The Color Purple as a feminist/womanist text

Feminist/womanist criticism

Walker prefers the term ‘womanist’ to ‘feminist’, so it is important to bear this in mind when studying the novel. A ‘traditional’ feminist reading would certainly acknowledge and deplore:

  • The inequality between the sexes
  • The injustice of domestic and sexual abuse
  • Women’s struggle for recognition as individuals who deserve fair and equal treatment

all of which are consistent themes within the narrative.

Walker, as a ‘womanist’ goes much further and her goal is much more specific, in that she is committed to exploring

the oppression, the insanities, the loyalties and the triumphs of black women.

Walker of course, is not alone in recognising the plight of African-American women, who suffer from the ‘double jeopardy’ of racism and sexism. Toni Morrison states that:

She [the black woman] has nothing to fall back on, not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything. And out of the profound desolation of her reality, she may very well have invented herself.

    Feminists Who Changed America 1963-1975 Ed. Barbara J Love

The Color Purple can be read and understood from both a feminist and a womanist perspective. In studying the text, the reader needs to try to examine it objectively and also take into account how their own ethnicity and gender might affect the way in which the narrative is interpreted. 

Feminist/womanist aspects of the novel

Some of the following points are ‘positive’ and some ‘negative’ and this list is not exhaustive.

Victimised females

  • A number of women are seriously exploited by men, in some cases from a very early age, being expected to work in the home, labour in the fields and look after siblings
  • It is not uncommon for women to be married off at the whim of parents. Celie is married off to Albert by her stepfather, in a cynical transaction sweetened by the inclusion of a cow as part of the bargain
  • Women are expected to submit without question to male sexual desire. Celie is beaten and endures both incest and marital rape. If she resists, she is physically assaulted
  • Marital fidelity is not seen as an important quality by men, although the same behaviour in females is cause for censure. For example, the preacher slanders Shug in church because of her loose lifestyle yet men are never censured in the same way
  • Violence by males upon females is a common occurrence, even in relationships which are quite loving, like that between Harpo and his wife Sofia. He beats her because a woman is ‘s'pose to mind’ a man. Beating a wife is regarded as an acceptable way to assert male authority
  • Some of the women in the novel learn to fight for themselves. Sofia is determined not to be subservient; however her aggression contributes to the breakdown of her marriage, then her beating and imprisonment after she ‘talks back’ to the white Mayor.

Triumphant females

  • Women do succeed in resisting injustice by banding together and helping one another. The bond of sisterhood is important, both literally in the persons of:
    • Nettie and Celie
    • Sofia and Odessa

      and metaphorically in the persons of:
    • Mary Agnes and Sofia
    • Albert's sister and Celie
    • Tashi and Olivia
    • Shug Avery and Celie, who embody the twin roles of sisters and lovers in their relationship
  • Some women are economically liberated from dependence on male provision:
    • Shug Avery and Mary Agnes establish independent successful careers as singers and enjoy more freedom than others whose lives are bound by home, work and child care
    • Celie is empowered to establish herself as an independent entrepreneur because of the support of the female ‘sisterhood’
  • Some characters are (or become) sexually liberated by finding enjoyment in same-sex relationships. Celie and Shug Avery exemplify much of Walker’s ‘womanist’ ideology and their lesbian relationship enables Celie to discover her own identity as sister, friend and lover
  • All the black women in the novel form bonds of mutual sympathy and support which act as a defence against the oppression of both black and white males.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.