The ache at the heart of Mikki Kendall’s bracing new essay collection, “Hood Feminism,” is whether all women actually have a common set of interests. Kendall never asks this question outright — she takes it as a given and anguishes “when the people who are supposed to be your allies on one axis are your oppressors on another.” But her book appears on the heels of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment — a movement that relegated the needs of black women to the background while centering on the desire of white women to take their rightful place alongside white men. And as she mounts the evidence of what hasn’t changed in the past hundred years — that mainstream feminists still largely ignore the needs of their poorer and browner sisters — one cannot help but ask the more existential question: Do well-off white women regard nonwhite women, and poor women, as their equals?
Kendall’s argument unfolds across 18 provocative essays, including “It’s Raining Patriarchy,” “The Fetishization of Fierce” and “Parenting While Marginalized.” While the topics tend to bleed into one another and converge in a set of oft-repeated opinions, the book beautifully centers on the experience of women who face an actual battle on the front lines while mainstream feminists clamor for access to the officers’ club.
“Hood feminism,” Kendall writes, recognizes that many women make “messy” choices just to survive in America and often are met with scorn by their more affluent sisters. “Financially well-off, socially privileged” women are “among the most likely to call the authorities over perceived neglect as mundane as a child walking home alone.” Such so-called good Samaritans can be said to be acting in the best interests of the child, but, she argues “if the child’s best interests are the only concern, then alleviating poverty for low-income parents would be a primary feminist issue.”
Sometimes a woman’s choices are by necessity illegal. “Poverty,” she explains, “can mean turning to everything from sex work to selling drugs in order to survive, because you can’t ‘lean in’ when you can’t earn a legal living wage and you still need to feed yourself and those who depend on you.” She contends that the real feminist issues are inadequate wages, food insecurity, unaffordable and unsafe living conditions, poor health care and mediocre public education — conditions millions of women (and their children) face, not in some “shithole country,” as President Trump once called African nations and Haiti, but in the United States.
The covid-19 pandemic brings her point home. Work is either scarce or precarious, particularly for workers in essential jobs like food service, package delivery, elder care and health care — which has a disproportionate effect on low income families. A family with three children and one working parent may need four devices so that the kids can continue their education while the parent works from home. And even if your workplace and schools provide the devices, millions lack WiFi at home. Internet access is as fundamentally part of our infrastructure as roads and electricity are, yet efforts to fund Internet connectivity for all are still being battled in the Senate.
Kendall’s essays repeatedly ask why the basic needs of so many women are ignored, and why women in need are so often blamed for their plight. In her strongest piece, “Hunger,” Kendall writes, “Hunger, real hunger, provokes desperation and leads to choices that might otherwise be unfathomable.” Kendall has been there. She enlisted in the Army to pay for college, and while serving she met and married a man who turned out to be an abuser. She divorced him and raised their young son in public housing, on food stamps, and with medical care provided by the state — a social safety net, she reminds us, that “has nearly fallen away completely in many areas.” Even so, it was barely enough. Kendall’s personal experience offers a compelling case that soda may in fact be a mother’s best caloric choice for her family: “The story behind that pack of chips and soda at a bus stop is often far more complicated than any ideas of a lack of nutritional knowledge, laziness, or even neglect.”
Reading Kendall, one cannot escape the conclusion that what’s lacking in mainstream feminism isn’t the means, the will or the right leaders and policies, but rather empathy — across the board — for poor, nonwhite and non-cis women. Kendall cites a 2017 study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly that shows that white female college students are less likely to help black victims of assault because they “felt less personally responsible for them.” Another 2017 study, from Georgetown Law, shows that, to adults, “black girls seemed older than white girls of the same age” and “needed less nurturing, protection, support, and comfort than white girls.”
These empirical studies echo the disquieting response of some white girls and women to the depiction of black people in pop culture. Kendall cites as an example the reaction to the character Rue in the “The Hunger Games” movie. Though Rue was described as “dark skinned” in the book, some people balked when the actress Amandla Stenberg was chosen to play her. When Rue died on screen, Kendall writes, “instead of the deep grief that fans reported feeling while reading the book, seeing Rue on-screen as a visibly black girl had many commenting that they felt nothing.” Through such examples, Kendall forces readers to consider whether white women see women of color “as human beings at all.”
This topic is one of the most morally pressing concerns of our time. It’s unfortunate that Kendall’s discussion of it isn’t more disciplined. Her arguments are at times overly generalized, and the writing can be opaque. Cliches drag an otherwise nuanced narrative down. (“Girls in the hood must learn to present only the fraction of themselves deemed acceptable while also working twice as hard to get half as far in life.”)
Despite these flaws, the book succeeds in drawing the ineluctable conclusion that poor and working-class women, particularly when of color, lead a profoundly different life in America than their wealthier and white counterparts. As single moms who can’t afford feminine hygiene products, find fresh produce or secure online connectivity for their child’s virtual education, watch wealthier women clamor for more security for themselves, Sojourner Truth’s plaintive question “Ain’t I a woman?” seems as relevant today as when it was first uttered.
“Sometimes being a good ally is about opening the door for someone instead of insisting that your voice is the only one that matters,” Kendall writes. “It means being willing to not just pass the mic but to sometimes get completely off the stage so that someone else can get the attention they need to get their work done.”
HOOD FEMINISM: Notes from the Women a Movement Forgot
By Mikki Kendall
Viking. 258 pp. $26