Femme not Feminine: The Complex Relationship between Feminism and Black Womanhood

January 13, 2017

I left fulltime work in 2013. I keep a household that includes three children while my husband is our major breadwinner. I wear dresses and lipstick and spend a good deal of time worrying about my hair. I am the picture of Black femininity but reject that label, instead choosing to identify as femme, because culturally, Black femininity is used as coded language for anti-feminist.


The church still plays a huge role in Black communities as does, to some extent, religion in general. The church’s teachings tend towards ideas of men at the top of the household and modest women who follow them. Even though the language used to describe such hierarchies speak of order and partnerships, the role of women in these narratives is staunchly inferior to their male husbands. There is a page on Facebook, for example with 15K members titled as Black Women Against Feminism. A quick look at their “about” shows that the support feminine presentation and along with patriarchal values. They are joined by countless websites and YouTube videos that preach the same thing.


By rejecting these ideas and claiming your own gender and/or sexuality, by supporting yourself and rejecting the patriarchal ideas presented by the church, you are accused of supporting the very same white supremacy that seeks to destroy Black communities and Black bodies.


This is a long running theme in Black communities, the acceptance of feminist ideas as destruction of Black families. It exists in part because feminism, especially in its early days, failed to meet the specific needs of Black women and it continues to falter to this day.


Knowing that it begs the question why any Black woman, myself included, would participate in any sort of feminist ideas or teachings. In fact, this question is often raised in discussions between Black women of the rejection of feminism. The history of feminism has been unnecessarily exclusory but I honestly believe that the movement was meant to include all women. Still, there are segments of the Black community that focus on those early days of the movement and use it as a way to push women more into familial structures that will control them. 


When women work outside the home, when they “have their own” and don’t need a man, they are a bitch and will end up old and alone. It is okay to work until you find that man that will take care of you, that’s the goal. It is irrelevant who makes more. The cost for taking on a role that has been assigned to men is the denial of love and worthwhile relationships. The idea is that only when a woman is in her proper place can she find emotionally fulfilling relationship. There is no question about whether or not that is what she wants.


Presenting as femme in your fashion choices is to be labeled as a “ho” or a “thot”. There are memes asking “fellas would you let your girl leave the house like this” next to women in revealing outfits, as if the opinion of some random dude on the internet is more important than what a woman chooses to clothe herself in.  It is important to be feminine so long as that form is reserved for the men who are granted access to your body, by their consent, not yours.  


If you are a man and present as femme, outward threats of violence are retribution for the imagined damage that femme presentation does to the fabric of the Black community are common and accepted. Children are not even exempt from this emotional abuse, photos of boys playing dress up with mommy’s clothes or make-up are met with disgust.


The messages we receive are that femme presentation is wrong, something to be controlled, something that worthwhile women and men do not engage in. The punishment for transgression is violence in the form of emotional abuse, sexual violence in the form of rape and molestation, and physical violence.


I was conflicted when I left work in 2013 and my husband became the primary breadwinner. It seemed a rejection of this fight against misogynoir. By willingly giving up work, wasn’t I simply conforming to those ideals? How could I effectively call myself a feminist and support other women when I was falling so neatly into that trap of femininity, the pinnacle of Black Womanhood?


It was at this crossroads that I discovered the femme identity. I had known about it for eons in regards to the queer community but had not considered it for myself until faced with this issue. I would never claim Femme (big F) but there is no better word for my identity than femme (little f).


My femme is transgressive and subtle. My claiming of the feminine presentation is a way of making myself visible to the world. It is a rejection of the ideas of “modesty” that are meant control the female form and make it, and me, palpable for male consumption. I wear loud lipstick that draws attention to my thick lips. Cover my thighs with short skirts and dresses that are well above the knee. I don’t hide my fat. I am here, you may look at me but I am not here for you, I am saying in my dress.


Being femme allows me to reconcile the seemingly mismatched pieces of myself. I could still accept my feminine aspects and show them to the world without accepting the dogma of what a woman was supposed to be. I can lower my earning potential and still be worthwhile. My Black womanhood was not diminished by owning and controlling my own presentation nor was it increased by choosing not to work outside of the home.


The trappings of femininity as presented by many members of the Black community, often with a strong overlap in religious institution, are meant to control Black women. Falling into those sectors that overlap with that particular set of beliefs does not mean that one is accepting of those beliefs.


Yes, I present in a very womanly manner with makeup and dresses. No, I do not work outside the home. Yes, my husband provides for us. But I do not hold femininity as a standard above all others. I am consciously femme in presentation because I believe that we are equal and the right to choose how we live.


By Donyae Coles 


Donyae Coles is a staff writer for Spiral Nature and a contributor to Resist. You can follow her at her personal blog www.freenightsandweekends.org or on Twitter @okokno.



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