“You’ve never heard of womanist theology?!” My colleague Rev. Moya Harris looked at me with a mix of excitement and incredulity. This wasn’t unusual: Through I attended parochial schools and Catholic colleges, I’m a relative newbie to the wider world of faith-based organizations and advocacy — and thus my work frequently involves googling the names of theologians, denominations, and Christian leaders I’ve never heard of before. I love this environment of continued learning, but when I learned about womanist theology, I realized I had been missing a key element of my faith: the liberatory and healing nature of God.
Womanism examines the lived experience of Black women who are subject to oppression that intersects with their race, class, and gender. Black poet and novelist Alice Walker is credited with coining the term “womanism.” In her 1983 collection of essays, letters, and speeches, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker offers a four-part definition that focuses on spirituality, creativity, oppression of Black women, and respect. She begins by explaining that a womanist is “A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children” adding that it can also include “a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or non-sexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture … Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.” She famously concludes her definition by stating: “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.”
For Walker, womanism offered a more robust analysis of sociopolitical and cultural issues than feminism, which focused mainly on class and gender and missed the lived oppression for women of color. Walker’s womanism also powerfully focuses on the historical experiences of Black women, from enslavement to segregation and Jim Crow to recent struggles against racism, stereotyping, and poverty, creating a link from the past to present that continues to capture the hearts and minds of future womanists.
Adopting a womanist approach frees us to view the world from the vantage point of those who most acutely feel its burdens — a view that allows us to find the cure instead of simply addressing the symptoms. Womanism is the gardener who pulls up the weeds by the root. She knows that it is simply not enough to pluck the weeds that we see on the surface; rather, to truly eradicate the weed, she must grab it by the roots that have taken hold of the Earth, growing where it is not wanted, so that her soil will be fertile and her other plants will not be choked by the invasive intruder.
Consider the wage gap: If we simply look at gender disparities, we see that women in the U.S. were typically paid 77 cents for every dollar paid to men in 2021, according to a recent report by the National Partnership for Women and Families. But when we add the lens of race or ethnicity, we see further disparity: For every dollar paid to white men, white women were paid 73 cents, Black women 64 cents, Latina women 54 cents, and Indigenous women just 51 cents. Overall, the broad group of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander women earn 80 cents, but some subgroups, including Burmese and Nepalese women, earn as little as 52 cents. Looking at these statistics, we see that achieving wage justice for all women cannot be a one-size fits all approach; we need to craft policies to address the fullness and complexity their unique needs.
Womanist theology locates themes of God’s liberation, justice, and freedom in the stories of the Bible, but roots that liberation in the self-empowerment of Black women. As Vanderbilt ethicist Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas writes, “Womanism is a paradigm shift wherein Black women no longer look to others for their liberation, but instead look to themselves.” A womanist theologian knows the history of Black women in white America and is very clear that we have never expected liberation to come at the hands of our enslavers or even well-meaning non-Black people. Instead, our liberation must come from our own hands and is fortified in the knowledge that God will provide all we need to live the life they intended.
Hagar’s story is a prime example of this nuance, and, as womanist theologian Delores S. Williams taught, her story resonates with the experience of many Black women. An enslaved woman from Egypt, Hagar was abused and exploited by Abram and Sarai who forced her to take on a surrogate role until Sarai was able to conceive a child of her own — and they send Hagar and her child into the desert. Hagar’s abuse and exploitation mirror the use of Black enslaved woman as wet nurses and the rape and abuse they endured at the hands of white enslavers. But God continued to watch over and provide for Hagar — an example of the guiding hand that God had and continues to have for Black women everywhere as we fight for our own freedom and that for others.
The theme of suffering is particularly important to womanist theology. Jesus taught us, “What I’m about to tell you is true. Anything you did for one of the least important of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, NIRV). This passage states that Jesus followers are being commanded to go towards the suffering of others and work to alleviate it. The emphasis here is that God did not create us to suffer but to live in joy.
As prominent womanist theologian Katie Geneva Cannon pointed out, the dominant — i.e., white and male — understanding of Christianity suggests that suffering is a choice, a desired moral norm that showcases the depth of your faith and commitment to following Jesus. This is diametrically opposed to the reality of Black people in the U.S., where suffering caused by racism, classism, and sexism is the normal state of affairs. For Cannon, womanist theology allows for a more complex, nuanced understanding of suffering that also acknowledges systemic and institutional factors that must be abolished to achieve the liberation of all, not just some.
My introduction to womanist theology has had a profound impact on my own psychosocial-spiritual healing. A radical emphasis on using your power to heal yourself before you heal others is such an anathema to what it means to be a Black woman in the U.S. Along with Indigenous women, we are constantly pushed to work twice as hard to be considered just as good as our white counterparts, with less pay, less respect, and less support. We endure misogynoir — a combination of both sexism and racism — while not being allowed to express any emotion that may paint us as an “angry Black woman.” We are constantly told, “Just put your head down and keep going,” a reminder that we are not allowed to heal or grieve or emote anything aside from what the white gaze dictates.
I have always understood my existence to belong to others, that my existence and very being would be defined by white, mainly male, voices. Those voices have always defined me as an overly sexual, overly angry, overly expressive creation that was always too rough, too coarse, and too hard to be afforded the privileges and protections given to white women. I had internalized that racist gaze and constructed an image of self that was never good enough, never worthy enough, and was safest being as quiet and unassuming as possible. The more I grow and learn about womanism and womanist theology, the easier it becomes to believe that I am worthy just because I exist; God created me as a Black woman for a reason and that reason is as valid and beautiful as the next. Womanist theology gave me the radical permission to accept that I deserve to be healed, empowered, protected, and free. The Holy Spirit resides in me. This affirmation of my being in the face of constant dehumanization is something that I never expected to have living in the U.S. as a Black woman and, in true womanist fashion, is a blessing I want to help other woman receive.