FUN FACT: Microsoft Word will ask if you want to change the spelling of “womanism” to “womanish.”
This little correction is particularly ironic. Womanism, the ideology, and Africana Womanism, the scholarly field were created to focus on the “unique experiences, struggles, needs, and desires of Africana women.” (See Clenora Hudson-Weems) This assertion of black female identity is necessary because black women in the 1960s were in a “double bind”: neither the women’s movement nor the Black Freedom movement addressed their interlocking oppressions. (See Patricia Hill Collins) More simply put, black women have faced sexism in Black Freedom movements and racism in Feminist movements. They have been defined as black-ish, woman-ish. For those interested, this was the topic of my senior thesis: how black female activists in the 1960s navigated this double bind. I examined Elaine Brown in particular, the first female chairwoman of the Black Panther Party, and how she negotiated the gendered spaces of a party mired by sexism and violence against women. I could go into more detail, but my adviser is found of asking the question, SO WHAT?
SO addressing intersecting identities within social movements continues to be relevant today. I’m not sure if the “double-bind” has been fully addressed. Womanism is a powerful ideology and a useful concept for historical study, yet it remains out of the mainstream. (At least Microsoft Office thinks so.) Until the intersecting identities of race and gender are fully addressed, both the women’s rights and black freedom movements will be inherently undermined. (see bell hooks) Particularly coming from the perspective of my thesis topic, this list of black male privilege really struck me. Now I’m not part of the black community, nor should I really be trusted as a scholar of African American history, but a lot of this list really resonated with my understanding of Brown’s experiences in the Black Panther Party:
3. When I learn about the Civil Rights Movement & the Black Power Movements, most of the leaders that I will learn about will be black men.
5. I will be taken more seriously as a political leader than black women.
41. I can believe that the success of the black family is dependent on returning men to their historical place within the family, rather than in promoting policies that strengthen black women’s independence, or that provide social benefits to black children.
45. I have the privilege of believing that feminism is anti-black.
46. I have the privilege of believing that the failure of the black family is due to the black matriarchy.
85. I do not have to worry about being considered a traitor to my race if I call the police on a member of the opposite sex
86. I have the privilege of knowing men who are physically or sexually abusive to women and yet I still call them friends.
Again, this is just the items on the list that resonated with my understanding of sexism within the Black Panther Party, and Black Power movement in general. If you have any questions about how I see these operating historically let me know. And clearly, black men addressing privilege within their community is only side of the coin on addressing the “double-bind”. In the 1960’s black women overwhelmingly chose Black Freedom organizations over Feminist ones in order to advocate for their own liberation. This was because they (correctly) viewed the Feminist movement as being led by white, upper middle class women who did not understand what it meant to be black and poor in America. I’d like to think feminism has come a long way since then, and that the movement has made efforts to open its doors to all women. But I still think confronting white female privilege in feminism is absolutely necessary.
Today is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the progress of equal rights for women. Today, I think we should take special time to think about the equality of all women. Even within this movement, this movement that we hold dear for the empowerment of ourselves and our communities, we have privilege. One of the central critiques of womanism is of the idea of a “common oppression.” While anyone who identifies as a women has been negatively affected by sexism. We must not allow ourselves to think that we suffer from all the same oppressions. As a cisgender, able-bodied, upper middle class white woman I have felt the weight of a sexism and a culture of sexual violence permissibilty and I want to work with all other women to combat these oppressions. However, I must create room and spaces within my own activism to combat those injustices which may have actually served to benefit me in my life. I must recognize the way these structural injustices benefit me within my own movement.
Today, when we celebrate the progress of equal rights, let’s also celebrate moves against racism, classism, homophobia and transphobia which have greatly affected the lives of women. Let’s acknowledge how some our progress has not been equally distributed for all women. And let’s really interrogate ways in which we can organize a movement that truly advocates for all women.
Because no one who identifies as a woman is a womanish.