Feminism Definition

Quote: Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender. Alice Walker
Jone Johnson Lewis, 2016

Definition: A black feminist or feminist of color, according to Alice Walker, who first publicly used the term; someone who is committed to the wholeness and well-being of all of humanity, male and female.  Womanism identifies and critically analyzes sexism, anti-black racism, and their intersection. Womanism recognizes the beauty and strength of embodied black womanhood, and seeks connections and solidarity with black men. Womanism identifies and criticizes sexism in the African American community and racism in the feminist community.

Origins: Alice Walker introduced the word “womanist” into feminist parlance in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. She cited the phrase “acting womanish,” which was said to a child who acted serious, courageous and grown-up rather than girlish. Many women of color in the 1970s had sought to expand the feminism of the Women’s Liberation Movement beyond its concern for the problems of white middle-class women. The adoption of "womanist" signified an inclusion of race and class issues in feminism.

Alice Walker also used "womanist" to refer to a woman who loves other women, whether platonically or sexually.

Walker used examples from history including Anna Julia Cooper and Sojourner Truth, and in current activism and though, including bell hooks and Audre Lorde, as examples of womanists.

The term “womanist” is thus both an alternative to and an expansion of the term “feminist.”

Womanist Theology

Womanist theology centers the experience and perspective of black women in research, analysis and reflection on theology and ethics.  The term arose in the 1980s as more African American women entered the theological field and questioned that white feminist and black male theologians spoke adequately to the particular experience of African American women.  Womanist theology, like womanism in general, also looks at the ways in which black women are portrayed in inadequate or biased ways in the works of white women and black men.

Quotes About Womanism

Alice Walker: "Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavendar."

Angela Davis: “What can we learn from women like Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday that we may not be able to learn from Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, and Mary Church Terrell? If we were beginning to appreciate the blasphemies of fictionalized blues women - especially their outrageous politics of sexuality - and the knowledge that might be gleaned from their lives about the possibilities of transforming gender relations within black communities, perhaps we also could benefit from a look at the artistic contributions of the original blues women.”

Audre Lorde: "But the true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness whether or not she ever sleeps with women."

Yvonne Aburrow: “The patriarchal/kyriarchal/hegemonic culture seeks to regulate and control the body – especially women’s bodies, and especially black women’s bodies – because women, especially black women, are constructed as the Other, the site of resistance to the kyriarchy. Because our existence provokes fear of the Other, fear of wildness, fear of sexuality, fear of letting go – our bodies and our hair (traditionally hair is a source of magical power) must be controlled, groomed, reduced, covered, suppressed.” 

Womanist Writings: A Selection

  • bell hooks.  Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. 1981.
  • Alice Walker.  In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose.  1983.
  • Paula J. Giddings. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. 1984.
  • Angela Y. Davis. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. 1998.
  • Barbara Smith.  Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. 1998.
  • Nyasha Junior. An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation. 2015.

Updated and significant new material added by Jone Johnson Lewis.