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Web Event 3: Unbinding Power Feminism

EP's picture

Unbinding Power Feminism

It’s easy to envision feminism as female CEOs breaking the glass ceiling, or an upper class woman who seems to “have it all” and lets nothing in her way. Many think of this as evidence that feminism is pushing women closer to equality to men. However, they forget that this is only pushing certain (and privileged) women towards equality. As with any other movement, the voice that everyone seems to hear in the feminist movement is the voice that has the most power. Privileged (often white, upper class, and educated) women seem to shape what the mainstream view of feminism is, pushing the voices that strive for equality not only in terms of gender, but also race and class. This creates a “feminism” that works within a system that caused oppression in the first place. This “power feminism,” while it helps achieve equality for certain women within the already-standing system, it also promotes the oppression that system caused in the first place.

The issues of power feminism are noted by feminist author Bell Hooks in her book Feminism is for Everybody. Hooks states that “there can be no such thing as ‘power feminism’ if the vision of power evoked is power gained through the exploitation and oppression of others” (Hooks, 6). The whole purpose of feminism is to end oppression (specifically for women), and when women participate in power feminism, they continue the mistreatment of the most oppressed women in society. This power feminism serves as little more than a self-serving act for those women of privilege to “maximize their freedom within the existing system” leaving “a lower class of exploited subordinated women to do the dirty work they were refusing to do” (Hooks, 5).

Ironically, power feminism works to strengthen the very system that power feminists claim to be fighting. Hooks writes “While it was in the interest of mainstream white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to suppress visionary feminist thinking which was not anti-male or concerned with getting women the right to be like men, reformist feminists were also eager to silence these forces” (Hooks, 5). Power feminism works to be part of the patriarchy in this way: working within the patriarchal system to oppress those who are of a lower class than they are. To actually deconstruct or change the patriarchal system would be to undermine all the power that they have gained from it.

One of the reasons why power feminism is so mainstream is simply because it is not a major threat to the patriarchal power structures that are in place. While power feminists change the traditional function of the structure by gaining power within it, though it is only formed to benefit men, the structure still remains largely intact by oppressing the lower classes. They do not want to actually change the system to give equality to women of lower classes. This is why power feminism is more generally recognized and accepted in the mainstream. It does not truly change the world as we know it or threaten the power structures that have been in place for years, but rather allows privileged women a place in those power structures along with privileged men, keeping the power within a certain class, even though the doors might be open to both genders.

Bell Hooks also sees the mainstream nature of “power feminism” when she states “The voices of ‘power feminism’ tend to be highlighted in mass media far more than the voices of individual feminist women who have gained class power without betraying our solidarity towards those groups without class privilege” (Hooks, 42). The voices that are heard are not necessarily those that speak truly of what the feminist movement stands for, but rather, those voices of power feminists who have class power.  The mainstream impression of feminism and its goals is determined by women of high socioeconomic status. Hooks also states that “Western women have gained class power and greater gender inequality because a global white supremacist patriarchy enslaves and/or subordinates masses of third-world women” (Hooks, 43). Western women of high status not only keep their place of power within an oppressive system by silencing the voices of the oppressed, but also by exploiting the oppressed.

One of the main reasons why people may think that power feminism speaks for the goals of the feminist movement as a whole is the misconceptions of what feminism is at all. As Hooks writes “One of the difficulties we faced spreading the word about feminism is that anything having to do with the female gender is seen as covering feminist ground even if it does not contain a feminist perspective” (Hooks, 112). While power feminism does not align with the goals of an inclusive and intersectional feminism that focuses on class and race equality as well as gender equality, it is perceived as what feminism is simply because it involves women.

Another reason, aside from the furthering of oppressive power structures, that power feminism being the mainstream perception of feminism is such a problem is that it makes other forms of feminism less accessible to the general public. There are much more intersectional, less oppressive forms of feminism that encourage universality and discourage causing harm to other women. However, the general public is left unaware of these forms of feminism because power feminism serves as their classic (and only) example. Because of this, feminisms other than power feminism remain in academic circles. Bell Hooks writes on the subject “It became and remains a privileged discourse available to those among us who are highly literate, well-educated, and usually materially privileged” (Hooks, 5). Those who are of lower socioeconomic status or unable to access the academic resources remain unaware that there is a feminist movement that stands for them and fights against the very structures that oppress them. The loud voice of power feminism and the power structures it stands for drowns out the type of feminism that can stand for them.

Power feminism also threatens the universality of the feminist movement. Bell Hooks writes “Sisterhood could not be powerful as long as women were competitively at war with one another” (Hooks, 3). This is shows that power feminism, which is based in a competitive, oppressive capitalist system, is largely counterproductive towards the goals of feminism. It is difficult to have a functioning, cohesive movement in which the members compete amongst each other. The functioning, cohesive movement becomes impossible when certain members of the movement oppress less privileged members, making the voice of the privileged members the only voice that is heard.

Hooks shows that power feminism not only furthers the oppressive patriarchal power structure to oppress women of lower socioeconomic status, but also comes back around to hurt the power feminists themselves. “When women with class power opportunistically use a feminist platform while undermining feminist politics that help keep in place a patriarchal system that will ultimately re-subordinate them, they do not just betray feminism; they betray themselves” (Hooks, 43).  By participating in the patriarchal power structure, they undermine the larger goal of the feminist movement, which would allows for true class, race, and gender equality instead of equality within an oppressive capitalist system.

                One of Bell Hooks’s major arguments is that “To choose feminist politics, then, is a choice to love” (Hooks, 104). And, as Bell Hooks states, “The heartbeat of our alternative vision is still a fundamental and necessary truth: there can be no love when there is domination” (Hooks, 103). Power feminism, which encourages domination of upper class women over lower class women, shows no love, and, therefore, is not really part of feminism at all. It is part of the power structures we have known all along, just with a new face. Putting power feminism under the guise of feminist politics is an act against the choice to love that is feminism. The harm that it causes to people (and particularly women) who do not fit into the power structure is hateful.

            Power feminism is the face of feminism that we are all familiar with. Some of us associate it with equality, empowerment, and progress. One thing many fail to consider is the harm that it causes those who do not fit into the power structure: those of lower classes. The classist facets of power feminism are issues that we do not often want to face because they threaten the power structure that we are familiar with, and are not sure how to deconstruct or replace. Some may not have access to other forms of feminism other than power feminism because they either are not aware they exist or they are not in the academic circles that discuss them. Power feminism has some harmful effects that we have not really noticed, but they affect us as much as the patriarchy.

Works Cited

Hooks, Bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End, 2000. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

“the voice most heard is the voice that has the most power”

you offer here a really fine account of power feminism, which “works to strengthen the very system it claims to be fighting,” not threatening patriarchal power, not aligning “with the goals of an inclusive and intersectional feminism that focuses on class and race equality as well as gender equality"...

but based instead “in a competitive, oppressive capitalist system” that is largely counterproductive for most of the people in it—including the power feminists, who thereby “betray themselves,” as well as causing harm to all “those who do not fit into the power structure.”

You rely entirely on bell hooks in this articulation, and basically organize, highlight and clarify the discussion we had in class on the day we read her article. So…

how to move on from here? How does this link to what you wrote, last month, about gay affluence? Or the month before that, on “feeling like a fraud"? How to develop hooks’ ideas into something you might claim as your own?