bell hooks’ Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, was published in 1984, and served as a response to the feminist movement of the 1970s, transcending and challenging boundaries in feminism.
In Feminist Theory, hooks, professor, feminist, and social activist, challenges the standpoint of white liberal feminists who argue that emancipation is gained by an equal division of unpaid labor and the inclusion of women in the economic and public sphere. Countering liberal feminists, hooks argues that the mere addition of women to the workplace will not, and cannot, comprehensively challenge and transform the underlying conditions of patriarchal oppression.
This is because, for hooks, the ideal of an equal division of household labor — facilitating the inclusion of women in the public sphere — endorses a feminism that only allows the emancipation of economically elite white women. Thus, this articulation of feminism ignores the lived experiences of marginalized women at the intersections of class, race, sexuality, and gender. Centering the experiences of Black working-class women, hooks shows that the equalizing of unpaid labor in white middle-class households only worsens their oppression, as it forces them into low-paying and precarious working conditions in a domain where they are discriminated against. All the while devaluing the labor they do at home, taking away one of the few places such women can find self-fulfillment, love, and respect. Thereby, hooks shows that feminism must not merely add women into racialized, unequal working conditions, but must instead transform the perspective around the value of work.
That is, in order to address the perspectives of working-class Black women, feminism must see emancipation as placing value on the unpaid labor that women do in the home, instead of devaluing such labor.
In this challenge of liberal feminism, hooks shows that feminism can and must consider all of the “interlocking webs of oppression” that perpetuate patriarchal disempowerment (p. 31). By this, hooks means that in order to achieve its stated aims of emancipation, feminism must examine how all forms of oppression- including class, race, sexuality, and gender- interact to create situations of disempowerment and injustice. Thus, emancipation cannot occur merely within conditions of capitalist exploitation, racial domination, and sexualized inequality, promoted by liberalism. Rather, feminist emancipation requires an overturning of the interlocking structures of oppression sustaining liberal economic and public spheres, so as to allow emancipation for all women.
In this intersectional approach to feminist emancipation, hooks shows that feminism must not aim merely to “add women and stir” to a liberal pot that is already boiling over with oppression. This, hooks shows, would merely perpetuate the continuation of unjust conditions. Instead, feminism must dump out the water and start over- it must work from the bottom-up, including all voices left out by the liberal pot and begin anew.
hooks, bell. Feminist theory: From margin to center. Pluto Press, 2000.
Hannah Bennison is a current Masters student at the London School of Economics & Political Science studying Political Theory. She holds a BA in Political Science from The University of British Columbia and has an interest in feminist political theory.