Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center

By Haley Howard

Non-fiction // Bell Hooks


A sweeping examination of the core issues of sexual politics, bell hooks’ new book Feminist Theory: from margin to center argues that the contemporary feminist movement must establish a new direction for the 1980s. Continuing the debates surrounding her controversial first book, Ain’t I A Woman, bell hooks suggests that feminists have not succeeded in creating a mass movement against sexist oppression because the very foundation of women’s liberation has, until now, not accounted for the complexity and diversity of female experience. In order to fulfill its revolutionary potential, feminist theory must begin by consciously transforming its own definition to encompass the lives and ideas of women on the margin. Hooks’ work is a challenge to the women’s movement and will have profound impact on all whose lives have been touched by feminism and its insights.


     Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, originally published in 1984, is a critical book for anyone who is interested in Black feminist theory and liberation. It is an academic and theoretical piece, but tries to be much more personal in its style. Bell hooks certainly quotes other scholars and provides definitions of key concepts. But she also interjects certain personal experiences from her academic journey along with personal opinions on the subject throughout. Therefore, the text almost comes across as a long-form journal which is rooted in educating but also serves as a guidebook for how to approach feminism from the perspective of a Black womxn. She seeks to minimize barriers before you even open the text by choosing to maintain an alias with uncapitalized letters, bell hooks, so that the pomp and egotism associated with doctoral work and scholarship are diminished.


      Because the text is academic, there are no characters in the traditional sense of the word. However, I feel that it is important to note that the marginalized are centered throughout the book. Often, feminist scholarship is traditionally generalized and these generalizations tend to only apply to white, upper-class womxn and/or feminists. Therefore, the fact that the basis of hooks’ work is to quite literally bring the experiences of poor women of color from margin to center is quite admirable. She unapologetically uses her platform to create the space for a discussion surrounding why and how marginalized womxn are pushed out of mainstream feminism. Thus, the main characters of the book are ourselves as it invites us to consider how we may experience and uphold the oppressions that we face.



     The book is made up of twelve chapters that as a whole are meant to inspire the reader to revolutionize feminism and feminist-thinking. In the first four, hooks mainly outlines what feminism currently is and why and how that meaning must change. She emphasizes the ways in which mainstream feminism has been built on a foundation of white supremacy and capitalism. She then explains how that basis has led to a co-opting of oppression by wealthy, college-educated white womxn. Hooks is also quick to point out that even womxn of color who have benefitted from the classist and elitist nature of feminism must reevaluate their participation. She continuously asserts the problem with trying to disentangle racism, capitalism, and sexism when they are necessarily intertwined. Therefore, she suggests new ways to advocate for feminism by forging a political solidarity among women. 

     In her next section, hooks considers the role of men in feminism. She not only addresses how they are harmed by sexism, but also reconceptualizes how parenting should be viewed. Hooks stresses the importance of creating a feminist coalition that seeks to eliminate oppression and viscious power dynamics, not reverse them. Another chapter involves breaking down how work cannot be seen as a primary tool for liberation as doing so alienates poor and working-class womxn who have already been in the workforce for survival. She dedicates a chapter to examining the limitations of rooting the feminist agenda in academia and scholarship, particularly when it is literary, because so many womxn are unable to participate in this format. Lastly, hooks deliberates sexual oppression which includes an examination of heterosexualization and how womxn cannot ignore the role that their own sexuality plays. This leads into her conclusion: a challenge to form a feminist coalition that is “aided by the example of liberation struggles led by oppressed peoples globally who resist formidable powers” (hooks 166). 

         One passage that really stands out to me comes in Chapter 2 on page 31 when hooks states the following: 

“As a black woman interested in feminist movement, I am often asked whether being black is more important than being a woman; whether feminist struggle to end sexist oppression is more important than the struggle to end racism or vice versa. All such questions are rooted in competitive either/or thinking, the belief that the self is formed in opposition to an other. Therefore one is a feminist because one is not something else. Most people are socialized to think in terms of opposition rather than compatibility.” 

      This quote encompasses the majority of what hooks argues in the book. It emphasizes the fact that any form of feminism will be unsuccessful if it is not inherently intersectional. The notion that multiple identities are separate and must compete for the prize of being most oppressive is absurd. Furthermore, the passage demonstrates an aspect of Black feminism that many of us can relate to: the idea of being torn between two struggles. I think a lot of us have been asked or have maybe even asked ourselves whether we identify with our Blackness or gender first. I think that hooks is correct in challenging the validity of this kind of inquiry. Even the idea that one must hold more weight than another stems from our socialization in an oppressive state that emphasizes opposition over compatibility. 

       Moreover, the aspect of competition noted in the passage not only relates to our internal struggles, but also to the difficulties of forging a genuine coalition of feminists. It is easy to get into what some have dubbed the oppression olympics in which we compete with one another over who faces the greatest amount of challenges. While this unhealthy dynamic plays out, time that could be spent creating the bonds necessary to build a feminist revolution goes to wast. Conclusively, because this revolution has to be built by and for the most marginalized among us, it is time for everyone to take a step back and center those who are less privileged in the conversation. If there is any hope for feminism to liberate us all, resetting our mindset in these ways is essential.

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