Feminist vs. Womanist Discussion (Mar/April 1997)


Query From Melanie Bendfeldt krlr@maristb.marist.edu 25 Mar 1997

Hello All:
I am currently filling out a scholarship application for grad school money. I have a question. One of the essays to answer is: Would you describe yourself as a feminist or womanist? Write an essay illustrating why or why not-500 words. I consider myself a feminist, but how do you define womanist? I am not familiar with this term. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

************[Editor's note: It might be useful to explore the historical circumstances that have caused the term "womanist" to arise.]******************************

>From Deborah Grayson drgn@uhura.cc.rochester.edu 25 Mar 1997

Many people credit Alice Walker with coining the term womanist though I believe it has been around much longer than she's been writing. In the introductory pages of _In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens_ Walker defines a womanist as a black feminist (for some reason people still seem to read this as an oxymoron). She suggests using the term as a way for black women to identify themselves as feminists and not connect themselves to the racism of some feminist movements. There is more to this definition and the discussion around it. See the work of Hazel Carby in _Reconstructing Womanhood_; Shirley Anne Williams in _Reading Black, Reading Feminist_; or _The Womanist_, a journal and web page based at UGA.

>From Cath Denial cdenial@blue.weeg.uiowa.edu 25 March 1997

A definition of feminist that sticks in my mind (as it's in a book I'm teaching from this semester) is in Alice Walker's _In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose_(San Diego: Harvest Books, H,B & Co, 1984), xi-xii. The definition is long, made up of four sections, so I won't reproduce the whole thing. The last line/definition/section, however, reads "Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender," a phrase that my students have great fun unraveling and exploring. I'd love to read any information that people have on the long-term history of 'womanist'--it's a fascinating topic.

>From Tim Hodgdon Tim.Hodgdon@asu.edu 25 March 1997

The essay that I find most useful for understanding the term "womanist" is, of course, Elsa Barkley Brown, "Womanist Consciousness: Maggie Lena Walker and the Independent Order of Saint Luke," _Signs_14(1989):610-633. It's also included in the second edition of Vicki L. Ruiz & Ellen Carol DuBois, eds., _Unequal Sisters_.

>From Connie Reeves lewisreeve@aol.com 25 March 1997

<<...how do you define womanist? I am not familiar with this term.>>

Nor am I. I've never heard of it before.

Regardless, it doesn't sound like an appropriate question for a grad school application. It almost seems as if answering it one way would be what they want to hear and the other is not and they're trying to catch you out. This may seem like a ridiculous analogy but it seems similar to a teenage boy wanting to wear an earring but everyone gives him different opinions as to which ear is pierced for a straight male and which for a gay. What if he gets it wrong? The end result would be the same.

I'm always puzzled by people who claim not to be feminists. I don't know how someone could not be a feminist--to believe in the political, social and economic equality of women and men.

Whatever the definition of womanist (and I suspect it's something that makes feminist seem derogatory), it seems entirely inappropriate to ask an applicant to describe themselves in this way. It's akin to asking are you a Democrat or Republican and why? Are you pro-military or pacifist and why?

I don't think it's any of their business. And I find out why they think it's important to know. It might not be a graduate school that you want to spend a number of years in. If they come back with something about it just being a writing sample, then ask them to choose another one.

>From Heather Munro Prescott prescott@ccsua.ctstateu.edu 25 March 1997

I agree with Connie. It sounds like they're submitting you to an ideological litmus test. What kind of program are you applying to?

I have heard the term "womanist" used in opposition to feminist, usually be folks who condemn feminism and other so-called "politically correct" ideas and/or don't want to be labeled a " feminazi". Sometimes "humanist" is used. In any case, I don't think it's an appropriate question to ask an applicant.

>From Deborah Elizabeth Whaley dwhaley@eagle.cc.ukans.edu 26 March 1997

The term womanist was coined by Alice Walker in 1983. See her book: _In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens_(NY, Harcourt, 1983). In her book she says that a womanist is "a woman who loves other women, sexually or non-sexually. Appreciates and prefers women's culture, women's emotional flexibility...and women's strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually or non-sexually. Committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally universalist, as in : 'Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?' " (xi).

Others interpret womanism as simply black feminism, having nothing to do with sexual preference/orientation or preferring women's culture(s). It has been reconstrued for some as an Afrocentric feminism of sorts. See also Marcia Riggs' _Awake, Arise, and Act: A Womanist Call for Black Liberation_(Cleveland, Pilgrim Press, 1994); Emilie M. Townes' _Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope_( Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993); Sherley Anne Williams' "Some Implications of the Womanist Theory" in Henry Louis Gates, Ed. _Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology_(New York, Penguin, 1990).

>From Tim Hodgdon Tim.Hodgdon@asu.edu 26 March 1997

Some members of the list have speculated that the question about feminist/womanist may serve as some kind of ideological litmus test. It may be that, but I wanted to suggest that it's also possible that the reason it was asked is to evaluate how an applicant responds to controversial issues, with no intent to weed out a particular response.

>From Cath Denial cdenial@blue.weeg.uiowa.edu 26 March 1997

>I agree with Connie. It sounds like they're submitting you to an ideological litmus >test. What kind of program are you applying to?

I agree with the suggestion that the applicant (I'm so sorry that I can't refer to you by name, but I deleted the original message!) finds more about *why* they want to read your thoughts on this issue. If it's to weed out applicants of a particular ideological slant, I too, am wary. This may not be the case, however.

Discussing your ideas about being "womanist" or "feminist" could simply be a historiographical exercise for this institution/dept/college/fund. Perhaps the phrasing of the question is awkward, but is a discussion of the merits and history of each term such an unusual idea? Surely we discuss and debate our positioning within our chosen fields of inquiry almost every day.

>I have heard the term "womanist" used in opposition to feminist, usually by folks >who condemn feminism and other so-called "politically correct" ideas and/or don't >want to be labeled a "feminazi."

I have heard it used this way too. I've also heard it used as an *expansive* term, however, one that builds upon the ideas of feminism and broadens them. >From what I remember of a long past historiography class womanist was coined by women of color to encompass the concerns and ideas that they felt were not being addressed or recognized by the 'mainstream' women's movement. As such, I think it's a phrase that can raise many fruitful lines of inquiry and exploration for us and our students. Above all, it's a phrase that's embraced by a large number of women for a number of reasons, be it horror of the word feminism, or a desire to carve out new spaces for themselves within contemporary discourse. For that alone, it deserves our attention.

>From Tiffany Kay Wayne tkwayne@cats.ucsc.edu 26 Mar 1997

Although Melanie can respond as she likes, those of you concerned about the application should note that it was for a scholarship essay, not grad school admittance. I think stranger questions have been asked--although I would like to know the context for it as well. I would think there is not a right or wrong answer, but that the funding group is looking for some kind of political connection to back scholarly interests. This is not so unusual for feminist studies. Also, as feminists and scholars, I second the various sources cited for understanding the term "womanist" and recommend them for those on this list. I guess I was just surprised that women's studies and women's history scholars are not familiar with this term. You may find students encountering and asking about it, too--I know I have.

>From Nelia Beth Scovill scovill@scf-fs.usc.edu 26 Mar 1997

This is in regards to Connie Reeves and Heather Munro Prescott's viewing the question on the grad school application...In contrast to Connie and Heather I read the question as attempting to be inclusive of the different races of people who were applying, rather than trying to be divisive or force the applicant into one corner or another.

As a white woman, I tend to think of the term "feminist" as inclusive of all women--but as African-American women have pointed out over and over when push comes to shove in the history of the women's movement, feminist really means advocacy of the equality of white women (and usually middle-class, at that). As a result, I read the question as being inclusive of African-American applicants who would understand their commitment to be different/distinctive from a feminist commitment.

Neither do I see the question as a litmus test, but as an interesting way for a committee to understand better the person who was applying. Given that so few women today want to identify themselves as feminist, how one answers this question could be quite revealing of where one is in their study of women and religion.

I teach Composition at U of Southern California, and the question as it is asked is really quite open-ended. It forces the writer to define for her/himself what it means to be a feminist and then to say how one meets that or doesn't meet that definition. One learns about people and their background and ability to do critical thinking when one asks for a "simple" definition (500 words or less) of a highly complex field. To me, at least, the questions sounds like there are many right answers, and perhaps a few "wrong" ones. A wrong one might be one that so mischaracterizes what it means to be a feminist that the essay shows a basic lack of knowledge of the field.

To be sure, if the program the application is for had a very narrow understanding of what it meant to be a feminist, this could be used as a litmus test; but it doesn't necessarily have to be. Before I could say whether it was a litmus test, I would have to know who (what school) was asking the question.

>From Sydney Langdon aalan@asuvm.inre.asu.edu 26 Mar 1997

My understanding of ' womanist ' is that it is used almost exclusively to refer to black feminists.

The term was popularized (perhaps coined, don't know 'bout that) by Alice Walker. She defines Womanist as, the opposite of girlish, that is frivolous, irresponsible and not serious. Womanist is a black feminist or feminist of color. Comes from the black folk expression of mothers to female children, "You acting womanish", meaning or referring to outrageous, or courageous or willful behavior. Also indicates the child wanting to be or trying to act grown-up. Walker notes that the expression is interchangeable with another black folk expression, "You trying to be grown", therefore indicating a sense of seriousness and responsibility.

Walker's second meaning is that a womanist is a female who loves other women, sexually or non-sexually. A womanist prefers female culture and "female emotional flexibility". She may or may not have a sexual relationship with a man.

Walker's third definition is my favorite: Loves music, dane the moon. Love the Spirit, love, food and roundness. Loves struggle, Loves the Folk, Loves herself.

#4 "Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender"

I have never heard it being used except by women of color but it certainly could be and I may have just missed it. I do find it fascinating that the question was even asked. I wonder what they were looking for that they think they will find in the answer. Good luck with your "essay".

>From Kali Nicole Gross kgross@sas.upenn.edu 26 Mar 1997

I will admit that I have stumbled onto the discussion about feminism and womanism a little late, but what I have read, and observed on this list on other occasions, has only confirmed the need for the term womanism.

Alice Walker coined the term "womanism" as a way to define and differentiate the struggle for gender equality as undertaken by women of color. In her article, "Womanist Consciousness" in Joan Wallach Scott's anthology _Feminism and History_(1996), African-American historian Elsa Barkley Brown explains that feminism, by its design excludes the experiences and histories of African-American women. Feminism, as she argues, places priority on woman, while womanism, defined as a consciousness, incorporates "racial, cultural, sexual, national, economic, and political considerations."

According to Ckiwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, " ' black womanism' is a philosophy that concerns itself both with sexual equality in the black community and ' with the world power structure that subjugates.' "

Up until now, I was somewhat divided on the use of the term "womanism." As an African-American woman, who was an avowed feminist, I understood other women of color's rights to claim such a term, but was concerned that it was a nationalist effort to usurp the power of a strong woman of color movement. However, after a number of instances where it is clear that feminism--and feminist rhetoric only respects and understands white women's issues, I have reconsidered.

I think the last comments condemning womanism, when it was clear that they didn't know what it was, provides one example where "feminism" has failed women of color.

>From Victoria Bynum vb03@swt.edu 26 March 1997

My understanding of the term "Womanist" is not that it seeks to undermine feminism per se, but that it is a term developed to avoid the inadequacy of the term "feminism" in regard to the historical experiences of African-American women. In _Black Feminist Thought_, Patricia Hill Collins quotes Alice Walker: "womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender." A womanist is "not a separatist, except periodically for health." (pp.39-40) It is a term that seeks to advance female consciousness and autonomy without sacrificing the broad struggle for human rights, so crucial to people who experience oppression on multiple levels (race, class, ethnicity, gender) and seek to avoid the trap of rank-ordering, or compartmentalizing their struggles. Many feminists (myself included) define "feminism" in just this manner, but unfortunately the historical experience of many non-white, non-middle-class women has not, for good reason, endeared them to the term. Perhaps the grad program that asked the question is simply testing students familiarity with African-American theories of gender/race oppression.

>From Barb Freeman freeman@ccs.carleton.ca 26 March 1997

I understood that "womanist" was a preferred term for women of colour who see feminist as a term that applies to the white middle class movement and would like to claim their own experiences. I also understood the term to be a positive one--for women. I stand to be corrected, however.

>From Michele A. Gates Moresi mmoresi@gwis2.circ.gwu.edu 27 Mar 1997

I'm glad to see the student-applicant's query has generated so much interesting comments on feminism/womanism. First, I am inclined to give the school the benefit of the doubt: that they are looking for a quality argument showing the applicant's ability to deal with a complex issue, to reveal his/her knowledge of a subject and articulate it convincingly in 500 words or less. As one responder noted, the essay question is for a scholarship, not admission.

Second, I am disappointed that so many respondents fall into the trap that the simplified question sets up--to define yourself as either/or--when it is clear that neither term has a set definition that people agree upon (or at least the many people don't understand). I read the discussions of womanism by A. Walker and E.B. Brown as seeking to be, as someone already stated, expansive in their desire to move beyond the divisive and excluding connotations that the word feminism conjures up. Womanism is a proposed alternative term to create new meanings for traditional feminist endeavors, to expand and adapt them to our (meaning all women) present concerns. However, it appears that by setting up simplified binary definitions of womanism/feminism, these efforts are undermined and we may end up in the same place (just a different color).

>From Melani Bendfeldt krlr@maristb.marist.edu 27 March 1997

I would like to thank everyone who wrote to me and clarified the difference between womanist and feminist. I found everyone's insights very useful, and hope to sit down soon and answer the scholarship essay question.

>From Debra Greene greened@lincolnu.edu 31 Mar 1997

Try Alice Walker's _In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose_(1983). In the preface she gives several definitions of the term. Good luck with your funding search.

>From Gillian Berchowitz berchowi@oaks.cats.ohiou.edu 31 Mar 1997

Another book to consider is _Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics: A Comparative Review_ by Tuzyline Jita Allan. This won the NEMLA/Ohio U Press Book Award in 1995.

>From Kriste Lindenmeyer H-Women co-editor KAL6444@tntech.edu 01 Apr 1997

I was searching through the H-Women web page and found this hotlink referring to an Afro-Centric Newsletters that describes itself as having a "womanist" perspective. The URL is www.uga.edu


Return to H-Women Home Page.



[an error occurred while processing this directive]