Since the late-twentieth century, scholars have used womanist and black feminist perspectives to bring new insights to reading the Bible.
What does the term womanist mean?
The term womanist was first popularized by the widely acclaimed 1983 publication In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, a compilation of nonfiction essays by author and activist Alice Walker. In the front matter of the collection, Walker offers a four-part poetic definition of a womanist. She explains that the term derives from the black folk expression womanish for female adolescents exhibiting adult behavior inappropriate for their age. Walker describes a womanist as a “black feminist or feminist of color” (xi) but also differentiates the two in part four where she writes that “womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” (xii). Although Walker is not the sole progenitor of womanist in contemporary black women’s literature, many women cite Walker’s definition as the source of their womanist ideas.
What does a womanist perspective contribute to biblical studies?
The term womanist resonates with many US black women and other women of color in the Global South, including African and South Asian women, who have appropriated the term to name their multiple and simultaneous experiences of race or caste, gender, and class discrimination. Black women graduate students and faculty in religious studies and related fields in the mid-1980s introduced the guild to womanist approaches in religion. Conversations begun at their institutions around womanist religious thought continued at annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature.
Early publications using womanist approaches to biblical interpretation include the monographs Just A Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible (1988) by Renita Weems and Call and Consequences: A Womanist Reading of Mark by Raquel St. Clair, as well as such articles as “Womanist Interpretations of the New Testament: The Quest for Holistic and Inclusive Translation and Interpretation” (1990) by Clarice Martin and “Toward a Womanist Hermeneutic: A Reading of Judges 19–21” (1993) by Koala Jones-Warsaw. Each offers a contextual reading of biblical narratives that challenges ethnic stereotypes, gender expectations, and social standings.
Womanist biblical interpretation begins with black women’s ways of knowing and experience as normative for analyzing biblical texts. Moreover, womanist readings of the Bible apply an intersectional analysis of simultaneous and interlocking oppressions, such as racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism experienced by black and other women of color. Legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality for this phenomenon, but nineteenth and early twentieth century black women documented the interstructured and overlapping racism and sexism they experienced in their lives and political activism. Womanist biblical interpretation is also interdisciplinary. Womanist scholars engage sources, to include black women’s writing and oral traditions—fiction and nonfiction—as well as works of other black women in religious studies and related fields.
While the number of women in biblical studies who identify their scholarship as womanist in approach remains small, the scholarly output of womanist approaches to biblical studies is growing steadily, with more recent publications expanding into areas that include Midrashic, South Indian, and extracanonical sources.