Womanism Research Paper

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An ongoing concern for black feminists has always been that their specific experiences have been elided within a discourse that is biased towards a white, Anglo-American perspective. It is a view clearly enunciated by Audre Lorde’s essay “An Open Letter to Mary Daly” (1984) in which she castigates the radical feminist philosopher for her misrepresentation of black women in her book Gyn/Ecology (1978), which Lorde claimed, “dismissed my heritage and the heritage of all other noneuropean women” (69).

But in 1983, in which Lorde published her address to Daly, the writer Alice Walker published what was to prove an extremely influential essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” (1983) in which her central concern was to formulate a definition of black feminism from within African American culture itself. Whereas Lorde argued that Daly portrayed black women only as victims, ignoring their power as active agents capable of combating their own oppression, Walker focused on precisely those positive aspects, developing a feminist terminology drawn from everyday discourse used in the black community.

Although the term womanist is now synonymous with Walker’s essay and book by the same title, it was not new to the English language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term womanism first appeared in 1863, indicating “advocacy of or enthusiasm for the rights, achievements, etc. of women.” In the context of second wave feminism, however, “womanism” has become more specifically aligned with the black feminist movement. Walker’s use of the term “womanism” therefore etymologically relates directly not to its prior usage in the nineteenth century but to the colloquial term womanish, which Walker defines as “Opp. of ‘girlish,’ i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.” A “womanish” girl is willful, inquisitive, and wise beyond her years, refusing to accept rules and limitations imposed by others.

However, although Walker draws the concept of womanism from, and defines it through, a black cultural context, she intends it to be inclusive rather than exclusive, offering four increasingly poetic understandings of the word that stress its connectedness to wider experiences of feminism. Although she begins with the black folk usage of “womanish,” her second description expands the term to designate any woman, of any color, whose primary identification is with other women, either sexually or nonsexually. Nevertheless, a womanist is not a separatist but someone who is a “universalist,” committed to “wholeness of entire people, male and female” (xi). She thus harmonizes two contradictory subject positions: a dedication to personal freedom along with an acknowledgment of the innate interconnectedness of peoples and genders. Walker’s third definition stresses this balance between separation and association, identifying a woman-ist as someone committed to sensual gratification but also political struggle; to herself and to the wider community within which she is situated.

It is for this reason that “womanism” has become a widely used term within feminist theory, for it allows black women to articulate their feminism without relinquishing an attachment to black culture and racial politics. The subtle distinction between feminism and womanism is best summed up by Walker’s final definition: “Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender” (xii), and is exemplified in a speech delivered over a hundred years earlier. When Sojourner Truth, speaking at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, proclaimed ‘ain’t I a woman?,’ she asserted her rights not only as a woman, but also as an African American, an ex-slave, and a political campaigner.


  1. Lorde, Audre. 1984. An Open Letter to Mary Daly. Sister Outsider, ed. Audre Lorde. 66–71. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press.
  2. Walker, Alice. 1983. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York:Harcourt.

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