I first came across the term “womanist” in college. I instinctively dismissed it as another way to divide a precarious base. As another way to confuse and overcomplicate a seemingly simple idea that woman deserve equity, as already promoted by feminists.
How wrong I was.
In college, I was naïve. I believed that all feminists were united on a single front, that we were all advancing the same agenda; an agenda which inspired, encouraged, and empowered women to make decisions for themselves while rejecting patriarchy as a historically intangible form of oppression.
My younger self was blind to the obvious realities of our society. Feminism is not an all-embracing ideology. Of course, all social movements will have its internal divisions; it’s difficult to assume consensus on a wide range of subtopics. But what I did not expect was the inherent backlash or discomfort that came with the undeniable intersectionality that makes feminism the compelling ideology that it is.
The African American experience is a unique one. A quick history lesson shows just how uneasy Black life was and currently is. Basically underperforming in all socioeconomic fields, Black Americans frequently face challenges that make upwards social mobility troublesome to attain. Add in the intricate dynamics of femininity and womanhood, and troublesome becomes an understatement.
Third wave feminism is starting to address those challenges experienced by Black females, but the historical feminist movement completely disregarded the struggles of Black women. Sometimes, historical feminism promoted hardship on Black women.
Feminism is the product of middle class white women. It began in the 19th and 20th centuries (the first wave) as a way to achieve white female suffrage. Coinciding with this political aspiration was the abolitionist struggle. These two factions of social change frequently were at odds with one another. It was a competition between the two groups; who could achieve the scarcity of rights first.
During the second wave, feminism morphed into an all-inclusive coalition. During the 1960s and 1970s, women made leaps and bounds in their careers, received higher educational value, and gained political credo, the movement was more open to the sizable Black female population that was also making productive social strides. It was inevitable for the two groups to collaborate with one another.
Coinciding with more racial diversity, was also more political diversity. The agenda now included family, reproductive, and health care rights. Although the future of diversity in the movement looks auspicious, there are still social attitudes that need to be addressed.
In college, these social attitudes were real to me. I was taken aback by the prejudice and discrimination I faced when dealing with feminists. I always valued the feminist movement as a necessity in the fight for social progress, but I was shocked to experience how historical attitudes trickled down to the present.
For awhile, I would only call myself a Black feminist; the racial disclaimer was important to me. As a Black feminist, I sent the message that Black female rights were routinely overlooked, but pertinent for progress. I insisted that the needs of Black females were special; our oppression is burned from both ends of the candle; hence, our solutions must be innovatively comprehensive.
Ain’t I a Womanist?
I read this insightful piece on Progressive Pupil and found solace in the emotions it captured. Penned by Fatema Hayat, she examines the crux of “womanism.” Alice Walker coined the term in her 1983 work In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden: Womanist Prose. She notes:
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.
For Alice Walker, womanism is a point of solidarity for women of color within the larger feminist construct.
“Womanist is to feminist what purple is to lavender”
I’m not ready to call myself a womanist just yet. It’s a relatively new term in my racial and gender consciousness, and it will take time to unpack. But, with my cursory analysis, it’s an ideology that I align with. It’s one that I contend with on a sensational level.
To fully embrace this label, I’ll need to better determine the technocratic side of it; to transcend this current elation to policy and strategy. I have a great head start… considering I was already doing so under the feminist umbrella.