Woman is a Rational Animal

bell hooks (née Gloria Jean Watkins) was born on September 25, 1952 in rural Hopkinsville, KY as one of seven children. She earned her undergraduate degree from Stanford University in 1973 and her master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1976, followed by a PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1983, all in English literature.[1] hooks began her first book, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, as an undergraduate, which was published during her PhD in 1981. It was at this time that she assumed her pen name, which is an homage to her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. Her pen name is stylized in lowercase so as to divert attention away from her as an individual and towards her ideas, as well as to highlight the matriarchal line of her family.[2]

hooks has spent her career studying and teaching the intersections of race, gender, and class from a feminist perspective as a tenured professor at the University of Southern California, Oberlin College, and Berea College, where she founded the bell hooks Institute in 2014.[3] Thus far, she has published over 30 books ranging in topic from feminist theory to a set of books about love, to multiple children’s books. The common thread linking all of these seemingly disparate topics and research interests is praxis. hooks’ entire oeuvre demonstrates a deeply intentional commitment to praxis, or the act of putting one’s theory or politics into practice through one’s own life and actions.

hooks writes that her commitment to praxis began in her youth, where she first experienced transformative education at her segregated, all-Black elementary school in Kentucky. She describes that it was there that her teachers impressed upon her and her classmates how revolutionary and anti-colonial it was for them to become educated after centuries of subjugation under slavery. She writes of her community growing up:

You know how there are no history books that really tell the story of how difficult the politics of everyday life was for black people in the racially segregated south when so many folks did not read and were so often dependent on racist people to explain, to read, to write. And I was among a generation learning those skills, with an accessibility to education that was still new. The emphasis on education as necessary for liberation that black people made in slavery and then on into reconstruction informed our lives.[4]

Her experience in primary school of education as a liberatory practice, she writes, was central to her lifelong commitment to transgressive education, which she carried with her from her undergraduate career to her academic professorships. For hooks, academic theorizing about social issues such as racial, gender, and class inequality is not sufficient. Rather, one of the ways she seeks to fight against the system she terms the “imperialist capitalist white supremacist patriarchy,” is through pedagogy itself.[5] She explores this concept through a trilogy of books, which she describes were heavily influenced by the writings of philosopher Paulo Freire on critical pedagogy. She writes that Freire’s work gave her a language with which to articulate her experience: “I was coming from a rural southern black experience, into the university, and I had lived through the struggle for racial desegregation and was in resistance without having a political language to articulate that process…[Paulo] made me think deeply about the construction of an identity in resistance.”[6] This trilogy detailing hooks’ theories of transformational pedagogy consists of: Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994), Teaching Community (2003), and Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom (2019).

In Teaching to Transgress, hooks details the work that she and fellow academics engage in to create liberatory spaces in their university classrooms, melding theory and practical examples into a guidebook for students and teachers alike. In order for transformative education to take place, hooks writes that academics must return to the original sense of the word, as spiritual leaders seeking enlightenment in all areas of life. Unfortunately, as she describes, this is not the case for most university professors. Personal experience is discouraged in academic discussions; the speaker is meant to be separate from the theory, no matter if they share an experience with the topic at hand. We can see this firsthand in any classroom – a woman student speaking of her experience of her gender or a Black student speaking of her experience of her race will refer to “them” rather than “us” so as not to be seen as un-academic, so as to be taken seriously. According to hooks, this is characteristic of the academy and extends particularly to professors, who receive the message that “…being smart meant that one was inherently emotionally unstable and that the best in oneself emerged in one’s academic work.” She goes on to write that this dichotomy “meant that whether academics were drug addicts, alcoholics, batterers, or sexual abusers, the only important aspect of our identity was whether or not our minds functioned, whether we were able to do our jobs in the classroom. The self was presumably emptied out the moment the threshold was crossed, leaving in place only an objective mind—free of experiences and biases.”[7] For hooks, the opposite could not be more crucial. She writes that it is, in fact, the duty of academics to be wholly committed to self-actualization for the purpose of transformational pedagogy. Rather than being something to hide from the academy, the self should be brought fully to the table and used as a tool for change. After all, as she describes, how will students learn the necessity of transgression in liberation if they are subject to racist, patriarchal power displays in the classroom which only serve to teach obedience to authority? She writes, “Our lives must be a living example of our politics.”[8]

hooks put this theory to work when she arrived at Oberlin College as a professor of Women’s Studies in the 1980s and noticed a stark gap between the theories of liberation being taught and the dictatorial pedagogy found in the classroom. She writes that she and fellow professor Chandra Mohanty began a series of town halls among the faculty at Oberlin to develop the pedagogical skills necessary for liberatory education. Of their efforts, she writes:

Again and again, it was necessary to remind everyone that no education is politically neutral. Emphasizing that a white male professor in an English department who teaches only work by ‘great white men’ is making a political decision, we had to work consistently against and through the overwhelming will on the part of folks to deny the politics of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and so forth that inform how and what we teach. We found again and again that almost everyone, especially the old guard, were more disturbed by the overt recognition of the role our political perspectives play in shaping pedagogy than by their passive acceptance of ways of teaching and learning that reflect biases, particularly a white supremacist standpoint.[9]

She writes that this attitude underlines her observations of the separation of the self from academia, how the recognition that one’s politics are even at play in the classroom is deeply upsetting to the white supremacist academy. This recognition is, however, crucial to beginning to enact the practices of liberation that the theories require.

hooks’ commitment to being a living embodiment of her politics extends far beyond the walls of the academy as well. One powerful example is her trilogy about love, released in the early 2000’s, which addresses romantic relationships, femininity, masculinity, and self-love: All About Love: New Visions (1999), Salvation: Black People and Love (2001), and Communion: The Female Search for Love (2002). She released a follow-up work in 2004 entitled The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, which addresses the highly controversial theory that feminism is the path to men’s liberation as well as women’s. In describing the intellectual sphere her theories entered into, hooks describes that many feminists at the time were not at all concerned with discussing men in their quests for liberation from them. She writes, “Militant feminism gave women permission to unleash their rage and hatred at men but it did not allow us to talk about what it meant to love men in patriarchal culture, to know how we could express that love without fear of exploitation and oppression.”[10] She goes on, “Feminist thinkers, like myself, who wanted to include men in the discussion, were usually labeled male-identified and dismissed. We were ‘sleeping with the enemy.’”[11] In The Will to Change, however, hooks actively tackles the question of men’s challenges and engages them in a dialogue about how men must contribute to create a safe world for women. The book is deeply grounded in theory, and, true to hooks’ commitment to praxis, is equally a discussion of each individual’s responsibility to apply these theories in our daily lives if we are to call ourselves feminists.

One topic she addresses is the unhappiness, disconnection, and constant threat of violence that is characteristic of relationships with men, be they familial, romantic, or platonic, heterosexual or homosexual, and how this takes root in the patriarchal system. hooks is very specific in naming this construct as patriarchy; she references other writers who tiptoe around the problem of men’s challenges with violence and aversion to vulnerability by citing “tradition,” but never naming the system responsible. hooks attributes this to an unwillingness to draw attention to the fact that feminism is the path forward for both men and women to reclaim their full humanity, as this would challenge the system in an unacceptable way. She describes that it is not only men who are compelled to uphold the patriarchy; women are equally complicit in discouraging men from expressing their vulnerability. She writes, “By highlighting psychological patriarchy, we see that everyone is implicated and we are freed from the misperception that men are the enemy. To end patriarchy we must challenge both its psychological and its concrete manifestations in daily life.”[12]

These manifestations, hooks describes, begin in childhood with the familial and cultural pressures placed on children of all genders to conform to a given set of roles and behaviors. As an example of the complicity of all members of the family, she describes a harrowing incident from her childhood in which she was physically beaten by her father for exhibiting better skill and more competitiveness than her brother while playing a game. She writes that afterward, “Mama came into the bedroom to soothe the pain, telling me in her soft southern voice, ‘I tried to warn you. You need to accept that you are just a little girl and girls can’t do what boys do.’ In service to the patriarchy her task was to reinforce that Dad had done the right thing by putting me in my place, by restoring the natural social order.”[13] In this case, hooks herself received the lesson, and she was made an example of to her other siblings in the “right” way to be a man or woman in the world. She writes that this education is pervasive and results in the closed-off, violence-prone masculinity that men in our society are forced to adhere to, perpetrated by mothers, fathers, siblings, and peers alike.

In order to combat this, hooks writes that each and every one of us must interrogate our own personal, day-to-day interactions to practice this feminist theory. People of all genders must be aware of the ways that we, consciously or subconsciously, put those around us in boxes, and rather be vigilant about allowing those in our lives to exercise their full humanity. That, hooks writes, is the only way to truly free us all. She describes that this especially important in childhood, the time when lifelong gender roles are learned, and as a result she aims to engage directly with parents. Speaking to a classroom of forty male students, hooks describes that she asked, “If you have closed off your heart, shut down your emotional awareness, then do you know how to love your sons? Where and when along the way did you learn the practice of love?”[14] It is this type of interrogation of the self and of the system that she writes is essential.

hooks has also released a series of children’s books, including Happy to be Nappy, which celebrates Black children’s hair, and Be Boy Buzz, which takes an anti-patriarchal, anti-racist lens to celebrate the full humanity of young Black boys. hooks describes in an interview that she fought particularly for the inclusion in Be Boy Buzz of an illustration of the protagonist reading, since many portrayals of Black boys do not include representation of them engaging in solitary, quiet activities and rather stereotypes them to be always active.[15] This is an example of hooks’ commitment to providing resources for others to put her theories into practice; she describes at length in The Will to Change the necessity of beginning the cultivation of boys’ full humanity during childhood, and she provides the public resources to do so through her books.

hooks’ influence has been far-reaching within academia as well as in the feminist movement as a whole. Her work is widely seen to have been essential for laying the foundations for third-wave intersectional feminism through her studies of the intersection of race and gender, particularly her debut book, Ain’t I a Woman.[16] She continues to write and lecture today, notably completing a three-year residency at The New School in New York, where she led a series of widely-attended town halls bringing together scholars and activists in conversation.

I find hooks’ commitment to praxis very inspiring. As hooks shows us in The Will to Change, praxis is just as crucial in our interpersonal relationships as in our work, and she reminds us of the power and responsibility we have to understand the influence of our own personal politics on the world around us.


About the Author

Grace Ryan is a senior in the class of 2021. She is a biology major with a specialization in immunology. She is currently applying to medical school, where she hopes she will be able to continue studying the philosophy of science and medical humanities and apply it to her future work as a physician.



Featured Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bellhooks.jpg

[1] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Bell hooks”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 21 Sep. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/bell-hooks. Accessed 10 May 2021.

[2] Lee, M. J. (2019, February 28). In Praise of bell hooks. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/28/books/bell-hooks-min-jin-lee-aint-i-a-woman.html.

[3] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Bell hooks”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 21 Sep. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/bell-hooks. Accessed 10 May 2021.

[4] hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge. Pg. 51

[5] hooks, bell. (2004). The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Washington Square Press. Pg. 29

[6] Teaching to Transgress, 46

[7] Teaching to Transgress, 16

[8] Teaching to Transgress, 48

[9] Teaching to Transgress, 37

[10] The Will to Change, xii

[11] The Will to change, xiii

[12] The Will to Change, 33

[13] The Will to Change, 21

[14] The Will to Change, 9

[15] bell hooks: “This ain’t no pussy shit”, The New School, 2015 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hb5ktcC3UEk)

[16] Goodman, E. (2019, March 12). How bell hooks Paved the Way for Intersectional Feminism. them. https://www.them.us/story/bell-hooks.

Scroll to Top