“Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender.”
When I first read that quote a few months ago, I immediately put it in my Instagram bio. (Of course, it’s not there anymore since I’m always changing my bio, but I might change it back soon.) I love that Alice Walker quote not just because of the truth of the concept it presents, but the poetic and simplistic way she puts it. This is how I see womanism: poetic, simple, and true.
According to writer, poet, activist, and role model of mine Alice Walker, who wrote The Color Purple, a womanist is “A woman who loves another woman, sexually and/ or non sexually. She appreciates and prefers women's culture, women's emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter)[she] is committed to the survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically for health... loves the spirit.... loves struggle. Loves herself. Regardless.”
I love this definition. I think it describes someone who appreciates and loves the feminine, someone who resonates with female energy and wants to spread that energy to everyone, male and female alike, in order to bring us together and put a stop to oppression, especially race and class-based. This definition is from Alice Walker’s book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, and the full definition is in that book. It’s important to note that in the definition, she clearly states that a womanist is a black feminist or feminist of color. Womanism is not for white people.
The definition also has a very important component; the word womanist derives from the term womanish, and if you’re black you’ve probably heard or been called that before. When someone calls you womanish, they’re usually saying that you’re acting too grown or forward for your age. Really, the behavior associated with this is important for a woman, because when girls are acting womanish, they’re acting like they’re in charge, they’re being courageous and bold and curious.
Feminism is under the umbrella of womanism, and the principles of feminism are intrinsic to womanism itself, but womanism is still different. Womanism centers around the progression of the black race and is one of the few movements for black people that includes and emphasizes the unique experience of the black woman. Womanism entirely includes both men and women and encourages their co-existence while respecting each other’s differences. In womanism, black women are able to address gender-based oppression without attacking men.
I’m sure you’re thinking “doesn’t feminism include men and women as well?” When In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens came out in 1983, feminism had been around, and it was not as inclusive of men as it is today. Maybe by definition it meant to include men, but there were way less male feminists around and people saw feminism as a direct attack on men (I acknowledge that ignorant people still see it as that today, but back then it was a bit more accurate). Feminism was directly addressing men and the way they oppressed women, whereas now feminism is more accepting of men and more considerate of their issues and of issues that are not just surrounding gender-based oppression.
The reason why it is extremely important to talk about womanism in any real discussion about feminism is because womanism is what women of color, specifically black women, usually turn to instead of feminism. Feminists have been excluding, alienating, and belittling black women and women of color for decades, so of course we don’t want to align ourselves with this movement. Author and academic Clenora Hudson-Weems coined the term “Africana womanism”, which is a rejection of feminism by women of the African diaspora. Hudson-Weems bases Africana womanism around Black nationalism and says that her womanism is different from feminism and Alice Walker’s womanism. What’s important about her is that she says it is impossible to “incorporate the cultural perspectives of African women into the feminist ideal due to the history of slavery and racism in America.”
This is the opinion of many black women; we feel there is no possible way for us to assimilate ourselves with feminism because of the racist history of this country and the exclusionary attitude that white people, including white women, have always had toward us. What I’m saying should not offend any white person, because I’m not saying anything that isn’t true nor am I insulting white people. This isn’t an attack on white people, this is an explanation of why it is difficult for women of color to identify with movements that were made to serve them only.
Alice Walker once said, “I don’t choose womanism because it is "better" than feminism...I choose it because I prefer the sound, the feel, the fit of it… because I share the old ethnic-American habit of offering society a new word when the old word it is using fails to describe behavior and change that only a new word can help it more fully see.”
It is selfish for white women to ridicule women of color for not choosing feminism, because only women of color know our own experiences and know what we are comfortable with. Even if you think that feminism is inclusive of women of color, if that’s not how we feel, it is not your place to tell us otherwise or to make it seem like we are trying to separate ourselves instead of focusing on dismantling the patriarchy.
There are some women of color and black women who don’t identify with womanism, however. Some black women choose to identify with black feminism, which is very similar to womanism in that it provides a space for black women when regular feminism oppresses them based on race and black liberation movements oppress them based on sex. However, womanism is more open to all women of color, even though it originated with black women, whereas black feminism’s focus is only black women.
Another aspect of womanism is spirituality and one’s personal experience with God. Some women feel that womanism is unfairly favorable to Christian ideals and think that it does not allow adequate space for women of other religions.
There’s a lot to learn about womanism and I’m still learning every day. Read up on Alice Walker, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Clenora Hudson-Weems, and Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi to better understand it. And let’s talk! Comment below or submit your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.