Womanism and Feminism are Cousins
by layli Phillips, From The Womanist Reader
For purposes of discussion, I separate womanism/feminism as identity and womanism/feminism as politics and discuss the implications of each separately. The relationship between womanist and feminist identities is readily illuminated using a family metaphor. To a lessor extent, the relationship between womanist and feminist politics is also elucidated using this metaphor can offer a complete accounting of the thing it analogizes, metaphors, can be useful for pointing out new ways of thinking.
In terms of identity and, to a lessor extent, politics, feminism and womanism are cousins. Within a taxonomic system, feminism and womanism are opposed and, potentially, adversarial. Within a familial system, feminism and womanism are related and can be mutually supportive. Under this rubric, they recognize and respect their difference from one another, yet they allow one another to flourish. One problem plaguing the relationship between womanism and feminism to assimilate all difference into itself and, in particular, to exhibit both racism and cultural imperialism rather unselfconsciously. While decades of internal work around these issues has fundamentally transformed feminism from the inside--a fact that not all womanist scholars acknowledge--one troubling component of feminism's appropriate tendencies remains, namely, its constant attempts to re-center itself as the only progressive voice or vehicle concerned with social-justice issues. This tendency disallows and neutralizes alternative expressions of women's social-justice work or thought, of which feminism is just one--a point well articulated by authors as diverse as Clnora Hudson-Weems, Catherine Obianuju Acholonu, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, and Allyson Goce Tintiangco--and is thus disciplinary in the Foucaultian sense. This tendency accounts for much of the tension between some womanists and feminism. To say that one is a womanist is not to say that one is a feminist, even if the two are not mutually exclusive; a person can be either, neither, or both.
For feminist to claim that womanist are being disloyal to feminism or undermining feminism by claiming womanism instead of feminism reflects a lack of understanding about the relationship and difference between the two entities as well as a lack of genuine appreciation of positionalities generated by all ideologies and critical perspectives as they evolve and differentiate. Such an accusation subtly implies that all women should be feminists because feminism is a superior social-justice perspective for women. The womanist perspective holds that as long as the job of social-justice gets done, it scarcely matters what label it falls under; the more perspectives contributing, the better. Self-labeling is a psychologically and politically valuable process, yet all labels and identities are socially negotiated through dialogue. People may or may not agree about how to name a thing, but the process of negotiating the label is healthy and inevitable. For this reason, womanists view womanist identify as an article of avowal (one has to claim it). Yet, womanisms exercise the right to describe someone or something else as exhibiting womanist tendencies if it appears that way to them, with the full understanding that someone else might have a different opinion. Thus, use of the term womanist retrospectively is not problematic for womanists.
This fact relates back to the fact that womanism is an interpolated perspective rather than an ideology. That is, womanism is not and never has been set in stone; codification and canonization are processes that are antithetical to the spirit of womanism. Womanists function by constantly discerning and synthesizing the various expressions of womanism generated by dialogue (written, verbal, or visual) and inspiration (internal/spiritual creativity) in interaction with the knowledge produced by moving through the world in daily life.
Womanism does not function by relating back to a set of rules or principles and evaluating whether one is in conformity. Rather, it functions by constantly moving toward a horizon of healing and commonweal by whatever method seems best in the moment. Thus the responsibility for "right action" rests with the individual's conscience and the guiding dialogue of the social and spiritual communities within which she embeds herself by affinity.