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The Union of Womanism and Feminism: Are There Any Objections?

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                                                                                    Stephanie Smith

                                                                                    Feminist Studies

                                                                                    Anne Dalke

                                                                                    October 3, 2008


            The Union of Womanism and Feminism: Are There Any Objections?


What is feminism and to whom? What does it mean to be a post-modern feminist? Why is there such a negative connotation of the word “feminist?”


Such questions arise whenever I think of feminism.  I have yet to proclaim myself a feminist, but interestingly enough I have been called a “feminist” by several others.  It’s slightly irritating because I know that their usage of the word “feminist” bears a negative connotation.  For instance, one day a friend was in my room and noticed a can of shaving cream on top of my stand.  She turned to me and said something like, “Steph, you shave? I thought feminists didn’t shave.”  Instances such as this one confirms the lingering of old-fashioned and off-put stereotypes of what a feminist is and how a feminist acts, in spite of the underlying complexities of what it means to be a post-modern feminist.  Furthermore, the standard assumption made on the behalf of my friend of what a feminist is does no justice to the interweaving of cultural, racial, social, sexual and individual variants of post-modern feminism.  While I believe that the hybrid of post-modern feminism should be celebrated, I wonder if the diversity of post-modern feminism can become a united front.  Specifically, should womanism and post-modern feminism become one, or are they equally powerful forces in their own right?


Womanism is to the working-class Black woman what traditional feminism is to the upper middle-class White woman.  “Womanist” is a word that was coined by Alice Walker, an African-American author and poet, in the 1960’s.  Interestingly, a “womanist” is a woman of color, who dares to know more, more than what is considered “good” (Walker xi).  Such a definition is powerfully loaded, like a gun, because it says so much with saying so little.  Ironically, it is applicable not only to women of color but to women of all races and ethnicities because stereotypically women are not supposed to dare “to know more.”  Historically, and unfortunately, presently, some women are still discouraged from “bold” undertakings, such as working outside the home, wearing pants, traveling, and marrying someone of their choice. 

            Alice Walker’s definition of what a womanist is has exponentially powerful implications for Black women and other women of color when one takes into consideration the hybrid of racial and gendered “glass ceilings” that still cap the aspirations of many Black women and women of color.  I believe Alice Walker had this rippling effect in mind with this simple yet brilliant piece of her definition of a womanist.  Interestingly enough, the word “womanist” was born at a time when Black women were simultaneously confined and isolated within the two most powerful movements in American history, the Women’s Movement and the Civil Rights Movement.  The socioeconomic class and social privilege of the White women who had established the Women’s Movement and were marching on its front were at odds with the racially and socially marginalized Black women, who not only had to combat sexism, but also racism.  Furthermore, the social forecast was dismal for Black women in the 1960’s because there was sexism within the Civil Rights Movement.  As a result, most Black feminists and White feminists were living in different worlds, which the Women’s Movement in the 1960’s made a faint effort to unite.

            Womanism was born as a celebratory ode to the striking social and racial disharmony between White feminists and Black feminists in the 1960’s.  Although I am unsure of the popularity of womanism, since I have never heard of it referred to before, I can only imagine that such a word tailored to the unique fabric of Black women’s lives was welcomed with much sound consensus on behalf of the Black Feminist Movement. 

            For the most part, given that the racial and social climate of the United States has radically changed from that of the 1960’s for the better, can womanism and feminism ever unite?  Should they unite?  Personally, now that I have discovered womanism, so to speak, I do not want it to disappear (again).  A part of me likes the cultural and social diversion of post-modern feminism succeeding the first two waves of feminism because I love interpretation and transformation of ideas and claiming something as my own. 

Also, I think the wide spectrum of feminism positively transforms the movement itself. 

            Yet, going back to my discovery of womanism, I wonder why I have never heard of it referred to before.  Moreover, I wonder why feminism is still such a ‘dirty’ word.  Why, in a progressive society, are women who identify as feminists equated with man-hating?  Of course there are scores of self-identified women who are proud to be who they are in all aspects of their identity.  Of course such women might not favor the word “feminist” and should not have to, because in my opinion, that would be the opposite of claiming one’s own.  In no way am I saying that women who do not identify as feminists are not proud of being a women, which means something different to every woman.  However, it is interesting, to say the least, when someone tries to demystify, or rather simplify, my femininity.

             Although I am a dichotomous girl in a very dichotomous world, there is mystery lurking beneath the surface of my identity and personality and I intend to claim it.  I do not believe that my identity as a female, a woman, and a heterosexual suggests that my life will be a complacent love affair with sexism. Therefore, it irks and bewilders me when a person interprets my want for respect and space from men, my expressed concern at the hint of unequal treatment of the sexes, and my not wanting to marry, as man-hating.  Reflection on the question of marriage especially baffles me.  What does marriage have to do with womanism and feminism?

            Since I am a girl, I assume, I have been randomly asked enough times whether or not I want to get married.  Almost always, when I fumble for an acceptable way to say “not really,” I am further questioned as to why I do not want to get married, whether I like men or not, and have even been told that I was “selfish,” a personal favorite.  Should feminism and womanism become one, in the matrimonial sense, or have they cited “irreconcilable differences?”  As I expressed, I favor the branching of post-modern feminism, including womanism.  It’s difficult to answer such a question because I am unsure as to whether or not the majority of post-modern feminists strongly desire a united front, since the post-modern feminist movement is not as radically political as those of the first and second waves of feminism.  Perhaps, feminists who diverge from conventional feminism and claim a more personal feminism, such as womanism, are content.

            If womanism were to marry feminism, there would have to be some ground observations laid down, because there are no rules to feminism, to each his or her own.  For instance, it should be observed from this union that both parties are content with themselves and each other.  The union of womanism and feminism should embrace multicultural feminism.  Multicultural feminism means treating each other’s cultural and ethnic differences with respect.  It means learning about each other’s differences and what each cultural difference contributes to the movement as a whole.  It means understanding how one’s culture, racial ethnicity, and society model his or her feminism.  While it should not mean negotiating one’s identity, it should mean, no matter how hard, trying to find a common ground and learning how one’s feminism might affect someone else’s feminism.  For instance, my feminism is a celebration of who I am as a woman, a person, and an individual.  However, someone else’s feminism might entail changing his or her gender expression from that “socially assigned,” while mine embraces that gender expression.  Therefore, the establishing of a common ground is crucial to our co-existence under the broad umbrella of feminism.

            One might argue that the union of womanism and feminism would negate the cultural and social identity, diversity and inclusiveness of womanism.  For instance, Angela P. Harris, a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles-Berkeley who has researched feminist legal and critical race theories, insists “…in the pursuit of essential feminism, Woman leached of all color and irrelevant social circumstance, issues of race are bracketed as belonging to a separate and distinct discourse—a process that leaves black women’s selves fragmented beyond recognition.” (Wing 36)  From this perspective, feminist essentialism, which aims to fabricate one, essential definition of a feminist, would more than likely overshadow multicultural facets of feminism, such as womanism.

            My opinion on the union of feminism and womanism can be likened to my opinion on marriage.  While such a union might propose compatibility and partnership, feminism and womanism, in spite of their negative connotations, are equally powerful forces on their own.  Thus, if we so choose to proceed in marrying womanism and feminism, we must ensure that their relationship to one another is complementary, not supplementary.  If a divorce must ensue after a trial separation, I will not see it as a failure, but as an occasion for celebration of “irreconcilable differences.”


Anne Dalke's picture

To a dichotomous girl in a dichotomous world

Dear dichotomous girl, stephanie2,

I'm delighted, of course, that you've found a (new-to-you) term and cluster of valuable concepts which it represents. You write with a light and engaging hand, and the image of a "marriage" takes you far in this essay. But/and--

I'm puzzled about why you frame this initial exploration of womanism in terms of the possibility of a marriage with post-modern feminism, and in terms of finding "common ground" with those who have defined feminism in this country. I wonder if that' s necessary (or why you think it might be), especially given the astute observation you quote from Angela Harris about the dangers of "feminist essentialism."

Instead of looking for a good marriage (while allowing for the possibility of "irreconcilable differences") you might spend more time looking @ womanism itself, especially the work of womanist theologians who speak with such prophetic voices about a movement that works again oppression based on race, sex, and class, and insists on the importance of what happens when we acknowledge how much, and in what ways, those categories overlap.

Reading your essay, I was reminded of the argument that Margaret Fuller develops in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which describes a necessary period of celibacy, of self-cultivation, for "all thinking women," as preparation for a sibling-like (equal, meaningful) union w/ a man: "Union," Fuller says, "is only possible to those who are units. To be fit for relations in time, souls...must be able to do without them in the spirit....Woman, self-centred, would never be absorbed by any relation; it would be only an experience to her as to man."