The term womanist first appeared in Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), in which the author attributed the word's origin to
the black folk expression of mothers to female children, 'You acting womanish,' i.e. like a woman … usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous, or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered 'good' for one … [A womanist is also] a woman who loves other women sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women's culture … and women's strength … committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist … Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender. (pp. xi–xii)
Although Walker states that a womanist is a black feminist or feminist of color, she insists that a black feminist as womanist talks back to feminism, brings new demands and different perspectives to feminism, and compels the expansion of feminist horizons in theory and practice.
The introduction of "womanism" in the feminist lexicon in the early 1980s marks a historic moment in feminist engagement in the United States. The late 1970s and the 1980s witnessed an internal insurgency in feminism led by women of color who participated in fighting vigorously against sexual politics of the previous decade only to be confronted by the feminist politics of exclusion a decade later. Excluded from and alienated by feminist theorizing and thinking, women of color insisted that feminism must account for different subjectivities and locations in its analysis of women, thus bringing into focus the issue of difference, particularly with regard to race and class.
If feminism were not able to fully account for the experiences of black women, it would be necessary, then, to find other terminologies that could carry the weight of those experiences. It is in this regard that Alice Walker's "womanism" intervenes to make an important contribution. As Walker noted in the New York Times Magazine in 1984, "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 cherish the spirit of the women (like Sojourner) the word calls to mind, and 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" (p. 94). In other words, feminism needed a new word that would capture its complexity and fullness. Despite Walker's claims to the contrary, she suggests in her definitions of womanism (e.g., "womanist is to feminism as purple is to lavender") that the womanist/black woman is stronger and superior to the feminist/white woman.
Walker's construction of womanism and the different meanings she invests in it is an attempt to situate the black woman in history and culture and at the same time rescue her from the negative and inaccurate stereotypes that mask her in American society. First, Walker inscribes the black woman as a knowing/thinking subject who is always in pursuit of knowledge, "wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered 'good' for one," thus, interrogating the epistemological exclusions she endures in intellectual life in general and feminist scholarship in particular. Second, she highlights the black woman's agency, strength, capability, and independence. Opposed to the gender separatism that bedevils feminism, womanism presents an alternative for black women by framing their survival in the context of the survival of their community where the fate of women and that of men are inextricably linked. As Patricia Hill Collins aptly notes, "many black women view feminism as a movement that at best, is exclusively for women, and, at worst, dedicated to attacking or eliminating men … Womanism seemingly supplies a way for black women to address gender-oppression without attacking black men" (p. 11).
In 1993 the word womanism with the meanings Alice Walker bestowed on it was added to The American Heritage Dictionary. The concept has had a profound influence in the formulation of theories and analytical frameworks in women/gender studies, religious studies, black studies, and literary studies. Because of the linking of black women and spirituality in Walker's project, many African-American female theologians have incorporated womanist perspectives in their work. Drawing on African-American history in general and the black church in particular, black womanist theologians interrogate the subordination of women and assume a leadership role in reconstructing knowledge about women. Prominent black womanist theologians and scholars of religion—such as Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Katie Geneva Cannon, Delores S. Williams, Emilie Maureen Townes, and Marcia Y. Riggs—bring womanist perspectives to bear on their black church, canon formation, social equality, black women's club movement of the nineteenth century, race, gender, class, and social justice. The impact of womanism goes beyond the United States to Africa where many women scholars and literary critics (Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, Tuzyline Jita Allan, and Mary Modupe Kolawole, in particular) have embraced it as an analytical tool.
Alice Walker's womanism has also generated debates and controversies. Prominent among those who challenge the terminology's appropriateness for framing and explaining the lives of women of African descent is Clenora Hudson-Weems, who proposes an alternative terminology—Africana womanism —that is different from Black feminism, African feminism, and Walker's womanism. Many of the debates and controversies about womanism focus on the differences and tension between womanism and black feminism. Patricia Hill Collins offers an excellent critique of both womanism and black feminism. Hill Collins notes that the debate about whether to label black women's standpoint womanist or black feminist is indicative of the diversity among black women. According to Hill Collins, "Walker's definition thus manages to invoke three important yet contradictory philosophies that frame black social and political thought, namely, black nationalism via her claims of black women's moral and epistemological superiority via suffering under racial and gender oppression, pluralism via cultural integrity provided by the metaphor of the garden, and integration/assimilation via her claims that black women are 'traditionally universalist'" (p. 11). While weaving the separatism and black moral superiority of the black nationalist philosophy, the pluralism of the black empowerment variant, and the interrogation of white feminism, womanism seeks to give a voice, a standpoint to black women but fails to adequately take into account the heterogeneity of women of African descent with their different histories and realities.
See also Feminism: Africa and African Diaspora ; Philosophies: African ; Women's History: Africa .
Allan, Tuzyline Jita. Womanist and Feminist Aesthetic Comparative Review. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995.
Cannon, Katie Geneva. Black Womanist Ethics. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.
Collins, Patricia Hill. "What's in a Name? Womanism, Black Feminism, and Beyond." The Black Scholar 26, no. 1 (1996): 9–17.
Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend. "If It Wasn't for Women": Black Women's Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001.
Hudson-Weems, Clenora. "African Womanism." In Sisterhood, Feminisms, and Power: From Africa to the Diaspora, edited by Obioma Nnaemeka. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1998.
——. African Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves. Detroit: Bedford Press, 1993.
Kolawole, Mary Ebun Modupe. Womanism and African Consciousness. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1997.
Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. "Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11, no. 1 (1985): 63–80.
Sanders, Cheryl J., ed. Living the Intersection: Womanism and Afrocentrism in Theology. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1995.
Townes, Emilie Maureen. Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1993.
Townes, Emilie Maureen, ed. Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope, Salvation, and Transformation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997.
Townes, Emilie Maureen, ed. A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993.
Walker, Alice. "The Black Woman's Story." New York Times Sunday Magazine, February 12, 1984, p. 94.
——. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.
Williams, Delores S. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993.
Williams, Sherley Ann. "Some Implications of Womanist Theory." In Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 68–75. New York: Meridian, 1990.
One of the most destructive manifestations of racism is the erasure of the cultures and experiences of people of color and the presumption that whiteness is dominant and normative. In the United States, the experiences of black people have been the particular targets of such erasures. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, white women activists, including some who participated in the civil rights movement, sparked a feminist movement that challenged patriarchy and generated new modes of thinking about gender and women’s experience. In the words of one black feminist critique, however, “all the women are white.” Consistent with American racial hierarchies, white women’s experiences provided the foundation for feminist thought; the problem of racism was presumed to be subsumed within the problem of patriarchy.
The term womanist was created in 1981 by novelist, poet, essayist, critic, and feminist Alice Walker. The term provided the foundations for a theory of black women’s history and experience that highlighted their significant roles in community and society. Heavily appropriated by black women scholars in religious studies, ethics, and theology, womanist became an important tool for approaching black women’s perspectives and experiences from a standpoint that was self-defined and that resisted the cultural erasure that was and still is such a destructive component of American racism.
Critical of the ways in which white feminists used their own experiences to interpret black women’s experiences, Walker first used the term in a review of Jean Humez’s book, Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress. Shakers built a religious movement that required its members to be celibate. On becoming a Shaker, Rebecca Cox Jackson left her husband and assumed a life of celibacy. Because Jackson traveled with a woman partner, similar to many black women missionaries and evangelists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Humez chose to call Jackson’s lifestyle “lesbian.”
Walker objected to Humez’s imposition of a term that was not grounded in Jackson’s definition of the situation. Walker questioned “a non-black scholar’s attempt to label something lesbian that the black woman in question has not” (p. 81). Within the essay, Walker laid the foundations of her definition by rejecting a term for women’s culture based on an island (Lesbos) and insisting that black women, regardless of how they were erotically bound, would choose a term “consistent with black cultural values” that “affirmed connectedness to the entire community and the world, rather than separation, regardless of who worked and slept with whom” (pp. 82–83).
Humez’s choice of labels was an example of the ways white feminists perpetuated an intellectual colonialism. This intellectual colonialism reflected the differences in power and privilege that characterized the relationships between black and white women. The term womanist was Walker’s attempt to provide a word, a concept, and a way of thinking that allowed black women to name and label their own experiences. For Walker, the invention of the term was an act of empowerment and resistance, thus addressing and challenging the dehumanizing erasure that is a perpetual problem in a racist society.
In 1983, Walker provided an elaborate, dictionary-style definition of the term in her collection of essays, In Search of Our Mothers’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (pp. xi– xii). This book of essays, which included her review of Gifts of Power, provided a more extensive view of her understandings of the experiences and history of black women as a distinctive dimension of human experience and a powerful cultural force. Her definition can be viewed as a philosophical overview of her work in novels, short stories, essays, and poetry.
First, Walker defines a “womanist” as a “black feminist or feminist of color.” Clearly Walker includes the liberationist project of feminism in her definition. However, that liberationist project, as her definition goes on to demonstrate, should be grounded in the history and culture of the black women’s experience.
Walker gives the term an etymology rooted in the African American folk term womanish, a term African American mothers often used to criticize their daughters’ behavior. “Womanish” meant that girls were acting too old and engaging in behavior that could be sexually risky and invite attention that was harmful. Walker, however, subverts “womanish” and uses it to highlight the adult responsibilities that black girls often assumed in order to help their families and liberate their communities. Jackson lost her mother at age thirteen and helped raise her brothers and sisters along with one of her brother’s children. As a civil rights worker in Mississippi Freedom Schools, Walker taught women whose childhoods ended early, limiting their educations. Walker also observed the participation of young people in civil rights demonstrations and was aware of the massive resistance of children in such places as Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Walker describes the term “womanish” as an opposite of “girlish,” subtly hinting that the pressures of accelerated development are facts of black female life not apprehended by white women’s experiences. “Womanist” implied a desire to be “Responsible. In charge. Serious” (p. xi).
A womanist, according to Walker, loves other women and prefers women’s culture, a very antipatriarchal orientation. However, womanists evince a commitment “to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.” A womanist is “not a separatist, except periodically, for health” and, as a “universalist,” she transcends sources of division, especially those dictated by color and class (p. xi). Walker subverts the antagonisms of class and color, often overemphasized by black nationalists, as differences among family members. A womanist also evinces a determination to act authoritatively on behalf of her community. Walker evokes very specific black women role models such as Mary Church Terrell, a clubwoman whose politics transcended color and class, and Harriet Tubman, famous for her exploits on the Underground Railroad and Civil War battlefields.
Finally, Walker offers a description of black women’s culture that is at odds with some major emphases in white culture. Walker’s key word is “love,” and she links it to spirituality, creative expression, and political activism. Her definition includes a love of “food and roundness” that stands in stark contrast to the body images and gender norms of the dominant culture, a culture that celebrates pathologically thin white women and socially produces eating disorders. Walker emphasizes self-love, “Loves herself, regardless,” a direct challenge to the selfhatred that is a consequence of racism (p. xi).
Although womanist has not displaced the terms feminist and feminism, the womanist idea resonated with many black women as a grounded and culturally specific tool to analyze black women’s experiences in community and society. Walker’s idea was particularly useful for black women in religious studies and theology, where the confrontation between black and white theologies, in the context of liberation theologies, was particularly vibrant and direct. In normative disciplines such as ethics, theology, and biblical studies, the idealism and values in Walker’s idea were especially helpful. Katie Geneva Cannon, author of Black Womanist Ethics (1988), Jacqueline Grant, author of White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response (1989), and Renita Weems, author of Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible (1988), utilized Walker’s perspective to explore the relationship of African American women’s experiences to the construction of ethics, to theological and christological ideas, and to the meaning and importance of biblical stories about women. Their work laid a foundation for an explosion of womanist analysis in religious studies and elsewhere.
Scholars using womanist analysis challenged not only black male theologians to expand their analysis of gender but also pushed white female theologians to expand their analysis of race. Walker’s idea also inspired other culturally specific forms of analysis such as “Mujerista theology” among Latina theologians. In a “roundtable” among feminist scholars in 1989, Cheryl Sanders questioned the usefulness of Walker’s idea, because she gave “scant attention to the sacred.” The points and counterpoints in that roundtable emphasized the wide-ranging invitation to analysis and criticism contained in Walker’s idea.
Although bell hooks in Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989) suggested that some women use the term “womanist” to avoid asserting they are “feminist,” the issue is more complex. For many black women who were self-identified as feminists, the emphases of late-twentieth-century white feminists did not match their own concerns and experiences. Feminist ethicist Barbara Andolsen offered an analysis of racism in the feminist movement. In Daughters of Jefferson, Daughters of Bootblacks: Racism in American Feminism (1986), she pointed to areas of disagreement between black women who identified specifically as black feminists and white feminists. She identified work, rape, beauty, and gender separatism as sources of conflict between black and white feminists. Walker’s definition of womanist and her larger body of writings directly engage all of these issues.
Although Walker did not indicate a desire to create a womanist movement, the term womanism was a natural extension of womanist. Walker’s writings and ideas, however, emphasized black women’s creativity, enterprise, and community commitment, and “womanist” links these specifically to feminism. Womanism is identified as both the activism consistent with the ideals embedded in Walker’s definition and the womanist scholarly traditions that have grown up in various disciplines, especially religious studies. “Womanism is,” as Stacey Floyd Thomas (2006) points out, “revolutionary. Womanism is a paradigm shift wherein Black women no longer look to others for their liberation” (p. 1).
Andolsen, Barbara Hilkert. 1986. “Daughters of Jefferson, Daughters of Bootblacks”: Racism and American Feminism. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
Cannon, Katie Geneva. 1988. Black Womanist Ethics. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.
Grant, Jacquelyn. 1989. White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.
hooks, bell. 1989. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press.
Mitchem, Stephanie. 2002. Introducing Womanist Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Sanders, Cheryl. 1989. “Roundtable Discussion: Christian Ethics and Theology in Womanist Perspective.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 5 (2): 83–112.
Walker, Alice. 1983. In Search of Our Mothers’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Weems, Renita J. 1988. Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible. San Diego, CA: LuraMedia.
Cheryl Townsend Gilkes
An ongoing concern for black feminists has always been that their specific experiences have been elided within a discourse that is biased towards a white, Anglo-American perspective. It is a view clearly enunciated by Audre Lorde’s essay “An Open Letter to Mary Daly” (1984) in which she castigates the radical feminist philosopher for her misrepresentation of black women in her book Gyn/Ecology (1978), which Lorde claimed, “dismissed my heritage and the heritage of all other noneuropean women” (69).
But in 1983, in which Lorde published her address to Daly, the writer Alice Walker published what was to prove an extremely influential essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” (1983) in which her central concern was to formulate a definition of black feminism from within African American culture itself. Whereas Lorde argued that Daly portrayed black women only as victims, ignoring their power as active agents capable of combating their own oppression, Walker focused on precisely those positive aspects, developing a feminist terminology drawn from everyday discourse used in the black community.
Although the term womanist is now synonymous with Walker’s essay and book by the same title, it was not new to the English language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term womanism first appeared in 1863, indicating “advocacy of or enthusiasm for the rights, achievements, etc. of women.” In the context of second wave feminism, however, “womanism” has become more specifically aligned with the black feminist movement. Walker’s use of the term “womanism” therefore etymologically relates directly not to its prior usage in the nineteenth century but to the colloquial term womanish, which Walker defines as “Opp. of ‘girlish,’ i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.” A “womanish” girl is wilful, inquisitive, and wise beyond her years, refusing to accept rules and limitations imposed by others.
However, although Walker draws the concept of womanism from, and defines it through, a black cultural context, she intends it to be inclusive rather than exclusive, offering four increasingly poetic understandings of the word that stress its connectedness to wider experiences of feminism. Although she begins with the black folk usage of “womanish,” her second description expands the term to designate any woman, of any color, whose primary identification is with other women, either sexually or nonsexually. Nevertheless, a womanist is not a separatist but someone who is a “universalist,” committed to “wholeness of entire people, male and female” (xi). She thus harmonizes two contradictory subject positions: a dedication to personal freedom along with an acknowledgment of the innate interconnectedness of peoples and genders. Walker’s third definition stresses this balance between separation and association, identifying a womanist as someone committed to sensual gratification but also political struggle; to herself and to the wider community within which she is situated.
It is for this reason that “womanism” has become a widely used term within feminist theory, for it allows black women to articulate their feminism without relinquishing an attachment to black culture and racial politics. The subtle distinction between feminism and womanism is best summed up by Walker’s final definition: “Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender” (xii), and is exemplified in a speech delivered over a hundred years earlier. When Sojourner Truth, speaking at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, proclaimed ‘ain’t I a woman?,’ she asserted her rights not only as a woman, but also as an African American, an ex-slave, and a political campaigner.
SEE ALSO Feminism; Feminism, Second Wave; Inequality, Racial; Truth, Sojourner
Lorde, Audre. 1984. An Open Letter to Mary Daly. Sister Outsider, ed. Audre Lorde. 66–71. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press.
Walker, Alice. 1983. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt.