The OCR A2 RS Developments in Christian Theology specification requires that you know about womanism and are able to contrast it to the other types of feminism that you have studied. No specific womanist thinkers are named so you would not get a question about any particular person.

What is womanism?

Womanism emerged out of the American female black community. It draws on many sources (including feminist theology and black theology) but primarily on the diverse experiences of black women.

The experiences that it draws on include the historical experiences of enslaved black women, the exprience of segregation during the first half of the twentieth century as well as more recent and contining struggles against racism, stereotyping and poverty.

The term 'womanism' was first used in 1984 by Alice Walker who defined it as:

1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From 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. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.

2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color 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.”

3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.

4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.

Alice Walker In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)

Delores Williams was first to use the term womanist theology.

Why is womanism/womanist theology necessary?

Stephanie Mitchem's book Introducing Womanist Theology sets out the origins of womanist theology thus:

'There had been theological development from the perspective of black men and from those of white women. However, neither category could speak for black women.'

Stephanie Mitchem, Introducing Womanist Theology (2002) chapter 1

Read an artical about why Renee Martin felt feminism was not created for women like her here. (Guardian article)

The reason why neither white feminist theology nor male black theology could speak for black women is that their experience of the world is different.

  • Mitchem points out that black women have never had the 'problem' of being confined to the role of stay at home wife and mother - the economic situation has never allowed her to, she has needed to work. Black women have never been regarded as delicate and in need of male protection.

'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 or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And aren't I a woman?...I have borne thirteen children, and seen them almost all sold off to slavery and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none by Jesus heard me! And aren't I a woman?'

Sojourner Truth (speaking at the women's rights convention in Ohio in 1851 

Obviously some problems faced by black women are similar to those faced by white women, but the problems are often compounded by racism.

  • For example, rape is both a feminist issue and a womanist issue, but historically for black women rape was often perpetuated by white men. Slave girls were raped by slave masters and even in the early-mid twentieth century for a black woman raped by a white man there was no hope of justice. Reporting rape might well have led to further dangers for the black woman and her family.

Likewise, de Beauvoire's myth of the eternal feminine presented extra problems for black women as the feminine ideal held up to them was that of the white female. Black women were encouraged to lighten their skin and straighten their hair to conform to white standards of beauty.

'White women's bodies were the contrasting ideals against which black women were judged.'

Stephanie Mitchem, Introducing Womanist Theology (2002) chapter 1

'Black women were despised and exoticised when encoutered by the European colonisers.' 

 Stephanie Mitchem

Historically woman has been 'other' to normative man but womanists point out that black woman has been 'other' to normative white woman.


'Theology is powerful, and its notions become embedded in social frameworks. Deconstruction of theologies is difficult, as the ideas can be presented as "God's designs," rather than the constructions of human beings.'

Stephanie Mitchem, Introducing Womanist Theology (2002) chapter 1

As feminists have shown, theology can be used to justify sexism. Womanists and black theologians demonstrate that it has also been used to legitimise racism.

Colonisation and slavery were said to be a necessary part of 'civilizing the heathens' by teaching them Christian values (as commanded in Jesus' Great Commission 'go, make disciples of all nations').

This is known as the 'Curse of Ham'.

The Biblical story of God's punishment to Noah's son Ham (for laughing at his druken father's nakedness) specifically permitted slavery because God told Ham that 'a servant of servants he shall be to his brother'. Many European slave traders argued that African's were Ham's descendents and thus destined by God to be slaves. As Mitchem commented 'skin colour in particular was believed to be a sign of God's curse against black people.'

'Slaves obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it not only when their eye is on you to curry favour but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.'

(Colossians 3:22)

In the household codes found in Colossians and Ephesians instructions to wives to obey husbands are followed by orders to slaves to 'obey your masters' and slaves were warned that to disobey risked eternal damnation.

What methods does womanist theology use?

Womanist theology is another example of a contextual theology of liberation. Like liberation theology, black theology and feminist theologies it makes use of the hermenuetic of suspicion to challenge old ways of reading the bible. The hermeneutic circle is important in developing a relevant contextualised understanding of the text and creative new readings are drawn up in the light of the personal experiences of the community.

In addition to this, Womanism contains the following distinctive elements:

  • It is creative and improvises around certain themes (Mitchem compares it to jazz music). Thus it constantly develops and adapts.
  • It treats the actual life stories and experiences of black women as 'texts'. This enables womanism to avoid suggesting that all black women are the same.
  • It is influenced by traditional African religious belief and spiritual practices as well as by mainstream Christianity.
  • Womanist theologians often have a very dynamic view of prayer as a genuine discussion with God.
  • There is an emphasis on community and especially on mother/daughter relationships. 


Alice Walker:

Alice Walker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and poet. She was born in 1944 in the southern state of Georgia. As a child she experienced segregation and racism. 

Her novel The Colour Purple is a fictional story but drew on real experiences of African American women. In the book the protagonist Celie Harris faces problems caused by racism, sexism and poverty.  Her life is controlled by men beginning with her rape age 14 by the person she believes to be her father. 

The idea that African American woman have the triple problem of racism, sexism (including sexism perpetuated by patriarchal black men) and classism is central to womanism.

PDF extract from it here.

Her book In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens contains a variety of different articles on the theme of womanism. In it she says that a womanist is 

'committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female'.

Womanism is not separatist.  Walker is an activist for various human rights issues. She opposed the Iraq war out of concern for the women and children and has been a vocal opponent of Israeli policies in Gaza.

Delores Williams:

Is a theology professor teaching at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. Her book Sisters in the Wilderness (1993) is a womanist theological classic. She has also written many articles on womanism, some of which can be found online.

Williams has stressed that womanism uses the experience of black women as its starting point. Often, this involves an element of reclaiming what has been forgotten or overlooked.

'The womanist theologian must search for the voices, actions, opinions, experience, and faith of women whose names sometimes slip into the male-centered rendering of black history, but whose actual stories remain remote.'

Delores Williams Womanist Theology: Black Women's Voice (article on www.religion-online.org)

Thus, although womanism has connections with feminism, it is not the same thing. Womanism is distinctive to a particular context. It does not just repeat what white feminists have already said, but looks at things from a particular perspective. Williams relates this back to Alice Walker's description of the distinction between feminism and womanism.

'In making the feminist-womanist connection, however, Walker proceeds with great caution. While affirming an organic relationship between womanists and feminists, she also declares a deep shade of difference between them ("Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender.") This gives womanist scholars the freedom to explore the particularities of black women's history and culture without being guided by what white feminists have already identified as women's issues.'

Delores Williams Womanist Theology: Black Women's Voice (article on www.religion-online.org)


The first part of Hagar's story can be found in Genesis 16 here and the second part in Genesis 21 here.

Williams book Sisters in the Wilderness begins with a chapter about Hagar - one of the women mentioned in the Old Testament. Hagar was the Egyptian slave of Sarah (Abram's wife).

Williams quotes biblical historian Gerhard von Rad who wrote 'The wife could bring to the marriage her own personal maid, who was not available to her husband as a concubine in the same way his own female slaves were.  If she gave her personal maid to her husband, in the event of her own childlessness, then the child born of the made was considered the wife's child.'

God had promised Abram descendents but Sarah was old and believed to be barren so she offered Hagar to Abram as a child born of her husband and her personal slave could count as her own. Once Hagar had conceived she began to 'despise' Sarah and Sarah complained to Abram. Abram told her to do what she liked with her slave. Sarah mistreated her and Hagar ran away. According to the writer of Genesis, Hagar then encountered the angel of the Lord who told her to 'go back to your mistress and submit to her' but also promised her many descendents 'too numerous to count'. Hagar returned to Sarah and had her son who she called Ishmael as the angel of God had commanded. However, the story has a twist. Abram was supposedly 86 when Ishmael is born. When he reached the age of 100 Sarah herself became pregnant. she gave birth to Isaac. Afraid that Isaac should have to share Abram's inheritance with his half-brother Ishmael Sarah pursuaded Abram to dismiss Hagar. Abram was 'distressed' but God told him to do as Sarah wanted so he gave Hagar food and water and sent her off. The water soon ran out and Hagar left Ishmael under a tree and went some distance away as she thought 'I cannot watch the boy die'. God heard her crying and miraculously a well appeared. Hagar gave water to Ishael and he recovered. When he grew up Hagar found a wife from Egypt for him. 

'Hagar becomes the first female in the Bible to liberate herself from oppressive power structures. Though the law prescribes harsh punishments for runa-away slaves, she takes the risk rather than endure any more brutal treatment by Sarai.' 

Delores Williams

The story of Hagar resonates for African-american women because her situation corresponded to their own history.

  • She was a slave
  • She was from Africa and is owned by a family of a different race
  • She was abused/exploited by both men (Abram) and women (Sarah)
  • She was forced to take on a surrogate role
  • She raised her child alone and passes on her heritage by finding him a wife from within her own people
  • She was resourceful and - as far as possible - took the initiative to improve her own situtation (e.g. by running away and later by obtaining a wife for her son).

Womanist theologians have discussed why God sent her back to Abram and Sarah. Delores Williams suggests that it was to help her to survive. Giving birth in the desert would not be in her self interest, thus God helps her to do what is necessary to survive.

The story also demonstrates that God does not necessarily liberate the oppressed. Rather than support Hagar when she fled from Abram and Sarah, the angel of the Lord told her to return. He does not free her, however, he was there with her in her time of need, he helped her to survive and he gave her hope for the future.

Hagar stands as a role model for African American woman and her situation corresponds to their own. 

'Even today, most of Hagar's situation is conguent with many African-American women's predicament of poverty, sexual and economic exploitation, surrogacy, domestic violence, homelessness, rape, motherhood, single-parenting, ethnicity and meetings with God. Many black women have testified that "God helped them to make a way out of no way." They believe God is involved not only in their survival struggle, but that God also supports their struggle for quality of life, which "making a way" suggests.'

Delores Williams Sisters in the Wilderness 1993 Chapter 1

As a person 'momentarily in charge of her own destiny' Hagar demonstrates how women oppressed by racism, sexism and classism can nevertheless take some control of the situation.


Stage 1: Rereading

Stage 2: Creating 'god-talk'

Williams described her approach to the bible as one of rereading. This, she explained, does not mean adding to the text or inventing characters. Rather, rereading involves seeing what is there from a new perspective. The reader tries to see the story from Hagar's position and perhaps uses historical knowledge to try to understand more about why Hagar acted as she did.

Rereading is the first stage of Biblical hermeneutics. The second stage is to use what has been learned from the Bible to create 'god-talk mindful of black women's experiences'. In other words, to create contextural theolology which is relevant and accessible to African American women.

For Williams, womanist theology needs to contain the following elements if it is to achieve its purpose.

'Womanist theology is already beginning to define the categories and methods needed to develop along lines consistent with the sources of that theology. Christian womanist theological methodology needs to be informed by at least four elements:

  1. a multidialogical intent [i.e. involve lots of people from different in the development of womanism and the liberation of black women]
  2. a liturgical intent [aim to develop new forms of liturgy and church worship]
  3. a didactic intent [aim to teach/inform people]
  4. a commitment both to reason and to the validity of female imagery and metaphorical language in the construction of theological statements.' [i.e. use female imagery of God]

Delores Williams Womanist Theology: Black Women's Voice (article on www.religion-online.org)

Womanist theology needs to be empowering and overcome negative stereotypes to liberate African American woman. In the chapter entitled 'Colour struck; a state of mind' Williams lists some of the ways in which popular culture and language reinforces the idea that white = good, black = bad. For example, blackmail, black list, blackening the name of... are all associated with bad. White however deontes purity and goodness. Christian imagery which associates cleansing a blackened soul or a blackened heart and washing it white and pure subtly contributes to negative stereotypes.


The issue of motherhood is particularly complicated within the African-American experience. For a start, enslaved women may well have felt ambivilent towards their own children. The experience of rape was common and many children were born as a result of white slave owners treating their black slaves as their mistresses. Other women were used specifially as 'breeders' to add to the slave population. Many women brought up their children alone and these children were often sold off to other families. Slave women did not have the luxury of devoting time to motherhood and often the mothering of her own children was done alongside work in the fields or caring for white children. Williams points out that mother-child (and particularly mother-daughter) relationships were important in maintaining cultural traditions. Mothers also tried to give their children the resources to cope with the struggles that they faced.

Beyond the issue of natural motherhood is what Williams terms 'surrogacy'. Some slaves were used as 'mammy' (nanny) to white children. The role of mammy was one of the most powerful ones that an enslaved women could have (she had influence within the family and usually had a higher status than the other slaves) yet she was still a slave and often disguarded when she had outlived her usefulness. Even after the end of slavery, many African American women found that economic circumstances meant that they still ended up acting as surrogate in white families.

According to Williams, the slave experience is responsible for continuing racist attitudes today.

  • The use of slaves as concubines has created the idea that black women have loose morals and are sexually available.
  • The mammy tradition encourages the idea that black women's lives revolve around children - any children - an self-sacrifice is expected of her.
  • The slaves working in the fields and doing 'male' jobs has led to the idea that black women are less feminine and more able to cope with suffering than white women.

Further Reading:

Delores Williams' article here.