Womanism: A History and Background
by layli Phillips, From The Womanist Reader
Since 1983, when Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist prose introduced the womanist idea to the general public, feminist of all colors, as well as women of color and others who question or reject feminism, have been debating the uniqueness and viability of womanism as a freestanding concept. Because the definition of “womanist” offered by Walker was poetic in nature, it became, on the one hand, immediately attractive to and resonant for many people who were searching for an alternative to “feminist” as an identity or praxis and, on the other hand, theoretically slippery and frustrating to scholars and activists accustomed to working within a decidedly feminist frame. By the end of the 1990s, two things had happened . First, within women’s studies per se, these debates had reached a point of exhaustion, prematurely stifling any serious discussion of womanism as a significant discourse within academic feminism or critical theory.
Second, outside womens studies, as well as in marginalized corners of the field, the employment of womanism as a theoretical frame had proliferated, by then constituting a venerable and persistent underground movement indicating the ongoing productivity and relevance of the perspective outside the academic mainstream and even beyond the academy itself.
Today in 2006, we can look back on how the twentieth anniversary of the publication of In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens was unceremoniously bypassed and observe a major void, namely, the absence of any systematic treatment of the womanist idea and, notably, the absence of any definitive compendium of womanist scholarship documenting what has now been more than a quarter century of womanist scholarly and creative work.
I say “quarter century” because what few people note is that Alice Walker’s first use of the term womanist occurred in 1979 when her short story “Coming Apart” was published in Laura Lederer’s anthology Take Back the Night. In this story about a Black husband and wife arguing over the effect of the husband’s consumption of pornography on their marriage, there is a line where Walker writes, “The wife has never considered herself a feminist—though she is of course, a ‘womanist.’
A ‘womanist’ is a feminist, only more common.” This act of joining the terms “woman” and “common” at the border of “feminist/not feminist” situated a particular mode of women’s resistance activity squarely within the realm of the “everyday,” thereby defying both academic and ideological claims on the definition, labeling, and elaboration of women’s resistance activity under the exclusive and limited label “feminist.” In two simple yet pregnant sentences, Walker had opened up a new way of talking about the relationship between women, social change, the struggle against oppression, and the quest for full humanity. In two successively more widely circulated publications, namely, her 1981 book review essay, “Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson” and her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, she further elaborated the definition of “womanist” in ways both explicit and cryptic.
From 1983 on, womanism and Alice Walker were inextricably linked in both the popular and academic imaginations. Yet there is more to the story. The notion and terminology of womanism must be traced to at least two additional progenitors, namely, Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, who in 1985 published her article “Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English,” and Clenora Hudson-Weems, whose 1993 book Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves resulted from a series of papers presented in the 1980s, including her 1989 article “Cultural and Agenda Conflicts in Academia: Critical Issues for African Women’s Studies.” Each of these authors developed the womanist idea and related terminology independently.
Over time, Ogunyemi’s perspective came to be known as African womanism, while Hudson-Weem’s perspective identified itself as Africana womanism. Each distinct in its own right, Walker’s womanism, Ogunyemi’s African Womanism, and Hudson-Weems’s Africana womanism formed the collective basis for an interpolated field of theory and praxis used by a host of people to follow. Significantly, none of these authors created something new; rather, each named something that had been in existence for some time, functioning below the academic and activist radar and outside dominant histories of consciousness. What is significant is that the time had come to name, and ultimately elaborate, this thing.
A womanist is a feminist, only more common. This act of joining the terms woman and common at the border of feminist/not feminist situated a particular mode of womens resistance activity squarely within the realm of the everyday. Thereby defying both academic and ideological claims on the definition, labeling, and elaboration of women’s resistance activity under the exclusive and limited label feminist. Walker opened up a new way of talking about the relationship between women, social change, the struggle against oppression, and the quest for full humanity.
None of these authors created something new; rather, each named something that had been in existence for some time, functioning below the academic and activist radar and outside dominant histories of consciousness. What is significant is that the time had come to name, and ultimately elaborate, this thing.
Womanism is a social change perspective rooted in Black women’s and other women of color’s everyday experiences and everyday methods of problem solving in everyday spaces, extended to the problem of ending all forms of oppression for all people, restoring the balance between people and the environment/nature, and reconciling human life with the spiritual dimension. I take the perspective that womanism is not feminism. Its relationships to feminism (including Black feminism) are important, but its relationships to other critical theories and social justice movements are equally important, despite being less frequently discussed or acknowledged. Unlike, feminism, and despite its name, womanism does not emphasize or privilege gender or sexism; rather, it elevates all sites and forms of oppression, whether they are based on social-address categories like gender, race or class, to a level of equal concern and action.
Womanism’s link to gender is the fact that the historically produced race/class/gender matrix that is Black womanhood serves as the origin point for a speaking position that freely and autonomously addresses any topic or problem. Because Black women experience sexism, and womanism is concerned with sexism, feminism is confluent with the expression of womanism, but feminism and womanism cannot be conflated, nor can it be said that womanism is a “version” of feminism.
Since being named, womanism has spawned both passionate affiliation and vigorous debate. Beginning in the mid-1980s, scholars in theology, literature, and history began to employ womanist terminology and explore the implications of womanism in their disciplines. Within a decade, scholars in fields as diverse as film and theater studies, psychology, education, anthropology, communication studies, social work, and nursing, in addition to women’s studies and Africana studies, had enlarged this corpus. By the time womanism could claim a quarter century of existence, womanist scholarship could also be found in sexuality studies, public health, and architecture.
Womanism has been visible in popular culture since the mid-1980s, appearing in magazines, newspapers, and other media and permeating the worlds of popular music, especially hip-hop, as well as the arts. Neither has womanism been limited to Black American contexts. Explorations of the womanist idea can be found in African, Australian (Aboriginal), Canadian, Caribbean/West Indian, Chinese/Taiwanese, European, Latino/Latina American, Native American Indian, and Southeast Asian/Indian cultural contests, scholarly and otherwise. Internet searches of the World Wide Web readily locate thousands of womanist-related citations from around the world.
What is interesting is that, since the beginning, the womanist frame has been applied more frequently than it has been written about. That is, more people have employed womanism than have described it. What this reflects is the tendency of womanism to be approached and expressed intuitively rather than analytically. While some might view this as problematic, there are good reasons for it—reasons that only affirm the distinctiveness and incommensurability of womanism vis-à-vis other perspectives with which it might be confused or conflated. On the plus side, this state of affairs has preserved the open-ended, polyvalent, polyvocal, dialogic, noncentralized, and improvisational character of womanism, allowing it to resist canonization, academic appropriation, and ideological subsumption.
By maintaining its autonomy outside established intellectual and political structures, womanism has preserved its accessibility to a broad spectrum of people from diverse walks of life and retained its ability to flourish “beneath the radar.” On the minus side, however, this state of affairs has allowed the apparent absorption of womanism into various taxonomic schemes within which it is not intelligible and lessened the visibility of womanism in some contexts. The field of women’s studies, where womanism has experienced an interesting rise and fall, is a case in point.
The ascent of womanist scholarship and usage of womanist terminology in the popular sphere precipitated ongoing attempts to define womanism in relation to feminism as well as to debate the merits of womanism versus feminism. Several points have been at issue: Is womanism “its own thing” or simply an identity? Does womanism detract from feminism? Is womanism an alternative to feminism for women who reject feminism? Is womanism an alternative to feminism for women who reject feminism? Is womanism soft on sexism and an apology for patriarchy? Is womanism pro-lesbian or, alternately, soft on homophobia? Is womanism essentially academic or truly vernacular?
Interestingly, within the field of women’s studies, where these questions have been most vigorously debated and are of greatest concern, initial excitement about womanism yielded to obscurity once the determination was made that womanism was simply a synonym for Black feminism, and a relatively superfluous one at that. This view has been cemented by entries in “official” reference works—encyclopedias and dictionaries—that essentially stripped womanism of its defining features and represented it as a largely unremarkable phenomenon.
Womanism is an ethnically and culturally situated perspective (although not bounded) perspective that does not seek to negate difference through transcending it. Rather, as I explain in greater later, womanism seeks to harmonize and coordinate difference so that difference does not become irreconcilable and dissolve into violent destruction. Additionally, womanism does not “begin and end” with women, as the definition suggests. Invocation of Alice Walker’s work alone—relays that womanism is a great deal more than this.
Carol Marsh-Lockett teases out nuances of womanist theory and praxis that extend beyond Walker’s 1983 verbiage and begins to allude to the full promise of womanism as a universal perspective authored by Black women. Most notably, Marsh-Lockett links womanism to a “global vision” tied to “attention to the African presence in the Americas” and the “universality of the Black race.”
A womanist is triply concerned with herself, other Black women, and the entire Black race, female and male—but also all humanity, showing an ever expanding and ultimately universal arc of political concern, empathy, and activism. Womanists are concerned with not only gender and race, but also “local and international culture in addition to national and global politics and economics.