Womanist: Definition and Examples

Alice Walker's Term for Black Feminism

Quote: Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender. Alice Walker

Jone Johnson Lewis, 2016 ThoughtCo

A womanist is a Black feminist or feminist of color. Black American activist and author Alice Walker has used the term to describe Black women who are deeply committed to the wholeness and well-being of all of humanity, male and female. According to Walker, “womanist” unites women of color with the feminist movement at “the intersection of race, class, and gender oppression.” 

Key Takeaways: Womanist

  • A womanist is a Black feminist or feminist of color who opposes sexism in the Black community and racism throughout the feminist community.
  • According to Black American activist and author Alice Walker, the womanist movement unites women of color with the feminist movement.
  • Womanists work to ensure the well-being of all of humanity, male and female.
  • While feminism focuses strictly on gender discrimination, womanism opposes discrimination against women in the areas of race, class, and gender.

Womanism Definition

Womanism is a form of feminism focused especially on the experiences, conditions, and concerns of women of color, especially Black women. Womanism recognizes the inherent beauty and strength of Black womanhood and seeks connections and solidarity with Black men. Womanism identifies and criticizes sexism in the Black American community and racism in the feminist community. It further holds that Black women’s sense of self depends equally on both their femininity and culture. Black American civil rights advocate and scholar of critical race theory Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in 1989 to explain the interrelated effects of sexual and racial discrimination on Black women.

According to Crenshaw, the second-wave feminist movement of the late 1960s was largely dominated by middle- and upper-class White women. As a result, it largely ignored the socioeconomic discrimination and racism still being suffered especially by Black women despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Many women of color in the 1970s 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 during "The Color Purple" Broadway opening night curtain call on December 10, 2015 in New York City.
Alice Walker during "The Color Purple" Broadway opening night curtain call on December 10, 2015 in New York City. Jenny Anderson/Getty Images

American author and poet Alice Walker first used the word “womanist” in her 1979 short story, “Coming Apart,” and again in her 1983 book “In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose.” In her writings, Walker defines a “womanist” as a "black feminist or feminist of color." Walker cites the phrase “acting womanish,” which Black mothers said to a child who willfully acted serious, courageous, and grown-up rather than “girlish,” as generally expected by society.

Walker used examples from history including educator and activist Anna Julia Cooper and abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth. She also used examples from current activism and thought, including Black writers bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins) and Audre Lorde, as models of womanism.

Womanist Theology 

Womanist theology centers the experience and perspective of Black women in research, analysis, and reflection on theology and ethics.

Womanist theologians analyze the impacts of class, gender, and race in a context of Black life and religious worldviews to formulate strategies for the elimination of oppression in the lives of Black Americans and the rest of humanity. Similar to womanism in general, womanist theology also examines how Black women are marginalized and portrayed in inadequate or biased ways in literature and other forms of expression.  

The area of womanist theology arose in the 1980s as more Black American women joined the clergy and began to question whether Black male theologians adequately and fairly addressed the unique life experiences of Black women in American society.

In creating a four-part definition of womanism and womanist theology, Alice Walker cites the need for “radical subjectivity, traditional communalism, redemptive self-love, and critical engagement.”

Womanist vs. Feminist

While womanism incorporates elements of feminism, the two ideologies differ. While both celebrate and promote womanhood, womanism focuses exclusively on Black women and their struggle to achieve equality and inclusion in society

Black American author and educator Clenora Hudson-Weems argues that womanism is “family-oriented” and focuses on discrimination against women in the contexts of race, class, and gender, while feminism is “female-oriented,” and concentrates on gender alone. In essence, womanism stresses the equal importance of both femininity and culture in the lives of women.

Alice Walker’s often-quoted phrase, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,” suggests that feminism is little more than a single component of the wider ideology of womanism.

Womanist Writings 

Since the early 1980s, several prominent Black woman authors have written on the social theories, activism, and moral and theological philosophies known as womanism.

bell hooks: Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, 1981

In examining feminist movements from suffrage to the 1970s, hooks argues that the blending of racism with sexism during slavery left Black women suffering the lowest social status of any group in American society. Today, the book is commonly used in courses on gender, Black culture, and philosophy.

“Racism has always been a divisive force separating Black men and White men, and sexism has been a force that unites the two groups.”—bell hooks

Alice Walker: In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, 1983

In this work, Walker defines “womanist” as “A black feminist or feminist of color.” She also recounts her experiences during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and offers a vivid recollection of her scarring childhood injury and the healing words of her young daughter.

“Why are women so easily ‘tramps’ and ‘traitors’ when men are heroes for engaging in the same activity? Why do women stand for this?”—Alice Walker

Paula J. Giddings: When and Where I Enter, 1984

From activist Ida B. Wells to the Black woman member of Congress, Shirley Chisholm, Giddings tells the inspiring stories of Black women who overcame the dual discrimination of race and gender.

“Sojourner Truth, who squelched the heckler with an oft-quoted speech. In the first place, she said, Jesus came from ‘God and a woman—man had nothing to do with it.’”—Paula J. Giddings

Angela Y. Davis. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 1998

Black American activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis analyses the lyrics of legendary Black women blues singers Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday from a womanist perspective. In the book, Davis describes the singers as powerful examples of the Black experience in mainstream American culture.

“We know the road to freedom has always been stalked by death.”—Angela Y. Davis

Barbara Smith. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, 1998

In her groundbreaking anthology, lesbian feminist Barbara Smith presents selected writings by Black feminists and lesbian activists on a variety of provocative and profound topics. Today, Smith’s work remains an essential text on the lives of Black women in White society. 

“A black feminist perspective has no use for ranking oppressions, but instead demonstrates the simultaneity of oppressions as they affect Third World women’s lives.”—Barbara Smith