The Case for Womanism
Updated: Feb 19
Womanism is a revolutionary movement that places Black women at the center of social discourse. This term was coined by the legendary novelist– Alice Walker. There is this inescapable need for womanism in a world where Black feminism—as a distinct experience—is excluded in mainstream feminist discourse more often than not. I, for one, identify as a feminist but just recently I have come to identify as a womanist and it has been gratifying.
The case for womanism goes as far back as the great Sojourner Truth’s speech Ain’t I A Woman? Truth delivered her speech to the people gathered at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. She speaks about her personal experience as a Black slave woman which was drastically different from that of white women. She says,
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?”
Here, Truth speaks on the concept of Black feminism by addressing the significant differences between the white and Black female experience. As a dark-skinned Black slave woman, Truth had been treated as not worthy of the “special treatment” people afforded white women. She speaks about men who believe white women are delicate and deserve delicate treatment because they are naturally weaker than men. These same men ignore—or even contest—the fact that Truth herself is a woman probably because she can work as hard, eat as much, and get beaten as ruthlessly as any man can. Nonetheless, Truth states that she is a woman even as they do not see her as one. Hence, Truth’s speech points out that the issues that affected the white women fighting for gender equality are vastly different from those oppressing Black women like her.
These issues that Truth articulated 169 years ago have endured over the years. Thus, gender equality still looks very different since the category “woman” is still not a set standard. With the intersection of other categories like race, sexuality, class, and ability, I argue that it is virtually impossible to address gender equality of women like Truth with a single movement. Therefore, the concept of womanism emerged to account for all the experiences of Black women that mainstream feminism—controlled by white middle-class heterosexual cis-women—excluded.
Despite the false inclusion white feminism theory would have you believe, it ignores the severely different forms of prejudice Black women experience. If it is not ignoring the wage gap between white and Black women then it is white women seeing Black women as threats to their existence which just lays fertile ground for police brutality. On the other hand, there are Black men who regard dark-skinned Black women or fat women as “masculine” or “unattractive” (which is just another consequence of institutionalized racism) then it is white men fetishizing Black women. These are just a few of the countless methods that have been constructed as ways to oppress the Black woman. All these topics are often excluded from mainstream feminist discourse and many Black women who recognize this often turn to womanism. The womanist movement seeks to make the Black female experience a priority in a world where it is often drowned out by the uproar of white women in their “feminism” and Black men in Black social justice movements.
Although feminism seeks to eradicate systemic oppression of women, the forms of oppression among women are different and Black women are often ignored. Consequently, I reason that womanism is necessary to address Black feminism as a separate experience so I honestly, I believe if you are a Black woman, consider womanism.