We see and hear the term “feminism” all of the time — whether it’s in protest, on a tote bag, or from Emma Watson’s mouth. Yet while feminism is largely defined on the basis of equality, specifically the “belief in social, economic and political equality of the sexes,” in practice, it’s not always inclusive. Feminism has been criticized for not uplifting marginalized voices or being non-intersectional. Feminism that is not intersectional does not acknowledge the intersections of oppression those in the movement may face.
In an effort to create a movement that represented more than just white, straight women, black women created a new term: womanism.
What is womanism?
The women who make up the movement, womanists, define womanism. Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple, first defined “womanist” in her prose writing, stating a womanist is “a black feminist or a feminist of color.” All further quotes are from this original definition, which separates the components of a womanist into four numbered sections.
In her first section on womanism, Walker not only refers to the race of womanists but also what womanists act like. Walker writes that the term “womanist” is “usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous, or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one. Interested in doing grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up.”
A womanist is further defined by whom she loves and how she loves them. Walker says a womanist is also “a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually…Sometimes loves individual men, sexually, and/or nonsexually.”
Womanism is based on a universal love of people, rather than a separatist mindset, “except periodically, for health,” Walker writes. Otherwise, a womanist should be “committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female,” she continues.
Finally, womanists are defined not only by the people they love but also the things they love. A womanist “loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Love struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless."
History of womanism.
Womanism may have become a well-known term with Alice Walker’s definition of “womanist,” but Walker was not the first to write about black feminism. In 1977, six years before In Search of Our Mother’s Garden was published, The Combahee River Collective Statement was released. Written by a group of black feminists called The Combahee River Collective, the statement clarified the importance of black feminism and discussed the “simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.”
Since Walker’s definition in her 1983 work, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, other black woman have contributed further definitions of womanism. Clenora Hudson-Weems, an author and academic, coined the “Africana Womanism” a few years after Walker defined womanism. Weems’ womanism focuses on the distinct struggles that women from African descent face, with self-naming and self-defining serving as principle practices of the ideology. Around the same time of Weems’ work, Chikewenye Okonjo Ogunyemi wrote about her interpretation of womanism in her article Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English. While Weems’ ideology moves away from Walker’s beliefs of womanism, Ogunyemi shares many of the same ideas. Instead, Ogunyemi focuses on a womanist goal to share power among races and between sexes.
Womanism continues to be prevalent in literature and activism, building off works from Ntozake Shange, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, who wrote in the 1970s–1990s.
How does it differ from feminism?
Womanism differs from feminism not only in the people it serves but also in its principles and practices. Womanists are black feminists and primarily women of color. Beyond that, they are focused on what Walker deems a “universal love,” focusing on the “wholeness of entire people.”
Feminists often view their movement as a progression for women, specifically, working to help women achieve equality with men. While womanists have a similar goal, their work is not selective to women; rather, they are “committed to the survival” of everyone.
Womanists are also focused on loving all people. While many women of second-wave feminism had anxieties about how to be a feminist that loved men — and whether it was possible at all — the very definition of womanism states that womanists always love other women but also sometimes love men. Womanism is therefore based on uplifting, loving and committing to the survival of all people.
Unlike feminism, womanism isn’t a popularized, well-known term. “Feminist” is used to define whether a movie has gender equality or whether a workplace treats its women employees fairly. Womanism, on the other hand, is primarily used as a term in literature, often in academic contexts. While some women may define themselves as womanists, feminism is a much more common term.
Alice Walker puts the relationship between womanism and feminism best: “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” Womanism is a larger ideology concerning gender equality, while feminism is a component of that larger umbrella.
Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.