Not so long ago, women were not granted even the most basic of rights. Ordinary things like opening a bank account, taking birth control, practising law, attending an Ivy League school, serving jury duty, or even watching the Olympics were a fraction of the bazillion things women weren’t allowed to do. Fast forward to a hundred years later, and the unpleasant residue of oppression remains firmly embedded in our society. Besides the sad reality that some women are disenfranchised even today, there is an abundance of new hurdles we face in this supposedly “equal” world.
Resistance movements came into the picture with a vision to promote an inclusive society and achieve gender equality through reforms on crucial issues, such as women’s suffrage, reproductive rights, equal pay, and maternity leave. Within the core of this struggle for women’s rights, we find various interwoven movements and social concepts like feminism and womanism.
If you’re reading this to gain a clear understanding of the differences between the two, you’re in the right place.
What Is Womanism?
The term ‘womanism’ was coined in 1983 by Alice Walker, an American poet, activist and author of the critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple. It was a reaction to the realization that feminism did not encompass the perspectives and experiences of black women.
As segregation had only ended in 1964, the black community – especially black women – were still enduring the brunt of socioeconomic discrimination, classism, and racism. Traditionally, the feminist movement lacked diversity and was mainly dominated by middle- and upper-class white women. It failed to address the plight of black women and rarely involved women of colour in its protests. In light of the elitist nature of the initial feminist movement, womanism came into the picture.
Womanism, as a social framework, separates itself from feminism. It celebrates womanhood, focuses on black women, and aims at achieving and maintaining inclusivity in society. Walker defined womanists as black feminists or feminists of colour who are committed to the wholeness and survival of the entire people (both men and women).
Alice Walker’s much-cited phrase, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,” suggests that she considers feminism as a component of the broader ideological umbrella of womanism.
What Is Feminism?
The concept of feminism is synonymous with equality. The range of movements and ideologies it has borne share one common goal: to establish, define, and achieve social, economic, and political equality of the sexes and fight gender stereotypes.
Think about all the real issues women have had to face since times immemorial. The feminist movement refers to a series of political and social campaigns for reforms on these issues, such as women’s suffrage, equal pay, domestic violence, reproductive rights, maternity leave, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse. Of course, the movement’s priorities tend to vary among different communities and nations.
In the West, feminism went through three waves. First-wave feminism revolved around suffrage and political equality. Second-wave feminism strived to further combat cultural and social inequalities. Third-wave feminism continues to address the social, cultural, and financial inequalities with renewed campaigning for a stronger influence of women in media and politics. It also focused on our reproductive rights, such as the right to abortion.
The fourth wave of feminism began around 2012, and it only furthers the urgent need for justice in terms of harassment and assault, equal pay for equal work, and body positivity. It is founded upon the queering of gender and is trans-inclusive. Also, this wave is digitally fueled. The feminist discourse on the Internet plays a huge role as well. Online forums and hashtag activism help create a massive community, foster debate, and encourage action IRL.
So What Is The Difference Between Womanism And Feminism?
The most contrasting difference to keep in mind is the fact that black women are dealing with three levels of oppression: racism, sexism, and classism. This is where ‘intersectionality’ comes into the picture. As a concept, intersectional feminism recognizes how different dimensions of people’s lives, such as their sexual identity, gender, race, and class, come together to shape their individual experiences of discrimination. This makes womanism a multi-layered movement.
Although the white woman’s battle against oppression has come a long way from fighting the Victorian model of the weak woman who can’t do anything for herself, it is still mostly one dimensional. Womanism fights for not only gender equality but also justice against this three-tiered oppression against both black men and women.
In a nutshell, womanism is a darker shade of feminism that includes and represents the voices and perspectives of women and colour. It sheds light on the experiences of women of colour who have always been in the frontline of the feminist movement and are yet marginalized in historical media and texts.
Remember this: while feminism strives for gender equality, womanism aims at gender reconciliation.