Feminism vs Womanism Scanning Buchi Emecheta’s Oeuvre

Understanding Buchi Emecheta’s ideology in her works around feminism and womanism.

Womanism came to prominence in the early eighties as a platform that voiced the needs of marginalized women. As a concept, it emerged from the African American community highlighting issues pertinent to Black women. Though the term ‘womanism’ was first used in 1863, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and connoted ‘advocacy of or enthusiasm for the rights, achievements etc of women’, the term gained popularity with Alice Walker employing it in her 1983 collection of essays, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose.

While feminism is very much woman-centred, Black feminism (the root of womanism) is family and community-centred. While mainstream feminism finds its base in white, middle-class, heterosexual women’s experiences, women of colour find their own culture-specific dimensions of feminism in the concept of womanism. Black feminism focuses on gender discrimination based on race, nationality and sexuality, but womanism speaks of the lived experiences of coloured women and their culture. Culture and spirituality, scholars such as Rose M. Brewer have explained, centre womanist thinking and are fundamental to its conceptualization. As different from feminism as womanism is, it is not a separatist movement but an inclusive concept that promotes the well-being of all humanity, irrespective of gender demarcations.

Since women of colour are thrice victimized on grounds of race, class and gender, these tri-axes of oppression constantly suffocate them, especially those hailing from the Global South. Therefore, feminists in the Global South began to advocate for a different stream of thought, rejecting the concept of ‘universal sisterhood’ advocated by mainstream feminism with angry protests against essentialism. It is interesting to note how in the essay, ‘Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory’, bell hooks rejects the need for any homogenizing in feminist struggles, writing: ‘[W]omen do not need to eradicate differences to feel solidarity. We do not need to share common oppression to fight equally to end oppression. We do not need anti-male sentiments to bond together.’

Womanism takes stage as a platform wherein Black women’s experiences and survival instincts are showcased. It serves to acknowledge and expound the power of Black women while recognizing a history of sexual and racial violence. On analysing Black women’s literature from a womanist point of view, aspects of race, class and gender intersect. In Buchi Emecheta’s literary oeuvre, too, we can trace the influence of the tri-axes of gender, race and class in African culture.


Womanism as a theory evolved out of the broad definition Walker gave in the essay, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Two of Walkers explanations are:


        1. From ‘womanish’ (opposite of ‘girlish’ i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious). A black feminist or feminist of colour …. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up… Responsible. In charge. Serious
        2. Also: A woman who loves other women sexually and/or nonsexually. …Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist except periodically, for health. Traditionally universal as in: ‘Mama, why are we brown, pink and yellow and our cousins are white, beige and black?’ Ans: ‘Well you know the coloured race is just like a flower garden, with every colour flower represented.’ Traditionally capable, as in ‘Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.’ Reply: ‘It wouldn’t be the first time.’

In the first definition, Walker constructs womanish as opposite to the characteristics ‘frivolous, irresponsible, not serious’ girlishness drawn in White women projections, thus depicting Black women’s experiences in opposition to those of White woman. This is underscored by the speech by Sojourner Truth at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851 recorded as Ain’t I a Woman:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? …I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man- when I could get it- and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?

The second explanation of womanism by Walker can be cited as a radical definition of the concept, even implying that Black women are in some ways superior to White women because of their specific Black tradition—that as a race, Black women have been epitomized with the superwoman image of strength, resilience as well as nurturing quality. In addition, the various historical events have demonstrated how Black women could combat the multiple jeopardies of race, class and gender. Here the term ‘womanism’ gains importance as depicting the essential characteristics of the Black woman which stands in stark contrast to the depiction of ‘[f]railty thy name is woman’, as described, by Shakespeare, that one finds in the Western European representations of the ‘fair sex’.


The attitude of African women writers towards feminism and later on womanism is underscored by Filomina Steady’s concept of African feminism. She explains that the Black woman is the pioneering feminist. Feminism is not a Western import, but a strategy Black women always held on to, to counter the effects of oppression on the basis of race, class and sex. According to Steady, scholars like Florence Stratton have surmised, true feminism is an abnegation of male protection and a determination to be resourceful and self-reliant. It is from the women writing from Africa, particularly Nigeria, that one comes across this womanist stand in literature. It is worth noting that most African women writers such as Nwapa and Emecheta have expressed a reluctance to call themselves feminists, with Buchi Emecheta preferring to align with womanism.

Emecheta’s characters, ranging from pre-colonial to diasporic citizens, are representatives of the essential features of the African woman. As a prolific African writer, Emecheta has depicted Africa and its women in all their various facets. Based on the setting, her novels range through pre-colonial African tribes, the mixed identity of the Afro-Caribbeans and the migrant Black people in the diasporic communities in England. Emecheta’s works, The Slave Girl and The Bride Price as well as The Joys of Motherhood are narratives of Nigeria before colonization or at the early part of it. Destination Biafra is a work on the civil war from the woman’s point of view. Kehinde, Second Class Citizen and In the Ditch are tales of diasporic Black women in London and Gwendolen (also titled The Family) examines other Black communities of the world.


The liberation of the Black woman and the proclamation of this side-lined group as essential and complex parts of womanhood is the ultimate theme of Emecheta’s writing. The agenda of the global South’s sisterhood brought to debate the gender, race and class concerns White feminists disregarded. These complex and simultaneous triangular forces of oppression upon the Black woman formed the centrifugal force in grappling with Black identity.

Joys of Motherhood, which was set within a colonial setting, portrayed gender constructs as evident in Nigerian societies. Similarly, the novel highlighted the status of African women as a postcolonial ‘object’ being one of double colonization. Once transplanted into westernized Lagos, Nnu Ego finds that she is subordinate not only to her husband, but even more so to their White employers. Nnu Ego, the daughter of Chief Agbadi, unconditionally accepts this inferior status in colonial Lagos. Definite changes take place in gender attributes with the arrival of colonialism in Africa. The nation and the men are portrayed as an emasculated set, doing menial jobs—like Nnu Ego’s husband, Nnaife, washing the underwear of the White woman. The hegemonic systems of colonialism and patriarchy also subjugate the African woman, both economically and biologically.

A different picture of oppression is seen in The Bride Price. The hero and heroine of the story are parallel figures: each represents oppression, in fact, double oppression within the society. Of the two protagonists in the novel, Akunna’s double oppression is based on race and gender, and that of her husband, Chike, who belongs to the osu caste is grounded on race and caste. As a product of African culture, Akunna’s marriage is symbolic in that, as Lloyd W. Brown explains in Women Writers in Black Africa, it is a ‘ceremonial climax of her rebellion against entrenched sexual roles and other social customs which she perceived as limiting and demeaning.’

The novels of Buchi Emecheta set in England depict the African community and the problems faced by them in alien lands. These works—Kehinde, Second Class Citizen and In the Ditch—combine to form a critique of the lives of Black women in the supposed first world. The tri-axes of oppression in terms of race, class and gender can be analysed through these novels. By linking the disadvantages of women with the handicap of poverty, Emecheta places the experiences of her women within a broader context of social injustices in Britain, the West as a whole and the Third World.

Gwendolen presents the heroine’s experiences as a Black person in England and as a woman in Jamaica and England. The novel also contains a scathing comment made by Emecheta on the White world which acknowledges Black people solely for white benefit. It is also significant for recognizing the derogatory attitude of White people towards Black people. The psychological hegemony wielded by whiteness is compounded in the case of Black women, with that which is exerted by the men in their life. Even educated women had to conform to the traditional value system as per their law. As Emecheta records in her autobiography, Head Above Water, women ‘still stooped and allowed the culture of their people to enslave them, and then permitted Christianity to tighten the knot of enslavement.’

The hegemonic nature of society inscribes the weaker section of the society with passivity and subjugation. The oppressive treatment meted out to women is seen in the cruel rape of Debbie by Black soldiers in Destination Biafra. The fact that Debbie is used both by the African male and the European power, in the same manner, makes her position as a doubly colonized citizen pitiably exposed. But even when the male leaders defect and leave the country to perdition, women like Debbie fight for their nation’s cause. She even decides to adopt a baby—a casualty of the war—and names him ‘Biafra’. She embodies the rebellious reawakening of the ‘superwoman’ of Africa. In her, we find the African woman who had become alienated from her culture, coming to realize the value of her own cultural precepts.

In Double Yoke, the plot depicts the tussle between tradition and modernity within the educated modern woman. The evolving African woman in Nko carries the double yoke of the old and new precepts taught her by African patriarchal society and the Western brand of feminism. Debbie and Nko both symbolize the rebellion of the African woman and are the products of the new generation. They achieve a new outlook with recourse to education, the illuminating factor, as envisioned in all Emecheta’s novels.

Another such character is epitomized in Kehinde, whose eponymous protagonist is the product of the age of globalization, a diasporic immigrant, living between two worlds—one native and one adopted. In Kehinde, co-exist Nnu Ego’s traditionality, Akunna’s rebellion and Debbie’s modernity—traditionality born of ancient African customs and modernity out of the Western ideas. Like Nnu Ego, Kehinde too falls into a precarious position once she gives up economic independence. She learns the demerits of this situation to its fullest extent, when her husband and his relations humiliate her, once she is back in Nigeria, a ‘been-to’ woman without any means of her own.

Emecheta’s autobiographical novels also speak of the strength of women. In raising her kids as a single mother, Adah falls back upon her inherent independent streak and the individuation that her native African society had helped foster in her. Adah, as Lloyd W. Brown writes, ‘actually, credits that conservative background with having encouraged the development of her independent spirit.’


The slogan ‘of universal sisterhood’ during second wave feminism was disparaged by women of colour during the third wave. But the unique concept of woman bonding that highlighted the salient support that women impart each other in times of need was particularly focused on in studies of black/coloured women. Books like Our Mothers Daughters’ by Judith Arcana in 1979 followed by anthologies like Double-Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughtersedited by Patricia Bell Scott in 1993and Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th Century Literature edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory in 1993 testify to this fact.

An aspect that helps the traditional African women during their tribulations is the sisterhood they enjoyed with other women which was a corollary of the community life they followed. Emecheta speaks of the help Adah receives in London from her female confidantes in Second Class Citizen. In the Ditch is also a portrayal of the lives of the ‘mums’ of the world and it is the rendering of an exclusive, female society. The plot moves along the bonds that are formed within the Pussy Cat Mansions.

Similar to Emecheta’s other novels, Gwendolen builds a world of women where they act as allies to each other. The relationship of Gwen with other women in Granville, Jamaica, as well as Mrs Odowis’s friendship with Sonia in London exemplifies it. Emecheta in Kehinde builds a society of women, where men exist marginally. Kehinde’s friendship in London with her bosom friend Moriammo was the envy of their husbands. The most touching case of woman bonding in Kehinde is the mother-daughter relationship between Kehinde and Bimpe. Strikingly, from her childhood onwards, it was Ife and Taiwo, her two sisters (living and spirit respectively) who guided Kehinde in her conflicts. Destination Biafra, which is a work on the women’s experiences in the war, also brings out the essential qualities of the strength and solidarity of the African woman. In Double Yoke too, the constant support of her friends and mother enables Nko to emerge as a successful academician and mother. Again, in The Slave Girl, it is the girl’s companionship that makes life liveable for Ogbanje Ojebeta and it is by the encouragement of her mates like Chiago, Amanna and Nwanyinuzo, that Ojebeta makes the escape from slavery.

The protagonist depicted by Emecheta as being a failure in her life and ideals is Nnu Ego, who had given space only for sons in her life. She is reported as regretting in the final accounting of her own life: ‘she would have been better off had she made the time to cultivate those women who had offered her hands of friendship. But she never had the time,’ Emecheta writes. Thus, Emecheta’s novels fall back upon women’s solidarity in African cultures as a prime factor of support and speaks volumes of the sisterhood within its communal life. It is the prime aspect of woman bonding in African culture which also was a recourse to resistance against oppression. This is evidenced in the historical occurrences like the Aba Riots of 1929which describes their collective resistance against male oppression.


The crowning glory of the African woman’s life is time and again cited as voluntary motherhood by Emecheta. Like Debbie who takes up an orphan child as a single mother and proclaims the emblem of the African woman, most Emechetaen heroines uphold the sanctity of the role of the mother. Despite the fact that she was made pregnant by a person whom she despised, Nko in Double Yoke never contemplates abortion. She embraces the prospect of single motherhood, even when it appeared as if Ete Kamba had deserted her. If anything, the new status made Nko ‘acquire a kind of independence’. In the novel Gwendolen, it is the impending motherhood of her daughter coupled with her stay in the asylum that reconciles Sonia to Gwendolen. The hopes of a baby reunite mother and daughter—African motherhood sets all problems at naught. To Adah, Emecheta’s prototype, her children are the inspiration and the means to write. Instead of considering children as an obstacle to her dream of becoming a writer, she integrates them into her project.


Mainstream feminism is basically a separatist movement fighting for equality in a man-centred world. But womanism espouses women’s relationship with men and the significance of the family. Womanists have committed the wholeness of the entire race—both male and female. Womanism accounts for the ways in which Black women support and empower Black men and build a relationship-based nurture (feminist theory). Here we find womanism as being not only different but also superior to feminism.

The African womanist believes in her male counterpart and empowers him, too. In short, there is a reorganization in gender roles, of male-female relationships occasioned by changes in the traditional social order. The oppression that Black men, too, face on account of racial constructs have been taken up by womanism and activism today in movements like Black Lives Matter point out to its significance.

In Bride Price, the hero, Chike, is the modernizing principle in the novel, and is depicted as espousing a more or less equal marriage between the sexes, in their life together. Such a transition in the minds of the African male is seen in Ete Kamba in Double Yoke, too, after he is counselled by Mrs Bulawao. Similarly, in Gwendolen, the hero of the piece prompts her entry into the world of books and the story concludes on the picture of Gwendolen settling down happily with Immanuel and her daughter Iyamide.


African womanist criticism evolves an agenda of commitment towards the survival and wholeness of the entire people—male and female. In ‘Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Novel in English,’ Ogunyemi explains:

Black womanism is a philosophy that celebrates black roots, the ideal of black life, while giving a balanced presentation of black womandom. …its aim is the dynamism of wholeness and self-healing that one sees in the positive, integrative endings of womanist novels.

Black and other people of colour have lived and thrived in the liminal world created by the hegemonic structures of white supremacist cultures. Here, womanist politics becomes a revolutionary ideology with an agenda to address the concerns of the women excluded from the centre. Womanism fights not only for gender equality but stands against racial and economic oppression of people of colour. As Alice Walker stated ‘womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender.’ Thus, womanism is a darker shade of feminism that spoke for the ‘other’ women’s perspectives and concerns. Through her novels, Emecheta applauds womanism proclaiming that the woman of colour has a history of great complexity and value and promotes the identities of women of colour as celebratory in the modern world


The article cites the doctoral thesis of Sujarani Mathew ‘Imaging African Womanhood: A Womanist Reading of Selected Works of Buchi Emecheta’ submitted to Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India 2010.      

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