National Women’s Studies Association Annual Conference: bell hooks’ Keynote Speech

5 Jan

Late in 2014, Cheryl and I represented the blog and the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at the annual NWSA conference in Puerto Rico. The highlight of the several day event was the keynote speech given by feminist hero, bell hooks. (The entire speech can be found here.) In her talk, hooks discussed a variety of important topics: violence, male allies in feminism, the role of the academy, and the importance of love. Here, I’ll provide a brief overview.

hooks clearly articulated the problem our society faces today: imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Here, she identifies the matrix of oppressions that sustains our dominator culture. She insisted that, to even begin to tackle these systems of oppression, we must rethink and expand our understanding of violence—what it encompasses and who is capable of perpetuating it. One concern was that, in focusing on men’s violence against women, feminist thinkers have overlooked women’s violence. White women are often guilty of perpetuating white supremacist violence. (Although she didn’t give this example, one need only read social media comments about the Ferguson decision, written by white women, to see the taint of white supremacy.) Women’s socialized role in the private sphere means that they are often responsible for teaching a “pedagogy of violence” in the home. More than simply recognizing women’s violence, hooks called for an expansion of the definition of violence. Violence is not merely physical abuse—she points to violent sports as entertainment, isolation, patterns of overworking that lead us to abuse our bodies, war policies, environmentally damaging policies, all of these things must be understood as violence. We must move away from a one dimensional understanding in order to fully explain our societal commitment to violence.

What is the solution? For hooks, the answer is love. She was clear that, while anger has its place, anger alone will not end violence. Love and mutuality could become the basis of a renewed and energetic feminist movement, and could even reshape women’s studies as a discipline. What was also clear from her speech was a kind of call to arms. Feminism has become sedimented in the academy, but has lost its efficacy in society at large. (The academy is conservative and conservatizing, and women’s studies has not been immune.) We must create reinvigorated activism.

Finally, she touched briefly upon the question of men as feminist allies. She said it is a myth that feminist have excluded men. Instead, she explained, feminism has always opened its arms to men who were willing to do the work. The problem is not feminists’ rejection of men, but the fact that most men have simply not been willing to put in the work.

She asked the audience a question, and it is one I’d like to leave readers with: How do we craft lives that reflect the integrity of our analysis? That is, how do we lead lives that match our principles? That is the question for both activists and academics—in fact, it is the question that topples that false barrier between academics and activists. It is a question that must be answered.

Further Reading:
hooks, bell. 2001. All About Love: New Visions.
hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgrees: Education as the Practice of Freedom.
hooks, bell. 2002. Communion: The Search for Female Love.
hooks, bell. 2004. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love.

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