How Alice Walker Created Womanism — The Movement That Meets Black Women Where Feminism Misses The Mark
"Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender."
Note: This article is part of Blavity's #MakingHistoryWhileBlack Black History Month series, where we highlight unsung historical Black figures whose personal stories are deserving of more prominence.
The legendary Alice Walker has made her mark on the fabric of this country through her activism, poetry and writing. In Walker's work, she challenges the complexity of the Black woman's experience in America. Not only does she speak out against the patriarchy, but she also confronts the silencing of Black voices by white women. While the world may know her mainly for creative writing, she is also the creator of "womanism."
Feminism had a major impact in the 1960s and '70s, when women of various skin tones and backgrounds came "together" to question a male-dominated system. At the time, it mainly focused on workplace disparities between men and women, but feminism quickly expanded into fighting for salary equity, reproductive rights, support for victims of abuse and much more. As the movement grew, White feminists took it over, negating the injustices and discrimination of heterosexual and gay Black and brown women. In turn, this made it difficult for women of color to stand behind a group that didn't consider their experiences nor listens to their plight. Walker, whose activism in the 1960s shaped much of her writing, put her Black experiences to paper to usher in the new womanist movement.
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To be a womanist meant that one encompassed some facets of feminism, but with more inclusivity and appreciation for the Black experience. Whereas feminism offered a type of privilege to only white women, ignoring the many struggles of women of color, womanism confronted both sexism and racism.
According to USA Today, Walker defined womanism as, "A [B]lack feminist or feminist of color," and "a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually [...] committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female."
In addition to championing all women, womanists focus their efforts on challenging and overcoming socially imposed obstacles that are specific to Black women, Black men and the Black family. For instance, because Black and brown bodies are overwhelmingly shot and killed by police, four incredible Black women — Brittany Ferrell, Alicia Garza, Brittany Packnett and Marissa Johnson — stepped up to form the Black Lives Matter movement. When the issue of sexual assault was being continuously swept under the rug and victim-blaming was on the rise, a brave Black woman named Tarana Burke spoke up for all women, creating the Me Too movement to empower sexual assault survivors. Alice Walker has set an example for women to be fearless and do what is necessary to challenge systems of oppression. Her literary work is a masterful collection, that is still being taught and examined in homes and classrooms around the world.
Womanism In Walker's Work
According to her website, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author has sold more than 15 million copies of her books, having them translated into more than two dozen languages. She may be best known for her award-winning novel, The Color Purple, but her anthology You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down: Stories is where she first used the word "womanist" in the short story "Coming Apart."
The story is about a Black couple's marriage that is tested by pornography and the underlying images of violence toward women. The wife finds a magazine filled with naked white women in the bathroom, making her question her adequacy and sex appeal to her husband. When brought to his attention, he returns with an ebony version, hoping it erases his wife's feeling of inferiority. Walker reveals the differences between the imagery of white women as opposed to Black women. Both shown in violent positions, but with the Black woman portrayed as animalistic or often in chains and at the foot of a man.
The wife in "Coming Apart," identifies as a womanist, yet her husband accuses her of being a "tool of white feminism," jabbing at her identity. She references porn images of Black women in chains, being tied back to slavery. She even introduces her husband to essays from Audre Lorde, a lesbian scholar, and poet, yet he still discards her words. Still, the womanist protagonist remains persistent and challenges her husband's views by reading more essays by prominent Black women writers, such as Luisah Teish and Tracey A. Gardner. Eventually, the historical context of Gardner's essay is what sparks shame and some sense of understanding from the husband.
"American Slavery relied on the denial of the humanity of Black folks, and the undermining of our sense of nationhood and family, on the stripping away of the Black man's role as protector and provider, and on the structuring of Black women into the American system of white male domination," Gardner wrote.
Instead of changing herself, the main character in Walker’s story stands firm in her beliefs and reclaims her power. It often helps to gaze in the mirror and remember the strength and fire that lies within. Walker challenges pornography's ability to promote stereotyping women based on a narrow perceptions of sexualized female beauty and its effects on both Black and white women, thus opening the husband's eyes as to why finding the images made his wife feel degraded and invisible.
How Can Womanist Theory Help In Today's Society?
Womanism is more inclusive of the plights and rights of all women, while explicitly understanding the sexism, racism and discrimination Black women face. Following the 2016 election of Donald Trump, where more than 53% of white women voted for him and 94% of Black women voted for Hillary Clinton, it's no wonder why Black women have backed away from the feminist movement.
Being a womanist means peeling back the many layers of this patriarchal society and examining them through several lenses. In order for there to be progress in our nation, Black women must be heard and seen. Thanks to Alice Walker, Black women have the space to confront unjust systems. We are thankful for the conversations womanism has sparked, igniting the minds of women and men across the country.
Movements have been birthed and more activists have been awakened. Walker, in a sense, holds a mirror to the nation, showing where the problem lies while holding white feminists accountable for their biases. She is undoubtedly a pivotal icon in our history and deserves her flowers.