s suffrage. She argued that white women needed suffrage for equal educational and professional opportunities whereas the black women regarded the vote as a means of protection and dignity.

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) questioned the white feminists for not finding out the truth about the lynching of black men, a subject which they avoided. Black feminists pointed to the glaring differences in the history of black and white women’s experiences. Black women had endured far greater oppression than their white counterparts. Beale writing about the traumatic sufferings of black women pointed out the sexual abuse and assault most of them had experienced at the hands of the white colonizers. Most of them had served as maids to white women, acted as wet nurses to white offspring while their own children starved and suffered neglect.

Writing about the differences in the social and economic situation of white and black women, Murray observed the latter “remains single more often, bears more children, is in the labour market longer, has less education, earns less, is widowed earlier and carries a heavier economic burden as a family than her white sister”. In comparison white women had greater access than black women to higher education and employment opportunities thus creating a significant barrier to sisterhood.

Black women along with other minority women in the US face a ‘double jeopardy’ as pointed out by Beale in 1968. On the one hand, like all women they endured oppression on account of their sex; on the other hand, they along with black and other minority men experienced oppression due to their race. They faced sexism in political groups founded to tackle racial inequities and racism in feminist organizations that were predominantly dominated by the white. Like their counterparts among the white, black women came to feminism out of a realization that they were treated as second class citizens within the Civil Rights Movement.

Echoing these sentiments, a black feminist group, the Combahee River Collective that was formed in 1974, explained in 1977, “it was our experience and disillusionment within these liberation movements, as well as experience on the periphery of the white male left, that led to the need to develop a politics that was antiracist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men”.

Besides racism, black feminism raised issues like lynching, Jim Crow laws, equal educational opportunities for black women, along with the right to vote. Watkins (better known as bell hooks) was a persuasive and powerful voice of black feminism. She used her maternal great grandmother’s name, a woman she greatly admired because of her “bold and snappy tongue”. She insisted on using the lower-case letter in her name as she wanted the focus to be on her ideas and not on herself. She argued that feminism was not about making women equal to men as all men were not equal in a capitalist, racist and homophobic society. She challenged the claim of mainstream feminism that it spoke for all women as it did not take into account the experiences of workingclass women and black women. She pointed out ‘black women felt they were asked to choose between a black movement that primarily served the interest of black male patriarchs and a woman’s movement which primarily served the interests of racist white women”.

Rejecting the claim of second wave feminism which saw patriarchy as the root cause of all systems of oppression, bell hooks coined the phrase ‘imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ to emphasize multidimensionality of power relations. She along with other black feminists contended that sexism, racism, classism and homophobia were intertwined and each of these systems of domination overlapped and reinforced the other. Hence a fight against sexism according to her meant a fight against racism, classism, and homophobia.

Feminism for her was “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression”. Her argument that each identity had the ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and domination was one of the core themes which she explored in her writings. bell hooks argued that womanhood could not be reduced to a singular experience but had to be considered within a framework that included race and class. She called for a new form of feminism which would recognize differences and inequalities among women. bell hooks’ best known and most significant scholarly publication Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism published in 1981 was named in 1992 by the Publishers Weekly as one of the 20 most influential women’s book in the preceding twenty years. The first part of the title was Truth’s title of her 1851 speech. bell hooks pointed to the “devaluation of Black womanhood (which) occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of Black woman during slavery” and one that remained unaltered “in the course of hundreds of years”. It is “a radical and relevant work in political theory” according to Lee, “as it lays the groundwork of her feminist theory by giving historical evidence of the specific sexism that black female slaves endured and how that legacy affects black womanhood today”.

The Moynihan Report ‘The Negro Family: The case for National Action’ (1965) according to bell hooks convinced many black men of his conclusions and that black society was a matriarchy. This matriarchy myth, according to many black feminists, undermined the confidence and ‘manhood’ of black men as it prevented them from competing successfully in a predominantly white workplace. bell hooks was dismissive of Betty Friedan’s account in The Feminine Mystique (1963) for failing to suggest who would take responsibility for household work and child care if women were freed of these tasks and given equal access with white men to professions. Friedan, according to her, did not speak for single women, women without children and women without homes and ignored the poor white and coloured women. Friedan’s vision, she pointed out liberated women who were mostly white, college educated and upper middle class, married and housewives. She spoke for an elite segment which she mistakenly conceived to be universal and representative of all women. bell hooks emphasised the importance of community and on the power of healing as the final goal of movements like feminism and anti-racism. Her idol was Martin Luther King Jr. who made her aware of the importance of community.

In an interview to Appalachian Heritage in 2012 she pointed to “King’s profound awareness that the people evolved in oppressive institutions will not change from the logics and practices of domination without engagement with those who are striving for a better way”. hooks’ books and scholarly articles were a testimony to her diverse interests which included literary criticism, children’s fiction, self-help and engaged pedagogy, patriarchy, American history, capitalism, feminist consciousness, community creation and representation in politics. She was irritated at the lack of interest in race issues among white feminists and gender issues by black men scholars. Kimberle Crenshaw in her tribute to bell hooks said she had the courage to articulate publicly what most of them expressed in private. She was “pivotal to an entire generation of black feminists who saw that for the first time they had license to call themselves black feminists”. It is because of bell hooks’ writings that feminism moved beyond the confines of white middle class women. She raised a number of important questions, and the task of contemporary feminism is to find suitable answers to them.

(The writer is Associate Professor in Political Science, Jesus and Mary College,
New Delhi)