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40 pages 1 hour read

bell hooks

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1984

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center was written in 1984 by bell hooks, the pen name of feminist scholar and activist Gloria Jean Watkins. hooks critiques the second-wave feminist movement for analyzing gendered power dynamics while ignoring classism and racism. hooks targets white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy and highlights the ways race and class affect one’s experiences of sexism and patriarchy. The book proposes solidarity, community building, and legal reforms as tactics for destabilizing the systems of power that make sexist oppression possible in Western society.

hooks established herself as a feminist thought leader upon publishing her widely-acclaimed first book, Ain’t I a Woman, in 1981. She spent the next decades teaching in universities and publishing dozens of books about feminism and culture. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center is a foundational text in contemporary Black feminist theory. hooks engages with mainstream feminist leaders and prominent thinkers to ground her arguments within the feminist academic tradition while writing in a direct, easy-to-read style to reach a broader audience.

This study guide refers to the 3rd paperback edition, published by Routledge in 2014.

Summary

bell hooks writes Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center with the intent of critiquing the leadership, ideologies, and public actions of the feminist movement through the mid-1980s. She begins by establishing her own voice in the field and justifies her arguments by pointing out racist and classist undertones or outright statements from first- and second-wave feminist leaders. She quotes directly from influential feminists such as Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique whom most feminists took to be a primary authority on feminist matters.

hooks argues that the feminist movement needs to consider the perspectives of women living on the margins of society, meaning those who experience cultural oppression such as racism, imperialism, and classism. She cites as an example the feminist movement’s championing of work as liberatory; this rhetoric elevated office jobs and other types of work that require access to education and literacy, which come with economic privilege. hooks argues that focusing only on this type of liberation widens the divide between white, bourgeois feminists and the majority of women living in the United States, who have always worked. hooks believes that ending sexist oppression requires acknowledging that it is one of several systems of domination and oppression at work in society, the others being patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism, and white supremacy. These systems work together to oppress the marginalized, and without addressing them together, hooks insists that the feminist movement will never achieve political reform or end sexist oppression.

With this, hooks advocates for solidarity among men and women across class and racial backgrounds in the struggle against oppression. She cites discrimination she experienced within feminist organizations in her call for solidarity and cautions against reproducing structures of oppression within activist spaces. hooks describes how to reevaluate both domestic and professional work and concepts of parenthood to destabilize the influence of over-arching systems of oppression on the micro level. At the macro level, hooks supports public acknowledgment of racism and classism in leadership and expanding literacy education. hooks’s final “liberatory” theory of feminism includes voices from both the margins and the center, of all economic and racial backgrounds, with the goal of ending all systems of oppression and domination.

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