In this series of Cheat Sheets, we are celebrating the lives and achievements of influential women, as chosen by our writers.
Today we are taking a look into the life and achievements of American author, professor, and feminist, bell hooks.
Who is bell hooks?
Gloria Jean Watkins, more commonly known as bell hooks, was a Black American feminist scholar and activist who famously examined the relationship between race, gender and class. She was born in 1952 in Kentucky and died recently in December 2021. Her birthplace is of particular interest since Kentucky is situated in the South of the US, the region which arguably held onto racial segregation the longest - schools in this state were racially segregated until 1996.
As a result, bell hooks experienced racial oppression and discrimination from a very early age. At school she had to be wary of her actions, since disobedient behaviour from people of colour was frowned upon and often heavily punished. However, it was not only her skin colour which put her at a disadvantage, but also her family situation. She came from a dysfunctional family with her father firmly holding on to his power as the patriarch. All of this motivated her to write down her thoughts, thus beginning her writing career. Even though her family did not support her passion for writing - believing that women shouldn't have professional lives - she continued to subvert the norm.
What is her work about?
bell hooks was incredibly passionate about women’s issues, however, she always felt that black women were under-represented in discourse. She began dedicating her work to the intersection of gender and race, publishing her first work And There We Wept – a collection of poetry – in 1978, and then rising to fame with her book Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism in 1981. After having established herself in the world of academia, she went on to publish numerous articles, essays, and books across a range of topics, with titles such as Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992), Killing Rage: Ending Racism (1995) and We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2003), and she also lectured in numerous universities.
‘No Black woman writer in this culture can write “too much.” Indeed, no woman writer can write “too much”... No woman has ever written enough.’
Her topics varied widely, yet her focus always remained on including women of colour in feminist discourse. Her mission was to decolonise feminism and make it less elitist and white-centric. Nonetheless, she never wanted anyone to feel excluded. Her aim was always to make feminism and women’s empowerment as accessible as possible. In fact, she famously said: ‘No Black woman writer in this culture can write “too much.” Indeed, no woman writer can write “too much”... No woman has ever written enough.’
Since one of her aims was to make feminism as inclusive as possible, she also steered clear of overly academic language. For example, she avoided footnotes altogether to ensure easy readability. While this writing style was widely criticised for its lack of ‘academicism’, it soon became her trademark. Thus, bell hooks truly and wholeheartedly embodied her message of ‘feminism is for everybody’.
What is her legacy?
bell hooks' whole persona was built on the notion of building and maintaining a legacy. While her name is merely a pseudonym, it was not chosen randomly, but instead pays homage to her grandmother in order to honour female legacies. Her choice to use only lowercase letters stems from the idea of paying attention to the message rather than the individual. This, of course, re-emphasises her mission to make feminism accessible to all.
Apart from having a vast number of publications and recorded talks, bell hooks has also left a legacy in the minds of people. After her death in December 2021, numerous famous and ‘ordinary’ women voiced their appreciation for bell hooks’ impact on their lives. For example, Paulette Senior, CEO and President of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, has beautifully described bell hooks’ influence on her person:
‘bell hooks made me feel like I belonged—and it was nothing short of an awakening. I found myself profoundly drawn to her books, articles, lectures and essays.’
For more resources on gender inequality, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka
Researched by Larisa Cuturean