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What Is Womanist Theology?

By Emily Daw
Updated May 23, 2024
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Womanist theology is a movement among African American Christian women that began in the 1970s and 1980s. It is meant to address the perceived failings in liberation theology and mainstream feminism in order to promote the well-being of black women, and then promote society as a whole through them. The movement seeks to be both scholarly and practical, but has received criticism for straying too far from its Christian roots.

Womanist theology largely grew out of the writings of women like Alice Walker, best known for her 1983 novel The Color Purple. Walker's poetry, fiction, and essays emphasize the struggles and humanity of black women, particularly in the lower classes. She and subsequent womanist writers felt that the role of black women in society had largely been overlooked either unintentionally or through deliberately oppressive means. Other movements addressing social equality at the time included liberation theology and feminism. Womanist theologians, however, felt that liberation theology was too male-centric and that feminism was too white and bourgeois-centered to adequately address the needs of black women, especially the economically disadvantaged.

The goals of womanist theology include celebrating the victories and mourning the losses in the stories of black women, past and present, in America and elsewhere, to address the inadequacies found in mainstream discourses. Through this, womanist theology seeks to bridge gaps between socioeconomic groups. When scholarly womanist researchers enter into the communities of other black women for the purpose of anthropological studies, it is felt that both groups benefit from the interchange of ideas and development of relationships.

In addition to bridging socioeconomic gaps among black women, womanist theology attempts to expand its influence to the disadvantaged across racial barriers. Drawing on tenants of liberation theology, womanist theologians believe that some or all of the message of Christ has to do with righting the wrongs of society brought about by sin, including poverty. One primary way the movement seeks to do this is through its emphasis on nurturing and building community. The practice of loving and mothering, both one's literal children and others, is highly valued in womanist theology.

Some branches of Christianity, including other black movements, have criticized womanist theology for being too concerned with cultural and societal issues at the expense of a strong Christian theology. Womanist theologians describe their approach as "holistic" — addressing both physical and spiritual concerns — but their critics say that nothing especially Christian is left in their beliefs or methods. Some womanists, for instance, embrace syncretism, or the blending of Christianity with other religions, especially some form of paganism. Others are adamantly in favor of homosexual relationships, especially between women. Despite these criticisms, however, womanist theology remains a powerful force within African American religious communities.

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Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On May 19, 2014

I think Alice Walker really showed what life for African-American women in the Jim Crow days was like. That's what makes "The Color Purple" so ground-breaking.

I don't know that anyone is saying that womanist theology is particularly Christian in nature. Maybe the African-American church has just adopted it because it fits in with their drive to empower women to succeed.

By Wisedly33 — On May 18, 2014

Having a more female-centered theology is one thing. Having one that's so centered on women that it completely ignores God is something else.

I feel these women should call their theology for what it is and stop trying to connect it so strongly to Christianity. Alice Walker might have been raised in church, but she isn't a Christian, so crediting her with being at the forefront of creating some kind of Christian theology is ludicrous.

If it's not Christian, fine, but call it what it is -- a female-centered spirituality, not a Christian one.

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