This is the first entry in the Writing on Glass Femcyclopedia, a nascent online encyclopedia of feminist icons. This piece was researched and written by Stephanie Newman.


The Essential bell hooks

One of the most accessible feminist thinkers and writers, bell hooks defines feminism as the movement to end sexist oppression. Her feminism is revolutionary, meant to replace male-centric social orders with a culture of love and mutuality.

Key Texts by bell hooks

It starts with the patriarchy...

We live inside a system called the patriarchy, which is a culture that prescribes a very specific vision of masculinity and male domination to impose order on the world. In patriarchy, men are raised to suppress emotion, seek power, and resort to anger and violence as acceptable forms of behavior.


...which feminism seeks to replace.

Feminism is an alternative social system, defined as the movement to end sexism. Instead of an ethos of violence and domination, feminism promotes an ethos of love and mutuality. The movement is not about granting women power within our patriarchal system. It’s about dismantling this system itself and replacing it with a healthier paradigm. In this sense, feminism is radical and revolutionary.


Feminism took some wrong turns. 


Unfortunately, feminism has made some missteps that patriarchal culture exploited to give the movement a bad name. The first phenomenon was the rise of an anti-male feminist faction, comprised of many women who came from abusive relationships with men and harbored understandable anger. Then came the denial, mainly from white, well-educated, upper-class feminists, that race and class play a formative role in womanhood. These women focused their attention on the white-collar work world, leaving masses of working class and impoverished women behind. To top it off, feminism scared many people away by undervaluing love and becoming overtly academic.


Mass media capitalized on these missteps to label feminists as "man-haters."

The media amplified anti-male feminists and portrayed them as the feminist archetype. As bell hooks note, "Conservative mass media constantly represented feminist women as man-haters. And when there was an anti-male faction or sentiment in the movement, they highlighted it as a way of discrediting feminism...Feminists who called for a recognition of men as comrades in struggle never received mass media attention." 


But contrary to common perception, feminism embraces men.

bell hooks embraces feminist men. "Without male allies in struggle," she writes, "feminist movement will not progress." She details the ways in which patriarchy betrays men, encouraging them to suppress emotion, devalue communication, and seek power and dominance -- all of which lead men to lives lacking in fulfillment. And she emphasizes there must be feminist education available for males. "Men often tell me they have no idea what it is feminists want," she recounts in Feminism is for Everybody. "I believe them." 


It's just that feminism condemns patriarchal violence and domination.

Well, not just. This is actually a radical position to take. After all, patriarchy is the organizing system of our society and has been for millennia. That does not make it natural or good for humanity. As bell hooks points out, under patriarchy millions of people have been exterminated in genocide and war. But this view draws a clear line in the sand between Reformist Feminists, who seek more power for women within our current social structures, and Revolutionary Feminists, who seek to end patriarchal oppression by changing our fundamental social structure. 


In its place, feminism promotes love and mutuality.

Patriarchy is organized around domination and power, whereas feminism is organized around love and mutuality. bell hooks considers love to be an action, borrowing M. Scott Peck's definition of love as "the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth. Love is as love does. Love is an act of will -- namely both an intention and an action." Love as an act of will sets the stage for mutual partnership among males and females. Mutuality is the alternative to domination, a practice that emphasizes mutual growth in romantic relationships, eliminates fear of subordination and abuse, and champions self-actualization.


As a result, feminism is for everybody. 

In fact, that's the title of bell hook's primer on feminism. She published "Feminism is for Everybody" in 2000, hoping that the short book would serve to debunk stereotypes and educate people about basic feminist principles.


Teaching accessible feminism is the only way to end patriarchal oppression.

Publishing "Feminism is for Everybody" aligns with bell hooks' belief that feminist education is crucial for overcoming patriarchal oppression: "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." She envisions community-based education, children's books, grade-school level primers, and television stations dedicated to feminist thought. 

I need feminism to give me a foundation of equality and justice to stand on.
— bell hooks


Ok, so we know what bell hooks believes. But who is she?

bell hooks was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 1952. She grew up with five sisters and one brother, raised in a Christian family with a patriarchal (and sometimes violent) father, and a mother who believed strongly in traditional gender roles. She headed to Stanford for college, where she embraced feminist thought on campus and published her first book, Ain't I a Woman?, when she was only 19.  A PhD in literature, bell hooks' career as an academic includes positions at Yale, Oberlin, and CUNY. She's been a prolific writer (20+ books and counting!), and in 2014 she founded the bell hooks Institute in Bedea, Kentucky.


And what's the deal with her lower-case name?

Well, bell hooks is actually a pen name She was born as Gloria Jean Watkins, and chose to published under bell hooks based on the names of her mother and grandmother. The lower-case name symbolizes a desire for readers to focus on her ideas, not her identity. Which is hopefully the case here.


What are key tenets of feminism, according to bell hooks?

1. Feminism is revolutionary, not reformist.
2. Love is an action, and it's at the heart of feminism.
3. Feminism must acknowledge the reality of race and class differences.
4. We need more accessible feminist education.
5. Eliminating violence is a crucial part of feminism.
6. Feminism should define an alternative vision of masculinity.


How do I apply bell hooks' feminism in my everyday life?

1.  Start a feminist consciousness-raising group for men in your community. Refer to bell hooks' works, "The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love." Don't judge men for talking about their feelings. Don't allow or condone violence.

2.  Produce feminist media for the masses. Write children's books inspired by feminism. Start a podcast, create a video, produce artwork to explain feminist thought. Speak about feminist concepts in plain terms, so that people at all levels of education understand you. 

3. Found a feminist school. Present knowledge through a feminist lens, whether your classroom exists in a school building or your living room. Show students that there are alternatives to patriarchal thought. Counter stereotypes with full accounts of feminist beliefs and goals. 

4. Follow the bell hooks Institute and read her books. Suggest “Feminism is for Everybody” as an intro book for new feminists in your life.

5. Extend your focus beyond the white-collar workplace as an important sphere of feminist influence. Recognize the value of homes, schools, and public spaces as sites of feminism. Ask yourself if the feminist issues you lobby around help women of all races and classes. 

6. Confront your internal sexism. Realize that women are also guilty of sexism. Catch yourself judging people based on gender. Examine the ways in which patriarchal thought has influenced your beliefs and behavior.