Category Archives: Feminism

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choice Feminism in the Age of Instagram

Grace Baker

A couple of years ago third wave feminism, particularly choice feminist movements, were being questioned and discussed. It may seem outdated, then, to be rehashing old problems. However, in light of new Instagram community guidelines (yawn), Instagram has become a sort of microclimate of society. It highlights the ever emergent problems of choice feminism.                          

So what is choice feminism?

The original fight against choice feminism began in 2006 when Linda Hirshman coined the phrase in order to denounce it. It puts a label to concepts that had taken over feminist movements in the 1980’s. It pushed back against the strict idea that women should neglect the home and get to work. Instead, this new ideology purported that after years of oppression women should be able to make whatever choices they want. Deciding not to work, having a plethora of children, being promiscuous or not, shaving or not and the list goes on.

Women should simply be empowered in their choices and all such empowerment is deemed feminist under the choice feminist banner.

It can be seen as arising out of criticisms levelled at feminism; that it is too radical, too exclusionary, and too judgemental (Ferguson 2010). Choice feminism, instead, does not really challenge society. It ensures that everyone can be included in feminism (we wouldn’t want to lose any allies!). It also guarantees that people cannot be judged since all choices are valid and, therefore, not open to moral indignation. Choice feminism is, thus, increasingly used by women in order to present their empowerment as feminist.

For example, Emily Ratajkowski recently published an article ‘Buying Myself Back’ and not too long ago ‘Baby Woman’. She claims that her empowerment is, quite simply, owning her body and presenting it however she wishes. This has been framed as feminist activism. I think this is dangerous.

Choice feminism has the ability to take feminism out of context.

It skims over the intricacies involved, especially within intersectional feminism. Kimberlé Crenshaw highlighted the important ways in which race, gender and socio-economi

c background intersect in the lived experience of women. This theory has since been broadened to include a wide range of different disadvantages people may face. Such intersections are highlighted when we contrast the way in which @emrata, as she is known on Instagram, is able to post empowering pictures compared to Nyome Nicholas-Williams.  

Nyome (@curvynyome) posed topless wearing black bicycle shorts only. This picture was frequently taken down by Instagram as it was deemed to ‘break their rules’. This resulted in the circulation of the ‘I want to see Nyome’ campaign.

 

 

 

In comparison, Emily can pose fully naked but for a flower over her vulva, among many other risqué photos, and yet these pictures are not removed.

Both images comply with the Instagram guidelines as neither show full nudity nor nipples. However, Instagram explained that it was a former policy on ‘boob squeezing’ that had caused Nyome’s photo to be taken down. In my opinion, Nyome’s photo does not include any more ‘boob squeezing’ than Emily’s. Instead, she is attempting to cover more of her bigger boobs. The rules, therefore, have been applied unevenly. I think it is worth looking at why this may be the case.

Emily has white privilege, pretty privilege, skinny privilege (to name a few). Her posture is also more open and alluring whereas Nyome’s is closed off which could be seen as intimidating. Nyome’s buzz cut hairstyle also presents as more androgynous. Therefore, it can be assumed that Emily fits better into the economy of the male gaze.

 

Thus, though it can be incredibly empowering to freely express your sexuality and make money from it, not everyone is given this choice.

It seems impossible, then, to say that Emily’s choices are feminist.

They still buy into the commodity of women, into the male gaze, and into what society deems to be beautiful. Such ‘choice feminism’ clearly hides important aspects of intersectionality. In this case being a black, plus-sized, less womanly (on societies’ standards) individual means her choices are lacking.

So what is the solution?

We need to delete choice feminism and actually create a feminist political stance.

This includes making judgements, creating change in society, and in some cases excluding those stuck in the status quo. This is okay.

We may not always get it right. Judging is a political skill and we all need practice. It is the skill of defining and explaining what actions and choices actually benefit the feminist movement. It is creating arguments for the case and hoping other people jump onboard. We may fail. If we do, we need others to hold us accountable. Therefore, we need to be open to the risks of being political, feminist activists. We need to find ‘pleasure in politics’, as Ferguson advocates, even when it feels incredibly uncomfortable.

It is time to embrace not just feelings of empowerment in our choices, but the uncomfortable feeling of being in the realm of risk.

Emily Ratajkowski’s articles:

https://www.lennyletter.com/story/emily-ratajkowski-baby-woman

https://www.thecut.com/article/emily-ratajkowski-owning-my-image-essay.html

Instagram Community Guidelines:

https://help.instagram.com/477434105621119/?helpref=hc_fnav&bc[0]=Instagram%20Help&bc[1]=Privacy%20and%20Safety%20Center

References:

Ferguson, M. L., (2010), ‘Choice Feminism and the Fear of Politics’, Perspectives on Politics, 8(1), pp.247-253

Hirschman, L. R., (2006), Get To Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, New York: Viking

Crenshaw, K., (1989), ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(1), pp.139-168