“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” – Alice Walker.
Alice Walker, a poet and activist, who is mostly known for her award-winning book The Color Purple, coined the term Womanist in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden: Womanist Prose. Walker defined a womanist as “Womanish, the opposite of girlish…Being grown up…A Black Feminist or Feminist of Color…A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or non-sexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or non-sexually”. The complete text of the definition can be seen here.
There are other simpler definitions for the term such as the one used by The American Heritage Dictionary, which recognized the word in 1993 and defined it as“ Having or expressing a belief in or respect for women and their talents and abilities beyond the boundaries of race and class; exhibiting feminism that is inclusive especially of Black American Culture”. Now that we know what it is to be a Womanist. How is it different from Feminism? And why is the Womanism Movement important?
The feminist movement traditionally was a middle class white women’s movement and rarely included women of color. In its first wave in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the movement fought for suffrage rights for white women, and later in its second wave the focus was on cultural and social rights which involved sexuality, family laws, workplace, and reproductive rights. Although Feminism addresses and fights for gender equality, it rarely addressed equality and justice for black women. It was never involved in the civil rights movement to help guarantee black women social equality. Unfortunately, there have also been some claims that some members of the feminist movement were racist. Justine Tally mentions in her article Why ‘Womanism? : The Genesis of a New Word and What It Means, “many early so-called feminists supported racist eugenics initiatives, including sterilization of minority women”.
During that period, women of Color or African American women were not only suffering from political and social inequality similar to their white sisters, but they were also racially oppressed due to the color of their skin and ethnicity. The white women of the feminist movement failed to recognize this aspect, it did not encompass the realities and perspectives of the African American Women’s suffering from slavery and segregation. This is why many women of color couldn’t associate with Feminism and found representation and identified with the new term “Womanist”.
Another difference between Feminism and Womanism is that some feminists present men as the enemy in their fight for equality in a patriarchal world. It can be seen as a separatist movement, unlike womanism that emphasizes women’s relationships with men and the importance of family who are “committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female” (Alice Walker). Womanism not only fights for the gender equality but for justice against racial oppression against African American men and women.
Finally, Womanism is not against the Feminist Movement, but as Alice Walker states in her famous quote, it is just a darker shade that included and represented other women’s perspectives and voices. “Womanism is simply another shade of feminism. It helps give visibility to the experience of black women and other women of color who have always been at the forefront of the feminist movement yet marginalized and rendered invisible in historical texts and the media”.
By Fatema Hayat