Womanism And Feminism: Womanist Is To Feminist As Purple Is To Lavender

By Dr. Ranjana Sharan Sinha

Dr. RANJANA SHARAN SINHA is an eminent poet, author and professor of English. She is a well-known voice in Indian Poetry in English with international recognition. Her poems from her collection “Scents and Shadows” have been included in postgraduate syllabus of Purnea University. Her poems, short stories, articles and research papers have been widely published in highly-acclaimed dailies, magazines, archives, e-zines and journals. Her poems have been published in more than 40 global anthologies like Atunis Galaktika, Our Poetry Archive, Inner Child Press, USA, Poet, U.K, Indie Blu(e) Publishers, USA, Silk Route Series of Anthologies, Egypt, Kali Project, USA and many more. Her poems have been translated into Greek, German, Albanian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Persian, Nepali and Hindi languages. She has received a number of awards for her contribution to poetry including a commendation from the former President of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam for her poem “Mother Nature” contained in her collection “Spring Zone”. Her other awards are: Best Poet Award by Poets International, Bangalore; Rashtriya Pratibha Samman ( Kalam Kalanidhi) by Akhil Bhartiya Sahitya Parishad, Udaipur; Best Citizens of India by International Publishing House, New Delhi; T.G. Deshmukh Best Teacher Award by Nagpur Shikshan Mandal, Nagpur; BrijSahityamani Samman by Brajlok Sahitya Kala Sanskriti Academy, Agra; Govinda Hindi Sahitya Samman; Chitransh Kulbhushan Samman, Bilaspur and some more. Her recent awards in 2020-21 are: Citation of Brightest Honour by Sufi International, Bangalore; Order of Shakespeare’s Medal by Motivational Strips, Independence Day 2021Literary Honour by Gujarat Sahitya Akedami and The Best Indian Author Award 2021 by Criticspace Literary Journal. She has authored and published 09 books in different genres and 50 research papers. The books are: 1. Spring Zone (A Collection of Poems and Haiku) 2. Midnight Sun ( A Collection of Short Stories) 3. Nature in the Poetry of Wordsworthand Sumitra Nandan Pant ( A Critical Comparative Analysis) 4. Feminism: Times and Tides ( A Theoretical and Historiographical Commentary on Feminism) 5. Differenr Dimensions (A Compilation of Research Papers presented in various National and International Conferences & Seminars) 6. Scents and Shadows ( A Collection of Poems) 7. Rhymes for Children ( Nursery Rhymes) 8. The Purple Jacaranda and Other Poems ( A Collection of Poems) 9. Ek Sita Main Bhi ( A Collection of Poems in Hindi). The subject of her PhD thesis is “Sri Aurobindo and The Epic Tradition” that covers the Indian as well as the Western epic traditions. She has also completed UGC- sponsored MRP on comparative literature. She is a research supervisor RTM Nagpur University, Nagpur. She is associated with many literary organizations and global poetry group. She is one of the editors of Our Poetry Archives. Lives in Nagpur, India with her spouse who is a doctor ((Ophthalmologist).

The terms Womanism and Feminism refer to the struggle of women to obtain equality, but both the terms are not exactly the same The term “Womanism” was coined by Alice Walker, the author best known for her book “The Color Purple”. Walker used the term for the first time in 1983, when she talked about the Womanist theory in her book “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose”. According to Walker,” Womanist” unites women of color with the feminist movement at the intersection of race, class, and gender oppression”. The Womanist movement centres in the feminist efforts of black women and is sometimes referred to as “black feminism”. Rather than focusing on social change or activism, Womanism focuses more on celebrating womanhood and African- American woman’s strength and experiences.

Feminism has traditionally been a middle-class white women’s movement. Feminism fought for suffrage rights for white women, but never got involved in the civil Rights movement to help guarantee black women social equality. So Womanism looks out not only for women but also for the rights of women of colour, who are sometimes a step behind white women when it comes to social equality. Womanism addresses the racist and classist aspect of white feminism and actively opposes separatist ideologies. It includes the word “man” recognizing that Black men are an integral part of Black women’s lives as their children, lovers and family members. Womanism accounts for the way in which black women support and empower black men, and serves as a tool for understanding the Black women’s relationship to men as different from white women’s.

A need for the term “Womanism” arose during the early Feminist Movement which was mainly led by middle class white women advocating for social change in the form of women’s suffrage. While the Feminist Movement focused on ending gender- based oppression, it largely ignored race and class-based oppression. The height of this academic discourse occured during the late 1980s when scholars such as Cleenora Hudson-Weems and Chikwenye Okonjo  Ogunyemi began to share their findings with the world. During this time Womanism was embraced, debated and dismissed by academics mainly due to its perspective on the African-American experience. The 1990s presented a new kind of challenge with the proliferation of black feminism within women’s studies. As a result Womanism fell beneath the radar of the public eye, but academic discourse progressed, and scholars continued to contribute to and explore the disciple. By the 2000s Womanism had resurfaced as a unique social change perspective. This was further cemented by the publication of “The Womanist Reader” in 2006, a collection of Womanist essays and critiques.

Alice Walker’s Womanism is but one of the many concrete forms black feminism has taken throughout the years. Another well- known example is the Combahee River Collective, founded by Barbara Smith and its black feminism statement. In the first entry Walker defines “Womanist” in reference to the original and the original use and meaning of the terms. Walker  indicates that “Womanist” is a synonym for a black feminist or by extension, a feminist efforts of colour. Whereas  Walker herself uses the two terms as being virtually interchangeable , not all critics agree on considering that Womanism and Black feminism are synonymous. Either way, it is a fact that both are concerned with struggles against sexism and racism by black women who are themselves part of the black community’s efforts to achieve equality and liberty.

In the second entry, Walker defines Womanism by referring to the different types of relationships that can occur between women. Most importantly, Womanist love other women especially  for those things that make them female– like their specific female culture, their emotional life, their strength. Walker further refers to one specific relationship between women: the relationship between a mother and her child. Walker focuses on the “sharing and mentorship” that are a traditional part of idealized black mother-daughter relationship.

In the third entry Walker defines Womanist associatively. In an enumeration which lists things a Womanist loves, she mainly considers the irrational side women are traditionally said to have. The moon is the symbol of femininity. In her list Walker includes music and dance, love, food and roundness as a symbol for the worldly, bodily pleasures in life as well as the moon and the spirit as symbols for the spiritual dimensions of our being.

The fourth and last entry consists solely of the phrase ” Womanist is to Feminist as Purple is to Lavender.” In her definition of Womanism, Walker indicates several different things that are not necessarily summed up. She sketches black women as beautiful and strong being without denouncing men or white people in the process Through her four-part definition, Walker draws her reader’s attention to the importance of women’s intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual wholeness and she stresses the need to create a global community where all members of society are encouraged to survive and survive whole. Alice Walker explained to The New York Times Magazine in 1984,” I don’t choose Womanism because it is better than feminism… since Womanism means black feminism, this would be a non- sensical distinction. I chose it because I prefer the sound, the feel, the fit of it; because I share the old ethnic- American habit of offering society a new word when the old word it is using fails to describe behaviour and change that only a new word can help it more fully see.” Womanism brings a radicalized and often class located experience to the gendered experience suggested by feminism. It also provides a link with history that includes African cultural heritage, enslavement, women’s culture and a kinship with other women especially women of colour.

Womanist and Womanism were soon adopted and were used in description of African-American women’s struggle for self -determination. These have a stronger sound than feminist and helped give visibility to the experience of African-American and other women of colour who have always been on the forefront of movements to overthrow the sexual and radical caste systems, yet who have often been marginalized or rendered invisible in history texts, the media and mainstream movements led by European -American feminists or male civil rights leaders. Unlike feminist and pro-feminist the definition of Womanist has yet to be extended to men who are also working for women’s empowerment, and that has been a source of reluctance to use it.

In 1993 the American Heritage Dictionary included this new usage and defined Womanism as “Having or expressing a belief in or respect for women and their talents and abilities beyond the boundaries of race and class exhibiting a feminism that is inclusive esp. of Black American culture. “Alice Walker’s proposition of Womanism as a standpoint for African-American women to voice their difference from white feminist was formulated in reaction to the marginalization of coloured women in the framework of feminist critical theory and politics which was caused by feminist focus on gender oppression and by its embracing of poststructuralist methods in the scholarly discourse of feminist criticism. Womanism originated then as a sign of emerging difference between those African-American women who– like bell hooks– found feminist agenda sufficient and useful for addressing issues crucial for them and those who found it too indifferent to the problems of racial and classist issues which were for them of vital importance. As a result, a new political and critical framework of Womanism stemmed from the desire to take up gender issues without turning men– as womanists believed feminists did– and to foster bonds between African-American women and men in order to successfully resist racism.


The term Black feminism was not widely used until the inception of the contemporary Black women’s movement in the 1970s. However, Black feminist scholars frequently apply it to a variety of Black with men’s survival strategies and actions in the past. It is used to characterize Black women’s  tradition of courage, independence and pragmatism. The struggle to pass the Fifteenth Amendment which extended the voting franchise to Black males ( at least on paper) caused split between Black and White women. Most black women agreed with Frederick Douglas who was a staunch advocate of women’s rights that was crucial to win the vote for at least some of the black population at that time, even it meant delaying universal suffrage to women.

Black feminism refers to a movement of African-American women who argue that sexism, racism and oppression are bound together and the way these things relate to each other is called intersectionality. They believe that Black women experience more oppressive behavior than white women. Being both black and female, these women are “doubly marginalized” which makes their experience unique.

Black feminist theory has argued that black women are positioned within structures of power in fundamentally different ways than white women. Black feminist theorists such as Angela Devis, bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins have argued, for example, that black women unlike many white women are marginalized along lines of race, class, gender and sexuality. As such mainstream white feminist theory has not comprehensively accounted for the economic, racial and gender exigencies of black female experience. The National Black Feminist organization of women was founded in 1973 and it focused on the interconnectedness of many prejudices that were faced by African American such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and lesbophobia.

The Combahee River Collective was one of the most important black socialist organizations of all time. Primarily a black feminist and lesbian organization, this group had Barbara Smith as its founder. The Black feminist movement grew out of and in response to  the Black Liberation Movement (Civil Rights, Black Nationalism, and The Black Panther) and The Women’s Movements. In an effort to meet the needs of black women who felt  they were being racially oppressed in the Women’s  Movement and sexually oppressed in the Black Liberation Movement, the Black Feminist movement was formed .

There are differences between Black feminism and Womanism. Black feminism is still derivative of feminism which is female centered. Womanism is centered on the natural order of life, family and a complimentary relationship with men and women. It is all inclusive and universal. Black feminism tackles the social, political and educational struggle of African-American women in the United States but it does not address all the global issues that women in the African Diaspora are dealing with. But it must be noted that in no way is Black Feminism any more or less important than Womanism  In fact, there are many elements in Black Feminism that are considered Womanist values– such as the recognition of African roots, the pattern of defining a black woman’s standpoint and the struggle to rectify sexist attitudes . Rather, Womanism is the direction that Black Feminism should be evolving towards.

        — Dr. Ranjana Sharan Sinha



( An exerpt from the book “FEMINISM :TIMES and TIDES)


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