A History for Women and a Feminism for Everyone
…and now back to my comps essay book reviews! :)
A more sweeping view of women throughout history, including both their loss of power and their struggle to both resist and reclaim it within the kyriarchy, is brilliantly demonstrated by English journalist, broadcaster, and social critic Rosalind Miles’ book Who Cooked the Last Supper? The Women’s History of the World. Originally written in 1988, it was reissued in 2001, and is still both wittily entertaining and deeply illuminating — as well as being in itself an excellent example of the types of resistances to patriarchal oppression which Miles relates. Like many of the books in this essay, sections of it are deeply disturbing as the author (of necessity) relates a condensed version of millennia of vicious attacks and vitriolic bile directed by men at women. However, despite being written during a time when historical research regarding women was still regarded as a somewhat dubious pastime, Miles brilliantly highlights the cultural power, social freedom, and intellectual creativity of this most deliberately forgotten half of the human race.
By drawing practical attention to the quotidian work of women — those who kept and still keep life flowing and thriving — the author refuses to cede the historical record only to the androcentric utterances of men, instead celebrating the unsung efforts and struggles of millions of forgotten, ignored, or unrecognized women. Instead, Miles presents us with a historical reality wherein women have not been erased, but are rather returned to their rightful place as shapers and creators of civilization. While I disagree that the turning point for the emergence of patriarchy was the male discovery of their part in conception, I very much enjoyed her clever presentation of a prehistory where the first deity, as well as the first recognized clergy/poet, were women.
Admittedly Miles mostly focuses on Europe and the US, but there are fortunately still copious examples drawn from Africa, India, Australia, and parts of Southeast Asia. Her timeframe spans prehistory through modern day, presenting both women in general — Miles never forgets that it is in sisterhood where women find their power –as well as exceptional women. The last chapter is both disturbing and of particular personal interest, as the author notes that advances made by women most often occur during times of social crisis such as war, and are thus consequently accompanied by an “atmosphere of uncertainty, dissatisfaction, and fear” (Miles, 278) — for which women are later directly blamed. Small wonder, then, when “all democratic experiments, all revolutions, all demands for equality have so far, in every instance, stopped short of sexual equality” (Miles, 286; italics hers) that women have been metaphorically stuck repeatedly reinventing the wheel. The question becomes instead: how do we create a new man within a new society — so that the new woman is not stuck yet again re-inventing the metaphorical wheel of equality for all? -and what is it in this process that men are refusing to see?
Perhaps appropriately for the cultural miasma of androcentrism in which we live, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics directly addresses oppression in all its forms. Published in 2000, American feminist author and social activist bell hooks (the nom de plume of professor and cultural critic Gloria Watkins) defines feminism simply and accessibly as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (hooks, viii). I love this definition — it’s clear, straightforward, eschews “-isms,” and works for all humans. It’s the definition I prefer and use, and I routinely encourage my friends, both female and male, to adopt it.
Radically, this book eschews a more academic tone for readable clarity specifically targeted to the general public. By fighting back in this fashion against modern culture’s decidedly anti-feminist media voice, hooks firmly grounds feminism as a movement which does not label men as the problem, but rather questions the conventional cultural dialogue regarding patriarchy, sexism, and male domination (hooks, 67). Indeed, hooks expresses a wish for ongoing feminist public relations to promote feminist teaching and politics in a multiplicity of contexts: children’s textbooks and feminist colleges, advertisements on billboards and public transportation, feminist radio and TV stations (hooks, 112), even housing co-ops based in feminist principles (hooks, 43) — a personal favorite, considering my current dissertation thoughts.
Despite being a slim volume of only 123 pages, hooks’ book expressively explores a comprehensive array of feminist topics, including feminism’s historical politics, consciousness-raising, neocolonialism and racism, classism, work and education, male feminists, parenting and partnerships, personal freedoms, and spirituality. As the author notes, oppressive values are fundamentally woven into the very structures of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, capitalism, and colonialism, mutually constituting the culture’s interlocking systems of oppression. If we are to truly interrogate, resist, and rebuild them, they cannot be separately addressed. Further, hooks believes true revolutionaries — especially those women activists who recognize the indispensable importance of women’s (currently mostly ignored and unpaid) nurturance — celebrate their love of life and freedom, working towards social justice for all, and against the dehumanizing domination of modern patriarchal society.