Long before Beyonce explained that girls run the world, there was another woman of colour telling everyone to push for change and fight to eliminate inequality. Her name was Alice Walker, and it’s largely thanks to her the term 'womanism' is widely known.
But what exactly is womanism? Villainesse investigates.
So what is womanism?
Defining what womanism specifically means is surprisingly difficult, as its meaning has changed dramatically since it was used by the poet Alice Walker in In Search of our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose in 1983. In that book, Walker defines womanism as “a black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mother to female children and also a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.”
In other words, Walker defines womanism as a movement for women of colour who love who they are and aren’t afraid to fight for what’s right. It’s a movement fighting against race and class-based oppression, working to preserve the legacy and cultural traditions of women of colour.
Then there’s Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi. In her 1985 article Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English she states her belief that womanism is really about equitably sharing power between the sexes and between people of different races.
Clenora Hudson-Weems goes further in defining womanism, arguing for what is known as 'Africana Womanism'. In her book Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves, Hudson-Weems rejects large parts of traditional feminism, arguing it is too Eurocentric and concerned with the experiences and struggles of white women.
In sum: the exact meaning of womanism depends on who you ask, and who you are.
Why is it controversial?
Womanism is seen as controversial by some feminists (and non-feminists) for a few reasons.
On one hand, the seeming difficulty in trying to categorise it into a single subset of feminism, race or class struggle – or whether it’s an entirely different movement of its own – has been the subject of extensive debate between scholars and activists. The emphasis on spirituality has also been a point of contention.
In The Womanist Reader, Layli Phillips argues that womanism’s main focus is not with black women per se, but that black women are the origin of womanism. What this means, she says, is that while womanism can incorporate other topics and areas, it comes from black women.
Then there’s the fact that many womanists aren’t afraid to speak up (and rightfully so). Names like Kalenda Eaton, Toni Morrison, Toni Cada Bambara, Patricia Hill Collins and Katie Geneva Cannon come to mind. This boldness at challenging oppressive status quos has meant that more than a few feathers have been ruffled over the years.
It’s interesting to note, however, that feminists and womanists can work meaningfully alongside each other. This is perhaps best illustrated by the deep friendship and fruitful working relationship between Alice Walker and feminist leader Gloria Steinem.
So why should we care about womanism today?
Let’s just say it: a lot of womanists are pretty badass. Beyond working to alter unequal societal structures by ending race and gender-based oppression, they try to be the best humans they can be by embodying empowerment, and doing things they want to do on their terms. That’s relevant today more than ever – no matter one’s gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnic background, socio-economic status, race, or national origin.
Womanism also provides a unique movement for women of colour, amplifying and honouring non-white perspectives, which have historically been marginalised.
If womanism is not a living example of girl power, or rather woman power, then it’s hard to know what is.