The best definition I've found comes from About.com, saying "A black feminist or feminist of color; someone who is committed to the wholeness and well-being of all of humanity, male and female." Alice Walker, who created the term around 1984 says "Womanist is to feminist what purple is to lavender." suggesting that feminism is merely one segment under the umbrella of womanism.
So, what's the big difference between feminism and womanism? Well, it really all boils down to two things: Ethnicity and Men.
First for the ethnicity bit: you probably noticed that the definition above only mentions women of color as womanists and may be wondering why? The short story is that initial "feminist" movements, like many movements across the United States, pretty much exluded anyone who wasn't white with few exceptions. Black women, who at the time, had both ethnicity and gender barriers to face, were mostly shut out of the gender equality talks.
Admittedly, I find this ethnic divide strange and ironic. After all, historically speaking, it was the Civil Rights movement, which was largely supported by African American women, that gave rise to the Woman's Liberation movement of the following decade. Feminism, a movement that is greatly indebted to the hard work and perils faced by Black Women within the Civil Rights moment, ironically ostracized those to whom it's very birth is indebted.
But, as with all areas where Blacks where excluded, something new was created. Something more inclusionary. Something more welcoming. Womanism became the haven for black women feeling outcasted as both not the "right gender" and not the "right skin color." Alice Walker coined the term, and championed it with fellow well known womanists bell hooks, Julianne Malveaux, and many others. (This conversation will continue in next Wednesday's post.)
Another major difference: the Feminist also has harsh views of men, whereas womanist beliefs, as mentioned above, care for humanity as a whole and equality despite ethnicity and gender. Feminism, which initially started out very much identical to womanism, now has the tendicy to become a place to male bash. As with the majority of movements, extremes exist, and unfortunately this side of feminism, especially more recently, is seen more often. For whatever reason, there is this belief that tearing those you oppose down instead of tearing the actual issues apart empowers the person doing the tearing.
So, as a result of this research and stud, that I am now thoroughly convinced that I have not nor have I ever actually been a feminist. I don't need to bash a man just because I believe in the power of women any more than I need to bash a Caucasian woman because I love being of African descent. That type of exclusionary thinking not only taints movements, it has the potential to kill their power.
It is possible to love your gender, to love your ethnicity while at the same to affirm those different from you. Now, that's what I would call equality. And that's why I now call myself a womanist.