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Masterpieces of Women's Literature Ain't I a Woman Analysis

Ain’t I a Woman analyzes how racist and sexist oppression have prevented a positive valuation of black womanhood. As it does so, it critically engages a variety of authors and assumptions, indicating their racist and sexist blind spots. A major theme of the book is how a preoccupation with black male masculinity has hidden and distorted the experiences of black women, leading to mistaken assumptions regarding “strong black women” whose dignity rests on their capacity to cope with and endure oppression and degradation. These assumptions, Hooks argues, have led to the erasure of black women’s identity. The term “women” tends to refer primarily to white women; the term “black” or “Negro” tends to refer primarily to black men.

Hooks develops her argument by confronting the widely held view that the predominant damage caused by slavery was the demasculinization of the black male. She shows how, in fact, white patriarchy enabled African males to maintain a semblance of their societally given masculine role; they performed only “masculine” tasks and were encouraged to adopt traditional sex roles in the slave subculture. In contrast, many African women were assigned heavy labor. They were usually bred like cattle. Furthermore, those who worked as “house slaves” were often raped by their owners and brutalized by the owners’ wives. To this extent, they came to be seen as the “other,” the opposite of the real lady as idealized by the “cult of true womanhood.” This patriarchal value system held that women were delicate, chaste, and feminine. Since black women were hardworking, sexually available, and “nonfeminine,” they did not count as women at all. Thus, Hooks points out that far from demasculinizing black men, the experience of slavery masculinized black women.

Hooks also shows the continuation of the devaluation of black womanhood after slavery, taking white feminists to task for ignoring the sexist oppression of black women after manumission. For example, she criticizes Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975), arguing that Brownmiller fails to acknowledge that the rape of black women has never received the same sort of attention as the rape of white women. Hooks explains that because of the slave system, which led to the designation of black women as sexually depraved, immoral, and loose, black women have been seen by the white public as sexually permissive and eager for sexual assault. Black women have been viewed as incapable of being raped.

To demonstrate the racist ideology that has made the term “women” synonymous with “white women,” Hooks raises arguments against white feminists who have been unwilling to distinguish among varying types and degrees of oppression and discrimination. She points out that white women in the women’s movement wanted to project an image of themselves as victims in order to gain entry to the job market. This image clashed, however, with black women’s experiences as employees, as the maids and housekeepers of white women’s children. Moreover, it ignored the fact that many lower-class women and women of color had to work, that not working was the privilege of middle-class white women. In this respect, Hooks offers a strong critique of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), showing how it made the white middle-class “housewife” into a victim while ignoring the exploitation of poor black and nonblack women in the American economy.

Although much of Hooks’s argument exposing the impact of the slave system on...

(The entire section is 857 words.)