Educating Women: A Feminist Agenda – by bell hooks
Educating Women: A Feminist Agenda – by bell hooks – Published in: Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984)
In “Educating Women: A Feminist Agenda” bell hooks declares that many participants of the contemporary feminist movement are college educated. But they have not yet thoroughly explored the connection between sexist exploitation of women in the society and the degree of women’s education.
Hooks cites Charlotte Bunch in “Feminism and Education” where she states that until now revolutionary movements have seen developing general literacy as one of their most important tasks. This is now overseen because it is widely assumed, that most can read and write. Further than being a pleasure themselves reading and writing are also vital to change. First, they are a mean of conveying ideas and information. Second, they help develop an individual’s imagination and ability to think. Third, they increase that person’s capacity to think for herself, to go against norms of the culture and to imagine changes for society. Fourth, they aid each woman’s individual survival and success in the world. Finally, writing is still the cheapest and most accessible form of mass communication. Because literacy is so important we should neither assume that women are already literate and recognize the value of teaching women to read, write and think.
Hooks continues that because the feminist movement mainly distributes their ideas through written material and assumes everyone to be literate many women can’t learn about feminism. In the Unites States there are places where feminist literature is not accessible, where the people don’t really understand or haven’t even heard of “feminism”. A movement that uses the written word to distribute its thoughts needs to stress programs allowing all women to learn how to read and write. Because the printed material has become almost the only expression of theory and only superficial and perverted versions of the feminist ideas end up in the public imagination via TV we must take responsibility.
Through the bourgeois class background of many feminist activists, women in higher education have gotten more attention compared to the need of educating women who lack essential skills. The struggle to ensure that all woman can read and write should have the highest priority. Until masses of women in this society are literate feminist ideas must also be spread by word of mouth.
Many women are afraid to approach women they don’t know but it is the most effective method. In dialogues women can ask questions. Stereotypes and fears that might have existed can be overcome. Verbal communication is important for a mass outreach, to take feminism out of university and into society.
Feminist education has been institutionalized in universities. This is an effective way to teach college students but doesn’t reach the masses. A positive praxis would be to hold women’s studies courses at local community centers. One must then think about translation: giving the same message using a different style and simpler sentence structures for an audience that varies in age, sex, ethnicity and degree of literacy. Difficulty of access has been a problem with feminist theory. To reach as many as possible feminist scholars should either write in a more accessible manner or make sure their words are made available to others using a style that can be easily understood. There will be no mass-based feminist movement if feminist ideas are understood only by an educated few.
Within the feminist movement, a tug-of-war has existed between feminist intellectuals and participants in the movement who see education as a bourgeois privilege and are anti-intellectual. This has led to a false dichotomy between theory and practice. As consequence, there is little congruity between feminist theory and feminist practice. Women’s liberation movement participants have struggled to unite theory and practice to create a liberatory feminist praxis but have been undermined by anti-intellectualism and elitist academics.
Their bourgeois class background has led many feminist theorists to develop ideas without relation to reality. These are not useful for a feminist revolution. Because of this many women dismiss theory as irrelevant. The lack of knowledge about revolutionary politics leads women to see ideas and theories as unimportant. Hooks cites “Dialectics and Revolution” by Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs: Revolutionists want to make reality better. They need a revolutionary ideology. Only after you have arrived at the correct ideology does it makes sense to develop revolutionary politics.
The support of anti-intellectualism in feminist movement is an example of ideology that undermines progress. Women have been denied the right and privilege to develop intellectually. This leads woman to feel insecure about intellectual work and to fear dealing with new ideas and information.
Often women of color active in the feminist movement are anti-intellectual. They associate white female hegemonic dominance of feminist theory and practice with educational status. We are not allowed to attack the hegemony coming from class and race hierarchies. But by buying into this dichotomy between the theory and practice we support the notion that the role of the white woman is to do the “brain” work while the role of the colored woman is to do the “dirty” work that can then be used to validate and document the white woman’s analysis. Women of color need to develop intellectually and share their awareness of the lack of images of intellectual women that are non-white with all women. We must rid the feminist movement of its anti-intellectual bias.
Hooks cites Charlotte Brunch who encourages women to accept the challenge of education. About women’s negative attitude towards theory she writes: When teaching feminist theory one must find ways to encourage women to think systematically about the world and our society. Most women are not expected to take control and consequently are not encouraged to think analytically. Critical thinking is the antithesis of woman’s traditional role. Such thinking requires an active relationship to the world. It requires confidence that your thoughts are worth persuading and that you can make a difference.
Encouraging women to strive for education and to develop their intellects should be a primary goal of feminist movement. Education as “the practice of freedom”. This will only be reality when we develop an educational method that reaches all women.