Current State Of Women’s Inequality Worldwide /Discussion B: Political Matters

Discussion A: You have been invited to speak to a group at the local library about the current state of women’s inequality worldwide: In approximately 500 words, what would you say to your audience?

Discussion B: Talk to women: family, friends, and co-workers.  Ask them what their views are about women holding political office.  Women today have the intellect, academic credentials, and leadership skills to head corporations as well as local, state, and federal government positions.  So what’s holding women back?



bell hooks

South End Press Cambridge, MA



Copyright © 2000 by Gloria Watkins

Cover design by Ellen P. Shapiro Cover illustration by Laura DeSantis, © Artville

Any properly footnoted quotation of up to 500 sequential words may be used without permission, as long as the total number of words quoted does not exceed 2,000. For longer quotations or for a greater number of total words, please write to South End Press for permission.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Hooks, Bell. Feminism is for everybody: passionate politics / Bell Hooks. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-89608-629-1 – ISBN 0-89608-628-3 (pbk.) 1. Feminist theory. 2. Feminism – Philosophy. 3. Feminism – Political aspects. 4. Sex discrimination against women. 1. Title.

HQl190 .H67 2000 305.42’01 – dc21

00-036589 South End Press, 7 Brookline Street, #1, Cambridge, MA 02139

06 05 04 7 8 9

Printed in Canada


INTRODUCTION Come Closer to Feminism


2. CONSCIOUSNESS-RAISING A Constant Change of Heart



5. OUR BODIES, OURSELVES Reproductive Rights






















15. A FEMINIST SEXUAL POLITIC An Ethics of Mutual Freedom

16. TOTAL BLISS Lesbianism and Feminism

17. TO LOVE AGAIN The Heart of Feminism

















INTRODUCTION Come Closer to Feminism

Everywhere I go I proudly tell folks who want to know who I am

and what I do that I am a writer, a feminist theorist, a cultural critic. I

tell them I write about movies and popular culture, analyzing the

message in the medium. Most people find this exciting and want to

know more. Everyone goes to movies, watches television, glances

through magazines, and everyone has thoughts about the messages

they receive, about the images they look at. It is easy for the diverse

public I encounter to understand what I do as a cultural critic, to un-

derstand my passion for writing Oots of folks want to write, and do).

But feminist theory – that’s the place where the questions stop. In-

stead I tend to hear all about the evil of feminism and the bad femi-

nists: 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.

When I ask these same folks about the feminist books or maga-

zines they read, when I ask them about the feminist talks they have

heard, about the feminist activists they know, they respond by let-

ting me know that everything they know about feminism has come

into their lives thirdhand, that they really have not come close

enough to feminist movement to know what really happens, what

it’s really about. Mostly they think feminism is a bunch of angry





women who want to be like men. They do not even think about

feminism as being about rights – about women gaining equal

rights. When I talk about the feminism I know – up close and per-

sonal- they willingly listen, although when our conversations end,

they are quick to tell me I am different, not like the “real” feminists

who hate men, who are angry. I assure them I am as a real and as rad-

ical a feminist as one can be, and if they dare to come closer to femi-

nism they will see it is not how they have imagined it.

Each time I leave one of these encounters, I want to have in my

hand a little book so that I can say, read this book, and it will tell you

what feminism is, what the movement is about. I want to be holding

in my hand a concise, fairly easy to read and understand book; not a

long book, not a book thick with hard to understand jargon and aca-

demic language, but a straightforward, clear book – easy to read

without being simplistic. From the moment feminist thinking, poli-

tics, and practice changed my life, I have wanted this book. I have

wanted to give it to the folk I love so that they can understand better

this cause, this feminist politics I believe in so deeply, that is the

foundation of my political life.

I have wanted them to have an answer to the question “what is

feminism?” that is rooted neither in fear or fantasy. I have wanted

them to have this simple definition to read again and again so they

know: “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation,

and oppression.” I love this definition, which I first offered more

than 10 years ago in my book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. I

love it because it so clearly states that the movement is not about be-

ing anti-male. It makes it clear that the problem is sexism. And that

clarity helps us remember that all of us, female and male, have been

socialized from birth on to accept sexist thought and action. As a

consequence, females can be just as sexist as men. And while that

does not excuse or justify male domination, it does mean that it


would be naive and wrongminded for feminist thinkers to see the

movement as simplistically being for women against men. To end

patriarchy (another way of naming the institutionalized sexism) we

need to be clear that we are all participants in perpetuating sexism

until we change our minds and hearts, until we let go of sexist

thought and action and replace it with feminist thought and action.

Males as a group have and do benefit the most from patriarchy,

from the assumption that they are superior to females and should

rule over us. But those benefits have come with a price. In return for

all the goodies men receive from patriarchy, they are required to

dominate women, to exploit and oppress us, using violence if they

must to keep patriarchy intact. Most men find it difficult to be patri-

archs. Most men are disturbed by hatred and fear of women, by male

violence against women, even the men who perpetuate this vio-

lence. But they fear letting go of the benefits. They are not certain

what will happen to the world they know most intimately if patriar-

chy changes. So they find it easier to passively support male domina-

tion even when they know in their minds and hearts that it is wrong.

Again and again men tell me they have no idea what it is feminists

want. I believe them. I believe in their capacity to change and grow.

And I believe that if they knew more about feminism they would no

longer fear it, for they would find in feminist movement the hope of

their own release from the bondage of patriarchy.

It is for these men, young and old, and for all of us, that I have

written this short handbook, the book I have spent more than 20

years longing for. I had to write it because I kept waiting for it to ap-

pear, and it did not. And without it there was no way to address the

hordes of people in this nation who are daily bombarded with

anti-feminist backlash, who are being told to hate and resist a move-

ment that they know very little about. There should be so many little

feminist primers, easy to read pamphlets and books, telling us all




about feminism, that this book would be just another passionate

voice speaking out on behalf of feminist politics. There should be bill-

boards; ads in magazines; ads on buses, subways, trains; television

commercials spreading the word, letting the world know more about

feminism. We are not there yet. But this is what we must do to share

feminism, to let the movement into everyone’s mind and heart.

Feminist change has already touched all our lives in a positive way.

And yet we lose sight of the positive when all we hear about femi-

nism is negative.

When I began to resist male domination, to rebel against patri-

archal thinking (and to oppose the strongest patriarchal voice in my

life – my mother’s voice), I was still a teenager, suicidal, depressed,

uncertain about how I would find meaning in my life and a place for

myself. I needed feminism to give me a foundation of equality and

justice to stand on. Mama has come around to feminist thinking. She

sees me and all her daughters (we are six) living better lives because of

feminist politics. She sees the promise and hope in feminist move-

ment. It is that promise and hope that I want to share with you in

this book, with everybody.

Imagine living in a world where there is no domination, where

females and males are not alike or even always equal, but where a vi-

sion of mutuality is the ethos shaping our interaction. Imagine living

in a world where we can all be who we are, a world of peace and pos-

sibility. Feminist revolution alone will not create such a world; we

need to end racism, class elitism, imperialism. But it will make it possi-

ble for us to be fully self-actualized females and males able to create

beloved community, to live together, realizing our dreams of freedom

and justice, living the truth that we are all “created equal.” Come

closer. See how feminism can touch and change your life and all our

lives. Come closer and know firsthand what feminist movement is all

about. Come closer and you will see: feminism is for everybody.



Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploita-

tion, and oppression. This was a definition of feminism I offered in

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center more than 10 years ago. It was

my hope at the time that it would become a common definition

everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply

that men were the enemy. By naming sexism as the problem it went

directly to the heart of the matter. Practically, it is a definition which

implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether

those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. It is also

broad enough to include an understanding of systemic institutional-

ized sexism. As a definition it is open-ended. To understand femi-

nism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism.

As all advocates of feminist politics know, most people do not

understand sexism, or if they do, they think it is not a problem.

Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about

women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these

folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of femi-

nist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism

from patriarchal mass media. The feminism they hear about the

most is portrayed by women who are primarily committed to gender

equality – equal pay for equal work, and sometimes women and





men sharing household chores and parenting. They see that these

women are usually white and materially privileged. They know from

mass media that women’s liberation focuses on the freedom to have

abortions, to be lesbians, to challenge rape and domestic violence.

Among these issues, masses of people agree with the idea of gender

equity in the workplace – equal pay for equal work.

Since our society continues to be primarily a “Christian” cul-

ture, masses of people continue to believe that god has ordained that

women be subordinate to men in the domestic household. Even

though masses of women have entered the workforce, even though

many families are headed by women who are the sole breadwinners,

the vision of domestic life which continues to dominate the nation’s

imagination is one in which the logic of male domination is intact,

whether men are present in the home or not. The wrongminded no-

tion of feminist movement which implied it was anti-male carried

with it the wrongminded assumption that all female space would

necessarily be an environment where patriarchy and sexist thinking

would be absent. Many women, even those involved in feminist pol-

itics, chose to believe this as well.

There was indeed a great deal of anti-male sentiment among

early feminist activists who were responding to male domination

with anger. It was that anger at injustice that was the impetus for cre-

ating a women’s liberation movement. Early on most feminist activ-

ists (a majority of whom were white) had their consciousness raised

about the nature of male domination when they were working in

anti-classist and anti-racist settings with men who were telling the

world about the importance of freedom while subordinating the

women in their ranks. Whether it was white women working on be-

half of socialism, black women working on behalf of civil rights and

black liberation, or Native American women working for indige-

nous rights, it was clear that men wanted to lead, and they wanted


women to follow. Participating in these radical freedom struggles

awakened the spirit of rebellion and resistance in progressive fe-

males and led them towards contemporary women’s liberation.

As contemporary feminism progressed, as women realized that

males were not the only group in our society who supported sexist

thinking and behavior – that females could be sexist as well –

anti-male sentiment no longer shaped the movement’s conscious-

ness. The focus shifted to an all-out effort to create gender justice.

But women could not band together to further feminism without

confronting our sexist thinking. Sisterhood could not be powerful

as long as women were competitively at war with one another. Uto-

pian visions of sisterhood based solely on the awareness of the real-

ity that all women were in some way victimized by male domination

were disrupted by discussions of class and race. Discussions of class

differences occurred early on in contemporary feminism, preceding

discussions of race. Diana Press published revolutionary insights

about class divisions between women as early as the mid-’70s in their

collection of essays Class and Feminism. These discussions did not

trivialize the feminist insistence that “sisterhood is powerful,” they

simply emphasized that we could only become sisters in struggle by

confronting the ways women – through sex, class, and race –

dominated and exploited other women, and created a political plat-

form that would address these differences.

Even though individual black women were active in contempo-

rary feminist movement from its inception, they were not the indi-

viduals who became the “stars” of the movement, who attracted the

attention of mass media. Often individual black women active in

feminist movement were revolutionary feminists (like many white

lesbians). They were already at odds with reformist feminists who

resolutely wanted to project a vision of the movement as being

solely about women gaining equality with men in the existing sys-



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tem. Even before race became a talked about issue in feminist circles

it was clear to black women (and to their revolutionary allies in

struggle) that they were never going to have equality within the exist-

ing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

From its earliest inception feminist movement was polarized.

Reformist thinkers chose to emphasize gender equality. Revolution-

ary thinkers did not want simply to alter the existing system so that

women would have more rights. We wanted to transform that sys-

tem, to bring an end to patriarchy and sexism. Since patriarchal mass

media was not interested in the more revolutionary vision, it never

received attention in mainstream press. The vision of “women’s lib-

eration” which captured and still holds the public imagination was

the one representing women as wanting what men had. And this was

the vision that was easier to realize. Changes in our nation’s econ-

omy, economic depression, the loss of jobs, etc., made the climate

ripe for our nation’s citizens to accept the notion of gender equality

in the workforce.

Given the reality of racism, it made sense that white men were

more willing to consider women’s rights when the granting of those

rights could serve the interests of maintaining white supremacy. We

can never forget that white women began to assert their need for

freedom after civil rights, just at the point when racial discrimination

was ending and black people, especially black males, might have at-

tained equality in the workforce with white men. Reformist feminist

thinking focusing primarily on equality with men in the workforce

overshadowed the original radical foundations of contemporary

feminism which called for reform as well as overall restructuring of

society so that our nation would be fundamentally anti-sexist.

Most women, especially privileged white women, ceased even

to consider revolutionary feminist visions, once they began to gain

economic power within the existing social structure. Ironically, rev-


olutionary feminist thinking was most accepted and embraced in

academic circles. In those circles the production of revolutionary

feminist theory progressed, but more often than not that theory was

not made available to the public. It became and remains a privileged

discourse available to those among us who are highly literate, well-

educated, and usually materially privileged. Works like Feminist The-

ory: From Margin to Center that offer a liberatory vision of feminist

transformation never receive mainstream attention. Masses of peo-

ple have not heard of this book. They have not rejected its message;

they do not know what the message is.

While it was in the interest of mainstream white supremacist

capitalist patriarchy to suppress visionary feminist thinking which

was not anti-male or concerned with getting women the right to be

like men, reformist feminists were also eager to silence these forces.

Reformist feminism became their route to class mobility. They

could break free of male domination in the workforce and be more

self-determining in their lifestyles. While sexism did not end, they

could maximize their freedom within the existing system. And they

could count on there being a lower class of exploited subordinated

women to do the dirty work they were refusing to do. By accepting

and indeed colluding with the subordination of working-class and

poor women, they not only ally themselves with the existing patriar-

chy and its concomitant sexism, they give themselves the right to lead

a double life, one where they are the equals of men in the workforce

and at home when they want to be. If they choose lesbianism they

have the privilege of being equals with men in the workforce while

using class power to create domestic lifestyles where they can

choose to have little or no contact with men.

Lifestyle feminism ushered in the notion that there could be as

many versions of feminism as there were women. Suddenly the politics

was being slowly removed from feminism. And the assumption pre-




vailed that no matter what a woman’s politics, be she conservative

or liberal, she too could fit feminism into her existing lifestyle. Obvi-

ously this way of thinking has made feminism more acceptable be-

cause its underlying assumption is that women can be feminists

without fundamentally challenging and changing themselves or the

culture. For example, let’s take the issue of abortion. If feminism is a

movement to end sexist oppression, and depriving females of repro-

ductive rights is a form of sexist oppression, then one cannot be

anti-choice and be feminist. A woman can insist she would never

choose to have an abortion while affirming her support of the right

of women to choose and still be an advocate of feminist politics. She

cannot be anti-abortion and an advocate of feminism. Concurrently

there can be no such thing as “power feminism” if the vision of

power evoked is power gained through the exploitation and oppres-

sion of others.

Feminist politics is losing momentum because feminist move-

ment has lost clear definitions. We have those definitions. Let’s re-

claim them. Let’s share them. Let’s start over. Let’s have T-shirts and

bumper stickers and postcards and hip-hop music, television and ra-

dio commercials, ads everywhere and billboards, and all manner of

printed material that tells the world about feminism. We can share the

simple yet powerful message that feminism is a movement to end sex-

ist oppression. Let’s start there. Let the movement begin again.


CONSCIOUSNESS-RAISING A Constant Change of Heart

Feminists are made, not born. One does not become an advocate of

feminist politics simply by having the privilege of having been born

female. Like all political positions one becomes a believer in feminist

politics through choice and action. When women first organized in

groups to talk together about the issue of sexism and male domina-

tion, they were clear that females were as socialized to believe sexist

thinking and values as males, the difference being simply that males

benefited from sexism more than females and were as a conse-

quence less likely to want to surrender patriarchal privilege. Before

women could change patriarchy we had to change ourselves; we had

to raise our consciousness.

Revolutionary feminist consciousness-raising emphasized the

importance of learning about patriarchy as a system of domination,

how it became institutionalized and how it is perpetuated and main-

tained. Understanding the way male domination and sexism was ex-

pressed in everyday life created awareness in women of the ways we

were victimized, exploited, and, in worse case scenarios, oppressed.

Early on in contemporary feminist movement, consciousness-raising

groups often became settings where women simply unleashed pent-

up hostility and rage about being victimized, with little or no focus

on strategies of intervention and transformation. On a basic level





many hurt and exploited women used the consciousness-raising

group therapeutically. It was the site where they uncovered and

openly revealed the depths of their intimate wounds. This confes-

sional aspect served as a healing ritual. Through consciousness-

raising women gained the strength to challenge patriarchal forces at

work and at home.

Importantly though, the foundation of this work began with

women examining sexist thinking and creating strategies where we

would change our attitudes and belief via a conversion to feminist

thinking and a commitment to feminist politics. Fundamentally, the

consciousness-raising (CR) group was a site for conversion. To

build a mass-based feminist movement women needed to organize.

The consciousness-raising session, which usually took place in

someone’s home (rather than public space that had to be rented or

donated), was the meeting place. It was the place where seasoned

feminist thinkers and activists could recruit new converts.

Importantly, communication and dialogue was a central agenda

at the consciousness-raising sessions. In many groups a policy was

in place which honored everyone’s voice. Women took turns speak-

ing to make sure everyone would be heard. This attempt to create a

non-hierarchal model for discussion positively gave every woman a

chance to speak but often did not create a context for engaged dia-

logue. However, in most instances discussion and debate occurred,

usually after everyone had spoken at least once. Argumentative dis-

cussion was common in CR groups as it was the way we sought to

clarify our collective understanding of the nature of male domina-

tion. Only through discussion and disagreement could we begin to

find a realistic standpoint on gender exploitation and oppression.

As feminist thinking, which emerged first in the context of

small groups where individuals often knew each other (they may

have worked together and/ or were friends), began to be theorized


in printed matter so as to reach a wider audience, groups dismantled.

The creation of women’s studies as an academic discipline provided

another setting where women could be informed about feminist

thinking and feminist theory. Many of the women who spearheaded

the introduction of women’s studies classes into colleges and uni-

versities had been radical activists in civil rights struggles, gay rights,

and early feminist movement. Many of them did not have doctor-

ates, which meant that they entered academic institutions receiving

lower pay and working longer hours than their colleagues in other

disciplines. By the time younger graduate students joined the effort

to legitimize feminist scholarship in the academy we knew that it

was important to gain higher degrees. Most of us saw our commit-

ment to women’s studies as political action; we were prepared to

sacrifice in order to create an academic base for feminist movement.

By the late ’70s women’s studies was on its way to becoming

an accepted academic discipline. This triumph overshadowed the

fact that many of the women who had paved the way for the

institutionalization of women’s studies were fired because they had

master’s degrees and not doctorates. While some of us returned to

graduate school to get PhDs, some of the best and brightest among

us did not because they were utterly disillusioned with the university

and burnt out from overwork as well as disappointed and enraged

that the radical politics undergirding women’s studies was being re-

placed by liberal reformism. Before too long the women’s studies

classroom had replaced the free-for-all consciousness-raising group.

Whereas women from various backgrounds, those who worked

solely as housewives or in service jobs, and big-time professional

women, could be found in diverse consciousness-raising groups, the

academy was and remains a site of class privilege. Privileged white

middle-class women who were a numeric majority though not nec-

essarily the radical leaders of contemporary feminist movement of-




ten gained prominence because they were the group mass media

focused on as representatives of the struggle. Women with revolu-

tionary feminist consciousness, many of them lesbian and from

working-class backgrounds, often lost visibility as the movement re-

ceived mainstream attention. Their displacement became complete

once women’s studies became entrenched in colleges and universi-

ties which are conservative corporate structures. Once the women’s

studies classroom replaced the consciousness-raising group as the

primary site for the transmission of feminist thinking and strategies

for social change the movement lost its mass-based potential.

Suddenly more and more women began to either call them-

selves “feminists” or use the rhetoric of gender discrimination to

change their economic status. The institutionalization of feminist

studies created a body of jobs both in the world of the academy and

in the world of publishing. These career-based changes led to forms

of career opportunism wherein women who had never been politi-

cally committed to mass-based feminist struggle adopted the stance

and jargon of feminism when it enhanced their class mobility. The

dismantling of consciousness-raising groups all but erased the notion

that one had to learn about feminism and make an informed choice

about embracing feminist politics to become a feminist advocate.

Without the consciousness-raising group as a site where women

confronted their own sexism towards other women, the direction of

feminist movement could shift to a focus on equality in the work-

force and confronting male domination. With heightened focus on

the construction of woman as a “victim” of gender equality deserv-

ing of reparations (whether through changes in discriminatory laws

or affirmative action policies) the idea that women needed to first

confront their internalized sexism as part of becoming feminist lost

currency. Females of all ages acted as though concern for or rage at

male domination or gender equality was all that was needed to make


one a “feminist.” Without confronting internalized sexism women

who picked up the feminist banner often betrayed the cause in their

interactions with other women.

By the early ’80s the evocation of a politicized sisterhood, so

crucial at the onset of the feminist movement, lost meaning as the

terrain of radical feminist politics was overshadowed by a lifestyle-

based feminism which suggested any woman could be a feminist no

matter what her political beliefs. Needless to say such thinking has

undermined feminist theory and practice, feminist politics. When

feminist movement renews itself, reinforcing again and again the

strategies that will enable a mass movement to end sexism and sexist

exploitation and oppression for everyone, consciousness-raising

will once again attain its original importance. Effectively imitating

the model of AA meetings, feminist consciousness-raising groups

will take place in communities, offering the message of feminist

thinking to everyone irrespective of class, race, or gender. While

specific groups based on shared identities might emerge, at the end

of every month individuals would be in mixed groups.

Feminist consciousness-raising for males is as essential to revo-

lutionary movement as female groups. Had there been an emphasis

on groups for males that taught boys and men about what sexism is

and how it can be transformed, it would have been impossible for

mass media to portray the movement as anti-male. It would also

have preempted the formation of an anti-feminist men’s movement.

Often men’s groups were formed in the wake of contemporary fem-

inism that in no way addressed the issues of sexism and male domi-

nation. Like the lifestyle-based feminism aimed at women these

groups often became therapeutic settings for men to confront their

wounds without a critique of patriarchy or a platform of resistance

to male domination. Future feminist movement will not make this

mistake. Males of all ages need settings where their resistance to sex-




ism is affirmed and valued. Without males as allies in struggle femi-

nist movement will not progress. As it is we have to do so much

work to correct the assumption deeply embedded in the cultural

psyche that feminism is anti-male. Feminism is anti-sexism. A male

who has divested of male privilege, who has embraced feminist

politics, is a worthy comrade in struggle, in no way a threat to femi-

nism, whereas a female who remains wedded to sexist thinking and

behavior infiltrating feminist movement is a dangerous threat. Sig-

nificantly, the most powerful intervention made by consciousness-

raising groups was the demand that all females confront their inter-

nalized sexism, their allegiance to patriarchal thinking and action,

and their commitment to feminist conversion. That intervention is

still needed. It remains the necessary step for anyone choosing femi-

nist politics. The enemy within must be transformed before we can

confront theenemy outside. The threat, the enemy, is sexist thought

and behavior. As long as females take up the banner of feminist poli-

tics without addressing and transforming their own sexism, ulti-

mately the movement will be undermined.



When the slogan “Sisterhood is powerful” was first used, it was awe-

some. I began my full-fledged participation in feminist movement

my sophomore year in college. Attending an all women’s college for

a year before I transferred to Stanford University, I knew from first-

hand experience the difference in female self-esteem and self-assertion

in same-sex classrooms versus those where males were present. At

Stanford males ruled the day in every classroom. Females spoke less,

took less initiative, and often when they spoke you could hardly hear

what they were saying. Their voices lacked strength and confidence.

And to make matters worse we were told time and time again by

male professors that we were not as intelligent as the males, that we

could not be “great” thinkers, writers, and so on. These attitudes

shocked me since I had come from an all-female environment

where our intellectual worth and value was constantly affirmed by

the standard of academic excellence our mostly female professors

set for us and themselves.

Indeed, I was indebted to my favorite white female English pro-

fessor who thought I was not getting the academic guidance I

needed at our women’s college because they did not have an intensi-

fied writing program. She encouraged me to attend Stanford. She

believed that I would someday be an important thinker and writer.





At Stanford my ability was constantly questioned. I began to doubt

myself. Then feminist movement rocked the campus. Female stu-

dents and professors demanded an end to discrimination based on

gender inside and outside the classroom. Wow, it was an intense and

awesome time. There I took my first women’s studies class with the

writer Tillie Olsen, who compelled her students to think first and

foremost about the fate of women from working-class backgrounds.

There the scholar and one-day biographer of Anne Sexton, Diane

Middlebrook, passed out one of my poems in our class on contem-

porary poetry with no name on it and asked us to identify whether

the writer was male or female, an experiment that made us think crit-

ically about judging the value of writing on the basis of gender bi-

ases. There I began to write my first book at the age of 19, Ain’t I a

Woman: Black Women and Feminism. None of these incredible trans-

formations would have happened without feminist movement cre-

ating a foundation for solidarity between women.

That foundation rested on our critique of what we then called

“the enemy within,” referring to our internalized sexism. We all

knew firsthand that we had been socialized as females by patriarchal

thinking to see ourselves as inferior to men, to see ourselves as al-

ways and only in competition with one another for patriarchal ap-

proval, to look upon each other with jealousy, fear, and hatred.

Sexist thinking made us judge each other without compassion and

punish one another harshly. Feminist thinking helped us unlearn fe-

male self-hatred. It enabled us to break free of the hold patriarchal

thinking had on our consciousness.

Male bonding was an accepted and affirmed aspect of patriar-

chal culture. It was simply assumed that men in groups would stick

together, support one another, be team players, place the good of

the group over individual gain and recognition. Female bonding was

not possible within patriarchy; it was an act of treason. Feminist


movement created the context for female bonding. We did not

bond against men, we bonded to protect our interests as women.

When we challenged professors who taught no books by women, it

was not because we did not like those professors (we often did);

rightly, we wanted an end to gender biases in the classroom and in

the curriculum.

The feminist transformations that were taking place in our coed

college in the early ’70s were taking place as well in the world of

home and work. First and foremost feminist movement urged fe-

males to no longer see ourselves and our bodies as the property of

men. To demand control of our sexuality, effective birth control and

reproductive rights, an end to rape and sexual harassment, we needed

to stand in solidarity. In order for women to change job discrimina-

tion we needed to lobby as a group to change public policy. Chal-

lenging and changing female sexist thinking was the first step

towards creating the powerful sisterhood that would ultimately rock

our nation.

Following in the wake of civil rights revolution feminist move-

ment in the ’70s and ’80s changed the face of our nation. The femi-

nist activists who made these changes possible cared for the

well-being of all females. We understood that political solidarity be-

tween females expressed in sisterhood goes beyond positive recog-

nition of the experiences of women and even shared sympathy for

common suffering. Feminist sisterhood is rooted in shared commit-

ment to struggle against patriarchal injustice, no matter the form

that injustice takes. Political solidarity between women always un-

dermines sexism and sets the stage for the overthrow of patriarchy.

Significantly, sisterhood could never have been possible across the

boundaries of race and class if individual women had not been willing

to divest of their power to dominate and exploit subordinated groups




of women. As long as women are using class or race power to domi-

nate other women, feminist sisterhood cannot be fully realized.

As more women begin to opportunistically lay claim to femi-

nism in the ’80s without undergoing the feminist consciousness-

raising that would have enabled them to divest of their sexism, the

patriarchal assumption that the powerful should rule over the weak

informed their relations to other women. As women, particularly

previously disenfranchised privileged white women, began to ac-

quire class power without divesting of their internalized sexism, divi-

sions between women intensified. When women of color critiqued

the racism within the society as a whole and called attention to the

ways that racism had shaped and informed feminist theory and prac-

tice, many white women simply turned their backs on the vision of

sisterhood, closing their minds and their hearts. And that was

equally true when it came to the issue of classism among women.

I remember when feminist women, mostly white women with

class privilege, debated the issue of whether or not to hire domestic

help, trying to come up with a way to not participate in the subordi-

nation and dehumanization of less-privileged women. Some of

those women successfully created positive bonding between them-

selves and the women they hired so that there could be mutual ad-

vancement in a larger context of inequality. Rather than abandoning

the vision of sisterhood, because they could not attain some utopian

state, they created a real sisterhood, one that took into account the

needs of everyone involved. This was the hard work of feminist

solidarity between women. Sadly, as opportunism within feminism

intensified, as feminist gains became commonplace and were there-

fore taken for granted, many women did not want to work hard to

create and sustain solidarity.

A large body of women simply abandoned the notion of sister-

hood. Individual women who had once critiqued and challenged pa-


triarchy re-aligned themselves with sexist men. Radical women who

felt betrayed by the fierce negative competition between women

often simply retreated. And at this point feminist movement,

which was aimed at positively transforming the lives of all females,

became more stratified. The vision of sisterhood that had been the

rallying cry of the movement seemed to many women to no longer

matter. Political solidarity between women which had been the force

putting in place positive change has been and is now consistently un-

dermined and threatened. As a consequence we are as in need of a

renewed commitment to political solidarity between women as we

were when contemporary feminist movement first began.

When contemporary feminist movement first began we had a

vision of sisterhood with no concrete understanding of the actual

work we would need to do to make political solidarity a reality.

Through experience and hard work, and, yes, by learning from our

failures and mistakes, we now have in place a body of theory and

shared practice that can teach new converts to feminist politics what

must be done to create, sustain, and protect our solidarity. Since

masses of young females know little about feminism and many

falsely assume that sexism is no longer the problem, feminist educa-

tion for critical consciousness must be continuous. Older feminist

thinkers cannot assume that young females will just acquire knowl-

edge of feminism along the way to adulthood. They require guid-

ance. Overall women in our society are forgetting the value and

power of sisterhood. Renewed feminist movement must once again

raise the banner high to proclaim anew “Sisterhood is powerful.”

Radical groups of women continue our commitment to build-

ing sisterhood, to making feminist political solidarity between

women an ongoing reality. We continue the work of bonding across

race and class. We continue to put in place the anti-sexist thinking

and practice which affirms the reality that females can achieve



i II


self-actualization and success without dominating one another. And

we have the good fortune to know everyday of our lives that sister-

hood is concretely possible, that sisterhood is still powerful.



Before women’s studies classes, before feminist literature, individ-

ual women learned about feminism in groups. The women in those

groups were the first to begin to create feminist theory which in-

cluded both an analysis of sexism, strategies for challenging patriar-

chy, and new models of social interaction. Everything we do in life is

rooted in theory. Whether we consciously explore the reasons we

have a particular perspective or take a particular action there is also

an underlying system shaping thought and practice. In its earliest in-

ception feminist theory had as its primary goal explaining to women

and men how sexist thinking worked and how we could challenge

and change it.

In those days most of us had been socialized by parents and so-

ciety to accept sexist thinking. We had not taken time to figure out

the roots of our perceptions. Feminist thinking and feminist theory

urged us to do that. At first feminist theory was made available by

word of mouth or in cheaply put together newsletters and pam-

phlets. The development of women’s publishing (where women

wrote, printed, and controlled production on all levels, including

marketing) became the site for the dissemination of feminist think-






ing. While my first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism,

written in the ’70s and published in 1981, was produced by a small

socialist collective, South End Press, at least half of its members

were feminist women, and all its members were anti-sexist.

Producing a body of feminist literature coupled with the de-

mand for the recovery of women’s history was one of the most pow-

erful and successful interventions of contemporary feminism. In all

spheres of literary writing and academic scholarship works by

women had historically received little or no attention as a conse-

quence of gender discrimination. Remarkably, when feminist move-

ment exposed biases in curriculum, much of this forgotten and

ignored work was rediscovered. The formation of women’s studies

programs in colleges and universities provided institutionallegitima-

tion for academic focus on work by women. Following in the wake

of black studies, women’s studies became the place where one could

learn about gender, about women, from a non-biased perspective.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, professors in women’s studies

classes did not and do not trash work by men; we intervene on sexist

thinking by showing that women’s work is often just as good, as in-

teresting, if not more so, as work by men. So-called great literature

by men is critiqued only to show the biases present in the assess-

ment of aesthetic value. I have never taken a women’s studies course

or heard about one where works by men were deemed unimportant

or irrelevant. Feminist critiques of all-male canons of scholarship or

literary work expose biases based on gender. Importantly, these ex-

posures were central to makinOg a place for the recovery of women’s

work and a contemporary place for the production of new work by

and about women. Feminist movement gained momentum when it found its way

into the academy. In classrooms all over the nation young minds

were able to learn about feminist thinking, read the theory, and use it


in their academic explorations. When I was a graduate student pre-

paring to write a dissertation, feminist thinking allowed me to

choose to write about a black woman writer who was not widely

read at the time, Toni Morrison. Very little serious literary scholar-

ship had been done on works by black women writers prior to femi-

nist movement. When Alice Walker acquired fame, she participated

in the recovery of the work of writer Zora Neale Hurston, who

shortly became the most canonized black woman writer in Ameri-

can literature. Feminist movement created a revolution when it de-

manded respect for women’s academic work, recognition of that

work past and present, and an end to gender biases in curriculum

and pedagogy.

The institutionalization of women’s studies helped spread the

word about feminism. It offered a legitimate site for conversion by

providing a sustained body of open minds. Students who attended

women’s studies classes were there to learn. They wanted to know

more about feminist thinking. And it was in those classes that many

of us awakened politically. I had come to feminist thinking by chal-

lenging male domination in our patriarchal household. But simply

being the victim of an exploitative or oppressive system and even re-

sisting it does not mean we understand why it’s in place or how to

change it. My conversion to feminist politics had occurred long be-

fore I entered college, but the feminist classroom was the place

where I learned feminist thinking and feminist theory. And it was in

that space that I received the encouragement to think critically and

write about black female experience.

Throughout the ’70s the production of feminist thinking and

theory was collaborative work in that women were constantly in dia-

logue about ideas, testing and reshaping our paradigms. Indeed,

when black women and other women of color raised the issue of ra-

cial biases as a factor shaping feminist thought there was an initial re-




sistance to the notion that much of what privileged class women had

identified as true to female experience might be flawed, but over

time feminist theory changed. Even though many white women

thinkers were able to acknowledge their biases without doing the

work of rethinking, this was still an important shift. By the late ’80s

most feminist scholarship reflected an awareness of race and class

differences. Women scholars who were truly committed to feminist

movement and feminist solidarity were eager to produce theory that

would address the realities of most women. While academic legitimation was crucial to the advancement of

feminist thought, it created a new set of difficulties. Suddenly the

feminist thinking that had emerged direcdy from theory and practice

received less attention than theory that was metalinguistic, creating

exclusive jargon; it was written solely for an academic audience. It

was as if a large body of feminist thinkers banded together to form

an elite group writing theory that could be understood only by an

“in” crowd. Women and men outside the academic domain were no longer

considered an important audience. Feminist thinking and theory

were no longer tied to feminist movement. Academic politics and

careerism overshadowed feminist politics. Feminist theory began to

be housed in an academic ghetto with litde connection to a world

outside. Work was and is produced in the academy that is oftentimes

visionary, but these insights rarely reach many people. As a conse-

quence the academization of feminist thought in this manner under-

mines feminist movement via depoliticization. Deradicalized, it is

like every other academic discipline with the only difference being

the focus on gender. Literature that helps inform masses of people, that helps indi-

viduals understand feminist thinking and feminist politics, needs to

be written in a range of styles and formats. We need work that is es-


pecially geared towards youth culture. No one produces this work in

academic settings. Without abandoning women’s studies programs

which are already at risk at colleges and universities as conservatives

seek to undo the changes created by struggles for gender justice,

we need feminist studies that is community-based. Imagine a mass-

based feminist movement where folks go door to door passing out

literature, taking the time (as do religious groups) to explain to peo-

ple what feminism is all about.

When contemporary feminist movement was at its peak, sexist

biases in books for children were critiqued. Books “for free chil-

dren” were written. Once we ceased being critically vigilant, the sex-

ism began to reappear. Children’s literature is one of the most

crucial sites for feminist education for critical consciousness pre-

cisely because beliefs and identities are still being formed. And more

often than not narrow-minded thinking about gender continues to

be the norm on the playground. Public education for children has to

be a place where feminist activists continue to do the work of creat-

ing an unbiased curriculum.

Future feminist movement must necessarily think of feminist ed-

ucation as significant in the lives of everyone. Despite the economic

gains of individual feminist women, many women who have amassed

wealth or accepted the contribution of wealthy males, who are our al-

lies in struggle, we have created no schools founded on feminist

principles for girls and boys, for women and men. By failing to cre-

ate a mass-based educational movement to teach everyone about

feminism we allow mainstream patriarchal mass media to remain the

primary place where folks learn about feminism, and most of what

they learn is negative. Teaching feminist thought and theory to ev-

eryone means that we have to reach beyond the academic and even

the written word. Masses of folks lack the skills to read most femi-

nist books. Books on tape, songs, radio, and television are all ways to




share feminist knowledge. And of course we need a feminist televi-

sion network, which is not the same as a network for women. Galva-

nizing funds to create a feminist television network would help us

spread feminist thinking globally. If we cannot own a network, let’s

pay for time on an existing network. After years of ownership by

males who were not all anti-sexist Ms. magazine is now owned by

women who are all deeply committed to feminist principles. This is a

step in the right direction.

If we do not work to create a mass-based movement which offers

feminist education to everyone, females and males, feminist theory

and practice will always be undermined by the negative information

produced in most mainstream media. The citizens of this nation

cannot know the positive contributions feminist movement has

made to all our lives if we do not highlight these gains. Constructive

feminist contributions to the well-being of our communities and soci-

ety are often appropriated by the dominant culture which then pro-

jects negative representations of feminism. Most people have no

understanding of the myriad ways feminism has positively changed

all our lives. Sharing feminist thought and practice sustains feminist

movement. Feminist knowledge is for everybody.


OUR BODIES, OURSELVES Reproductive Rights

When contemporary feminist movement began the issues that were

projected as most relevant were those that were directly linked to the

experiences of highly educated white women (most of whom were

materially privileged.) Since feminist movement followed in the

wake of civil rights and sexual liberation it seemed appropriate at the

time that issues around the female body were foregrounded. Con-

trary to the image the mass media presented to the world, a feminist

movement starting with women burning bras at a Miss America

pageant and then later images of women seeking abortions, one of

the first issues which served as a catalyst for the formation of the

movement was sexuality – the issue being the rights of women to

choose when and with whom they would be sexual. The sexual ex-

ploitation of women’s bodies had been a common occurrence in

radical movements for social justice whether socialist, civil rights, etc.

When the so-called sexual revolution was at its peak the issue of

free love (which usually meant having as much sex as one wanted

with whomever one desired) brought females face to face with the

issue of unwanted pregnancy. Before there could be any gender equity

around the issue of free love women needed access to safe, effective con-

traceptives and abortions. While individual white women with class

privilege often had access to both these safeguards, most women





did not. Often individual women with class privilege were too

ashamed of unwanted pregnancy to make use of their more direct ac-

cess to responsible health care. The women of the late ’60s and early

’70s who clamored for abortions had seen the tragedies of illegal

abortions, the misery of forced marriages as a consequence of un-

wanted pregnancies. Many of us were the unplanned children of tal-

ented, creative women whose lives had been changed by unplanned

and unwanted pregnancies; we witnessed their bitterness, their rage,

their disappointment with their lot in life. And we were clear that

there could be no genuine sexual liberation for women and men

without better, safer contraceptives – without the right to a safe,

legal abortion.

In retrospect, it is evident that highlighting abortion rather than

reproductive rights as a whole reflected the class biases of the

women who were at the forefront of the movement. While the issue

of abortion was and remains relevant to all women, there were other

reproductive issues that were just as vital which needed attention

and might have served to galvanize masses. These issues ranged from

basic sex education, prenatal care, preventive health care that would

help females understand how their bodies worked, to forced steril-

ization, unnecessary cesareans and/or hysterectomies, and the

medical complications they left in their wake. Of all these issues in-

dividual white women with class privilege identified most intimately

with the pain of unwanted pregnancy. And they highlighted the

abortion issue. They were not by any means the only group in need of

access to safe, legal abortions. As already stated, they were far more

likely to have the means to acquire an abortion than poor and work-

ing-class women. In those days poor women, black women included,

often sought illegal abortions. The right to have an abortion was not a

white-women-only issue; it was simply not the only or even the most

important reproductive concern for masses of American women.


The development of effective though not totally safe birth con-

trol pills (created by male scientists, most of whom were not anti-

sexist) truly paved the way for female sexual liberation more so than

abortion rights. Women like myself who were in our late teens when

the pill was first widely available were spared the fear and shame of

unwanted pregnancies. Responsible birth control liberated many

women like myself who were pro-choice but not necessarily pro-

abortion for ourselves from having to personally confront the issue.

While I never had an unwanted pregnancy in the heyday of sexual

liberation, many of my peers saw abortion as a better choice than

conscious, vigilant use of birth control pills. And they did frequently

use abortion as a means of birth control. Using the pill meant a

woman was directly confronting her choice to be sexually active.

Women who were more conscientious about birth control were of-

ten regarded as sexually loose by men. It was easier for some females

just to let things happen sexually then take care of the “problem”

later with abortions. We now know that both repeated abortions or

prolonged use of birth control pills with high levels of estrogen are

not risk-free. Yet women were willing to take risks to have sexual

freedom – to have the right to choose.

The abortion issue captured the attention of mass media be-

cause it really challenged the fundamentalist thinking of Christianity.

It directly challenged the notion that a woman’s reason for existence

was to bear children. It called the nation’s attention to the female

body as no other issue could have done. It was a direct challenge to

the church. Later all the other reproductive issues that feminist

thinkers called attention to were often ignored by mass media. The

long-range medical problems from cesareans and hysterectomies

were not juicy subjects for mass media; they actually called attention

to a capitalist patriarchal male-dominated medical system that con-

trolled women’s bodies and did with them anything they wanted to





do. To focus on gender injustice in these arenas would have been

too radical for a mass media which remains deeply conservative and

for the most part anti-feminist.

No feminist activists in the late ’60s and early ’70s imagined that

we would have to wage a battle for women’s reproductive rights in

the ’90s. Once feminist movement created the cultural revolution

which made the use of relatively risk-free contraceptives acceptable

and the right to have a safe, legal abortion possible women simply

assumed those rights would no longer be questioned. The demise of

an organized, radical feminist mass-based political movement cou-

pled with anti-feminist backlash from an organized right-wing polit-

ical front which relies on fundamentalist interpretations of religion

placed abortion back on the political agenda. The right of females to

choose is now called into question.

Sadly the anti-abortion platform has most viciously targeted

state-funded, inexpensive, and, when need be, free abortions. As a

consequence women of all races who have class privilege continue

to have access to safe abortions – continue to have the right to

choose – while materially disadvantaged women suffer. Masses of

poor and working-class women lose access to abortion when there

is no government funding available for reproductive rights health

care. Women with class privilege do not feel threatened when abor-

tions can be had only if one has lots of money because they can still

have them. But masses of women do not have class power. More

women than ever before are entering the ranks of the poor and indi-

gent. Without the right to safe, inexpensive, and free abortions they

lose all control over their bodies. If we return to a world where abor-

tions are only accessible to those females with lots of money we risk

the return of public policy that will aim to make abortion illegal. It’s

already happening in many conservative states. Women of all classes

must continue to make abortions safe, legal, and affordable.


The right of women to choose whether or not to have an abor-

tion is only one aspect of reproductive freedom. Depending on a

woman’s age and circumstance of life the aspect of reproductive

rights that matters most will change. A sexually active woman in her

20s or 30s who finds birth control pills unsafe may one day face an

unwanted pregnancy and the right to have a legal, safe, inexpensive

abortion may be the reproductive issue that is most relevant. But

when she is menopausal and doctors are urging her to have a hyster-

ectomy that may be the most relevant reproductive rights issue.

As we seek to rekindle the flames of mass-based feminist move-

ment reproductive rights will remain a central feminist agenda. If

women do not have the right to choose what happens to our bodies

we risk relinquishing rights in all other areas of our lives. In renewed

feminist movement the overall issue of reproductive rights will take

precedence over any single issue. This does not meant that the push

for legal, safe, inexpensive abortions will not remain central, it will

simply not be the only issue that is centralized. If sex education, pre-

ventive health care, and easy access to contraceptives are offered to

every female, fewer of us will have unwanted pregnancies. As a con-

sequence the need for abortions would diminish.

Losing ground on the issue of legal, safe, inexpensive abortion

means that women lose ground on all reproductive issues. The

anti-choice movement is fundamentally anti-feminist. While it is

possible for women to individually choose never to have an abor-

tion, allegiance to feminist politics means that they still are pro-choice,

that they support the right of females who need abortions to choose

whether or not to have them. Young females who have always had

access to effective contraception – who have never witnessed the

tragedies caused by illegal abortions – have no firsthand experience

of the powerlessness and vulnerability to exploitation that will al-

ways be the outcome if females do not have reproductive rights.




Ongoing discussion about the wide range of issues that come under

the heading of reproductive rights is needed if females of all ages

and our male allies in struggle are to understand why these rights are

important. This understanding is the basis of our commitment to

keeping reproductive rights a reality for all females. Feminist focus

on reproductive rights is needed to protect and sustain our freedom.



Challenging sexist thinking about the female body was one of the

most powerful interventions made by contemporary feminist move-

ment. Before women’s liberation all females young and old were so-

cialized by sexist thinking to believe that our value rested solely on

appearance and whether or not we were perceived to be good look-

ing, especially by men. Understanding that females could never be

liberated if we did not develop healthy self-esteem and self-love

feminist thinkers went directly to the heart of the matter – critically

examining how we feel and think about our bodies and offering con-

structive strategies for change. Looking back after years of feeling

comfortable choosing whether or not to wear a bra, I can remember

what a momentous decision this was 30 years ago. Women stripping

their bodies of unhealthy and uncomfortable, restrictive clothing-

bras, girdles, corsets, garter belts, etc. – was a ritualistic, radical re-

claiming of the health and glory of the female body. Females today

who have never known such restrictions can only trust us when we

say that this reclaiming was momentous.

On a deeper level this ritual validated women wearing comfort-

able clothing on all levels in our lives. Just to be able to wear pants to

work was awesome to many women, whose jobs had required them

to be constantly bending and stooping over. For women who had





never been comfortable in dresses and skirts all these changes were

exciting. Today they can appear trivial to females who have been

able to freely choose what they want to wear from childhood on.

Many adult women embracing feminism stopped wearing crippling,

uncomfortable high-heeled shoes. These changes led the shoe-

making industry to design comfortable low shoes for women. No

longer forced by sexist tradition to wear make-up, women looked in

the mirror and learned to face ourselves just the way we are.

The clothing and revolution created by feminist interventions

let females know that our flesh was worthy oflove and adoration in its

natural state; nothing had to be added unless a woman chose further

adornment. Initially, capitalist investors in the cosmetic and fashion

industry feared that feminism would destroy their business. They

put their money behind mass-media campaigns which trivialized

women’s liberation by portraying images which suggested feminists

were big, hypermasculine, and just plain old ugly. In reality, women

involved in feminist movement came in all shapes and sizes. We

were utterly diverse. And how thrilling to be free to appreciate our

differences without judgment or competition.

There was a period in the early days of feminism when many ac-

tivists abdicated all interest in fashion and appearance. These indi-

viduals often harshly critiqued any woman who showed an interest

in frilly feminine attire or make-up. Most of us were excited to have

options. And given choice, we usually decided in the direction of

comfort and ease. It has never been a simple matter for women to

unite a love of beauty and style with comfort and ease. Women had

to demand that the fashion industry (which was totally

male-dominated in those days) create diverse styles of clothing. Maga-

zines changed (feminist activists called for more women writers and

articles on serious subjects). For the first time in our nation’s history

women were compelled to acknowledge the strength of our con-


sumer dollars, using that power to create positive change.

Challenging the industry of sexist-defined fashion opened up

the space for females to examine for the first time in our lives the

pathological, life-threatening aspects of appearance obsession.

Compulsive eating and compulsive starvation were highlighted.

While they created different “looks,” these life-threatening addic-

tions had the same root. Feminist movement compelled the sexist

medical establishment to pay attention to these issues. Initially this

establishment ignored feminist critique. But when feminists began

to create health centers, providing a space for female-centered, posi-

tive health care, the medical industry realized that, as with fashion,

masses of women would take their consumer dollars and move in

the direction of those health care facilities which provided the

greater care, ease, and respect for women’s bodies. All the positive

changes in the medical establishment’s attitudes towards the female

body, towards female health care, are the direct outcome of feminist

struggle. When it comes to the issue of medical care, of taking our

bodies seriously, women continue to challenge and confront the

medical industry. This is one of the few places where feminist strug-

gle garners mass support from women, whether they are or are not

committed to feminist politics. We see the collective power of

women when it comes to gynecological matters, to those forms of

cancer (especially breast cancer) that threaten females more than

males, and more recently in the area of heart disease.

Feminist struggle to end eating disorders has been an ongoing

battle because our nation’s obsession with judging females of all

ages on the basis of how we look was never completely eliminated.

It continues to grip our cultural imagination. By the early ’80s many

women were moving away from feminism. While all females reaped

the benefits of feminist interventions, more and more females

were embracing anew sexist-defined notions of beauty. Individual




women who had been in their early 20s when contemporary femi-

nist movement began were moving into their late 40s and 50s. Even

though feminist changes in the way we see female bodies have made

aging a more positive experience for women, facing the reality of ag-

ing in patriarchal society, particularly the reality of no longer being

able biologically to bear children, led many women to adopt anew

the old sexist notions of feminine beauty.

Nowadays, more than ever before in our nation’s history, a huge

number of heterosexual women past 40 were and are still single.

Finding themselves in competition with younger women (many of

whom are not and will never be feminist) for male attention they of-

ten emulate sexist representations of female beauty. Certainly it was

in the interest of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal fashion

and cosmetic industry to re-glamorize sexist-defined notions of

beauty. Mass media has followed suit. In movies, on television, and

in public advertisements images of reed-thin, dyed-blonde women

looking as though they would kill for a good meal have become the

norm. Back with a vengeance, sexist images of female beauty

abound and threaten to undo much of the progress gained by femi-

nist interventions.

Tragically, even though females are more aware than ever be-

fore of the widespread problem of life-threatening eating disorders

in our nation’s history, a large group of females from the very young

to the very old are still starving themselves to be thin. The disease of

anorexia has become a commonplace theme, a subject in books,

movies, etc. But no dire warnings work to deter females who believe

their worth, beauty, and intrinsic value will be determined by

whether or not they are thin. Today’s fashion magazines may carry

an article about the dangers of anorexia while bombarding its read-

ers with images of emaciated young bodies representing the height

of beauty and desirability. The confusing message is most damaging


to those females who have never claimed a feminist politics. Yet

there are recent feminist interventions aimed at renewing our efforts

to affirm the natural beauty of female bodies.

Girls today are often just as self-hating when it comes to their

bodies as their pre-feminist counterparts were. While feminist move-

ment produced many types of pro-female magazines, no feminist-

oriented fashion magazine appeared to offer all females alternative

visions of beauty. To critique sexist images without offering alterna-

tives is an incomplete intervention. Critique in and of itself does not

lead to change. Indeed, much feminist critique of beauty has merely

left females confused about what a healthy choice is. As a middle-aged

woman gaining more weight than ever before in my life, I want to

work at shedding pounds without deploying sexist body self-hatred

to do so. Nowadays, in a fashion world, especially on the consumer

side, where clothing that looks like it has been designed simply for

reed-thin adolescent girl bodies is the norm, all females no matter

their age are being socialized either consciously or unconsciously to

have anxiety about their body, to see flesh as problematic. While we

are fortunate that some stores carry beautiful clothing for women of

all sizes and shapes, often this clothing is far more pricey than the

cheaper clothing the fashion industry markets towards the general

public. Increasingly today’s fashion magazines look like the maga-

zines of the past. More and more bylines are by males. Seldom do ar-

ticles have a feminist perspective or feminist content. And the

fashions portrayed tend to reflect sexist sensibility.

These changes have been unacknowledged publicly because so

many of the feminist women who have come to mature adulthood

exercise their freedom of choice and seek healthy alternative models

of beauty. However, if we abandon the struggle to eliminate sexist

defined notions of beauty altogether, we risk undermining all the

marvelous feminist interventions which allowed us to embrace our




bodies and ourselves and love them. Although all females are more

aware of the pitfalls and dangers of embracing sexist notions of fe-

male beauty, we are not doing enough to eliminate those dangers –

to create alternatives.

Young girls and adolescents will not know that feminist think-

ers acknowledge both the value of beauty and adornment if we con-

tinue to allow patriarchal sensibilities to inform the beauty industry

in all spheres. Rigid feminist dismissal of female longings for beauty

has undermined feminist politics. While this sensibility is more un-

common, it is often presented by mass media as the way feminists

think. Until feminists go back to the beauty industry, go back to

fashion, and create an ongoing, sustained revolution, we will not be

free. We will not know how to love our bodies as ourselves.



Class difference and the way in which it divides women was an issue

women in feminist movement talked about long before race. In the

mostly white circles of a newly formed women’s liberation move-

ment the most glaring separation between women was that of class.

White working-class women recognized that class hierarchies were

present in the movement. Conflict arose between the reformist vi-

sion of women’s liberation which basically demanded equal rights

for women within the existing class structure, and more radical

and/ or revolutionary models, which called for fundamental change

in the existing structure so that models of mutuality and equality

could replace the old paradigms. However, as feminist movement

progressed and privileged groups of well-educated white women be-

gan to achieve equal access to class power with their male counter-

parts, feminist class struggle was no longer deemed important.

From the onset of the movement women from privileged

classes were able to make their concerns “the” issues that should be

focused on in part because they were the group of women who re-

ceived public attention. They attracted mass media. The issues that

were most relevant to working women or masses of women were

never highlighted by mainstream mass media. Betty Friedan’s The

Feminist Mystique identified “the problem that has no name” as the





dissatisfaction females felt about being confined and subordinated

in the home as housewives. While this issue was presented as a crisis

for women it really was only a crisis for a small group of well-educated

white women. While they were complaining about the dangers of

confinement in the home a huge majority of women in the nation

were in the workforce. And many of these working women, who put in

long hours for low wages while still doing all the work in the domes-

tic household would have seen the right to stay home as “freedom.”

It was not gender discrimination or sexist oppression that kept

privileged women of all races from working outside the home, it was

the fact that the jobs that would have been available to them would

have been the same low-paying unskilled labor open to all working

women. Elite groups of highly educated females stayed at home

rather than do the type of work large numbers of lower-middle-class

and working-class women were doing. Occasionally, a few of these

women defied convention and worked outside the home perform-

ing tasks way below their educational skills and facing resistance

from husbands and family. It was this resistance that turned the is-

sue of their working outside the home into an issue of gender dis-

crimination and made opposing patriarchy and seeking equal rights

with men of their class the political platform that chose feminism

rather than class struggle.

From the outset, reformist white women with class privilege

were well aware that the power and freedom they wanted was the

freedom they perceived men of their class enjoying. Their resistance

to patriarchal male domination in the domestic household provided

them with a connection they could use to unite across class with

other women who were weary of male domination. But only privi-

leged women had the luxury to imagine working outside the home

would actually provide them with an income which would enable

them to be economically self-sufficient. Working-class women al-


ready knew that the wages they received would not liberate them.

Reformist efforts on the part of privileged groups of women to

change the workforce so that women workers would be paid more

and face less gender-based discrimination and harassment on the

job had positive impact on the lives of all women. And these gains

are important. Yet the fact that the privileged gained in class power

while masses of women still do not receive wage equity with men is

an indication of the way in which class interests superceded feminist

efforts to change the workforce so that women would receive equal

pay for equal work.

Lesbian feminist thinkers were among the first activists to raise

the issue of class in feminist movement expressing their viewpoints

in an accessible language. They were a group of women who had not

imagined they could depend on husbands to support them. And

they were often much more aware than their straight counterparts of

the difficulties all women would face in the workforce. In the early

’70s anthologies like Class and Feminism) edited by Charlotte Bunch

and Nancy Myron, published work written by women from diverse

class backgrounds who were confronting the issue in feminist cir-

cles. Each essay emphasized the fact that class was not simply a

question of money. In “The Last Straw,” Rita Mae Brown (who was

not a famous writer at the time) clearly stated:

Class is much more than Marx’s definition of relationship to the

means of production. Class involved your behavior, your basic

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.

These women who entered feminist groups made up of diverse

classes were among the first to see that the vision of a politically

based sisterhood where all females would unite together to fight pa-




triarchy could not emerge until the issue of class was confronted.

Placing class on feminist agendas opened up the space where

the intersections of class and race were made apparent. Within the

institutionalized race, sex, class social system in our society black fe-

males were clearly at the bottom of the economic totem pole. Ini-

tially, well-educated white women from working-class backgrounds

were more visible than black females of all classes in feminist move-

ment. They were a minority within the movement, but theirs was the

voice of experience. They knew better than their privileged- class

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