In their book Beyond Critique, Bradley Levinson and his co-authors identify feminism as one of the many “critical theories” that have developed since the seminal work of Karl Marx. Feminism is for Everybody certainly stands in this critical tradition, although there are distinct contrasts between hooks’ radical feminism and the ideology of contemporary critical theorists, particularly in how they understand the dichotomy between oppressed and oppressor groups.
What places hooks’ radical/visionary feminism in the stream of ‘critical theory’ is its insistence that people are oppressed not only by violence and coercion, but -perhaps more fundamentally- by ideologies, ways of thinking about the world and of conceptualizing the social order. hooks’ main target is the patriarchy, a system of “male domination” (p. viii) and “institutionalized sexism” (p. ix) which is expressed in how women are “victimized, exploited, and, in worse case scenarios, oppressed.” This system does not rely primarily on outright coercion but on socializing everyone, both men and women, into “sexist thinking”: “we all need to be clear that we are all participants in perpetuating sexism until we change our minds and hearts, until we let do of sexist thought and action and replace it with feminist thought and action” (p. ix). For this reason, one of the main tools of the early feminist movement was ‘consciousness raising’ (see p. 7-12), where women (and men) could unlearn the patterns of patriarchal thought: “Before women would change patriarchy we had to change ourselves; we have to raise our consciousness” (p. 7).
The idea that we can be unconsciously socialized into erroneous patterns of thought is not one that we should lightly dismiss. For example, hooks devotes an entire chapter to criticizing the way in which the fashion and cosmetic industries and mass media have created (and profited from) unrealistic standards of female beauty, producing eating disorders and self-hatred (p. 31-36). Similarly, hooks’ radical feminism includes legitimate concerns about domestic violence, marital rape, and sexual abuse. In all of these examples, even conservatives can find much to agree with.
Rejection of oppressor/oppressed binary
What distinguishes hooks most clearly from contemporary critical theorists is her rejection of a clear oppressed/oppressor binary. She criticizes early feminists who insisted that “all men are oppressors, or that all men hate women” (p. 68). Not only does she insist that “even if individual men divested of patriarchal privileges the system of patriarchy, sexism, and male domination would still remain intact,” (p. 67) but she affirms that “more often than not female parents [are] the transmitters of sexist thinking” (p. 72). Both men and women need to achieve a ‘liberatory consciousness’ that produces radical feminist politics and a commitment to liberation.
A rejection of this binary may also contribute to a notable absence of standpoint epistemology in hooks’ book. Standpoint epistemology is a key element of contemporary critical theory, which holds that ‘lived experience’ gives certain groups special access to truth. In contrast, hooks says little to suggest that women have greater insight into oppression or that they have special insight due to their social location.
The worldview of radical feminism
Despite some areas of agreement, there’s no question that hooks’ theorizing is based on a worldview that is fundamentally foreign to classical liberals on both the right and left and to traditional Christians. For hooks, the patriarchy is not just one problem among many that humans face. Rather, it is one component of a coherent system of domination and control that is the ultimate source of human misery, which hooks refers to as “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” This phrase appears on p. 4, 5, 34, 40, 44, 45, 46, 51, 71, 73, 82, and 110, (not including variants like “White supremacist patriarchy” or “patriarchal capitalism”) and it perfectly expresses the idea that all our most fundamental problems, in hooks’ view, come from an ideology of domination. In the introduction, she writes:
Imagine living in a world where there is no domination, where females and males are not alike or even always equal, but where a vision 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 possibility. Feminist revolution alone will not create such a world; we need to end racism, class elitism, imperialism. But it will make it possible for us to be fully self-actualized females and males able to create beloved community (p. x)
The interconnectedness of all forms of domination –including classism, imperialism, racism, and homophobia– are evident in her chapter titles, which include:
- Chapter 7: Feminist Class Struggle. “Western women have gained class power and greater gender inequality because global white supremacist patriarchy enslaves and/or subordinates masses of third-world women.” p. 43
- Chapter 8: Global Feminism. “Radical feminists were dismayed to witness so many women… appropriating feminist jargon while sustaining their commitment to Western imperialism and transnational capitalism.” p. 45
- Chapter 9: Race and Gender. “Just because [white females] participated in anti-racist struggle did not mean that they had divested of white supremacy, of notions that they were superior to black females, more informed, better educated, more suited to ‘lead’ a movement.” p. 56
- Chapter 16: Total Bliss, Lesbianism and Feminism. “Women who claim to be feminist while perpetuating homophobia are as misguided and hypocritical as those who want sisterhood while holding on to white supremacist thought.” p. 97
Here we see the substantial overlap with contemporary critical theorists who likewise consider racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, and ableism as all forms of oppression.
Of the many issues hooks considers, abortion is perhaps the one mentioned most often. Although she devotes an entire chapter to it (“Chapter 5: Our Bodies, Ourselves. Reproductive Rights”), it is a recurrent theme throughout the book. In particular, hooks is absolutely emphatic that one cannot be a feminist while opposing “reproductive rights”:
“If feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression, and depriving females of reproductive rights is a form of sexist oppression, then one cannot be anti-choice and be feminist. A woman… cannot be anti-abortion and an advocate of feminism.”(p. 6)
“there [can be] no genuine sexual liberation for women and men without better, safer contraceptives — without the right to a safe, legal abortion.” (p. 26)
“[Power feminists] were the group that began to suggest that one could be feminist and anti-abortion. This is another misguided notion. Granting women the civil right to have control over our bodies is a basic feminist principle… it is a feminist principle that women should have the right to choose.” (p. 114)
Radical Feminism and Christianity
For the sake of space, I won’t go into the many concerns I had with the book, which ranged from a complete absence of citations hooks’ defense of lesbian sadomasochism (see p. 98). I also understand that definitions of ‘feminism’, like definitions of ‘evangelicalism’ or ‘critical theory’, are contentious and that not everyone is likely to accept hooks’ pronouncements. Instead, the most important lesson that Christians should take away from this book is that hooks’ visionary feminism is a worldview or, to put it more colloquially, a religion.
Language about a ‘conversion to’ feminism is frequent. Her vision of a ‘beloved community’ formed through solidarity with others who share a commitment to feminist sisterhood sounds very much like New Testament language about the church. At one point, she even suggests that we should create a “mass-based feminist movement where folks go door to door passing out literature, taking the time (as do religious groups) to explain to people what feminism is all about” (p. 23). But the deep implications of hooks’ feminism should be most clear to Christians in Chapter 18, where she discusses “Feminist Spirituality.”
There, she insists that the feminist movement’s “critique of patriarchal religion [already] has had a profound impact, changing the nature of religious worship throughout our nation” (p. 105). She goes on to say that “the assumption that the world can always be understood by binary categories, that there is an inferior and a superior, a good and a bad was the ideological foundation of all forms of group oppression, sexism, racism, etc., [and] formed the basis of Judeo-Christian belief system” (p. 106). In contrast, radical feminism points us towards a “goddess-centered spirituality” (p. 106) or to liberation theologies in which “struggles to end patriarchy are divinely ordained” (p. 107) She concludes: “Feminist spirituality created space for everyone to interrogate outmoded belief systems and created new paths… Identifying liberation from any form of domination and oppression as essentially a spiritual quest returns us to a spirituality which unites spiritual practice with our struggles for justice and liberation” (p. 109).
Whether she is right or wrong, hooks does not see radical feminism as remotely compatible with traditional Christian beliefs and is hopeful that a movement towards radical feminism will lead people to abandon traditional Judeo-Christian conceptions of God.
While I have my doubts that many professing evangelicals are likely to embrace hooks’ vision of radical feminism explicitly, this book is a good illustration of the fact that ideas have consequences. hooks’ views on everything from abortion to spirituality to homosexuality are deeply informed by her precommitment to radical feminism; that’s how worldviews work. All the more reason that Christians should be careful about which worldviews they invest in.
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