Feminism for the masses

Renowned feminist thinker and writer bell hooks spent a whirlwind day talking to young and old about her life story, her writing process and the problems with a patriarchial society.
Thursday, March 31, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:49 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On Wednesday afternoon, when a group of MU students asked bell hooks how she decides what to write about, she took a dark, book-size journal out of her bag. She opened it to show pages and pages filled with writing so small that her mother claims she needs a microscope to read hooks’ letters.

In the book are hooks’ finances and her to-do lists — she writes down 10 things she wants to accomplish that day. It has observations about the world that could become books; a life map with goals for each decade of her life, currently in the 50- to 60-year-old span.

Later, when a child asked her the same question, she replied, “I write what I think and dream about.”

People familiar with hooks’ works might be skeptical that hooks draws her book ideas from dreams. A renowned feminist thinker and cultural critic, hooks has become famous, especially in academic circles, for her theories and writings about gender, race and class.

But her answer to the child’s question reflects one of her priorities and key traits: accessibility.

The author spent Wednesday in Columbia, going from sessions with MU students and faculty to a chaotic reading of her children’s books at the Columbia Public Library and finishing the day as the keynote speaker for Women’s History Month on the MU campus.

At an informal conversation with MU students and faculty, hooks talked about being in Columbia 38 years ago when she attended the all-female Christian College, which is now Columbia College. After commenting on the surprising number of new, good restaurants in town, hooks discussed how her school experience in Columbia impacted her life.

“There was a great freedom in being with only women,” hooks said. “When men are present, somehow the males are seen as the real thinkers. The year I spent here, my intellect was so validated.”

Leslie Ruth, a senior at MU, appreciated the fact that hooks took time to speak specifically with students and made them feel so comfortable with her down-to-earth personality.

“I think feminism is an important topic for any environment, on a campus or at a community library,” Ruth said. “For people who care about feminism, they need to reach out and communicate what it is really about.”

The same easy candor hooks used to evoke laughs from adults in the afternoon was evident when she read her books to a bursting Children’s Room at the library later. After reading her stories, hooks allowed children to come up on stage to ask her questions.

But most forgot their question when they saw they were in the spotlight, and hooks would end up asking them what they liked to write about. “Animals” was the overwhelming response.

Shirlene McClain and her sister brought their combined total of seven kids to hear hooks read. McClain said she thought it was important for her children to hear such a great author.

“She was wonderful — so expressive, and she really got the kids involved,” McClain said.

Later, hooks turned more serious with her lecture “Ending Domination: What’s Love Got to Do With It?” The focus of the speech was about ending the resurgence of patriarchy and the culture of dominance. Part of her solution was to redefine masculinity so that it wasn’t associated with dominance or violence.

“Patriarchy promotes insanity,” she said. “It denies males access to full emotional well-being.”

The question hooks said is usually asked of her — why use the term “feminist?” — was again asked Wednesday. She answered with the observation that people who have researched visionary feminism should see that it is not trying to pit men and women against each other, but work toward a partnership. But most people talk about feminism without doing any research, hooks said.

“That’s another thing about patriarchy,” she said. “You feel as though you can talk with authority about something you don’t know anything about.”

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