The Difference between Womanism and Feminism
Before researching ‘womanism’, I thought that it was simply another term, similar to ‘feminism’ used to describe a woman who believes in the equality of men and women. Upon reading more widely into the subject, I have happened upon something that I sort of knew existed but didn’t know was being fought against – that thing being racism within the feminist movement.
‘Womanism’ is a term coined by African American writer Alice Walker, used to describe women of colour who believe in the equality of men and women, and by women she means all women no matter the race.
‘Feminism’, on the other hand, is considered by womanists to only acknowledge the plight of white women, in particular middle-class white women. Now you may say that feminism has now moved on, and it speaks for all women no matter the colour or class, and I would agree with that on some level, but how can women of colour identify themselves with something that at first actively sought to exclude them.
Black female activists
According to Louise Newman’s White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States, elite ‘feminist’ white women used racial ideology to be heard, stating that patriarchy is for ‘primitives’ only and that the ‘civilized’ should remove this from 'civilised society'. These progressive white women from the early feminist movement of the 1870s to 1920s, were the ones who laid the ground work for much of the feminist theory that followed, so it makes sense to challenge some of these earlier theories and in fact discover if you may be a ‘womanist’ rather than a ‘feminist.’
In addition to this many black feminists or womanists feel that women of colour had to deal with many more struggles than white women, as white women only had to deal with sexism. Women of colour have historically, and even today, had to deal with racism and classism as well as sexism. Now, I would say that there are some white women who also had to deal with classism historically, but racism certainly has only been and will only be the burden of women of colour and womanists.
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston famously described black women as ‘de mule uh de world’ and this is ever so poignant when one considers the additional struggles of black women. As far as Hurston could see the hierarchy went white men, white women, black men, and then at the very bottom black women. That is why women of colour may not be able to relate to much of early feminist theory and even now sometimes prefer to differentiate between themselves and feminists by calling themselves womanists.