Womanism: Intersectionality, Empowerment and the Declining Relevance of Feminism

Different gender equality theories have evolved throughout time, as early feminist movements often had divisive rhetoric, fuelled by racist philosophy through “divine orientation and the natural superiority of the white race.” (Childs et al., 2009) Its exclusionary nature has led to the development of other social and political equality theories, including Womanism and Africana Womanism. Womanism was coined by Alice Walker (1979) and focused primarily on the concerns and conditions of black women. However, Hudson-weems (2019) argues that culture is essential to one’s feminine identity and thus formulated Africana Womanism. Globally, different cultures are embracing their social equality theories, thus resulting in different social theories, rules, and values. Therefore, this essay will analyse and compare Womanism theory to Africana Womanism theory to convey the importance of feminist cultural relevance.

Shirley Chisholm (1973) quotes “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘It's a girl'," which represents the inherently gendered oppression of all women. As aforementioned, black women have been subject to both sexual and racial prejudices, which Guerrero (2003) describes as "patriarchal colonialism." The westernised colonial history bred Eurocentric views, whereby non-white, western or females are presumed inferior against the "Anglicized, Euro-American male." This left many black women's needs neglected and public attitudes towards the liberation of black women's rights dormant. Therefore, intersectional feminism was founded, which enabled black women to formulate a new narrative of the racially prejudiced system in which they were raised, and embrace their culture. Intersectional feminism identifies and understands oppressive structures such as classism, sexism and racism; leading to the understanding and cultural development of feminist theories (Crenshaw, 2017).

Increasing multiculturalism, escalating chauvinism, and structural racism have exacerbated racist ideologies, creating a greater disparity between white and black women's movements in western societies (Eddo-Lodge, 2017). Downing and Roush (1985), found that white women predominately supported feminist theory, whereas black women supported womanist theories, which represents the growing divide between culture and developing of gender equality theories.

There are scholarly debates as to how much of an impact culture has on the individual’s view of social equality and what ideology they will follow. Szmigin and Piacentini (2014) posit that institutions of society such as family, school, work and religion are essential for the process of one's beliefs and values through acculturation. Therefore, suggesting that individuals who move between different cultural contexts will be significantly influenced by external forces, thus influencing their ideas of social equality. However, Chadwick and DeBlaere (2019) identify that many black women in western societies do not identify with western feminist ideologies due to its failure to address intersectional experiences of sexism and racism. Moon (1999) argues that in western cultures, white enculturation occurs when white people become complacent to racist ideologies and disconnect with racial issues through "white solipsism." Furthermore, Singh (2017) critiques western cultures for deconstructing black heritages through promoting dominant white aesthetics and exercising hegemonic control over black communities. However, with multiculturalism becoming the norm, different cultural communities are embracing their norms and cultural patterns as a subculture within their dominant cultures (Ślęczka, 2018). Therefore, Hale (2020) identifies that subcultures are beginning to resist the doctrine of dominant cultures, creating their own identity and constituting cultural corollary.

Embracing different cultures enables people to begin to identify further with their culture and break the shackles of the culture in which they were raised to conform. Hobbs and Rice (2018) argue that feminism was not an international or intersectional theory as it ignored the social, political and economic rights of black women and thus, marginalised them further by putting them in a powerless position. Therefore, different social equality theories began to cultivate as different cultures breed different social, political and economic needs for women. Alice Walker constructed the womanist social theory, which focuses on the existence of black femininity. Womanism is seen as primary for the survival of the black race through having feminism as a subculture, whilst primarily considering the experiences and needs of black women. Arisika Razak (2009) conveys that 'womanish' was a term used by African mothers to describe women who were outspoken, powerful and outrageous. Therefore representing the transition from feminist to womanist, whereby the black women who formed and support womanism believe in the indefatigable strength of black women and the importance of culture rooted in their DNA.

Furthermore, Razak (2009) argues that feminism has a fictitious relationship with race as white women are not named 'white feminists', they are simply feminists, whereas black women are named 'black feminists’. Moreover, Ogunyemi (1985) defines feminism as a race-conscious philosophy; wherein one must explore racial and gendered injustices to eradicate racial favouritism in feminism. The identification of race within feminism suggests a sense of separation, which essentially disregards one of its core focuses of unity for equality. While ‘black feminist’ is not a derogatory term, it creates a disparity between the equality of sexes and race, consequently suggesting that black women's rights are not a priority on the equality agenda. Black women must use the prefix 'black' in front of 'feminist' because they are fighting not only the Eurocentric, heteronormative patriarchy but also racial prejudice and discrimination. Therefore, labeling black women who fight a dual war against racism and sexism simultaneously, with the same title as white women, is an injustice to black women. Thus, adopting womanism allows black women to divorce themselves from the constraints of feminism.

Razak (2009) deems womanism more relatable for black women as it stems from African heritage. Womanism allows women to claim their roots in black history, religion and culture. Perry et al. (2013) argue that feminism and race are synonymous with each other and thus, using one single social equality theory that identifies multiple races is inoperable. Brown further conveys that feminism places emphasis on women, nationalism and prioritises race, which has been the cause of many black women transitioning from feminist to womanist.

However, womanism is critiqued for being a "sweeping theoretical construct," due to the primary focus upon race, rather than the needs and values of individual cultures. As evidenced through womanism, as many reject non-heteronormative sexualities; primarily lesbianism (Taylor, 1998). Research suggests that black homosexuality will result in exclusion, despite Walker's definition of womanism, including "women loving women." (Walker, 1979) On the other hand, Collins (1996) argues that black feminism is univocal in its support for homosexuality, which stemmed from the inclusion and advocacy of black lesbians in the development of black feminist theory. This suggests that feminist and womanist theories are becoming polysemic terms which raise conflicts of interests within their core beliefs, missions and goals. Womanism was further critiqued as scholars argue that womanism has no defined faith but is polytheistic as it associates its 'God' with nature through spirituality (Razak, 2009). Consequently, womanism can encompass multiple religions and thus, it could fail to enhance the cultural lens to identify individual needs. Therefore, it can be argued that having culturally focused gender theories would act as a catalyst for the improvement of women's lives through magnification upon individual issues in their country, town or group.

This was supported by Cross (1971) whose Black Racial Identity Theory posits that race and gender need to be considered as separate entities as individuals identify on different psychological levels with their race and gender. Cross (1971) argues that race alone is not sufficient in identifying the characteristics of a racial group. The Black Racial Identity Theory found that African American women differed in their identification with American culture. Thomas et al. (2008) argue that this is due to African women being subject to white culture, in which many African American women do not relate to or must psychologically subject themselves to societal oppression. Thus, Helms et al. (1992) found that African American women positively related to womanist theories through a "more internal standard of womanhood." Therefore, suggesting that the exclusion of racial identity, but the inclusion of racial needs is imperative for many black women in being able to identify with an equality movement.

Hudson-Weems (2019) argues that following the traditional feminist movements consequently erodes black rights as their needs are unfulfilled. As evidenced throughout domestic violence cases across the UK and America; whereby black and ethnic minority women are more likely to experience domestic abuse (Siddiqui, 2018 and Stockman, 2015). However, due to government austerity, these women are failing to be protected. These statistics demonstrate intersectional discrimination; whereby an issue that predominantly affects black women is not being sufficiently advocated for or funded, leaving many women vulnerable next to their white counterpart. Through embracing individual cultural heritage and egalitarianism, women across the world are creating hybridised feminist theories that incorporate contemporary gender equality views with human rights. Thus, Hudson Weemed coined the term Africana Womanism, which shares traditional values of equality, but is unique in identifying the needs of African women, enabling them to create an equilibrium between individual culture and gender rights. Gillman (2010) argued that Africana Womanism identifies the conflicts between Feminism and Black Feminism and that the term ‘Black Womanist’ would not suffice for the identification and evolution of feminisms core values. Africana Feminism "identifies the ethnicity of the woman being considered, and this reference to her ethnicity, establishing her cultural identity, relates directly to her ancestry and land base-Africa." (Hudson-Weems, 2019) Therefore, different cultures embracing their own form of gender equality, enables their collective struggles to be recognised and challenged, for long-term and harmonious survival. This is supported by Temple (2012), who posits that African women have a unique role in preserving and respecting cultural traditions, thus sustaining the culture.

Cosmologically, Africana womanism is not just about the celebration of one's culture, but the sacrifice of their current existence for the future existence and security of their race (Temple, 2012). African women taking on the role of securing their race has been associated with 'motherhood', whereas white feminists are associated with 'sisterhood and empowerment'. Oyewumi (2001) argues that 'sisterhood', denoting white women, breeds a culture that is alien to other cultures through its politically problematic and biased history. However, one could argue that Oyewumi is placing too much emphasis on race by categorising women as either white or black (Mekgwe, 2006). Thus neglecting the culture and history of many women, who racially may neither identify as black or white; thus, Oyewumi is oversimplifying a complicated and multidimensional construct. Furthermore, the mainstream feminist agenda focuses upon empowerment, rather than the social, political and economic rights of all women, which thereby dilutes issues specifically affecting black women. Rowland-Serdar and Schwartz-Shea (1991) posit that the empowerment movement focuses upon women fighting for rights to equal their white, male counterparts in both the private and public sphere. Consequently, this negates black women's issues as they are subject to both racial and gender issues and therefore are not equal to their white, female counterpart. Therefore, black and white women have different agendas for empowerment, so one 'empowerment' movement alone, is not sufficient in meeting the needs of all women. As evidenced through intersectionality, which, as aforementioned, was created through the identification of a racially favoured bias within feminism, which left many black women's rights neglected.

To conclude, feminism's roots are within a white, middle-class women's movement, and there is philosophical and political debate as to whether feminism as an all-inclusive movement is still valid. The debate primarily focuses upon feminism holding white favouritism, which consequently negates the issues for black women. Thus, demonstrating that feminism would become a polysemantic term, whereby individual women's' cultures and communities’ needs are neglected if only followed through feminism, whose traditional doctrine is that of a white middle-class woman. Therefore suggesting that different social equality theories that embrace individual cultures' needs would be more efficient in reaching gender equality across the world.


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