Friday, February 5, 2016

Essay & Book Review: What is Feminism?

            In the words of bell hooks in Feminism is for Everybody, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.  (hooks, 2000, 1) 
By Christine Sheller, staff Iowa Peace Network

  It is not anti-male.  It allows for understanding that sexism itself is the problem, and sexism can be transmitted by and through both men and women, boys and girls.  (hooks, 2000, 1) 
            Feminism is not about making women equal to men, although this is a common misconception.  (hooks, 2000, 1)  The patriarchal mass media may have portrayed it as such along with the emphasis the feminist movement had on women’s equal pay to men for same work, and perhaps men and women sharing household and parenting responsibilities. (hooks, 2000, 2) 
We are told that early on, two strands of feminism began to crystallize: a reformist strand and a “revolutionary” strand.  Revolutionary feminism focused on changing culture and people, while reformists focused on policy and law.  (hooks, 2000, 4)  There was an assumption that a person could be a feminist without challenging or changing themselves or culture. (hooks, 2000, 6)
            Revolutionary feminists emphasized the learning about patriarchy as a system of domination, how it became institutionalized, and how it is perpetuated and maintained.  (hooks, 2000, 7)  It emphasized consciousness-raising of patriarchy and sexism, and a change in attitude.  The hope was that this type of movement would affect all of society in a much more substantial and real way than reformist feminism ever could.
            To understand the definition of feminism, one must understand sexism.  Sexism could be described as including the assumption that males are superior to women and therefore should rule over women. (hooks, 2000, ix) It also includes, I believe, rigid gender roles.  Hooks maintains that most men find it hard to be patriarchs.  They are disturbed by hate and fear of women, violence against women, but they fear of letting go of these ‘priveleges’ as well. (hooks, 2000, ix) 
            Different issues are included with feminism.  Civil rights is one.  Reproductive issues is another: surrounding sex education, pre-natal care, preventive women’s health care, forced sterilization, unnecessary cesareans and/or hysterectomies among others, and the medical complications stemming from these.  (hooks 2000, 26) 
            Another issue included with feminism is body image and appearance.  This in part, hooks reflects, is related to girls’ and womens’ self-love and healthy self-esteem. (hooks, 2000, 31)  Changes which have occurred in this arena have included clothing expectations for women (change has permitted for more comfort for women) and content in fashion magazines being more sensitive to women's issues such as eating disorders.  Unfortunately, images of women in magazines has not radically changed.  The image of the desirable woman’s body in magazines is still greatly disproportionate to the average woman’s body.  (hooks, 2000, 34)
            Class has begun to be a recognized issue in feminism.  Today feminists are more likely to recognize that classism needs to be addressed along with feminism or feminism is an unjust cause.  According to hooks, however, it is a great growing edge in modern-day feminism. (hooks, 2000, 41) 
Similarly, race has also become recognized as an important issue to be aware of in the feminist movement.  Partly women began to see that to have solidarity, they would need to beware of race privilege at the same time as addressing feminist causes. (hooks, 2000, 58) 
Ending violence is another important issue within feminism.  One of the most widespread positive interventions in the feminist movement is the effort to sustain and make greater awareness of domestic violence.  Hooks prefers the term patriarchal violence as it more clearly communicates that domestic violence is related to sexism and sexist thinking. (hooks, 2000, 62.)  It also includes, in addition to men’s violence against women, same-sex violence, and adult violence against children. (hooks, 2000, 61) 
In my mind, feminism is a deeply spiritual and religious issue.  Although hooks argues that Christian doctrine condones sexism and male domination, I disagree.  On one hand, what is Christian doctrine?  Christianity, in my view, if referring to Jesus’ teaching, does not condone sexism.  Patriarchy tries to argue male domination biblically, but I don’t believe it is valid.  Scripture tells us that “in Christ, there is no longer female or male, free or slave…”  I agree with Matthew Fox, quoted by hooks, that “the creation-centered tradition is feminist,” (hooks, 2000, 107) and I believe that Christianity should be considered a creation-centered tradition.  If we study creation in scripture, we will not find support for male domination, in my view.  God created man and woman and placed them in the Garden of Eden.

I agree with hooks that “love can never take root in a relationship based on force and coercion,” and “there can be no love in domination.” (hooks, 2000, 103) This is in contrast to patriarchal thinking that women, in touch with emotions, should give men love, and men, who are in touch with power and aggression, should protect and provide.  (hooks, 2000, 101) In Christ, both women and men should love.

This essay was adapted from an essay written by the author for a class at Bethany Theological Seminary in 2010 on theology and feminism. 

Christine Sheller is current editor and coordinator at Iowa Peace Network.  She is also employed at her family's business part-time.  She travels between Des Moines and rural Eldora, IA weekly.


  1. Christine, thank you for sharing your review of bell hook's Feminism is for Everybody and for faithfully articulating a Christianity that does not support male domination and sexism. I appreciate how this review makes connections between feminism and civil rights, reproductive issues, body image, class, race and violence. Related to this is yesterday's (2/15/16) blog post by Jennifer Harvey, an American Baptist ordained minister who teaches religion and philosophy at Drake University: Tim Button-Harrison, Northern Plains District Executive, Church of the Brethren

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