What is Womanism?
The term womanism was coined by Alice Walker in her book In Search of Her Mother’s Gardens in 1983. It evolved from the southern black folk’s phrase ‘acting womanish’, used to describe girls who spoke up, questioned back, acted bold and courageous, breaking not only gender barriers but also racial barriers. From ‘womanish’, thus, was born the theory of womanism of black women, constructed in opposition to white women’s mainstream feminism and focused primarily on the experiences of black women in solidarity with black men.
But why was such a new framework needed against the existing framework of feminism, which was gaining widespread momentum?
Euro-centric, exclusionary feminism
Major problems with the initial waves of feminism were their white or euro-centricity, exclusion of women of color and reduction of all female experiences to a ‘universal sisterhood’ or a ‘universal female experience’. The subject of feminism was a ‘woman’ who only represented the middle and upper class white or upper-caste, and all other female experiences of oppression and repression were rendered homogenous to them. Consider a powerful speech by Soujourner Truth that perfectly elucidates the exclusion and invisibility of black women from the subject of white feminism:
‘That man over there says women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arms! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and noone could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man when I could get it-and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have born thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?’
Truth’s experience is markedly different from a white woman’s experience. In fact, from a white feminist point of view, her femininity and womanhood are altogether disregarded and denied. Consequently, feminist movements for equality of political and economic rights like the suffragette have initially always excluded women of color and have been slow in their integration into the movement. Even today, as revealed by an APA research study (2020), womanhood is typically associated with whiteness, while blackness is typically associated with masculinity. Many black women can recount instances of being misgendered as a man purely due to their race.
Similar experiences of black women and DBA women
Black women’s experiences are in fact parallel to the experiences of Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi (DBA) women in India. Much like the treatment meted out to DBA women in India, the dirt, impurity, ugliness, docility and inferiority associated with being black or lower-caste also specifically translates to promiscuity and hyper-sexualization of black women. Take the Jezebel stereotype – the image of a black woman constructed as lascivious, seductive, lewd and antiethical in stark contrast to a White woman with sexual purity and self-respect. Along the same lines, both black and DBA women are open to the public gaze and treated as sexually available to men from their own communities and of white or upper-caste communities as well, resulting in no access to dignity or respectability like white or upper-caste women. Yet, these experiences do not configure in the ‘woman’ subject of mainstream white or upper-caste feminism. In fact, black and DBA women’s identities are subsumed under black and DBA men’s identities, marginalising, and ‘othering’ them from both anti-racist/anti-caste and feminist movements. This also puts them in a doubly vulnerable position: while their sexuality makes them more prone to sexual violence by men, their caste or blackness mandates indignity and denies the direly required protection.
The horrendous cases of Dalit-rapes and sexual violence are testimony to this institutionalised exploitation. 10 Dalit women were raped every day in 2019, and their perpetrators belonged to all castes. These are not just instances of gendered violence – rape is actively used as a punitive tool to suppress DBA women (and thereby the communities) and establish and maintain caste superiority. Yet, the police are slow and doubtful in registering complaints, often siding with dominant castes which have a lot of influence. On the other hand, as an Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports, more than 20% of black women have been raped in their entire lives, a figure higher than the overall American average. Compared to white women, they are also more prone to psychological abuse and to be murdered by men. Yet, instead of receiving the equitable police protection they need, black women are often subject to even more brutal police violence on a daily basis.
These double or even triple vulnerabilities of DBA and black women uncover the need for a more intersectional framework than feminism, like womanism. We need a theory based on intersectionality that does not view feminist issues from merely a gendered lens, but an intersection of race, gender, culture and sexuality. blackness or caste does not remain merely an aspect of one’s identity and feminism but construes a different identity of being a black or DBA woman, which gives rise to entirely different problems than those of white or upper-caste women. Thus, the conception of womanism is a more black-centric or DBA-centric, universal and a superset of feminism: ‘Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender’ as Walker said.
While Walker’s definition is relatively flexible, a different, more radical framework by Clenora Hudson-Weems dissociates from feminism entirely. Africana womanism (including all women from the African diaspora) is distinct from both Walker’s womanism and feminism, discarding western ideals and paradigms entirely. Specifically, while feminism remains ‘female-centred’, Africana womanism is family-centred or community centred. Africana womanism’s anti-racist view requires collective action to attain political and economic equality for the community’s upliftment, which clashes directly with mainstream white feminism’s heavy focus on deconstructing the personal self. While no outlook is wrong, each has different priorities, emphasising different groups’ upliftment.
What makes Africana womanism distinct from white feminism or even black feminism especially is its aim to move Africana women from the margin to the centre. As Patricia Hills Collins explains in her paper WHAT’S IN A NAME?, the problem with feminism or black feminism remains the struggle to continuously express or fit black concerns into western frameworks. In fact, ‘black’ feminism reinforces the idea that feminism is by default for the whites, automatically keeping the black community marginalised. In this sense, black women are othered and feminism has to constantly integrate the marginalised, which can never allow it to be truly universal. Moreover, Weems insists that Africana people have been historically denied the right to not only name, but also define themselves. Thus, an authentic framework and terminology of African origin is an avenue to reclaim that right too.
Neither Walker’s womanism nor Africana womanism is in popular usage today. However, they have served as an important referential framework for today’s growing intersectional feminism, broadening its scope and making it more inclusionary with special emphasis on marginalised women. In fact, many prominent Dalit feminists centre their frameworks around womanism. For example, in Dalit Feminist Thought, Shailja Paik analyses Dalit feminism as a ‘womanist-humanist’ complex that does not primarily focus on fighting male domination and patriarchy. Rather, it focuses on the worlds and experiences of the oppressed Dalit women, moving beyond the homogenous ‘Indian woman’ and emphasising universal human solidarity instead of universal sisterhood. Others still wholly denounce feminism in favour of womanism, citing the disappointing exclusivity and inefficiency of feminism. In any case, the constant reassertion of separate movements like black feminism and Dalit feminism point towards the inadequacy of mainstream feminism, which has a lot to learn from theories like womanism before becoming truly intersectional.
Riyosha is a second-year student pursuing Political Science and Mathematics at Ashoka University.