Third in series in how Black lives and Black culture colored my Whiteness.
I came of age during the Second Wave of the Feminist Movement in the 60’s and 70’s. Women were reading the works of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and holding consciousness-raising sessions in their living rooms. They were celebrating the arrival of oral contraception, marching for the Equal Rights Amendment, and advocating for Woe vs Wade.
While I supported the movement and considered myself a feminist, I was not particularly political then and spent most of the time at the fringes. Intellectually and ideologically, I was in sync with the movement’s goals, but I didn’t feel the same kind of urgency or passion that I saw in others who were actively engaged.
I grew up with a strong mother and aunts, women who did not take a back seat to anyone, least of all the men in their lives. I never saw myself or other females as lessor than the males I knew. I loved being a woman and, if anything, felt sorry for men, the inability to carry life in their bodies or give birth to humankind.
In college I read widely about the movement, including its critics. I learned that many Black women felt uncomfortable within the narrow scope of feminism, which did not represent their personal experience and broader goals. A new social movement called Womanism emerged.
Alice Walker coined the term and “defined womanists as black feminists or feminists of color who are committed to the wholeness and survival of the entire people (both men and women).” She went on to describe a womanist as:
A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility … and women’s strength. … Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health … Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit … Loves struggle. Loves the folk. Loves herself. Regardless. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.
I was inspired by this new movement. It seemed to me that while Feminism derived from sense of deprivation and distrust to address issues of social justice and equality, Womanism rose from a sense of wholeness and faith to address the same issues. It was broader, more inclusive, and contained a spiritual element.
According to scholar Layli Maparyan, a womanist seeks to “restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcil[e] human life with the spiritual dimension”.
Womanism spoke closer to my own experience and aspirations. I wanted to be part of a liberation movement that freed all of us, even those who oppressed women. To truly be free, we all needed to be free, oppressed and oppressor alike. We needed to lift the consciousness of the entire race, male and female.
Though not a woman of color, I was excited about this new kind of feminism and began to identify myself more as womanist than a feminist, without repudiating the latter. Like Walker, I saw feminism as part of a broader ideological movement that womanism embraced.
A Third and Fourth Wave of Feminism eventually arose that speaks closer to the intersections between race, class, gender, and geopolitical divides, with a diversity of experience as keynote. The whole thing gets very complicated and confusing.
But for me, the maxim that none of us is free until all of us are free prevails. Movements that divide of us by gender, race, sexuality, class, nationality, etc, will never secure the freedom and equality we all desire and deserve. But respecting our differences, celebrating our diversity, and embracing our common humanity just might.