Editor’s note (October, 2015): This piece refers to bell hooks as “Bell Hooks” which is incorrect. This misnaming would not be in the article if it was being published by The F-Word now, but has been left in for transparency.
In response to Jane Collins’ article, Alien She? in December’s issue of the F-Word, I am writing to say on some points I agree with Jane. Feminism has and is still viewed to some extent as aimed at and for white, heterosexual middle-class women. Also, many women and men when asked what is their understanding of Feminism and Feminists, all say it is about man-hating, lesbian middle-class women.
In the 70’s and early 80’s Feminism was primarily for white, heterosexual middle-class women, however Feminism has evolved and now encompasses women of different, cultures, ethnicity and class. Many Feminists have progressed and now understand and accept that not all women’s lives are the same and not all women experience the same oppression, there are differences. However, all women because of their gender do suffer disadvantages compared to men, this is not male-bashing but a fact. Males in all cultures are given primary importance over women’s lives, even within a hierarchy, men who may see themselves as not powerful compared to other males, are still able to live less constricting and freer lives than women. Human beings and their lives are male-defined with men’s lives seen as normal and women are treated in relation to men.
The reason Feminism is still seen as middle-class and theory-orientated only, is because the media refuses to allow any valid discussion of Feminism, instead Feminists are routinely trivialised, their opinions and articles are ignored or rejected as unsuitable by publications and the press. Any woman who dares to express strong views, is seen as an “unnatural woman” whatever that means. Women who do not conform to rigid gender ideas of femininity are subject to abuse by both women and men who feel very threatened by those who resist the status quo and the way power is maintained in a hierarchy. It is far easier to hold people and particularly women, responsible for their own poverty, unemployment, pregnancies outside marriage, sexual orientation and ethnicity, rather than look at how power is maintained and controlled by more privileged sections of society.
I agree with Jane, Feminism does seem to primarily concentrate on academic debate and theory, yet there is a very good organisation called The Fawcett Society, which has a web page and is linked to the F-Word. The Fawcett Society has been in existence for over 100 years and its primary aim to promote equality for women. It constantly campaigns on Women’s Poverty and why married women with children all too often fall into the poverty trap once they are divorced. This is not any individual woman’s fault, the real reason is society. Women are still expected to be primarily responsible for childcare. As Jane says in her article, because her mother was a single parent, she could not find suitable work which paid sufficiently to cover childcare. So, many single mothers have no option, either they try to survive on part-time low paying work and hope their relatives will help with childcare or remain unemployed and eke out an existence on Income Support. Contrary to media claims, most women are not in the fortunate position of having a high-powered career which pays a good salary. Women who become single-parents for whatever reason, are effectively marginalised by society and held responsible for causing their own poverty. Women are still socialised from childhood their only role in society is to find a suitable man, marry and raise his children. All women are supposedly naturally maternal and any woman who rejects this role is seen as deviant and abnormal. Women who make the decision to leave a relationship and become single-parents do not make this decision lightly, because they will suffer economically.
Irrespective of whether women are middle-class or working-class, they can and frequently are subjected to sexual harassment, sexism, violence and discrimination. Working class men are seen as less powerful than middle-class men, but the fact they are all male gives them inherent privileges and rights over women, whether they enforce them or not.
One book I would recommend to Jane which I think would be of interest to her (and not in a patronising manner) is Feminism is For Everybody, by Bell Hooks. It is a small paperback book easily available and still in print. Ms. Hooks is an African-American Feminist who grew up in poverty (she is definitely not middle-class), yet her words speak commonsense. Ms. Hooks and I believe Feminism is applicable to both women and men, to quote from the back cover of the book “to all those committed to equality, mutual respect and justice.” Ms. Hooks discusses issues concerning, reproductive rights, violence, race, class and work. Ms. Hooks also focuses on patriarchy, racism and homophobic culture. Yet her language is non-academic and aimed for the general reader without being patronising.
In conclusion, Feminism is a multiplicity of ideas and beliefs. Changes and improvements have been made to women’s lives, but unfortunately progress is very slow, however Feminists have shown themselves prepared to adapt and change as we learn women’s life experiences and expectations are not all the same.