Womanism is a framework for understanding the matrix of race, class, and gender. This framework explains how groups and individuals experience power and oppression depending on their identity within this matrix, and on their status within the social hierarchy. Womanism uses this concept as a base for advocating social change. Womanism appeals to those interested in gender politics, but who prefer an addition or alternative to feminism. Some have argued that feminism discriminates by focusing on the issues of white women and by its concern with white perspectives. Womanism provides an option for social and political analysis that makes black women and other women of color central. Womanism, feminism, black feminism, and woman of color feminism are all approaches to sociopolitical transformation. They use similar tools of political analysis and share a commitment to confront sexism. Womanism, however, is not a subset of feminism.
The earliest reference to womanism is Alice Walker’s 1979 short story, “Coming Apart.” Two other authors independently used the term in their writings: Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, and Clenora Hudson-Weems, whose work is associated with Africana womanism. Africana womanism, like womanism more broadly, is a proposed new vernacular focusing on consensus, compromise, and cooperation, and that brings women of African descent to the center of the discourse. The concept of womanism was popularized by Alice Walker in her book, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), and is generally attributed to her. The term, womanism, derives from the West Indies and the U.S. southern black folk expression, “You acting womanish” (xi) (i.e., like a woman, or grown, as opposed to girlish or frivolous). According to Alice Walker, a womanist is a responsible, courageous, and audacious “black feminist or feminist of color” (1983, xi). She loves other women sexually or nonsexually, yet is “not a separatist, except periodically for health.” A womanist, in Walker’s view, loves music, dance, the moon, the spirit, food, and herself. A “womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” (xi–xii).
Womanism contains five key components. It is opposed to oppression. It is centered on everyday language, politics, experience, and people. It is not dogmatic or rigidly ideological. It seeks to optimize the welfare of all members of the community. It recognizes that spirituality is a significant and legitimate aspect of human life and political action.
Womanism is global in scope, yet simultaneously uses a grassroots approach to sociopolitical transformation that appreciates the life-enhancing features of ethnic and cultural diversity. Its purpose is antioppressionist social change. Its methods are based on the experiences and problem-solving approaches of black women and other women of color rather than privileging the highly formalized or centralized techniques of institutionalized politics.
Womanism understands that body, mind, and spirit are interconnected. Progressive change cannot be achieved unless problems in the political, environmental, and spiritual worlds are addressed. The process of womanism is dynamic and fluid. It rejects ideological rigidity and recognizes instead that contradiction is an inherent component of the human condition.
Womanist methods of social and political change may include nonviolent communication, mediation, self-help, and mutual aid. Womanism is interested in seeing individuals and communities flourish. It considers both physical and psychological well-being as necessary for achieving social justice.
Womanist issues include war, poverty, violence, education, health care, xenophobia, ageism, and other problems related to identity, power, and experience. There are concerns that womanism contains elements of unacknowledged homophobia, in part, resulting from theological issues and precepts of black Christian faith. Womanism is not, however, necessarily allied with black Christian churches, and a perspective that accepts lesbians and homosexuality is more consistent with the womanist principles of inclusivity.
Examples of groups incorporating womanist principles, methods, and viewpoints include The Underground Railroad, mutual aid societies, and reparations activism in the late 1800s, The Combahee River Collective, the Women of Color Resource Center, and the National Black Women’s Health Project (Phillips, 2006).
Some claim that womanism is exclusively by and for black women. Others believe that anyone is free to identify as womanist provided they are committed to eradicating sexism and racial injustice, working toward improving the universal community, and acknowledging that individual standpoints are at least in part derived from ethnicity and culture.
Because womanism considers everyday and spiritual knowledge to be valid sources of information, womanism is sometimes dismissed by academic and political traditions as naïve, misinformed, or eccentric. Womanists understand this dismissiveness as the result of sexism, racism, and classism. Contemporary womanist theory and politics is integrated into work by authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, Paule Marshall, and Toni Morrison, and continues to undergo development and change through the grassroots work exemplified by popular online blogs such as Renee Martin’s Womanist Musings, Monica Robert’s TransGriot, and Tamara Winfrey Harris’ What Tami Said.
- Harris,Tamara Winfrey.What Tami Said, 2010, http://whattamisaid.blogspot.com.
- Hudson-Weems, Clenora. Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves. Troy, Mich: Bedford, 1993.
- Martin, Renee.Womanist Musings, 2010, www.womanist-musings.com.
- Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. “Womanism:The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11 (1985): 63–80.
- Phillips, Layli, ed. The Womanist Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006.
- Robert, Monica.TransGriot, 2010, http://transgriot.blogspot.com. Walker, Alice. “Coming Apart.” In Take Back the Night, edited by Laura Lederer, 95–104. New York: Bantam, 1979.
- In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.
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