Category Archives: Book Review

Discovering an Old Classic Book: “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism” by Bell Hooks

Book review by Hameedat Ogunlayi

 

 

As a budding young feminist, I decided to read and review an old classic book “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism”, which was one of the ground-breaking contributions to black feminist scholarship in the 20th century. This was the first book published by Gloria Watkins in 1981, better known by her pen name, Bell Hooks. She is an American author, professor, feminist and social activist with over 30 books published and numerous scholarly articles mainly focused on race, gender, class and capitalism.

During the period that this was written, mainstream feminism was dominated by white middle-class women and the plight of black women was ignored as it did not serve their opportunistic interests. As a result, much of the feminist literature that existed then were both racist and sexist. Hooks described that white feminist scholars “simply ignored the existence of black women or wrote about them using common sexist and racist stereotypes”. White feminists also failed to challenge “the racist-sexist tendency to use the word ‘woman’ to refer solely to white women”. Therefore, Hooks was adamant for black women to take up their rightful space in the feminist discourse.

This book covered a wide range of subjects with key historical context, including the impact of sexism on black women during slavery, the devaluation of black womanhood, black male sexism, racism within the feminist movement and the involvement of black women with feminism. In this book, Hooks writes about the extent of the negative tropes used to devalue black womanhood and how this evolved from the 17th century to the 20th century. The most dominant negative stereotype was that black women were “sexually depraved, immoral and loose” which originated from slavery but continued to have lasting impact long after. This trope was used to justify the sexual assault of black women by both white and black men, as they were seen as available and eager.

Hooks also discussed the rift that sexism caused between black men and black women. This became most evident during the civil rights movement, where black women were conditioned to believe that “to cast a vote in favour of women’s liberation, was to cast a vote against black liberation” as written by Hooks.

 

Therefore, the black liberation movement became a movement pushing for the establishment of black patriarchy and a tool for black men to regain their ‘masculinity’, while the suffering of black women was disregarded.

As a relatively novice reader of black feminist literature myself, I found this to be a great introduction into the theory of black feminism. The book provided an in-depth insight into the plight of black women. Although, some beginners may find this to be quite a dense read, so the section I would most recommend is the first chapter on ‘Sexism and the Black Female Slave Experience’. I found this to be the most enlightening, as it explains how the subjugation of black women originated and how they were equally oppressed by sexism and racism.

Despite the fact that this book was published over 40 years ago, I was still able to relate to some key aspects. One part that particularly resonated with me was that notion that majority of black women in the 20th century felt the most oppressive force in their lives was racism not sexism. Mainly because black women were often forced to pick between their race or their gender. To which hooks wrote “the sad irony is of course that black women are often most victimised by the very sexism we refuse to collectively identify as an oppressive force”. This was before the concept of ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, who also acknowledged that black women were often excluded from feminist theory and anti-racist politics, even though they were the most marginalised within these groups.

Personally, as a young black woman, reading this book has empowered me to defy the roles and tropes that have been assigned to black women in society. It has altered my perspective and has made me revaluate the extent to which I view sexism as an oppressive force in my life. Therefore, I implore all black women to read this book to gain further understanding of the origins of our struggles. I also think this is an important read for non-black women and black men who are keen to understand more about intersectionality and how their struggles differ from that of black women’s, who are doubly impacted by racism and sexism.

I believe this is still a very relevant and revolutionary piece of work and I encourage all those who claim to be feminists or advocates of women’s rights to have a read. For those interested in reading more on black feminist literature, an extensive reading list can be found here.

 

Bibliography

Hooks, B., 2014. Ain’t I A Woman: Black women and feminism. New York, NY: Routledge.

 

Crenshaw, K., 1989. Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. u. Chi. Legal f., p.139.

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 children’s books for the gender conscious family

Maxime Perrott

Reading books together as a family is one of the most beneficial ways to reconnect with each other after a busy day. But also, to share stories that reflect the beliefs and values we want our children to be surrounded by.

Research has shown that children can be seen to ‘do gender’ at a young age. Where in a range of social contexts children establish and enforce gender boundaries in ways that reflect their ideas of gender difference (Messner 2000). Therefore, it is up to us to show them that a child’s gender should not, and need not, constrain them. So, all children are free to become and be whatever they want in life.

Here I have collected 5 of my favourite books that tackle the sometimes-complex concept of gender. Along with a summary of recent parent reviews from Amazon. These are books for all the family to enjoy. They are unified in the message that every child can really be anything, and express themselves, in any way they want.

  1. Gender Swapped Fairy Tales.

This is a beautiful and thoughtful book comprised of classic tales many

will be familiar with. With the gender identifiers switched. None of the original story lines have been tampered with and the moral endings remain the same, just the characters’ genders have been swapped.

The original illustrations are beautifully designed full of colour. This book is sure to captivate the whole family and can be read together for years to come.

What parents say:

From the 10 most recent reviews, 7 are positive. These are centred around how the small change of gender seems to really impact the story telling and how it has brought to parents’ attention that some of the most loved and well-known fairy tales have shaped our perceptions of gender. The less positive reviews commented on the awkward wording of the stories and how they are at times, inappropriate for very young children.

  1. Julian is a Mermaid.

I found this to be a charming picture book. It tells the story of young Julian who, after seeing three women dressed up on the subway one day, creates himself a fabulous mermaid costume.

A story full of heart, this is a book all about individuality and at its core a champion for self-confidence and love. And if you and your family enjoy this book there is also a sequel Julian at the Wedding.

What parents say:

This book has 5 stars and over 2,500 reviews on Amazon, so definitely a firm favourite with many parents. It is described as a ‘joy’. Reviewers commented on how it is beautifully written and illustrated, pointing out how Julian’s Nana is written as being calm and accepting.

  1. What are little girls made of?

This is a clever and funny book that comprises of revamped traditional nursery rhymes with a feminist twist. Full of witty illustrations these new and improved nursery rhymes champion the idea that girls can do whatever and be whatever they want, and most importantly are the heroes of any story!

This is a fun and easy to read book for the family to share together and especially for those with children aged between 3 and 5.

What parents say:

The 190 online reviews are largely positive and emphasis the empowering message of this book. It is routinely described as fun, refreshing and a must read for any family raising girls in this ‘new and modern world of gender equality.’

 

However, we still have a long road ahead for achieving true gender equality. Women are still routinely missing from top jobs in many industries, and although progress has been made in some areas, it remains too slow (Kaur 2020). And a recent survey carried out for the UN found that 97% of women have been sexually harassed in the UK (Advanced Pro Bono 2021).

Figures like these, show why it is so important to normalise the idea of gender equality from a young age and really encourage our young girls and boys to become whatever they want to be. But also, to be true to themselves, and not pre-defined gender norms. 

If these are topics that interest you, and you would like to learn more, please see the ‘Further Reading’ section at the end of this article

 

  1. Little Feminist Picture Book (Little People Big Dreams collection)

A great book honouring 25 amazing women throughout history. Featuring politicians, athletes, scientists, artists and more, I found this book inspiring and really champions the idea that any young girl can become whatever they want to be.

As part of the Little People Big Dreams book collection there are plenty more inspiring reads to collect. Although I recommend this as the starting book for the collection. Especially for families with pre-school aged children, as it comes in hardcover and the short biographies are easy and enjoyable to read as a family.

What parents say:

Unsurprisingly, given the popularity of this collection, comments are overwhelmingly positive about this book. With 9 out of ten of the most recent reviews scoring it 5 stars. Reviewers comment on how well received the book is by their children and the inspiring women that are included.

 

  1. Good night stories for rebel girls/Good night stories for boys who dare to be different.

Although technically two books, I just could not mention one without the other! These are award winning, bestseller books for a reason. I found these books full of inspiring women and men, who despite of constricting gender norms and difficult backgrounds have gone on to become amazing people and do amazing things.

I think these are wonderful books to empower young boys and girls. And no doubt they will start many meaningful conversations and be enjoyed by all the family.

What parents say:

These books have received 5 and 4.5 stars on Amazon, respectively. And with over 8,000 combined ratings, parents are unanimously positive about these books. Comments note the inspirational people included and the way their children enjoyed the books. Both books have been described as must-read books and really showcase the many different types of girls and boys who have gone done simply amazing things in life.

References:

Advance Pro Bono. 2021. Prevalence and reporting of sexual harassment in UK public spaces: A report by the APPG for UN Women. London: APPG for UN Women.

Kaur, S. 2020. Sex and Power 2020. London: Fawcett Society.

Messner, M. A. 2000. Barbie Girls Versus Sea Monsters: Children Constructing Gender. Gender and Society 14(6), pp. 765 – 784.

 

Further Reading:

Gender Equality in the Workplace:

Article written by the guardian, titled ‘UK still “generations away” from equality in top jobs, study shows.’ This is available online:

UK still ‘generations away’ from equality in top jobs, study shows | Gender | The Guardian

Journal article discussing some of the reasons for inequality in the workplace:

Reskin. B. F. 1987. Bringing the men back in: Sex differentiation and the Devaluation of Women’s work. Gender and Society 2(1), pp. 58-81.

An ESRC funded report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies detailing the nature of the gender wage gap in the UK:

Dias, M. C. et al. 2016. The Gender Pay Gap. London: The Institute for Fiscal Studies.

 

Sexual Harassment of Women:

Article written by the Guardian: ‘Almost all young women in the UK have been sexually harassed, survey finds’ This is available online:

Almost all young women in the UK have been sexually harassed, survey finds | Sexual harassment | The Guardian

Journal article reviewing literature on workplace sexual harassment:

McDonald, P. 2012. Workplace Sexual Harassment 30 years on: A Review of the Literature. International Journal of Management Reviews 14, pp. 1 – 17.

The rules for being a man: are these of use to anyone?

Blog post by Aidan Kirkwood 

@AidanKirkwood4 

Gender is a hot topic in the wake of Weinstein and the #metoocampaign, meaning discussions around masculinity hold relevance to the current social climate.

Comedian, actor and writer Robert Webb has written a book called How Not to Be A Boy (2017). Written as a memoir and framed through Webb’s experiences of masculinity. Focusing on the final chapter of his book, I explain that the ‘rules for being a man’ are not of use to anyone. For gender equality to be realised, we must re-evaluate expectations of masculinity.  

 

In the first half of his book, Webb discusses his childhood experiences of masculinity, the difficult relationship he had with his father and the loss of his mother at the age of 17.

Webb’s final chapter ‘Men Know Who They Are’ begins with dialogue between his wife and daughter. His daughter explains that if she’s laughed at for dressing as Spider-man, she’ll tell them they’re laughing because of ‘The Trick’ which makes men unhappy and women get rubbish jobs. The Trick is Webb’s family code word for gender conditioning. For Webb, feminism isn’t about men vs. women, it’s about men and women vs. The Trick. Gender is a social construction built into the consciousness of children and adults. We must not question why girls and boys are different, but ask under what conditions do girls and boys consider themselves to be different (Messner 2000).

Even though he was aware of The Trick, Webb states that when fatherhood arrived, he fell for The Trick himself. Despite his promises to be a 50/50 husband and father, he found himself saying yes to every job. He justified it by telling himself ‘men work’ and ‘men make money’. His experiences reflect a majority of the sociological research which has been conducted on the domestic divisions of labour (O’Connell and Brannan 2016), where sex stereotyping is still unmistakable. For example, wives are 30 times more likely to do the laundry and husbands are 20 times more likely to do the plastering (Warde and Hetherington 1993). The data shows that we still enjoy tasks which confirm a sense of what men and women’s domestic tasks are. There is less evidence for a decline in rigidity in the gendered divisions of housework. For instance, of around 285,000 couples eligible for shared parental leave, only 2% of fathers are taking it up.

Webb wishes to undo gender stereotypes and to give a wider understanding of what it is to be male. Children do not invent gender rules as they get older, they are taught them by adults. Research has found that the most important predictor of marital happiness is husbands emotional happiness; when men undo gender by moving beyond gendered scripts (silent, non-expressive, hegemonic male), wives are happier and marriages thrive (Risman 2009). A just world is one where economic and family roles are available equally to persons of any gender.

For Webb, The Trick is a waste of everyone’s time. To oppose it is a cause that he shares with feminists. He believes that feminism has had some success in challenging the stereotypes of what a woman is supposed to be like. What Webb is after, is an extension of that awareness to the male half of the population who may still think that gender conditioning didn’t happen to them. The gender revolution is unequal. Cultural and institutional devaluation of characteristics associated with women means men have little incentive to move into traditionally female activities or occupations (Braun and Davidson 2016; England 2010). Women have had strong incentives to move into traditionally male roles, but the gender revolution hasn’t been a two-way street.

In summary, the rules for being a man are not of use to anyone. Webb maintains that for there to be any progression in gender equality, we must work to oppose The Trick. Webb champions feminism and the progress it’s made for women, but the focus must also be extended to the male population. We must take notice of the dangers associated with the expectations of masculinity. What are the consequences of men being expected to be emotionally silent or dominant breadwinners? Arguably, the consequence is around three-quarters of all suicides in 2016 in the UK being male. Additionally, in the wake of the current debate that is occurring around sexual harassment, it’s crucial that we re-evaluate expectations of masculinity for there to be any positive social change.

As Webb states in his book:

‘Men will struggle to treat women as equals if we haven’t learned to look after ourselves; to recognise our feelings and take responsibility for our actions. We should remember what we knew all along: that we are allowed to be fully human, fully compassionate, fully alive in the moment and fully committed to friendship and love. Self-respect and kindness to others: that’s it.

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[i] Some of the online articles referenced will not be open to all