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.
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:
Delores Williams was first to use the term womanist theology.
Stephanie Mitchem's book Introducing Womanist Theology sets out the origins of womanist theology thus:
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.
Obviously some problems faced by black women are similar to those faced by white women, but the problems are often compounded by racism.
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.
Historically woman has been 'other' to normative man but womanists point out that black woman has been 'other' to normative white woman.
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').
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.'
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
The story of Hagar resonates for African-american women because her situation corresponded to their own history.
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.
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.
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 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.
Delores Williams' article here.