Connecting the unconnected through Womanism

Editor’s Note: The author, Kat Bengston, is a graduate student in the spring 2011Women’s Studies Program Feminist Theory course at The University of Akron.

Feminism has never been an easy subject. From mythical bra burning to the infamous Betty Friedan-dubbed “Lavender Menace,” feminists have spent as much time combating stereotypes as they have working for social change.

Modern Americans have even gone so far as to call our world “post-feminist” despite a lack of constitutional equality for women. Every day, women reap the benefits of their foremothers’ deeds, and every day, women shy away from being called feminists.

This perception of feminists as little more than a hoard of shrill, unshaven lesbians is fascinating and depressing. These stereotypes, wholeheartedly embraced by the public, reinforce the idea that feminism is entirely without in-fighting or debate. In fact, feminism is constantly changing and incredibly flawed. Although the importance of the feminist movement cannot be contested, feminists are guilty of many of the same types of oppression as the patriarchy, such as the marginalization of African American women.

Making a Black Feminist statement

While many feminists were well aware of the holes in feminist theory regarding the experiences of African American women, these issues long went largely ignored in the larger feminism movement. As a result, black women left and formed their own movement, generally called black feminism.

One black feminist group, the Combahee River Collective, created “A Black Feminist Statement” in 1974. This essay summarizes the goals of black feminism, why black feminism is integral to the success of women’s equality and highlights many of the problems in the white feminist movement.

Alice Walker and Womanism

The statement greatly influenced Alice Walker, who in 1983 published In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. This compilation of essays suggested a new form of feminism called “Womanism.” In the book, Walker defines a Womanist as

A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mother to female children and also a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female (xi)

Womanism addresses the experience of black women and its relevance.

Black feminism, Womanism and “white” feminism differ because of differing perceptions on how women’s equality can be attained. Black feminists believe that equality is impossible without an analysis of how race, class and oppression are intertwined. Even if women attain equal rights, those rights will not be available to all women if racism still exists.

These two groups split during the Second Wave, when feminists pushed aside most of the issues black women were most concerned about because they underestimated or simply did not acknowledge the importance of the obstacles facing black women.

Where race and gender intersect

While all women face oppression, black women face discrimination not only because of their gender but also because of their race. Racism makes it far more difficult to obtain equality for all women because the question remains: Who exactly are women attempting to be equal to? Therefore, black feminists and Womanists are correct in stating that racism needs to be addressed alongside women’s liberation.

In modern times, white feminists are attempting to bridge the gap between the two movements. This is a slow process, as the exclusion of African American women’s experience was not the only mistake the feminist movement made. Women across all cultures outside of the West have also been neglected. Bringing the movements together requires a re-evaluation of how feminists view the world.

For further reading


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