The Power of Feminist Friendship

What I took from bell hooks’ 2014 National Women’s Studies Association keynote.

November 24, 2014

This started out as a very different post. My first draft focused almost exclusively on the more controversial aspects of bell hooks’ keynote address at this year’s National Women’s Studies Association Conference (full recording available here). And hooks has been known for her controversy throughout her career; most recently for referring to Beyoncé as a terrorist during a panel discussion at The New School last May.

Beyoncé did make an appearance in hooks’ NWSA speech, amongst other notable public figures, such as Hillary Clinton, with whom hooks also has a bone to pick.  But today, I don’t want to talk about women critiquing other women. I could spend hours (and have) discussing hooks’ points on the violence that women - especially white feminists - do to other women in our imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal society. But I’m not going to talk about that either. For those critiques you’ll have to listen to the full speech, or read any of a number of hooks’ texts. Today I want to talk about friendship.

hooks opened her speech by tearfully dedicating the keynote to her long-time friend, Beverly Guy-Sheftall. Guy-Sheftall, the founding director of the Women's Research and Resource Center and the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women's Studies at Spelman College, is a pioneer in Black Women’s Studies.

hooks told the story of coming to the NWSA after having just written her first book, “And There We Wept.” When Guy-Sheftall realized that hooks had come to the conference with only one bag and no place to stay, she offered to take the younger scholar in. That act of generosity and sisterhood, hooks recalled, deeply touched her, and was the beginning of decades of friendship that has weathered the ups and downs of shifts in class status, and personal as well as ideological disagreements.

hooks’ dedication made me think about the power of my own friendships at the conference. While at NWSA I met up with a friend whom I’ve known since we completed our masters’ together in London over a decade ago. Over the years we have supported each other not only as friends, but also as colleagues, co-editing a journal together when our paths crossed again as doctoral students. Though we don’t see each other nearly as much as we’d like, whenever we do, our conversations - which this time ranged from the politics of gentrification in our respective cities to the love for the animals in our lives - leave me feeling loved and sustained.

There were also other friends at the conference: new friends made through organizing several roundtables on the topic of contingency in women’s and gender studies; and old friends, some of whom I met through University of Venus.

I have written before about the power of friendships in graduate school, and how this power does not diminish after completing one’s PhD. I can now add conferencing to that list.  In Puerto Rico, as I ran from session to session, frantically trying to keep up with conference time, every time I bumped into a friend, I realized that the presence of those friendships -- new and old -- were my grounding. And I slowed my pace.


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