An Interview with the Brains Behind the bell hooks Phone Line

a phone line texts a quote from bell hooks

Last week, the internet lit up with news of a phone number that would text you back bell hooks quotes. The two creators of the "feminist phone intervention" see the project as a mix of activism and art—people can give out the phone number to people trying to pick them up or they can just text the number for a little dose of wisdom during the day. 

Since its launch last week, the phone number has been contacted 100,000 times, say its creators, and has added phone numbers for people in the UK, Canada, Mexico, Germany, and Israel, have posted the open source code for anyone to make their own phone line, and is taking donations to maintain and expand the service.  

Though the phone line's creators want to remain anonymous, one of them took the time to answer a couple questions about the popular project via email. She wants to be identified as "a Latina from the Bronx."

When did you come up with this idea? What were the main issues weighing on your mind that you hope to counter with this phone line?

Right around the time of the Isla Vista shootings—in which Elliot Rodgers murdered to avenge his feeling that women had rejected him—a dear friend of mine was also being stalked in her workplace. In both incidents, violence spiraled out from men's feelings of entitlement to women's attention. The project is a response to that violence and a reminder that we don't owe strangers our time, our smiles, or our contact info.

We hope that the phone line will offer a creative way to talk back to everyday sexism, and also to draw media attention to the persistence of public harassment experienced by women, genderqueer, and feminine-presenting people.

Why did you choose bell hooks quotes, specifically, and how did you decide to which quotes to use?

I chose bell hooks' work because she talks about feminism in the realm of everyday life and always connects it with struggles against racism, militarism, and commercialism. I appreciate her thoughtful writing on feminism and love, such as in her dialogues with Cornel West in Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life.

I think bell hooks' work speaks to the desire for and possibility of cultivating love in a hierarchical world. She acknowledges the difficulty of doing this. She faces the messiness of cultivating comradeship in communities that have experienced oppression and often reproduce patriarchal dynamics within families. So I thought her work would be appropriate for a feminist project designed to talk back in those moments when the possibility for genuine connection is reduced to harassment and aggression.

For me, this project—in its modest, internet-y way—comes from my desire to create comradeship and connection out of shared, everyday experiences. 

For the text of the website, I was careful to use gender-neutral language in my suggestions for how to use the phone line, while also clearly addressing misogyny and violence against women. Unfortunately there is also abuse in gay and queer communities, so we used gender-neutral pronouns in describing potential situations of harassment.

Do you think people will actually use this phone number to deter harassment, or is the main intention just to get people thinking about the issue? 

We have had many responses of women adding it to their phones as a safety measure, and we hope that it will work well in that function. However, I believe that the majority of the calls come from people experimenting to see what quotation they will receive. I saw some blog posts about people calling it when they were having a bad day, just for the feminist pick-me-up, and that's a great use too!

The only tension for me between its effectiveness as art and as security came with the text message service. It was probably more fun for people to have a texting conversation with "bell hooks," in which a series of quotations were randomly generated in response to their messages, than to make a single phone call. However, we were concerned about a situation where aggressors might text someone immediately, and that would put the person sharing the number at some risk. If we set up a time delay, how long is enough? If we had it respond ten minutes later, is that enough time to leave a bar, for example? So we decided to remove the texting option and focus on buying international numbers instead, in response to demand from feminists abroad over Twitter.

How do you feel about the large response to the project?

Our project has been covered in a tremendous number of mainstream news sites, including Yahoo News, Time, and HuffPost, as well as sites like Jezebel and the Hairpin. I am proud that we were able to communicate with such a diverse readership, especially since the mainstream media has generally not been receptive to seriously discussing feminist ideas. I was moved to receive many, many notes of thanks for the project, especially from women who have been coerced into giving away their contact info or otherwise struggled with their boundaries being disrespected.

I am interested in learning about the communication tactics used by other movements, such as the vegan and animal rights movement. For example, the Humane League conducted large-scale statistical research on the most effective forms of communication in pamphlets. They found that "those who received a booklet focused primarily on how to go vegetarian reported diet changes that spared 50 percent more animals than those who received a booklet that focused primarily on why to go vegetarian." Similarly, I think that by suggesting how to stage an intervention through technology—even a modest intervention with a simple method—it was more compelling than just writing another article about harassment and stalking. 

Had I used the vocabulary of academic gender theory, or posted a list of statistics about harassment and rape, it would probably not have traveled so fast and been too overwhelming and depressing. I am pleased that news coverage has been so sympathetic.

Related Reading: Watch this Amazing Conversation Between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry. 

Sarah Mirk is Bitch's online editor and an avid emoji user.


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