Feminism remains a surprisingly controversial concept. When I tell people I'm a feminist or when they see the back of my car plastered with bumper stickers that say things like "My goal in life is to kick the patriarchy's ass," or when they see me wearing a shirt that proclaims "Full frontal feminism," they sometimes look at me suspiciously. Those who are particularly brave might ask, "What do you mean by that?"
If those brave folks really seem curious, I often hand them a book called Feminism is for Everybody, written by bell hooks. She wrote it because of the sorts of suspicious looks she herself would receive. She explains, "When I talk about the feminism I know — up close and personal — [people] willingly listen, although when our conversations end, they are quick to tell me I am different, not like the 'real' feminists who hate men, who are angry. I assure them I am as real and as radical a feminist as one can be, and if they dare to come closer to feminism, they will see it is not how they have imagined it."
She is, indeed, as real and as radical a feminist as one can be. She's one of the most important feminist scholars of the last 30 years. The feminism she envisions is both transformational and incredibly commonsensical. Her definition of feminism is "a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression." She calls for a movement that allows people to achieve their full humanity. This is a goal that almost everyone can support.
The problem, of course, is that we're living in a moment that's a really mixed bag. On the one hand, we have some good news. In January, the FBI finally changed its definition of rape so that it aligns with the best research that scholars and community agencies have been doing. A CEO of a Fortune 500 company is pregnant, and that hasn't caused the world to end. And last week, the Augusta National Golf Club decided that they are no longer sexist douche bags and allowed two women, including South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore, to become members.
But the bad news is startlingly bad. Here's a primary example: On Aug. 19, 2012, Missouri Rep. Todd Akin said —in public! — that a woman couldn't get pregnant from being raped. Akin proclaimed, "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
I don't have to tell you that Akin is wrong. Around 32,000 women a year become pregnant from rape. But his comment is worse than just an inaccuracy. He's bolstering the stereotype that women really don't get raped that often. Even worse, he's championing the viewpoint that these rape victims are women who "want it" but then change their minds once the sex act is completed. These women — the liars — are to be differentiated from "legitimate rape" victims. Because, you know, we only need to be concerned about "legitimate rape."
What Akin felt comfortable enough to say on television makes the world a tougher place for the people I know who've been raped. Those folks are my friends, my students, my family. This is why we need bell hooks.
She invites us to consider the world we live in and our role in defining it. She argues, "Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women. It does not privilege women over men. It has the power to transform meaningfully all our lives."
And in the face of a culture that produces elected leaders like Todd "I'm a Sexist Jerk" Akin, she demands that we remain optimistic. She says, "Hopefulness empowers us to continue our work for justice even as the forces of injustice may gain greater power for a time." She's a thinker and an educator who empowers us to hope.
To learn more, come hear bell hooks for yourself. She'll be offering a free public lecture on Fri. Aug. 31 at the College of Charleston's Sottile Theatre. She'll also be offering workshops through the Sophia Institute on Friday and Saturday. For more information, contact the Women's and Gender Studies Program at (843) 953-2280 or the Sophia Institute at (843) 720-8528.
Alison Piepmeier is part of the CofC Women's and Gender Studies program.