Further stirring the pot regarding “feminism”

Further stirring the pot regarding “feminism” November 20, 2012

A while back I sparked a near flame war here (and in e-mails directly to me) by saying that I don’t consider myself a “feminist” because so much of what goes under that label is anti-male. But I also qualified that by admitting that much depends on what “feminism” means. What I meant was that, if I have time to explain what I mean by “feminism,” sure, then I can identify myself as a feminist.

So what would I mean if I identified myself as a feminist? Some years ago British evangelical (she considers herself that) Elaine Storkey wrote a book entitled “What’s Right with Feminism?” I had the privilege of being on a committee that invited her to speak at the college where I then taught. The book is a very fine exploration and recommendation of a kind of moderate feminism–equality of women and men in all areas of life and liberation of women from the social norms and forces that subjugate them. Nowhere in that book or in her talk did I detect any anti-male perspective.

Later Storkey co-wrote Conversations on Christian Feminism: Speaking Heart to Heart with Margaret Hebblethwaite. Again, a good book and one that, with perhaps a few qualms, I could heartily endorse as feminism that is not anti-male. (I was a bit concerned when the two authors criticized all male only organizations including ones dedicated to helping men develop spiritually.)

Several people chided me for claiming that much feminism is anti-male and told me to get up to date by reading more recent feminists such as (at least two strongly recommended) womanist philosopher bell hooks (who does not capitalize her names). So I went out and b0ught the second edition of her classic work Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center (2000).

Overall I thought it was helpful and insightful. I learned from it. That’s always good. And hooks does chide many feminists herself–for being too white and middle class and, yes, even anti-male.

However, in her chapter simply entitled “Men,” on page 73, hooks writes this: “All men support and perpetuate sexism and sexist oppression in one form or another.”

Really? Does bell hooks know all men? Of course not. This is the kind of statement I label “anti-male.” It is completely unsupportable except by prejudice. And I have heard it or something that amounts to it many times in my encounters with “feminist thought.”

Such a statement is so outrageous that it undermines everything else hooks writes. It leaps out of an otherwise quite helpful book as blatant bias. It is an example of what my daughter was taught in junior high school never to do–“globalize.” It’s unworthy of an intellectual or anyone who claims to be knowledgeable and even somewhat objective about social reality.

If I am reading a book that claims to be philosophical (broadly speaking) and I see in it a statement like “All women are….” I immediately suspect something is terribly wrong. No author can know all women.

I thought about providing here some obvious exceptions to hooks’ globalizing statement about men. But it’s not necessary. Anyone who gives even a moment’s thought to the matter should know immediately and automatically that such a statement is unsupportable. Even a moment’s thought can bring up so many exceptions. But even if not, such globalizing condemnations of any subset of people are wrong and worthy of criticism and rejection.

So, if the “new feminism” is represented by hooks, I can’t sign on. I can gladly endorse and support Storkey’s feminism (with a few minor qualms that are more questions I would like to put to her). Unfortunately, I suspect that most books by secular and even religious feminists contain similar sentiments about men. That’s based on thirty years of reading deeply and widely in feminist theology and of hearing leading feminists speak and attempting to interact with them.

My experience has been that everything is fine until I (or another man) attempts to ask a question that implies a possible criticism. Then, suddenly, the “dialogue” is over and it becomes a monologue–about how men have no right to question or criticize a feminist scholar on the subject of patriarchy and women’s oppression.

I have experienced the same thing among some black, African-American theologians and other scholars. I was told by one that all (notice the “all”) we white educators do is “honkify” African-American students. He and I team taught a course in a Christian college. When I asked him to explain that accusation he refused. Another African-American colleague (who had written a book on black theology) stated that all whites in America are racists.

In A Black Theology of Liberation James Cone wrote that “The goal of black theology is the destruction of everything (italicized) white….” (p. 62)

On the other hand, similar to Storkey in feminist theory, black, African-American theology has not been all anti-white. While being critical of white racism in America, Duke University theologian Deotis Roberts criticized Cone for such statements and for rejecting the goal of reconciliation of the races. (Cone seems to have moderated his views since A Black Theology of Liberation was written, but I find many black theologians still hold all whites as racists.)

Now, having said all that, let me admit that MANY men are oppressors of women and MANY whites are racists. Those problems still exist and need to be opposed. But lumping ALL men together and ALL whites together as the enemy is at best unhelpful to the causes and at worst clear evidence of blatant prejudice.

So, am I a feminist? If Elaine Storkey and others like her are the norm of “feminism,” yes. If bell hooks is, then no. So my original statement stands. Too much that goes under the label “feminist” is in some way anti-male. Insofar as that is the case I cannot identify as feminist. Insofar as it is not the case, I can and do.


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  • With regards to this statement,
    “All men support and perpetuate sexism and sexist oppression in one form or another.”
    What was the context? Was bell hooks speaking in terms of intentions, or in terms of systemic oppression? As a white person, I would be willing to agree with the statement, “All whites support and perpetuate racism and racist oppression in one form or another,” if the context were systemic oppression that I participate in without intention and often without awareness. I feel I need to acknowledge this, in order to be more aware of systemic racism and to try to change my actions in relation to it. However, I would not agree that since I am white, I am therefore racist.

    In short, I am not sure that from this one-sentence quote of bell hooks, you have proven that she in particular is anti-male. More context is necessary for me to fully evaluate her words. After all, if I want my intentions taken into account, it would be in accordance with the Golden Rule that I do my best to take into account what she intended to say.

    • rogereolson

      Of course that nuanced interpretation occurred to me, but I could not find it in the context. Even if that’s what hooks meant, I would still consider it anti-male by which I don’t mean hateful of me but lumping all men together as guilty. Furthermore I don’t accept the idea that participation in privilege, white or male, automatically makes one an oppressor. Besides, what about men in prison? Are they oppressing their female guards? What about elderly men in nursing homes? There are so many powerless men that hooks’ statement can only be hyperbole. The problem is that many women, taking such statements literally and unreflectively, come to blame all men for their subjugation.

      • Jessica

        I do understand what you mean. Even if all men participate unwittingly in sexism, just as myself as a white woman participates in racism, without meaning to do so, it shuts down dialogue and offends men and women like myself for someone to say broadly that all men participate in sexism.

        I actually respect and admire men who, being human and therefore susceptible to sins like sexism, actively choose to set aside male privilege and help women, especially in the church. I’m so grateful to those men.

        I have to agree with you ms. hooks’ statement.

    • “However, I would not agree that since I am white, I am therefore racist.”

      I would. As Avenue Q famously said, everyone’s a little bit racist, and within the context of American culture, racism is particularly endemic to white persons. I try my best to not be racist, and I think I do a commendable job, but as a human being whose very nature has been wounded by the reality of sin, as someone who has been socialized as a white person in a racist culture, sometimes–perhaps even often–I fail. The thing then is not to be mired in guilt–after all, Jesus’ blood washes us all clean–but instead to apologize, try to understand what went wrong, and do my best not to do it again.

      • rogereolson

        This is the usual explanation of “racist” when all whites are said to be racist, but I argue it is simply a redefining. Of the word for rhetorical purposes. What you said is true except that it isn’t “racism.” We need a new or different word for being caught up in a racist system and benefiting from white privilege without actually having negative feelings or attitudes against persons of color. “Racist” loses much of its force when it is defined so broadly.

  • Steve Rogers

    In principle I agree with you, Roger. In the real world, however, unless one can fully enter into the reality of the oppressed (which I do not feel is possible without actually being one of the oppressed), even the best intended dialogue from the unoppressed sympathizer will lack that certain something that verifies one knows what he is talking about. The oppressed speak from experience. The unoppressed sympathizer speaks from theory. It is little wonder, then, that femists or blacks who have moved to the frontlines of overthrowing oppression don’t quickly make the distinction between those who oppress intentionally and those who renounce oppression yet by birthright remain thoroughly embedded in the identity and system of the oppressor. We renounce oppression from the podiums of the oppressor using the tone and “idiom” of those who are accustomed to privilege. Oppressed people are sensitive to that voice and have to fight through their own disgust and mistrust to engage it in conversation. Engage it, they must. Tolerate the ambiguity of the process, we must.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, yes. I spent years following that advice: just listening and trying to understand (not just the words but the experiences behind them). I still do. But when an oppressed scholar makes absolutely outrageous statements that lump everyone together I must protest.

  • Patrick Hare

    I suspect by her comment, “All men support and perpetuate sexism and sexist oppression in one form or another,” hooks is suggesting that men in all cultures naturally benefit from “male privilege”, whether they intend to or not. But I take it from your critique she didn’t carefully explain that provocative claim?

    • rogereolson

      Not that I found. Still, not all men everywhere benefit from male privilege. Think of the man spending his life in prison or in a rehab hospital. Such “all” statements are always unwarranted when aimed at a subgroup of persons.

      • Saskia

        Of course he still benefits from male privilege. If not now, then in the past and perhaps in the future. Male privilege exists in so many ways. I understand that it’s hard to see when you are a male and aren’t able to experience life without it, and I understand why bell hooks’ statement offended you. But in a very real way, it’s true. I doubt there’s a man alive that has never benefitted from sexism/has always spoken up against sexism. Just as I doubt there’s a woman alive that hasn’t benefitted from racism or ableism or reverse discrimination. As a white woman, I don’t have male privilege but I do have privilege. Every time I use that without thinking, I’m part of the system and perpetuating the system. It doesn’t make me a bad person, it’s just reality.

        • rogereolson

          As I have said before, benefiting from privilege is not the same as being an oppressor. Words are being misused for political reasons, I fear. And, hooks said “all.” That’s part of my objection. She can’t possibly know all men or that all men (without exception) oppress women.

  • Dr. Olson:

    You can’t win on this subject no matter how hard you try. No man has ever fully figured out the emotional sensitivities of women, and no woman has ever fully figured out the complexities of men since Adam and Eve in Eden. Meanwhile let’s just enjoy our respective roles in human society; while at the same time trying our best to live by the Golden Rule.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • K Gray

      Oh you are in trouble now: you said “our respective roles in human society”!

      • rogereolson

        I have said many times here that only a man can be a “father” and only a woman can be a “mother” even if the other gender sometimes must substitute for the missing parent role. So I don’t know why anyone would be surprised by my language about roles. What I wrote doesn’t commit me to patriarchy. However, you are right that anything I write about gender will be unacceptable to some people who are committed to an ideology.

        • K Gray

          Actually it was commenter Ivan Rogers who said that. But you are right that anything written about gender will be unacceptable to someone.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Roger,
    Tying in a recent post with this, would you consider the statements of Hooks and Cone as sinful anti-intellectualism for their dogmatic assertions that you referenced? Or are they simply expressing that all men/whites are fallen in these similar ways?
    What Hooks and Cone write make me less inclined to read further to what they have to say because they are both so over-the-top inflammatory.

    Happy Thanksgiving,

    • rogereolson

      I don’t put their statements in a “sinful” category so much as an “inappropriate” category–inappropriate for intellectuals who are supposed to be reflective and logical.

  • This reading and subsequent rejection of hooks is wholly uncharitable. Do you honestly think her readers are stupid enough to take away from that that we should hate men, especially as she’s written extensively (see the work “Feminism is for Everybody”) about the ways in which men are varyingly oppressed by a system of patriarchy? It seems, Dr. Olson, that you were simply looking for a reason to reject her, and only pretending to have an open mind.

    • rogereolson

      Where did I say that hooks says or implies that she hates men or that anyone should hate men? Now you’re the one reading something into what I wrote uncharitably. “Anti-male” doesn’t necessarily equate with hating men. One can certainly be “anti-” something without hating it. But I do consider her claim about men implicitly if not explicitly permission to consider all men as bad by default. Why don’t you say what you think about hook’s comment that I quoted rather than just accuse me of saying something I did not say?

      • If anti-male is not to be interpreted as emasculation or man-hating, then we have a definitional problem, as your entire thesis about feminism is based upon an assumption of it as an emasculation and undermining of masculinity, which can rightly (with your own approval based on previous responses) be interpreted as man hating. If anti-male and man-hating are not synonyms within the context you provided, then why, then, do we reject bell hooks as one of those “radical” feminists? Either this argument about bell hooks being anti-male works to support your generalized thesis of feminists as emasculating man-haters, or it does not. In the second case, that reveals a weakness in the writing and an unwillingness to a simple definition of terms unbefitting of an academic.

        As it is, there is a closemindness to this post that is absolutely baffling. Saying “I was learning with her until this one sentence” isn’t open-minded, no matter what protests you may make to the contrary. It refuses to take hooks based on the context she provides, denies the concepts of privilege within which she is functioning (and assumes knowledge of on the part of her reader) and, in your responses to comments here, assumes a stupidity on the part of her reader that is so lacking in generosity that it makes me ashamed to be a Baylor Bear (here I refer to your above comments that feminist readers would take this as a license to hate men…which, right there, disproves your nitpicking point in reply to me here).

        That lack of generosity to your subject is what you have to answer for, Dr. Olson. Not nitpicking about anti-male vs. man-hating (which doesn’t wash, given the context to this post), but the lack of charity and understanding you give your opponents. You are deliberately misunderstanding bell hooks in an attempt to write off the whole of modern feminism. And that is shameful.

        • rogereolson

          And it seems to me you want to elevate her above criticism. And I have not dismissed feminism the way you claim. I have carefully used words like “insofar as” and “to a great extent.” I have endorsed the feminism of Elaine Storkey. I have made clear what kinds of feminism I reject and they are not all of feminism. It seems to me you want to protect feminism from criticism.

  • You would dismiss bell hooks entirely because of one sentence, without taking the time to discover what she means by that sentence? Without considering the context of the feminist idea that all *people* are implicit in systems of oppression (much like the idea that all people are sinners in need of redemption) until we move to fight against it? And you say that she is the one being anti-intellectual? I wonder if you just aren’t afraid to face the idea that sometimes you participate in patriarchy without even realizing it. Would facing that idea force you to give up certain privileges? To humble yourself? To take a second look at your theology, your political leanings, or any other area of your life? Why are you so vehemently opposed to any suggestion that you might unwittingly support patriarchy?

    • I would also like to add that hooks believes all *women* all participate in and perpetuate patriarchy to some extent. The idea that revolution begins within is a major theme in her work. She considers the beam in her own eye before trying to remove the speck in her brothers’ eyes. Perhaps this is something you should try?

      • rogereolson

        What are you saying? Because she does those things what she says is above criticism?

        • ladymous

          Please explain why, when said “Your specific criticism of bell hooks is unfounded and inaccurate,” you have responded by suggesting that they think hooks in particular, or feminism in general, is to be protected from ALL criticism?

          If I criticize some element of Karl Barth’s thought, and someone says I’ve misunderstood him, and provides evidence for that claim, does it follow that that person is trying to protect Karl Barth from all criticism?

          • ladymous

            ^^^Meant to write, “when commenters have said…”

          • rogereolson

            In my opinion, hooks’ statement is so obviously invalid that anyone who defends it appears to me simply to be determined to reject all criticism of hooks. (“Invalid” is not the same as “untrue.” What hooks said about “all men” might be true but it is invalid because, as I said, it is impossible for her to know “all men.”)

    • rogereolson

      Participating in patriarchy and even benefiting from it are not the same as being an oppressor. The term “oppressor” needs to have more bite to it than that.

  • Thanks for persisting in this conversation. It’s a subject that is so hot many are afraid to touch it. We do ourselves no favors by ignoring it. Maybe we stumble in our beliefs, but we can at least stumble forward.

  • Courtney

    A male prisoner can still harass, belittle and intimidate his female guard in a way that a male guard would not experience. Or, a male prisoner benefits from the higher likelihood that his spouse/ family will remain connected and support him post-release, compared to his female counterpart. So, yes, even an imprisoned male benefits from the privileges afforded to his gender.

    • Roger Olson

      Who’s in the position of power, though? Definitely the female guard. And why do male prisoners have to have female guards while female prisoners have only female guards?