‘Feminism’ is a word that the majority of us are familiar with. It occupies our discussions, our debates, our spats, our thoughts, our writing and our lifestyle. As pervasive as feminism is today, a lot of us remain unaware of womanism.
What exactly is womanism? Well, let’s find out!
Over the years a lot of African American women advocating social equality have expressed their dissatisfaction with feminism. They feel that feminism is not for them. Why? They find the movement not sufficiently inclusive. Sheri Parks, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and author of Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture said to USA Today, “The things that black women need to push for are quite different than what we think of as the mainstream feminist movement.”
Womanism is the feminism adopted by women of colour, particularly Black feminists, at the intersection of race, class and gender. Unlike feminism, it does not isolate the impact of sexism but looks at its interplay with racial and classist discrimination. It challenges the racist discrimination of feminism and sexist discrimination within the African American community.
The term ‘womanist’ was first used by Alice Walker in her 1979 short story ‘Coming Apart’ and later in her 1983 book “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose.” ‘Womanism’ draws from the expression of Black mothers who call their courageous, serious, responsible and wilful daughters as ‘womanish’. It contrasts the girlish ways of behaviour expected of them. The term differs succinctly from feminism because it is rooted in femininity as well as culture, while also encompassing the sensibilities of feminism and spirituality. It is visionary in nature for it conceives of a humanist community that springs from the concrete experiences of oppression undergone by African American women.
To further explicate, Walker provides the metaphor of a garden, where there is room for all flowers to bloom. Womanism is a humanist ideology of which feminism is a subtype. It commits itself to the welfare of both men and women. It is for everybody. Womanism was adopted to counter the exclusivity of the feminist movement which paraded as a championing of women’s causes, when the ‘women’ in question referred only to White middle class college-educated females.
Intersectionality and Criticism of the Second Wave
We are well aware that patriarchal societies are modelled on clear cut gender roles through which the oppression of women is achieved. Men are declared breadwinners and women are to be primary caregivers. Today, however, we witness many women having successful careers of their own. Women’s advent into white collar workforce is largely owed to the second wave of feminism which spanned from early 1960s to mid-1980s in the United States.
When a large number of American men had left to fight in the Second World War, women stepped in to perform professional tasks. But as soon as the war ended and the men returned, women were expected to return to their homes.
An increasing assertion on ‘ideal’ femininity post-war meant that women were forced to resign to their traditional role of housewife. Women were expected to be of a doll-like nature, submissive and with no political opinions of their own. It was alleged that women drew their purpose, happiness and satisfaction only from within the sphere of domesticity, a place where they truly belonged. Friedan’s Feminine Mystique addressed this as ‘the problem that had no name’. What Friedan saw was a curbing of a natural human desire to grow and that these women were suffering from acute boredom. They sensed a stagnated self and a profound unhappiness caught in the rut of the mundane ‘femininity’. Clearly, they aspired for more. “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.’”- Friedan concludes the first chapter. The voice of these women longed for personal fulfilment through an advent into the professional sphere. The second wave feminist movement was thus purposed with the admission of women to the hitherto space of the White male.
At this point, the word ‘woman’ requires a microscopic inspection for therein lies the problem. Who are these women who are so incredibly bored that they lose a sense of purpose? Who exactly does Friedan refer to when she says ‘the voice within women’? What Friedan’s feminism brandished as ‘the’ sexist issue was truly the experience of the middle-class White woman. The Feminine Mystique had turned a blind eye to Black women and women of colour. It advocated what bell hooks termed a ‘one dimensional perspective’.
The prominent concerns of the second-wave feminist movement were the assertion of women’s right to work, in addition to expanding reproductive rights. At every step, the movement appeared to ignore the discrimination encountered by the larger mass of women. When the movement sounded the clarion for women’s entry into the workforce, women of colour and poor white women were already performing blue collar jobs for generations. Their experience of discrimination was more on terms of race and class. Sexism did not define their oppression but only furthered it. And so the movement came under heavy criticism from feminist scholars like Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Angela Davis. Intersectionality gained momentum.
Womanism- Intersectionality and Beyond
Kimberle Crenshaw an American law professor coined the term ‘Intersectionality’ in 1989. It considers the overlapping of a person’s myriad social identities and their interplay in effecting oppression and discrimination. It is not only race, class and gender that intersect but also factors such as ableism, body norms, age, sexuality and so on. As a result, the experience of social inequality is bound to vary among individuals.
African American women continue to embrace womanism because it is inclusive, dynamic and rooted in culture. It is workable both on an academic level as well as in ground-reality. It is centred on intersectionality but its approach brings together theology, spirituality and communal healing. Clenora Hudson-Weems finds that womanism is ‘family-oriented’ while feminism is ‘female-oriented’.
It is undeniable that womanism is more dynamic than feminism. As Alice Walker famously stated, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.”