Working on Power while Empowering Work

25 Jan

In “Changing Perspectives on Power,” hooks argues for a change in how power is understood. hooks specifically calls for a new definition of power that overturns the values white supremacist capitalist patriarchy upholds by defining power in terms of control and exploitation. hook frames her argument by illustrating two radically different understandings of power by different actors within feminist thought and the mainstream and radical feminist movements. On one side, according to hooks, power has been assumed to mean “domination and control over people or things.” (83) For particularly white, bourgeois feminists, this view of power defined the mainstream feminist movement, viewing women’s powerlessness as a result of male domination and called for equal access to economic wealth and protection in political arenas (83). On the other side, radical feminists, who focus on women’s liberation, sought and seek to transform the meaning of power, seeing power being understood as domination as bad and detrimental to the feminist movement’s goal. In summary, power can be understood as “power as domination and control” by the mainstream, bourgeois feminists and “power as creative and life-affirming” by radical feminists (84).

While white, bourgeois women believed women in high positions of power would handle power differently than men, as hooks challenges throughout the chapter, however, simply changing the actors does not change the sexist, racist, and classist system and society; power needs to be reexamined and redefined to radically change society to be more equal and equitable. This failure to recognize need results in a failure to adequately recognize connections between oppression by the patriarchy to oppression caused by white supremacy and capitalism, leaving out most women. For hooks, by looking at women and their daily experiences living and resisting an oppressive society, power ends up not being inherently bad, but instead comes from strong self-concept and decision-making skills (88). Looking forward, hooks urges feminists to examine gender norms and roles and, instead of viewing them devoid of power and wrong, to take a step back and see what they mean in context of white supremacy, the patriarchy, and capitalism. Failure to view within complete context results in failure to include all women and transform power from being oppressive to being creative and liberating.

In “Rethinking the Nature of Work,” hook continues her analysis of power and the relationships between gender, class, and racial oppression by looking specifically at work. In this chapter, hooks specifically critiques second-wave feminism and its goal of pushing for women to be allowed to work outside of the home. hooks builds off her previous argument about power, particularly in terms of economic power and wealth-building. Gaining access to and participating in the system does not dismantle it; it only reinforces and preserves definitions of both power and work. hook, however, continues critiquing feminism that comes from the center and how it ignores the experiences of women at the margins in terms of work: “[middle class women] were so blinded by their own experiences that they ignored the fact that a vast majority of women were (even at the time The Feminine Mystique was published) already working outside the home, working in jobs that neither liberated them from dependence on men nor made them economically self-sufficient” (95). While work could be liberating if it was not compulsory and what one desired, as hooks emphasizes, work as inherently and universally liberatory is not true, especially for most poor and working-class women who experienced work as exploitative.

In unpacking the relationship between work and feminist movement, hooks emphasizes how certain challenges to historical actors impacts the goal and direction of the feminist movement, noting that the growing rates of poverty were not taken seriously by the feminist movement, largely comprised of middle-class white women, until they were personally impacted in the late 1970s and 1980s. hooks particularly focuses on how this limited understanding of work harmed Black and poor people, highlighting the dangers of failing to center the most marginalized women. Specifically, the influx of married white women meant fewer jobs for qualified Black people, reinforcing “the extent to which white supremacy has worked to prevent and exclude non-white people from certain jobs” (97). Work should not be defined in terms of exchange value, but rather work should be reevaluated for its human value. To do this, hooks, ultimately, asserts that in order for the feminist movement to be true, it needs to consider and center the perspectives concerning work of all women, especially the most marginalized, which in turn would encourage more women to participate and collectively push for liberation.

Questions for consideration:

  • Like the women excluded from the movement that hooks centers, what happens if someone does not see themselves as a member of the feminist movement, but still advances feminist ideas and goals through activism, even if they may not see it as activism or resistance? Should their voices get included? If so, how do they get included and how do we ensure that their voices, experiences, and perspectives are preserved and preserved authentically and on their own terms?
  • How does hooks emphasize perspective and different experiences within her argument about power and work? How does this specifically show up in the development and agendas of the mainstream feminist movement?
  • hooks highlights how historical moments inform the make-up and goals of the mainstream and radical feminist movements. How did understanding of work and power change as they relate to what they mean for the feminist movement and liberation? How do you think they look now for the feminist movement in our current moment?

8 Replies to “Working on Power while Empowering Work

  1. Chris,
    Your question regarding women who don’t take the name “feminist” but also believe to be active in the movement. As we mentioned in class, within every movement there are radicals and there are opposing groups. While radical feminists might be the reason that some women don’t consider themselves members, it is important to receive recognition. Especially, with the history of dismissal the feminist groups have endured. Witt that said, I think that those voices of those females still are important to the movement. Any woman who has experienced any exploitation and oppression can move the movement forward to push for liberation.

  2. In regard to the second question, I believe Hooks emphasizes perspectives by projecting the various definitions of the terms and how different groups respond through their own experiences and understandings. For power, the varying solutions of either dismantling the entire system or following the system to obtain enough power to bring change display the contrasting backgrounds of class status and race. While white bourgeois women wish to hold onto the privilege, working-class and women of color understand that power will continue within a select group (will simply extend to fit white women) and they will be pushed further down. The only change that upper-class white women want is the opportunity to a job, though they will never go for the lower-paying jobs nor try to address the poor workplace conditions and increasing poverty levels among women. Hooks uses her perspective as a black woman to highlight that there is more than the upper-class white woman because she sees it constantly. The disconnect and narcissistic behavior of these white women are not uncommon as individualism is deeply set within the U.S. identity, but it is extremely harmful as they hold power over the movement. These women set-up the mainstream movement and limit its impact on the society by tweaking the system to allow them more power thus preserving capitalism and continuing to exploit the lower-class.

  3. The first question you posed about the inclusion of people who don’t necessarily consider themselves to be members of the feminist movement is indeed an adequate question. In response I offer this concept we discussed in class surrounding bell hooks idea what it be what it means to be a Feminist. In bell hooks his perspective to be a feminist is to desire the end of suffering for all peoples, and if a part of the solution were to come from someone who does not consider themselves to be a member of the feminist movement, Then so be it. The idea of rejecting a solution solely because of who the solution came from feeds into the stereotype of an overbearing patriarchal society, which is an opposition to the feminist movement. On page 64 bell hooks introduces us to a young Hispanic woman and they have a discourse despite the fact that this student is white passing. This is an example of how and bell hooks is theory of feminism solutions and answers to long-standing questions should not be discouraged and pushed away simply because of whom the solution came from. If bell hooks subscribe to that idea then it will go against her very academic existence, seeing as how she is a marginalized woman of color in the feminist movement. As we discussed in class the Definition of a movement and its principles become murky after The members of the movement feel that their cause has been acknowledged and to some degree fixed. However, the fact the bell hooks has to speak on the idea that intersection of the identifying women deserve to be represented fairly in the feminist movement proves that there needs to be a change in the main stream feminist agenda.

  4. As we spoke about in class on Tuesday, there is power in one who advocates for feminism whether they identify as a feminist or not. According to Hook, the ideal feminism is one that aims to end all oppression. If the feminist movement was pure in its motivation to support women then it would support all women who are advocates for overcoming the oppressions that impact both men and women. The way to maximize supporting other women is through the distribution of power. Although many feminist during the era that the Feminine Mystique was published believed that through work outside the home there is liberation, rather than through choice there is liberation. The ability to empower fellow women in being free to make the choice of where they want to find power is what will validate all women’s activist voices. The white bourgeois women who solely found power in work outside of the home prove their ignorance to the experience of other women who have already been working out of necessity while facing greater levels of oppression. In order to ensure that all women’s voices (feminist identifying or not) are preserved and done so on their own terms, the women’s liberation should be focused on the empowerment of choice rather than power through a narrow path. The voices of those who do not identify as feminist and face the greatest oppression, but want to find power should be lifted above so their voices can be embolden to encourage more women to participate and endeavor for liberation.

  5. As hooks said, some women do not consider themselves feminists, or as part of the feminist movement, because of how rooted in white bourgeoisie values the movement is. However, looking at hooks’ definition of feminism as the struggle to end not only sexist oppression, but all oppression, many women can advance feminist ideas and goals, and their voices should definitely be included. In order to include their voices, though, leaders of the feminist movement would have to acknowledge that “sexism exists with and not in the place of racism and economic exploitation” (98). This also leads to the second question, and how hooks incorporates texts that show how issues of white bourgeois women are valid, but only within their “own class context” (88). In placing careers and work at the center of the movement, they completely disregarded WOC and lower-class women who have already been working, simply because their work was more “menial.” While work was a way for white bourgeois women to be liberated, it was almost the opposite for many poorer women; they saw liberation as being able to quit her job. Also, in only focusing on their own issues, as well as their achievements as women, upper-class women led the focus of the movement more towards individuals. While I think it is important to celebrate victories of individual women, especially when it comes to getting more representation, I do agree with hooks in that their success often has “little impact on the social status of women collectively” (94).

  6. Historical context is key when examining the events and goals of past and present feminist movements. In order to effectively continue the struggle against systems of oppression, a strong understanding of their history and deeply rooted cultural impacts is necessary. For the white bourgeois feminists of the movement, their definition of power as domination and control, privileges the few over the many and places undue emphasis on the individual. Historically, Western views of power stem from colonial ideologies that when put into practice emphasize domination, control, and exploitation. To avoid the work of creating new value systems, white bourgeois feminists continued to follow this dominant ideology by validating the “concept of power as domination and control” and by exercising it over marginalized groups. If, as hooks explains, “more feminist women actively reconceptualized power, they would not have shaped feminist movement using the class and race hierarchies that exist in the larger society” (88). In addition, struggling for power undermines the feminist movement. Instead and looking forward, women should seek other avenues to utilize their creative power in ways that benefit all women and men equally–placing emphasis on the collective instead. By attending to oppression and privilege, those who advocate feminism can create a movement that addresses the concerns of all women.

  7. Hook emphasizes the gaps in the movement’s ideology of work and power between the privileged and less privileged. Work has mainly been viewed as an aspect of liberation for bourgeois women. It was a way to escape their leisure that they have grown bored of.
    However, working-class women do not believe that work has liberated them or made them economically self-sufficient because they have experienced the ways it has exploited them and the men in their class. Working-class and poor women were already expected to work outside the home only to come back to the home and work some more. For the working class and the poor, liberation meant the freedom from working which brings up the point of being able to work and having to work. Being able to work versus having to work exposes the problem of privilege in addition to power. A person who is forced to work to keep their head above what is understandable going to have a different view on work than a person who has the option to work. In addition, the hiring of bourgeois women causes a large influx of people searching for jobs. The workforce mostly will not make extra space for them. Therefore, the jobs of the non-white working class and poor will lose their jobs. Bourgeois women have the power to take away the jobs of the working class and the poor. This idea of power and work shows in the mainstream feminism movement through the idea that work is liberation which allows these women more power which supports the very system they are trying to “fight” against.

  8. In these two chapters, hooks discusses feminism as it relates to power and work. She emphasizes different perspectives by highlighting how white middle-class women were often blinded by their own experiences and didn’t account for the different experiences of other women, alienating them from the entire feminist movement. hooks also discourages against the notion that in order to achieve equality, women need to strive to be equal to men, when in reality, they should strive to break down all oppressions. I believe that it is harmful to perpetuate the idea that in order to be seen as a feminist, you need to do certain things, like work outside the home. hooks says that marginalized women have been doing this for years, have been exploited, and that there was no respect for work that was anything other than a high paying career.

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