Ain’t I a Woman: Remembering a pioneering feminist

The contribution of bell hooks to our struggles was crucial, argues Ian Parker


bell hooks (1952-2021) – do not capitalise her name – was pseudonym of Gloria Jean Watkins, born in conditions of segregation in Kentucky, her pen-name chosen to honour her great grandmother. She was a key figure in the development of what is now known as ‘intersectional’ feminism. Systems of domination for bell hooks must learn from each other.

Her first book, which was inspiration for a generation of activists was Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, and tracked the exploitation and oppression of Black women, from slavery to contemporary capitalism.

Her intersectional feminism linked the specific experiences of Black women with dimensions of gender, sexuality, racism and class, and did this in an explicitly global context, challenging the reduction of any form of oppression to another. This was a refusal to downplay or marginalise any specific experience of oppression. Instead, we must learn from and link those experiences in struggle.

Identity is crucial to Marxist politics, but we also treat this dialectically, which brings us into alliance with ‘intersectional’ politics. Revolutionary Marxists mobilise around ‘identity’ but also question it. Here is a contradiction.

When we build solidarity with the exploited and oppressed, that we are fighting for a world in which personal identity defined by membership of a particular group is no longer used as a tool to divide people from each other and rule them, then it is no longer necessary to make claims to identity as the basis for political resistance.

This double-task, to fight for identity while understanding that it is a historical phenomenon, is a dialectical part of our activity as revolutionary Marxists. We fight as part of the working-class, with no interests above and beyond those of the working class striving to overthrow capitalism, and do this without reducing any particular struggle to class struggle.

Racism divides the working class. This raises a series of practical questions about the tension between calling for ‘unity’ of the working class against racism and the necessary independent self-organisation of the oppressed against racism in the working class itself.

We also need to understand the nature of colonialism and its intensification by imperialism under capitalism as well as the quite different forms of oppression and struggle that underpin liberation movements. We also need to relate to the particular experience of women and sexual-political currents inside the anti-racist movements, working at the intersection between feminism and contemporary LGBTQI politics.

Racism takes many forms, and we need specific materially-grounded analysis and guides for action around antisemitic racism against Jews in the Nazi genocide, Islamophobic attacks, Zionist racism against Palestinians, and fascism. Resistance to racism needs to link with and build on the development of the Black Lives Matter movement.

All this we learn from our own traditions in revolutionary Marxism and, crucially, we learnt it again from bell hooks.

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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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