A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

The F-word, the P-word, and bell hooks

In my academic writing, I speak often of feminism and patriarchy.  The terms are charged with emotion, as well as stereotypes.

A lot of people would embrace another f-word a lot faster than they would the label “feminist.”  They associate feminists with angry women who run around burning bras and fanning hatred of men.  In my Women and the Bible class, I’ve often asked students to draw their stereotypes of a feminist.  The pictures are not pretty.

A similar thing happens when the word “patriarchy” enters the conversation.  Any challenge to patriarchy is heard as blanket accusation of men for their domineering, swaggering ways.

Feminism equals unhappiness by yoshi3329.

But, I (and many others) use these terms to refer to systems of power.  Patriarchy doesn’t mean “evil maleness.”  It means a rigid set of rules that insists on total control by the father (or oldest male) and particular roles for men, women, girls, and boys.  Many of us resist patriarchy because we believe it negatively affects everyone-males, females, and especially those who refuse to define themselves within such categories.

No one has made this point more powerfully than bell hooks (lower caps).  hooks defines herself as a black feminist intellectual, and her writings have challenged and enriched my thinking about teaching, gender, race, the violence of rap music-and lots more. 

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In chapter 2 of her book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, hooks explains how patriarchy harms men, how it demands that boys deny their feelings and hide the truth of their lives.  She makes her case not only by engaging the work of sociologists and psychologists but also by sharing painful stories from her own family history.  She names the damage done both to her and to her brother by a system that demands full obedience to patriarchal scripts.

hooks acknowledges that in unjust systems like patriarchy not everyone suffers equally or in the same way.  She was hurt in a way her brother was not.  But in unjust systems like patriarchy everyone is harmed in some way.

I know lots of men who have felt welcome freedom in letting go of the expectation that they always be strong, in charge, and absent of emotion.  But theirs are not my stories to share, especially since many fear that admitting those feelings will make them seem weak.

I haven’t done justice to hooks’ piece.  Read it.  Let me know what you think.

3 Responses to The F-word, the P-word, and bell hooks

  • Yes – yesterday, I heard a preacher say one of the great threats to America is “f- . . . “

    And yet, bell hooks’ definition of the word is helpful.

  • I teach a survey course on the OT to freshman students, in which I assign a visual aid project. A student once strung dried apple rings on a string to make a necklace–representing Michal’s bride-price from David.

    I’ve since mentioned that to other students when I assign them to write an essay on “Women as Pawns” in men’s power struggles: The story of David-Michal, and Paltiel is usually enough to get them started.

    Many of these students would have been resistant to the word “feminism”, but when they look at the specific details of the narratives, they write pretty convincing critiques of patriarchy.

  • Mark, your comments got me thinking about my approach to the label “feminist.” My approach has been to take back the word from those who demonize it, to explain what it “really” means, to make it an OK thing to call yourself and others. Maybe the better route is to work on the concepts and quit fighting over the word. I’ve experienced that myself in working with some church groups. Simply asking the right questions about the text produces amazing results, as apparently your assignment does.

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