What if Womanism and Feminism were equal?

(A guest post from Renee of Womanist Musings)

When we look at labels to describe activism by women we commonly use the term womanist, or feminist.  Words mean something despite how casually we toss them around.  They are how we order and understand our world.  In an effort to be inclusive when we write about activism many will often write feminists/womanists.  This acknowledges that some WOC have to some degree separated themselves and have taken on the label of womanists because of the history of racism within the feminist movement.

The problem with using these labels is that they often appear in a certain order.  Most will write feminists/womanists rather than womanists/feminists.  This may seem like a small insignificant point but what it does is that it once again sets up a hierarchy about what counts as real activism when it comes to women.  If feminism is routinely placed first it sets up womanism as a ridiculous offshoot.  When we consider that womanists largely identify as such because of racism in feminism, routinely placing it behind feminism only reaffirms the idea that white women still see WOC as secondary bodies.

Even though writing feminists/womanists is an attempt at inclusion, the order of the words appear means something because it speaks to who has power and privilege.  Often unconsciously we reaffirm power dynamics in our society.  Privileging certain bodies has become a naturalized phenomenon and  it takes a conscious effort to decolonize your mind. These small slights do not go unnoticed even if they are unremarked upon.

Many WOC are rightfully distrustful of white women.   There is a long history of betrayal and silencing.  I have watched time after time as we are assaulted and our issues ignored.  We are told that we focus to much on race in an attempt to destabilize our organizing.  Womanism  speaks about our lives, our needs and our existence in a way that feminism never has.  It validates our experiences and places us in the center of the conversation.  To place feminism before womanism  continually only reifies the need for womanism.

The rift between WOC and white women needs to be healed.  Each new slight just adds to the bitterness and contempt and is the equivalent of pouring salt into an open wound thereby further  dividing  us from each other.  When there is such a large history of betrayal we cannot afford to continue to fuel the negativity as it only detracts us from our common enemy: patriarchy.

WOC are always going to have issues that are unique to us, and yet we share many issues in common with white women.  The anger and bitterness often causes us to ignore their valid commentary and make sweeping assumptions.  There will never be one monolithic woman that can represent us and the “sisterhood” will never cure all the hurt, but we need to think about how we speak to each other if we are going to move forward.

Our future lies in unity and not in separation.  It is important that we leave room for forgiveness and  it is essential that white women acknowledge the ways in which they have wronged us.  This is a problem that we need to tackle together with patience and love.   Both WOC and white women essentially want to see women succeed, we just don’t always agree with what constitutes “woman”.

7 thoughts on “What if Womanism and Feminism were equal?”

  1. Renee,
    I agree with you wholeheartedly that “Our future lies in unity and not in separation.” This is perhaps one of the reasons that I hold onto the term feminism as I see it as the unifying, umbrella term. However, I understand that my view of the term is shaped by my own status as a WOWP (woman of white privilege). I acknowledge that feminism has been plagued by racism — yet I also feel many feminists have, throughout the centuries, been actively anti-racist and feminism has ALWAYS been shaped by WOC voices even when those voices were not included, acknowledged, or given the same ‘play’ as white women’s voices. I think unearthing the diverse history of feminism would help reveal that while some feminists acted in racist ways and aimed to uphold white privilege, not all did. This is true historically and in the present. In a sense, I feel that by focussing on the shortcomings or the negatives, we perpetuate these into the future… And while I do see the validity of having various “splinter feminisms” — womanist, chicana, queer, etc, I myself still like to think the term feminism is expansive enough to both protect and empower all people — not just white women, not just WOC, not just women — but all people. I think the “unity” we need is feminist unity — and that we, all of us, as womanists, feminists, chicana’s, fat activists, etc who consider ourself down for the feminist cause, need to find ways for more (and deeper) unification rather than more separation. The splitting off of terms, and the bifurcation of language you suggest (womanist/feminist) seems to – at least at the linguistic level – go against such a unity. However, I agree with much of what you write here and I agree there is much healing to be done. And, I am fully aware that I have a very special place in my heart for the F word and I do not deny you a similar place for the W word! Thanks for guest posting!!!

  2. Even though I agree with your general analysis regarding the marginalization of woman of color within the mainstream feminist movement and the fact that womanism is all too often subjagated, even in “inclusive” discussions, I don’t this is reflected in the ordering of “feminism/womanism”. Is it honestly indictive of privilege for a writer to place the terms they identify with first? Isn’t most writing/speech organized that way? And is it possible that white writers use the term “feminist” first and then “womanist”, not to privilage the term, but because they don’t want to appropiate “womanism”?

  3. Great read!

    Although, to be honest, I was a little sad to realise it was you, Renee. Your voice is powerful and important, and you know I love your writing… I just wish you weren’t one of so few saying these things.

  4. @prof
    I am aware that there are white feminists that have been staunchly anti-racist however the history of racism in feminism itself makes it extremely difficult for a woman of color to taken on the this label. Part of the problem is that the erasure continues to happen despite our vocal critique. Thinking about how we use labels is just one one way of making womens activism more inclusive. There are many women who had they not had a label under which they could identify that would not recognize the role that gender plays in oppression.

  5. @Renee,
    Very good point. I can understand that my being a wowp makes it easier for me to accept the F label. I also as another commenter suggests, don’t want to make any appropriating moves in regard to to the womanist or chicana or … labels. I am wondering how women’s studies departments might name and describe courses in order to ensure inclusivity. I don’t like the fact that too often only SOME courses focus on race — all of them should! I also find it frustrating that Ethnic Studies and the like are seen as being mainly about race, while Women’s Studies is construed as mainly about gender — this splitting off of disciplines only, I think, works to separate issues that need to be approached from an intersectional lens.

  6. I’m a woman of colour myself, and though I’m not black I feel that feminism is inclusive enough for women outside the US who live in non-English speaking, non-Christian nations where I come from. Feminism is our first point of entry into the world of activism by women and men for women and marginalised communities, and not Womanism. Perhaps it’s just a small glitch in history that we never called ourselves Womanists in the first place, but there you go…

    I love your blog, Renee, but the whole discussion of womanism/feminism (my ordering wasn’t intentional but rather arbitrary btw) remains pretty first world/US-centric as far as I’m concerned – as an Asian-Muslim, I still feel largely left out. But yes, I have to admit that feminists from developing nations do not make their presence felt in the blogosphere particularly in feminist blogs that present themselves as the definitive voice of feminism (I’m talking about feministing, feministe, etc.).

    Within the WOC blogosphere, there are still so many voices that are ignored because there’s little support for those exist between the world of black feminism and white feminism. I don’t want to wait for another ism to separate feminism any further. This is where I have to agree with Professor What If’s first comment above – exclusive labels will push us further.

  7. Thank you Renee! I wish that this included your post on whether white women can be womanists and hope that everyone who is interested checks that out at your blog.

    I’m a black woman who was introduced to womanism in college and has been one ever since. I never identified as a feminist because feminism never identified with me as a black woman. I’ve always thought of feminism as a label that was exclusive to white women and, to a certain extent, white men. Frankly, I find it impossible to separate feminism from whiteness. To me, feminism has always been an exclusive label that did not include me and people who look like me.

    The recent battle between pro-Clinton feminists and pro-Obama black people only reinforced this for me. I actually read where white women complained that their female ancestors had also been enslaved and, therefore, that their suffering as white women was on par with that of African Americans! More telling was the mainstream media’s equation of the female vote with the Clinton vote even though the vast majority of black women were voting for Obama. We were, apparently, not part of the female vote. Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech still rings true today.

    I think that the rift between white and black women is especially wide in North America because of the history of slavery and Jim Crow. The rift between white and other women of color does not seem as wide and so I am not surprised that women of other races may find it easier to identify as feminists.

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