Feminism is a fluid concept. It’s taken many forms over the decades, some better than others. It’s given rise to a number of strong and inspiring women, and it’s brought about massive and meaningful societal change. And yet, there are aspects of feminism that are still problematic, or at least worth noting, such as the fact that most of the feminist icons we know – RBG, Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Friedan – were all white, heterosexual, and cisgender. Essentially, still a privileged group of women who, according to Kerane Marcellus for Very Good Light, were still white before they were women. This aspect of feminism, largely ignored throughout the first and second waves of feminism, is now being confronted by a new movement: womanism.
Womanism and Feminism: What’s the difference?
The term “womanism” was coined by writer Alice Walker, as a term to describe a movement that makes feminism more inclusive to non-white women. The movement emphasizes the contributions that women of colour have made to the feminist movement and seeks to create a more pluralistic and inclusive version of feminism. As such, womanism has also been referred to as African feminism, or black feminism, although it encompasses a lot more than these titles would suggest.
Walker’s much-cited phrase, “womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender”, suggests that the author considers feminism to be only a component of the wider ideological umbrella of womanism.
“Many women are turning to womanism as they’ve confronted the fact that feminism does not serve them in the ways that they need when it comes to the intersectionality of the nuanced and multifaceted issues that they face,” writes Marcellus. “As an ethical system, womanism is always in the making — it is not a closed fixed system of ideas but one that continually evolves through its rejection of all forms of oppression and commitment to social justice”.
Why do we need Womanism?
Although many may feel that feminism is already fighting for equality and that womanism is unnecessary, these naysayers are overlooking the aspects of equality that they themselves don’t have to deal with. Essentially, womanist theory holds at its core that femininity and culture are both equally important to the woman’s existence. Equality, by this logic, cannot be colourblind – one’s identity as a woman cannot be stripped from the culture within which it exists.
“People who aren’t white, straight, or cisgender don’t get to choose between fighting against racism or fighting against sexism or even against classism,” writes Marcellus. “Those are unique experiences that white women will just never have to go through”.
Womanism advocates for the differences between women and men to be appreciated, and even celebrated, while placing them on equal footing. It aims to bring the contributions of women from various groups – such as Black women, Indigenous women, Asian women, and trans women – to the forefront.
This is in contrast to the way feminism has long whitewashed the issue of equality. And in fact, the lingering race, class, and gender issues that we still grapple with today are all evidence that feminism’s fight for equality has been less than successful until now.
Walker’s notion of womanism is one that based on a universal love of people, rather than a separatist mindset, “except periodically, for health”. She adds that womanists “committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female”. And surely, if there’s one thing we need more of in the world it’s that kind of mindset.
Of course, womanism is nothing new. There have been women of colour fighting for equality since the dawn of time (which is exactly how long inequality has been around), but they have rarely received the attention and the recognition they deserved.
The term is still not widely used outside of literature, but it’s gaining traction and deserves room to promote valuable dialogue. Going forward, the onus is on anyone who identifies as an intersectional feminist to support the womanist movement – whether they themselves fall into that category as a woman of colour or otherwise.