Episode 43

ain't i a woman, by bell hooks

Published on: 3rd August, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Last week we discussed the book Women, Race, and Class, by the controversial intellectual and cultural icon, Angela Davis. That book was published in 1981, and undertakes the telling of American history with Black women as the main focal point. This week’s book was also published in 1981, and it takes on a similar project, looking at American history and culture through a Black feminist lens. It’s called ain’t i a woman, of course referring to Sojourner Truth’s famous speech, and it’s by the brilliant and beloved author, bell hooks. Interestingly, although Angela Davis’ book and bell hooks’ book came out the same year and address similar topics, they are very different, and one significant difference is that bell hooks had written the first draft of ain’t a woman ten years earlier, when she was a 19-year-old freshman in college at Stanford University. She published it when she was 29, after graduating with her PhD from UC-Santa Cruz. (Angela Davis taught at UC-Santa Cruz after hooks graduated). So ain’t i a woman technically predates Women, Race and Class, and it reflects a younger voice and a different personality. And I’m so excited to talk about it today with my guests, Manuela Zoninsein and Ashley Jackson Beal. Welcome, Manuela and Ashley!!

(Hi, etc.) :)

So I’m kind of third-wheeling today - Ashley and Manuela are close friends and I think it will be so beautiful and really powerful to have you two discussing this work together. One of my hopes with this podcast is that people will actually read more of these texts and discuss them with their friends and their families, which is very much bell hooks’ vision and goal as well.

Manuela and I know each other through our husbands - Manuela’s husband Andy was one of my husband’s first friends and best friends at business school, and they are still peas in a pod and partners in crime. :) 

I’m so excited to have you here today, Manuela, because you are absolutely brilliant and fascinating, and a role model for my daughters. You’re doing so much good in the world, and you’ve been a feminist and a scholar for a lot longer than I have - your whole life really, and I hope you talk about that in a minute.

And I’m so thrilled to have you here today, Ashley! Ashley and I met recently through Manuela, and is also an incredible mind and soul, and it was Ashley who suggested this book, which I’m so grateful for.  I’ve been recommending it to everyone I talk to ever since you put it on the reading list. 

I’d like to start with introductions, so I’d love for both to talk about where you’re from not only on a map, but in terms of your family and community of origin and some things that make you who you are.

Manuela: Hi Amy! It’s such an honor and pleasure to be here. Thank you for having Ashley and me on your podcast, and, more fundamentally, for starting and leading this incredible project. 

It feels particularly special to be here because I’m just learning, as a new mom, how much the values of egalitarianism, curiosity, and what Jewish people call “Tikkun Olam” - repair the world - start early, passing from parent to child. This realization has led me to reconsider and appreciate anew how uniquely I was raised, and how important it is that I start early with my son. 

First off: I’m an immigrant, the child of immigrants, and the grandchild of immigrants. My sister and I were born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to an American mother and Brazilian father. Each one had a parent who had immigrated: my dad’s dad to Brazil from Moldova and my mom’s mom to the US from the Russian-Ukraine border. I trace some of my individual traits to their journeys: I consider myself scrappy, resourceful, frugal, curious for knowledge, hard-working, and globally oriented. I’m also pretty hard on myself and hold myself to high standards, which is one of the reasons I’ve dug in the last couple years to re-assess racial politics in the US.

My parents were activists and academics their whole lives. My father led the communist student movement in Brazil, something he started as a teenager; he then fled the Brazilian dictatorship after university for Chile, where he worked on the economic team of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government. When the US-supported coup led by Augusto Pinochet violently removed Allende’s government, my dad fled across the border to Colombia, and eventually made his way to the US where he received his PhD from the New School in New York, which is considered the most left-leaning economics department in the US (although in Europe it would be considered centrist). He became a professor of development economics and, before passing away 11 years ago, wrote a book comparing the economic benefits of affirmative action programs across the US, Brazil, and South Africa.

My mom worked with Students for a Democratic Society while studying at the University of Chicago and was a Freedom Fighter helping to register Black American voters in Tennessee. Given Bob Moses’ passing earlier this week, talking about this effort feels particularly pertinent. She attended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech on the Mall; she worked backstage at Woodstock; she drove a taxi cab in NYC in the 70s. So yeah, she’s a bad-ass. After finishing her anthropological field research focused on an Afro-Brazilian matrilineal religious group in the Northeast of Brazil - she focused on a specific church in candomblé - she returned to finish her PhD at the New School - and met my dad. They moved to Brazil and my mom eventually taught the first university-level courses in Brazil on feminism. She went on to help establish the field of social entrepreneurship, opening the Brazil office of Ashoka - which spearheaded the category - and subsequently shifted to philanthropy focused on women’s reproductive rights and health, working at different times for various foundations, most notably the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago where she led their portfolio in West Africa while teaching at Northwestern in their African Studies Department.

From my earliest memories, dinner table conversations discussed social inequality and the interplay of gender, race, and class - with my mother arguing that gender and race were more powerful determinants in our societal hierarchies, and my father banging the drum for class. My parents made sure I went to integrated public schools and we always had friends of different races, nationalities, and backgrounds. My godfather, for example, was homosexual and one of the first black men to study at Yale. 

In retrospect, I see that I sought distance and independence from this very heavy, complex debate; it was a lot for me growing up, especially since we moved a lot and I have struggled for a long time with my immigrant identity. I think that’s in part why I focus on climate change and environmental issues: it’s my own “thing,” but also integral to social issues: the more we understand about the rapidly deteriorating state of our planet, the more we’re also learning that the same inequalities of the past are rearing their ugly heads and dictating that those who will experience the greatest burdens and suffer the most will be, yep, you guessed it: people of color, especially Black Americans in the US, women, and the poor. 

For my day job, so to speak, I’m a serial cleantech entrepreneur. I started as a journalist in China, reporting for Newsweek and some engineering publications, then decided to start my own thing: an information service based in Beijing that covered the Chinese agtech market opportunity. We built an incredible database but it was deemed critical to national security when Xi Jinping came into power, so I sold the assets to a business partner. We had received a grant from the Brazilian government to do something in agtech, so I moved to São Paulo and helped start what is now called InstaAgro, an online marketplace for smallholder farmers in Brazil that is preparing to raise a round of funding. I’m now in the early stages of building my third company called Kadeya. We deliver convenient, quality water without the waste through a closed-loop water bottle service - think of it as Citi Bike for water bottles, but focused in offices and military bases.

With a nascent understanding that racial justice and environmental justice are deeply intertwined, and during the recent racial awareness-raising and awakening of the last few years while I was pursuing my MBA - which led to a lot of difficult and important discussions with people from all walks of life - I am committed anew to revisiting a lot of the ideas and questions I had when I was younger, from childhood onward. And this time, I feel mature enough and better informed to be able to process a lot of these structural observations and apply them more directly in my life.

I also want to be sure and recognize your other guest and one of my very best friends, Ashley Beal, who has been patient and thoughtful and curious with me as we’ve discussed race relations and feminism over the last few years during our awesome book club, and for suggesting that I read bell hooks! She has an incredible, brilliant, beautiful daughter Belle - who I’m honored to call my God-daughter - so I’m realizing how much I still have to learn! It’s really because of her that we’re with you today. 

[Amy bridge]

Ashley: Bio

As a child I lived in between two states that really became two worlds. Living in California in the 90s I was exposed to many cultures, communities and varied ideologies. In Louisiana I was very aware of segregation and class inequality and most namely sexism. Because I went to an all black private school for the professors of the college I never really interacted with people who weren’t black in highschool. Because segregation was so deeply entrenched in the area my whole life was black. My doctor, dentist, nurses, teachers, and principals were all black. So my dominant experience was not daily racism(because I rarely encountered white people) but rather daily sexism. My mother who was a black feminist and a woman unafraid in every sense encouraged me to push back on the administration and my peers who reinforced in every way possible that boys were more important than girls. Needless to say I didn’t change Louisiana. But I did discover that fighting for equality felt right and felt good even if there was no net change. I decided I could do more if I were educated so I threw myself into books and study. I was always autodidactic so I chose to read books about women and by women(at that time mostly classical fiction and non-fiction physics and evolutionary theory). I found through this process that I was most interested in science and soon I discovered the story of Henrietta Lax. Hers was such an allegory on black womens simultaneous importance and degradation that I felt deeply connected to her and felt a duty to be more involved in science. I initially thought that path would be into medicine but soon discovered that as under represented as black women are in medicine we are even less represented in bench science. I decided to pursue research and development to address disparities in how black people are included in scientific research at every level. That desire led me to pursue a masters in Neurobiology and that pursuit made me understand that women in general are underrepresented in science and as a result the scientific community prioritizes development of  drugs like Viagra meanwhile birth control has been essentially the same   since the 70s. I haven’t revolutionized the science world yet but I'm heartened to see the numbers of black women in natural science research is increasing and the general awareness of the disparities has improved. Manuela is one of my best friends and a Godmother to my  beautiful black daughter so her awareness and active pursuit of knowledge in the area of black feminism means so much to me. I believe women can ban together and create real change for our gender but it requires many authentic conversations about intersectional feminism and I'm glad to be a part of that today     

Amy: What are your thoughts on breaking down patriarchy? (either the phrase or what led to your interest in participating in the podcast)?

Manuela: As I mentioned before, your podcast has given me the opportunity to revisit ideas and texts that I once attempted to understand, but couldn’t yet. It’s opened up a new conversation with my Mom, who grew up referencing these texts and raised me as a feminist. And you’ve given me an excuse to reference the phrase “breaking down patriarchy” casually, initiating some pleasantly surprising conversations with people I already consider feminists, and some shocking learnings about other people I thought were more progressive and informed than they actually are!

It’s also reminded me that, even though my mom did the work and educated me...the work doesn’t end there. In fact, it never ends. Ashley and I are both moms, and we talk about how we will educate our kids. Making this a part of our local and global conversations and awareness is a work in progress and requires constant effort and unending commitment. Thanks for making this fun and accessible for more people! 

Amy bridge

Ashley:It's a necessity for real progress for any nation to break the male dominated stranglehold on every aspect of society. Dismantling the patriarchy will solve most of the world's ills. Malcolm x observed and said that societies that uplift and educate women thrive and advance. I believe that is the best reason to break down the patriarchy. True to form we must save the world and save men from themselves. I love the idea of this podcast and love so many of the episodes. Especially the ones featuring my favorite books. I think exploring feminism through literature provides the perfect platform for real conversations that can lead to change.

Amy bridge

Amy: Intro of bell hooks:

We usually spend some time talking about the author, but when my friend Gina and I recorded our episode on “feminism is for everybody” - which will air later - she pointed out that bell hooks wouldn’t have wanted a long biography. She is an extremely modest, unassuming person - in fact she doesn’t even capitalize her name because she wants readers’ attention to be on the substance of her ideas, not on her identity. So I won’t disrespect her wishes by talking too much about her, but I do want to share just a little bit because she is such a magnificent human being and I want listeners to have some background as we discuss her work. [And I highly recommend a NYT article about her by Min Jin Lee, published on Feb 28, 2019, called “In Praise of bell hooks.”] 

bell hooks is a pen name - she adopted her maternal great-grandmother's name because her great-grandmother "was known for her snappy and bold tongue, which [she] greatly admired". Her real name is Gloria Jean Watkins, and she was born on September 25, 1952 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, which was a small, segregated town (this was two years before Brown v. Board).

Her father worked as a janitor and her mother worked as a maid in the homes of white families, and Gloria was educated in racially segregated public schools, later writing that this is where she experienced education as the practice of freedom. She describes the great adversities she faced when making the transition to an integrated school, where teachers and students were predominantly white. She was an avid reader all throughout her childhood, and after graduating from high school she attended Stanford University, where she graduated with a degree in English in 1973. And as I mentioned, astoundingly, it was during her time as an undergrad at Stanford that she wrote ain’t i a woman. She then got her MA in English from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1976. She spent several years teaching and writing, and then completed her doctorate in literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, completing her dissertation on author Toni Morrison.

She has published more than 30 books, ranging in topics from black men, patriarchy, and masculinity to self-help, personal memoirs, and sexuality. A prevalent theme in her most recent writing is community and communion: in three conventional books and four children's books, she suggests that communication and literacy (the ability to read, write, and think critically) are crucial to developing healthy communities and relationships that are not marred by race, class, or gender inequalities.

She has held positions as Professor of African-American Studies and English at Yale University, Associate Professor of Women's Studies and American Literature at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and as Distinguished Lecturer of English Literature at the City College of New York. She currently serves as a  Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, in her home state of Kentucky. 

Before we start discussing ain’t i a woman, I want to introduce her with three quotes from the book: one on her writing style, and two on her motivation for writing the book. 

On writing style (and this is a signature of bell hooks):

“To reach a broader audience required the writing of work that was clear and concise, that could be read by readers who had never attended college or even finished high school. Imagining my mother as my ideal audience - the reader I most wanted to convert to feminist thinking - I cultivated a way of writing that could be understood by readers from diverse class backgrounds.” (xi) [She wrote the book with her mom in mind the whole time - she dedicated the book to her, and her photo is on the cover.]

On motivation:

“In classes and in consciousness-raising groups when I called attention to the differences created in our lives by race and racism, I was often treated with disdain by white female comrades who were eager to bond around shared notions of sisterhood. And there I was, this bold young black female from rural Kentucky, insisting that there were major differences shaping the experiences of black and white women.” (x)


“As I encouraged black women to become active feminists, I was told that we should not become “women’s libbers” because racism was the oppressive force in our life - not sexism. ...I wanted to provide concrete evidence to refute the arguments of antifeminists who so loudly proclaimed that black women were not victims of sexist oppression and were not in need of liberation.” (13)

So with that introduction, Ashley and Manuela, can you talk about some of the major themes you found the most compelling in this work? Ashley, I’d love for you to start us off.


Chapter 1: Sexism and the black female experience 

I was truly intrigued by this first chapter that explores the psychology of  slavery and by how much the first chapter is still relevant today although its about life for my ancestors hundreds of years ago. This quote spoke to me 

“White slaveholders were ambivalent in regards to their treatment of the black male, for while they exploited his masculinity, they institutionalized measures to keep that masculinity in check.

Although it in no way diminishes the suffering and oppressions of enslaved black men, it is obvious that the two forces, sexism and racism, intensified and magnified the sufferings and oppressions of black women”

  1. Why does black community seem more invested in (alleviating) black mens suffering more  than black women? Why is it always the dominant narrative?

“White colonizers sought to suppress sexuality because of their deep fear of sexual feelings, their belief that such feelings were sinful, and their fear of eternal damnation. Colonial white men placed the responsibility for sexual lust onto women and consequently regarded them with the same suspicion and distrust they associated with sexuality in general.”

  1. (bell hooks this is a word). How has sexual repression through religion affected us as black people ?
  2. The white europeans that first settled here were religious zealots (and criminals)

“Enslaved black men were stripped of the patriarchal status that had characterized their social situation in Africa but they were not stripped of their masculinity. Despite all popular arguments that claim black men were figuratively castrated, throughout the history of slavery in America black men were allowed to maintain some semblance of their societally defined masculine role. In colonial times as in contemporary times, masculinity denoted possessing the attributes of strength, virility, vigor, and physical prowess. It was precisely the "masculinity" of the African male that the white slaver sought to exploit. “

  1. Forced upon us euro definition of femininity then make impossible to attain

Ask manuela about euro definitions of femininity and their affect on her as white woman

  1. Africa observation on gender roles was surprising 
  2. In speaking about AAfrican gender roles and culture is she trying to place more accountability on black men?

“The brutal treatment of enslaved black women by white men exposed the depths of male hatred of woman and woman's body.Such treatment was a direct consequence of misogynist attitudes toward women that prevailed in colonial American society. In fundamentalist Christian teaching woman was portrayed as an evil sexual temptress, the bringer of sin into the world. Sexual lust originated with her and men were merely the victims of her wanton power. Socialization of white men to regard women as their moral downfall led to the development of anti-woman sentiment. White male religious teachers taught that woman was an inherently sinful creature of the flesh whose wickedness could only be purged by the intercession of a more powerful being. Appointing themselves as the personal agents of God, they became the judges and overseers of woman's virtue. They instigated laws to govern the sexual behavior of white women…”

  1. How can something as deeply rooted as misogyny with origins in religious dogma ever truly change?
  2. The black church was also notoriously sexist(origins in white fundamentalist christianity) has that changed?
  3. The religion that white enslavers forced upon us as black women was ultimately what united us during civil rights, will it be our salvation as black women facing mysogynoir 

Ask Manuelas thoughts on judaism and if there are similar misogynist roots 

I’ll add my thoughts here too:

Yeah, I can take this one because I would say that question has been the guiding question and kind of the personal engine that’s been propelling me in this whole project, because of my experience in my faith tradition. And I agree with you, Ashley, whether or not a person is religious, we all have to confront this religious history because those religious stories form the foundation upon which society has constructed its systems, and through colonization they spread almost everywhere. Which is why bell hooks is writing about it, as you said. So one thing Gerda Lerner points out in The Creation of Patriarchy - and this was a game-changer for me  - was that men were the makers of myths and symbol systems. They were the ones who made up stories, and passed along those stories, and somehow along the way people came to accept that those stories had come from God. And then men had the audacity - even if it was well-meaning and sincerely-felt - to make rules for people about what they could and couldn’t do, and really how they had to see themselves - based on those stories. So when I learned in grad school that those stories had been written down a lot later than I had thought, after thousands of years of oral tradition…  I grieved a lot because those stories had been sacred to me and I had thought they had come directly from God, so that was a huge blow to my faith. But then as I deconstructed and then tried to re-construct something new, I turned to that example that you just talked about Manuela within Judaism, with that tradition of questioning the sacred text and wrestling with God and re-interpreting meaning. And I have to point out that soooo many authors on our reading list have been Jewish women, because like you said Manuela Jewish people have this tradition of being willing to depart from a literalist reading of a text, and being encouraged to think of the stories in new ways, especially in modern and reform Judaism. And women theologians have done this within all different religions - Gerda Lerner highlights a bunch of them in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, and I just read a couple of books of feminist theologians of many different faiths taking lots of different approaches - some of them digging back into the past and re-claiming ancient traditions of the divine feminine, and some feminist theologians making up something entirely new - new stories, new rituals, new ways of connecting to the divine that include women and place women as central. And I think that can feel uncomfortable for women, especially women like me who are trained to view religious authority as strictly male, so it’s this powerful act of audacity on the part of women to say “I have the authority to re-interpret this scripture, or to re-introduce this ancient divine feminine symbol, or to make up something new. But when we remember that other humans have done that - that’s exactly what men have always presumed to have the authority to do, then we can say, well then I can do it too.”

*Misogynoir is misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles in bias.[1] The term was coined by queer black feminist Moya Bailey, who created the term to address misogyny directed toward black women in American visual and popular culture.[2] Trudy of Gradient Lair, a womanist blog about black women and art, media, social media, socio-politics and culture, has also been credited in developing the lexical definition of the term.[3]

The concept is grounded in the theory of intersectionality, which analyzes how various social identities such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation interrelate in systems of oppression.

Chapter 2: Continued Devaluation of Black Womanhood

The success of sexist-racist conditioning of American people toregard black women as creatures of little worth or value is evidentwhen politically conscious white feminists minimize sexistoppression of black women, as Brownmiller does. She does not inform readers that white men continued to sexually assault black women long after slavery ended and that such rapes were socially sanctioned. She does not make the point that a primary reason rape of black women has never received what little attention rape of white women receives is because black women have always been seen by the white public as sexually permissive, as available and eager for the sexual assaults of any man, black or white.The designation of all black women as sexually depraved, immoral, and loose had its roots in the slave system. White women and men justified the sexual exploitation of enslaved black women by arguing that they were the initiators of sexual relationships with men. From such thinking emerged the stereotype of black women as sexual savages, and in sexist terms a sexual savage, a non-human, an animal cannot be raped.

1.this stereotype still pervades society today. White women benefit from this juxtaposition. Do they know that? 

2. How were we taught about Sally Hemmings enslaved woman on Thomas Jefferson plantation? Rape/consent  and adulterization of black women 

3. Black women's bodies commodified so that society may bastardize the parts they like without having to uplift or respect black women intotality.

- Appropriation and its effects 

“As far back as slavery, white people established a social hierarchy based on race and sex that ranked white men first white women second, though sometimes equal to black men, who are ranked third, and black women last. What this means in terms of the sexual politics of rape is that if one white woman is raped by a black man, it is seen as more important, more significant than if thousands of black women are raped by one white man. Most Americans, and that includes black people, acknowledge and accept this hierarchy; they have internalized it either consciously or unconsciously.”

  1. This is still the social hierarchy today.  Are white women ok with being second as long as not last?
  2. Is it in black women’s best interest to create Alliances with white women or is it in our best interest to go at the struggle for our liberation  alone?
  3. White women have always been secretaries of the patriarchy. Can that ever change 
  4. Will black men/ black community ever prioritize black women's issues? Will we as black women do so? Are we more concerned about others as a way to prove virtue that is assigned to white women at birth?

“Systematic devaluation of black womanhood was not simply a direct consequence of race hatred, it was a calculated method of social control. During the reconstruction years, manumitted black people had demonstrated that given the same opportunities as whites they could excel in all areas. Their accomplishments were a direct challenge to racist notions about the inherent inferiority of dark races. In those glorious years, it seemed that black people would quickly and successfully assimilate and amalgamate into the mainstream of American culture. White people reacted to the progress of black people by attempting to return to the old social order. To maintain white supremacy they established a new social order based on apartheid. The period in American history is commonly known as the Jim Crow or "separate but equal" years, but both phrases shift attention away from the fact that separation of the races once slavery ended was a deliberate political move on the part of white supremacists. As miscegenation represented the greatest threat to white racial solidarity, a complex system of laws and social taboos was enacted to maintain separation of the races.”

  1. Why don’t we learn more about reconstruction and the success of black people during that time? Is there still an investment in proving black people are inferior
  2. Why is miscegenation a threat to white solidarity? Isn’t it more of a threat to black solidarity?(colorism, featurism)

Ask Manuela did she ever learn about reconstruction? How much? 

“White people were never reacting to any high incidence of inter-racial rape during reconstruction; they simply wanted to prevent inter-racial marriage. They used lynchings, castration, and other brutal punishments to prevent black men from initiating relationships with white women. They perpetuated the myth that all black men were eager to rape white women so that white females would not seek friendships with black men for fear of brutal assault. The horrific nature of violent attacks on black manhood has caused historiographers and sociologists to assume that whites feared unions between white women and black men most. In actuality, they feared legally sanctioned racial mixing on the part of the sexes of either group, but as black men were more likely to seek legal sanction through marriage of their relationships with white women, they received the brunt of attacks by white supremacists.By brainwashing white women to see black men as savage beasts,white supremacists were able to implant enough fear in the whitefemale's psyche so that she would avoid any contact with blackmen.”

  1. They weren't wrong. Black men were eager to access white women sexually and marry them. The fact that they saw this as a threat to whiteness is what is troubling

My friend’s mom said civil rights guy guy yh hi hi hi hi u 


movement was partially about black men wanting to access white women sexually. discuss

Ask Manuela has she ever dated a black man and was she surprised by reactions on black side or white side of her social/family circle? 

Chapter 3: The Imperialism of the patriarchy

“When the contemporary movement toward feminism began, there was little discussion of the impact of sexism on the social status of black women. The upper and middle class white women who were at the forefront of the movement made no effort to emphasize that patriarchal power, the power men use to dominate women, is not just the privilege of upper and middle class white men, but the privilege of all men in our society regardless of their class or race.White feminists so focused on the disparity between white male/white female economic status as an indication of the negative impact of sexism that they drew no attention to the fact that poor and lower-class men are as able to oppress and brutalize women as any other group of men in American society.”

  1. This is still the case today but why? 
  2. Will black women and our issues ever be incorporated in a real way by mainstream white feminism? 
  3. Do white women actually know this and just not care? Do they think by solving their issues that the issues of all women will be solved? 

“Black leaders, male and female, have been unwilling to acknowledge black male sexist oppression of black women because they do not want to acknowledge that racism is not the only oppressive force in our lives. Nor do they wish to complicate efforts to resist racism by acknowledging that black men can be victimized by racism but at the same time act as sexistoppressors of black women. Consequently there is little acknowledgement of sexist oppression in black male/female relationships as a serious problem.”

  1. Broaching this topic to black men or black women is always met with ire and denial in my experience.
  2. Why is the black female experience ignored by all? 

In a discussion of southern etiquette as regards attitudes toward women, one white writer noted, "Southern racists and black activists looked at women in similar terms. Both viewed the female as a second sex with distinctly limited privileges."

  1. Black men are more likely to be conservatives. This has always been the case
  2. Black men can only lord over black women and children so their sexism is more important to them perhaps because their male impulses require someone to be beneath them. Even if white men relinquished white women from their relative servitude they still own the world and have many groups to subjugate

“Many black men who express the greatest hostility toward the whitemale power structure are often eager to gain access to that power.Their expressions of rage and anger are less a critique of the white male patriarchal social order and more a reaction against the fact that they have not been allowed full participation in the power game.In the past, these black men have been most supportive of male subjugation of women. They hoped to gain public recognition of their "manhood" by demonstrating that they were the dominant figure in the black family.”

  1. Black feminists and black lgbtq community have been saying this for years
  2. “Black men are the white men of the black community” 
  3. Facts! Using black women to assert dominance they long for has been the relationship between black men and women
  4. Does it impede our progress as women? As a community? YES!

Amy: Bridge

Chapter 4: racism and feminism (the issue of accountability)

  1. One of the qualities I so appreciate from bell hooks’ writing is how immediate it is - she doesn’t waste time clearing her throat or building to an idea. So the first quote I want to highlight is right from the opening line in the first paragraph of this chapter.

American women of all races are socialized to think of racism solely in the context of race hatred. Specifically in the case of black and white people, the term racism is usually seen as synonymous with discrimination or prejudice against black people by white people. For most women, the first knowledge of racism as institutionalized oppression is engendered either by direct personal experience or through information gleaned from conversations, books, television, or movies. 

Consequently, the American woman’s understanding of racism as a political tool of colonialism and imperialism is severely limited. To experience the pain of race hatred or to witness that pain is not to understand its origin, evolution, or impact on world history. The inability of American women to understand racism in the context of American politics is not due to any inherent deficiency in woman’s psyche. It merely reflects the extent of our victimization.

  1. The first sentence in the next, second paragraph, also struck a chord: 

No history books used in public schools informed us about racial imperialism. Instead we were given romantic notions of the “new world,” the American dream,” America as the great melting pot where all races come together as one.

  • I’m guilty of holding onto these ideals; and I felt unmoored when I began to wonder,
  • “What IS America, then?”

  1. The heroes we - at least, as white women - were raised by popular culture to admire and emulate, were in fact deeply flawed:

“Discrimination against Afro-American women reformers was the rule rather than the exception within the woman’s rights movement from the 1830s to 1920. Although white feminists Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and some others encouraged black women to join the struggle against sexism during the 19th century, antebellum reformers who were involved with women’s abolitionist groups as well as women’s right organizations actively discriminated against black women.”

  1. What has women’s liberation really meant, then?

Because women’s liberation has been equated with gaining privileges within the white male power structure, white men - and not women, either white or black - have dictated the terms by which women are allowed entrance into the system.

  1. Looking for solutions and steps to take? hooks doesn’t offer many, but this gave me some way to keep working at this issue, especially in light of the fact that “the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have been Euro-American women," wrote Columbia University law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw for the University of Michigan Law Review in 2006, meaning I have likely benefited from such policies. Back to hooks: in talking about a sisterhood that is necessary for revolution:

That sisterhood cannot be forged by the mere saying of words. It is the outcome of continued growth and change. It is a goal to be reached, a process of becoming. The process begins with action, with the individual woman’s refusal to accept any set of myths, stereotypes, and false assumptions that deny the shared commonness of her human experience…”

Ashley response

Amy response

Chapter 5: black women and feminism

  1. In this last chapter of hooks’ book, I had the embarrassingly belated opportunity to learn a little more about Sojourner Truth - who I intend to read more about after this! Of the many rights and liberties we can credit Truth for spearheading, this one multiplied my debt to her immeasurably. She was speaking at the second annual convention of the women’s rights movement in Akron, Ohio, in 1852 - and faced the jeers and criticisms of white women in the audience. As hooks put it:

Sojourner endured their protests and became one of the first feminists to call their attention to the lot of the black slave woman who, compelled by circumstance to labor alongside black men, was a living embodiment of the truth that women could be the work-equals of men.

  • I just want to pause for a moment and allow all listeners - especially women who now work alongside men in their day jobs and who are lucky to not have their abilities questioned by others - to thank Pastor Truth. 

  1. In another reminder that no good deed goes unpunished, hooks argues that voting privileges for women were more a victory for racist principles, not feminist, principles. (p171)

Voting privileges for women changed in no fundamental way the lot of women in society, but they did enable women to help support and maintain the existing white racist imperialist patriarchal social order.

  1. Similarly, hooks raises a tough topic for me, which is that 

...feminists themselves, as they attempted to take feminism beyond the realm of radical rhetoric into the sphere of American life, revealed that they remained imprisoned in the very structures they hoped to change.

  • Bringing together these last quotes, I wanted to ask a topic I’ve grappled with for several years. This might sound like a tangential topic or a distraction from the main issue, but I wanted to ask both of you, as we face our contemporary society: how does one drive change? As an environmentalist, a feminist, an immigrant, and an ever-improving Black ally, I find I have to focus on one issue at a time when talking to people who haven’t had the opportunity to learn about the challenges we humans face in these areas. So, I do understand the argument that social movements need to focus on one idea or challenge at a time. How do you both discuss intersectional Black feminism without drawing attention away from either of those two interlocking and simultaneously critical initiatives?

Amy; As we wrap up, what is a major theme or takeaway that you’ll remember (or want listeners to remember) from this book?

Manuela: Shocked by how much of what bell hooks describes in her book written in 1971 still persists TODAY. For eg, p 91 - treating domestic labor as not “real” work - that’s a big one as a new mom - my husband and I have an incredible nanny, Marcela, to whom I credit our son’s incredible physical and emotional health. We call Baby G, for Baby Genius. We pay her on the books and provide health insurance and a 401k. And we’re the first of her employers in her nearly 20 years of working that has done so. I recognize Andy and I are a fortunate slice of America that can afford to do that...but then this means that many Americans don’t have nannies - and women are mostly doing the child rearing without any recognition or remuneration, as we’ve seen during Covid with the drastic loss of jobs amongst women (A July report from McKinsey Global found that in the United States, where women made up 43 percent of the workforce, they accounted for 56 percent of Covid-related job losses) - and most domestic workers are not being treated as real professionals. They’re raising OUR CHILDREN. And we as a society don’t value that as valuable or value-generating! Currently, the U.S. is the only industrialized country without a federal paid family leave policy, leading to 1 in 4 American moms returning to work just 10 days after giving birth. This is why it’s so critical we support Biden’s American Families Plan.

Black and Latina women working in retail, restaurants, nursing homes, and other "essential" service-sector industries that require physical presence at work, often for very low pay, have been disproportionately laid off amid the pandemic's lockdowns and business closures. Many are also parents with young children at home who need constant care and oversight.  

YES. So important. Ashley?

Ashley: Takeaway


On our next episode of Breaking Down Patriarchy we will be discussing the anthology Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde. Lorde is a poet and a searing cultural critic, and her famous essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” has been featured in many publications, including our text from a couple of weeks ago, This Bridge Called My Back. Sister Outsider was published in 1983, and along with ain’t i a woman, it’s a book that I recommend owning and reading and re-reading. You don’t necessarily need to read it before listening to the episode - because it’s an anthology of essays, it can be read a bit at a time and doesn’t need to be read in order. But it’s essential reading, so I highly recommend purchasing this one and making it a part of your mental and emotional library. So join us next week for the discussion of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider,  next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy. 

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About the Podcast

Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.