The term womanist first appeared in Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), in which the author attributed the word's origin to
the black folk expression of mothers to female children, 'You acting womanish,' i.e. like a woman … usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous, or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered 'good' for one … [A womanist is also] a woman who loves other women sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women's culture … and women's strength … committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist … Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender. (pp. xi–xii)
Although Walker states that a womanist is a black feminist or feminist of color, she insists that a black feminist as womanist talks back to feminism, brings new demands and different perspectives to feminism, and compels the expansion of feminist horizons in theory and practice.
The introduction of "womanism" in the feminist lexicon in the early 1980s marks a historic moment in feminist engagement in the United States. The late 1970s and the 1980s witnessed an internal insurgency in feminism led by women of color who participated in fighting vigorously against sexual politics of the previous decade only to be confronted by the feminist politics of exclusion a decade later. Excluded from and alienated by feminist theorizing and thinking, women of color insisted that feminism must account for different subjectivities and locations in its analysis of women, thus bringing into focus the issue of difference, particularly with regard to race and class.
If feminism were not able to fully account for the experiences of black women, it would be necessary, then, to find other terminologies that could carry the weight of those experiences. It is in this regard that Alice Walker's "womanism" intervenes to make an important contribution. As Walker noted in the New York Times Magazine in 1984, "I don't choose womanism because it is 'better' than feminism … I choose it because I prefer the sound, the feel, the fit of it; because I cherish the spirit of the women (like Sojourner) the word calls to mind, and because I share the old ethnic-American habit of offering society a new word when the old word it is using fails to describe behavior and change that only a new word can help it more fully see" (p. 94). In other words, feminism needed a new word that would capture its complexity and fullness. Despite Walker's claims to the contrary, she suggests in her definitions of womanism (e.g., "womanist is to feminism as purple is to lavender") that the womanist/black woman is stronger and superior to the feminist/white woman.
Walker's construction of womanism and the different meanings she invests in it is an attempt to situate the black woman in history and culture and at the same time rescue her from the negative and inaccurate stereotypes that mask her in American society. First, Walker inscribes the black woman as a knowing/thinking subject who is always in pursuit of knowledge, "wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered 'good' for one," thus, interrogating the epistemological exclusions she endures in intellectual life in general and feminist scholarship in particular. Second, she highlights the black woman's agency, strength, capability, and independence. Opposed to the gender separatism that bedevils feminism, womanism presents an alternative for black women by framing their survival in the context of the survival of their community where the fate of women and that of men are inextricably linked. As Patricia Hill Collins aptly notes, "many black women view feminism as a movement that at best, is exclusively for women, and, at worst, dedicated to attacking or eliminating men … Womanism seemingly supplies a way for black women to address gender-oppression without attacking black men" (p. 11).
In 1993 the word womanism with the meanings Alice Walker bestowed on it was added to The American Heritage Dictionary. The concept has had a profound influence in the formulation of theories and analytical frameworks in women/gender studies, religious studies, black studies, and literary studies. Because of the linking of black women and spirituality in Walker's project, many African-American female theologians have incorporated womanist perspectives in their work. Drawing on African-American history in general and the black church in particular, black womanist theologians interrogate the subordination of women and assume a leadership role in reconstructing knowledge about women. Prominent black womanist theologians and scholars of religion—such as Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Katie Geneva Cannon, Delores S. Williams, Emilie Maureen Townes, and Marcia Y. Riggs—bring womanist perspectives to bear on their black church, canon formation, social equality, black women's club movement of the nineteenth century, race, gender, class, and social justice. The impact of womanism goes beyond the United States to Africa where many women scholars and literary critics (Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, Tuzyline Jita Allan, and Mary Modupe Kolawole, in particular) have embraced it as an analytical tool.
Alice Walker's womanism has also generated debates and controversies. Prominent among those who challenge the terminology's appropriateness for framing and explaining the lives of women of African descent is Clenora Hudson-Weems, who proposes an alternative terminology—Africana womanism—that is different from Black feminism, African feminism, and Walker's womanism. Many of the debates and controversies about womanism focus on the differences and tension between womanism and black feminism. Patricia Hill Collins offers an excellent critique of both womanism and black feminism. Hill Collins notes that the debate about whether to label black women's standpoint womanist or black feminist is indicative of the diversity among black women. According to Hill Collins, "Walker's definition thus manages to invoke three important yet contradictory philosophies that frame black social and political thought, namely, black nationalism via her claims of black women's moral and epistemological superiority via suffering under racial and gender oppression, pluralism via cultural integrity provided by the metaphor of the garden, and integration/assimilation via her claims that black women are 'traditionally universalist'" (p. 11). While weaving the separatism and black moral superiority of the black nationalist philosophy, the pluralism of the black empowerment variant, and the interrogation of white feminism, womanism seeks to give a voice, a standpoint to black women but fails to adequately take into account the heterogeneity of women of African descent with their different histories and realities.