Feminism: a transformational politic

written by Bell Hooks, aka Gloria Watkins

We live in a world in crisis-- a world governed by politics of domination, one in which the belief in a notion of superior and inferior, and its concomitant ideology- that superior should rule over the inferior- effects the lives of all people everywhere, whether poor or privileged, literate or illiterate. Systematic dehumanization, worldwide famine, ecological devostation, inudustrial contamination, and the possibility of nuclear destruction are realites which remind us daily that we are is crisis. Contemporary femist thinkers often cite sexual politics as teh origin of this crisis. They point to the insistence on difference as the factor which becomes the occasion for seperation and domination and suggest that differntiation of status between females and males globally is an indication that patriachal domination of the plante is the root of the problem. Such an assumption has fostered the notion that elimination of sexist oppression would necessarly lead to the eradication of all forms of domination. It is an arguement that has led influencial Western women to feel that feminist movement should be THE central political agenda for females globally. Ideologically, thinking in this direction enables Western women, especially privileged white women, to suggest that racism ans class exploitation are merely offspring of the parent system: patriachy. Within feminst movement in the West, this has led to the assumption that resisting patriachal dominations is a more legitimate feminist action than resisting racism and other forms of domination. Such thinking prevails despite radical critques made by black women and other women of color who quetsion this proposition. To speculate that an oppositional divistion between men and women existed in early human communities is to impose on the past, on these non-white groups, a world view that fits all toop neatly within contemporary femist paradigms that name man as the enemyand women as the victim.

Cleary, differentiation between strong and weak, powerful and powerless, has been a central defining aspece of gender globally, carrying with it the assumption that men hsould have greater authority than women, and should rule over them. As significant and important as this face is, it should not obscure the reality that women can and do participate in politics of domination, as perpetrators as well as victims. If focus on patriachal domination masks this reality or becomes the mean by which women delfect attention from the real conditions and cicumstances of our lives then women cooperate in suppresing and promoting false consciosness inhibiting our capacity to assume responsibility for transforming ourselves and society.

Thinking speculatively about early human social arrangement, aobuve women and men struggling to survive in small communites, it is likely tha the parent-child relationship with its very imposed survival strucure of dependency, of strong and weak, of power and powerless, was a site for the construction of a pardigm of domination. While this circumstance of dependency is not neccessarily one that leads to domination, it leads itlself to the encactment of a social drama wherin domination could easily occur as a means of exercising and maintaining control. This speculation does not place women outside the pratice of domination, in the exclusive role of victim. It centrally names women as agents of domination, as potential theoreticians, and creators of a paridigm for social relationships wherin those gorups of individuals designated as strong exercise power both benevolently and coercively of domination over those designated as weak.

Emphasizing paradigms of domination that call atatention to women's capacity to dominate is one way to deconstruct and challenge the simplistic notion that man is the enemy, women the victim; the notion that men have always been oppressors. Such thinking enables us to examine our roles as women in the perpetuation and maintenance of systems of domination. To understand domination, we must understand that our capacity as women and men to be either dominated or dominating is a point of connection, of commonality. Even though I speak from the particualar experience as living as a black women in the U.S., a white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society, wehre small numbers of white men consisite ruling groups, I understand that in many places in the world oppressed and oppressor share the same color. I understand that right here in this room, oppressed and oppressor share the same gender. Right now as I speak, a man who is himself victimized, woudned, hurt by racism and class exploitation is actively dominating a women in his life- that even as I speak, women who are ourselves exploited, victimized, are dominating children. It is necessary to remember, as we think critically about domination, that we all have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized). It is necessary to remember that it is first the potential oppressor within that we must resist- the potential victim within that we must rescue- otherwise we cannot hop for and end to domination, for liberation.

This knowledge seems especially important at this historial moment when black women and other women of color have worked to create awareness of the ways in which racism empowers white women to act as exploiters and oppressoins. Increasingly this fact is considered a reason we should not support feminist struggle even though sexism and sexist oppression is a real issue in our lives as black women. It becomes neccessary for us to speak continually about the convictions that inform our continued advocacy of feminist struggle. By calling attention to interlocking systems fo domination- sex, race, and class, black women and many other groups of women acknowledge the diversity and complexity of female experience, of our relationship to power and domination. THe intent is not to dissuade people of color from becoming engaged in feminist movement. Feminist struggle to end patriarchal domination should be of primary importance to women and men blobally not because it is the foundation of all other oppressive structures but because it tis that form of domination we are most likely to ecnounter in an ongoing way in everday life.

Unlike other forms of domination, sexism directly shapes and determines relations of power in our private lives, in familiar social spaces, in the most intimate context- home- and in that intimate sphere of relations- family. Usually, it is within family that we witness coercive domination and learn to accept it, whether it be domination of parent over child, or male over female. Even though family relations may be, and most often are, informed by acceptance of a politic of domination, they are simultaneously relations of care and correction. It is this convergence of two contradictory impluses- the urge to promote growth and the urge to inhibit growth that provides a pratical setting for feminist critique, resistance, and transformation

Growing up in a black, working-class, father-dominated household, I experienced coercive adult male authority as more immediatley threatening as more likely to cause immediate pain than racist oppression or class exploitation. It was equally clear that experiencing exploitation and oppression in the home made one feel all the more powerless when encountering dominating forces outside the home. This is true for many people. If we are unable to resist and end domination in relations where there is care, it seem totally unimaginable that we can resist and end it in other institionalized relations of power. If we cannot convince the mothers and/or fathers who care not to humiliate and degrade us, how can we imagine convincing or resisiting an employer, a lover, a stranger who systematically humiliates and degrades?

Feminist effort to end patriarchal domination should be of primary concern precisely because it insists on the cradication of exploitation and oppression in the family context and in all other intimate relationships. It is that politcal movement which most radically address the person- the personal- citing the need for transformation of self, of relationships, so that we might be better able to act in a revolutionary manner, challenging and resisting domination, transforming the world outside the self. Strategically, feminist movements should be a central componet of all other liberation struggles because it challenges each of us to alter our person, our personal engagement (either as victims or perpetrators or both) in a system of domination.

Feminsim, as liberation struggle, must exist apart from and as part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms. We must understand that patriachal domination shares an ideological foundation with racism and other forms of group oppression, that there is no hope that it can be eradicated while these systems remain intact. This knowledge should consistently inform the direction of feminist theory and pratice. Unfortunately racism and class elitism among women has frequently led to the suppression and distorion of this connection so that is is now necessary for feminist thinkers to critique and revise much feminist theory and the direction of the feminist movement. This effort at revision is perhaps most evident in the current widespread acknowledgement that sexism, racism, and class exploitation constitue interlocking systems of domination- that sex, race, and class, not sex alone determine the nature of any female's identity, status and circumstance, the degree to which she will or will no be dominated, the extent to which she will have the power to dominate.

While acknowledgement of the complex nature of women's status (which has been most impressed upon everyone's consciousness by radical women of color) is a significant corrective, it is only a staring point. It provides a frame of reference which must serve as the basis for thoroughly altering and revising feminist theory and pratice. It challenges an calls us to re-think popular assumptions about the nature of feminism that have had the deepest impact on a large majority of women, mass consciousness. It radically calls into question the notion of a fundamentally common female experience which has been seen as the prequisite for our coming together, our politcal unity. Recognition of the inter-connectedness of sex, race, and class highlights the diversity of experience, compelling redefinition of the terms for unity. If women do not share a "common oppression" what then can serve as a basis for our coming together?

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