In a dramatized conversation between Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth in season 4, episode 1 of The Crown, Thatcher, the UK’s first female prime minister, avers that she has found women “in general not to be suited to high office.” Thatcher climbed the ladder that feminism had built, but she saw herself as rising above the frailties of her sex—an exception that proved the rule—to be more like a man, and she and plenty of other conservative female politicians after her have happily pulled up the ladder behind them in an attempt to uphold patriarchy.
This is the phenomenon Mikki Kendall examines in Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot, albeit from a bottom-up, structural perspective rather than an historical, individualist perspective. For as long as we’ve had feminism—longer than we’ve had the term, in fact—we have debated over who belongs in the movement. When you peel back the righteous surface of the history of feminism, you quickly discover roiling depths of eugenics and white supremacy. Feminism is ultimately a human movement, after all, and we humans are flawed. We have centred feminism on white women—particularly white, able-bodied cis women in the middle and upper classes—to the detriment of Black women, Indigenous women, other women of colour, poor women, disabled women, trans women, etc.
Hood Feminism reminds me of another fave collection, Feminism for REAL—that was an anthology by multiple authors, but its subtitle (Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism) says it all. (That book was an anthology by multiple authors—and actually, that brings up one small peeve I have with this book: the subtitle seems to suggest this might be from multiple authors, when really this is Kendall’s writing, albeit influenced and informed by others. Nothing wrong with that, but I wish whoever was in charge of such decisions had thought twice.)
Kendall’s essays alternate in tone from deeply personal to swimming in statistics. Her experiences as a Black women are at the forefront of most chapters, but she also brings other experiences, other stories and facts, into the conversation. Although Kendall focuses quite a bit (and rightly so) on race, she also speaks as much as she can about disability and trans rights. Indeed, as someone who has recently gone from viewing herself as a cis male ally to a trans woman, it was really nice to feel included. It really, really buoys me to see Kendall so adamantly include trans experiences in her feminism, and I’m sure she would have my back if we were in the same room and someone was transphobic to my face. But make no mistake: I am still, as a white trans woman, the target audience for this book. My race and my education give me a whole lot of privilege, and so while I still experience transmisogyny, I will never have to experience what it’s like to navigate the world as a trans woman of colour. That’s why, as much as isolated sections of this book resonated with me on a personal level (public bathroom anxiety), it would be disingenuous for me to position myself outside the remit of white feminism as Kendall constructs it.
Here are a few reactions to this book that I suspect will be common yet ultimately unhelpful.
First, I’m sure that some white readers, particularly white women readers, will see Kendall as argumentative, reductive. They’ll view her construction of white feminism as a straw man or red herring—there is no oppression Olympics after all, right? The subtext of these criticisms will be clear: why aren’t you trying to placate us? Why are you an angry Black woman?
Kendall herself acknowledges such white fragility and stereotyping, admits she has no interest in respectability politics, and all the more power to her. There is nothing about her tone in this book, nothing about how she makes her arguments, that invalidates her message. Kendall is on point throughout these essays, and if we dismiss what she says simply because it discomforts us, we aren’t thinking critically.
Second, I’m sure that some white readers will fall over themselves to praise this book, to put Kendall on a pedestal. Finally, a book that speaks the truth! I have seen the light, and my eyes have been opened to how feminism can prop up systemic racism when it should be challenging it! Black women gonna save us all!
(There is something deeply ironic that white people espouse the myth of Black, female saviours even as we seldom hesitate to embody the white saviour stereotype ourselves….)
Indeed, like so many writings about race even slightly directed towards a white audience, I worry that Hood Feminism’s message will be lost in its popularity as a cool anti-racist text to be seen reading. Yet reading one anti-racist text does not fix you. Reading fifty anti-racists texts does not fix you. This book did not change magically make me a better, less racist feminist. Being anti-racist, much like being an ally in general, involves sustained, continual action, not a certain level of knowledge.
Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot. For me personally, the most useful aspect of Hood Feminism is its frequent reminder that feminism as a project to make society more equitable cannot succeed if we co-opt it to mean individual success. This is why Margaret Thatcher, Sheryl Sandberg, and other “lean-in” feminists are not icons we should revere. An “I got mine” approach to feminism is myopic. If your response to a feminist of colour’s complaint is “well, that hasn’t been my experience,” you are recreating the pattern of oppression that all women experience when a man tells them the exact same thing. Moreover, you erase the decades of labour done by women of colour who otherwise lacked the opportunity and academic pedigree for their voices to enter the conversation.
In the same way, feminism as a project cannot ignore structural inequities. Kendall’s essay on housing is an excellent example of this. Intersectionality, far from trying to create a hierarchy of oppression, simply asks us to consider how multiple types of oppression or marginalization can intersect in a way that has devastating consequences. In Kendall’s case, public housing allowed her the flexibility in her budget to feed herself and her son reliably. With that social safety net evaporating in the United States, more women suffer as a result—regardless of their personal character, regardless of whether or not they have access to a job or to anything else. If you don’t happen to be a member of a group disproportionately affected by that particular change, you might not understand why it’s such a big deal (“why can’t she just get a better job so she can afford housing?”). So we must trust. We must listen to feminists of different backgrounds, and hear them when they tell us that there is a problem.
Hood Feminism is ultimately about the project of re-centreing feminism, shifting it away from an emphasis on a minority so that it can be more inclusive and less monolithic.
This book is not a panacea, nor will every white feminist reader find it equally useful. It is, like so many other texts, a survey of a great many facets of society. Consequently, as I mentioned earlier, you’ll probably find that your mileage varies depending on how much you already know about these topics. I can imagine this book would be eye-opening to people who are just embarking on their feminist journey, while for others who have read more widely, this book will be less revelatory. That doesn’t diminish its quality overall—merely its relative usefulness. I’d recommend this as an introductory intersectional text—pair it with Crenshaw’s writings—and the sources at the back make for great recommendations for deeper, more specific readings on any of the topics Kendall addresses. As I mentioned before, at the end of the day, this should be one stop in your anti-racist reading journey, and it should be paired with copious thought on how you can turn your reading into action.