Delores S. Williams

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Delores S. Williams
Born United States
Theological work
Language English
Notable ideas Womanist theology

Delores S. Williams is a theologian notable for her formative role in the development of womanist theology and best known for her book Sisters in the Wilderness. Her writings over the years have discussed the role intersecting oppressions of race, gender, and class have played in the situation of black women. As opposed to feminist theology as it was predominantly practiced by white women and black theology as predominantly practiced by black men, Williams argues that black women's oppression deepens the analysis of oppression in theology. In Sisters in the Wilderness, Williams' primarily develops a rereading of the biblical figure, Hagar, to illuminate the importance of issues of reproduction and surrogacy in black women's oppression. According to Aaron McEmrys, "Williams offers a theological response to the defilement of black women.... Womanism is an approach to ethics, theology and life rooted in the experiences of African-American women".[1] The term "Womanism" was coined by a contemporary of Williams, Alice Walker, used in her 1979 short story "Coming Apart"[2] and again in her 1983 essay collection In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens.[2] Williams wrote the eighth chapter of Transforming the Faiths of our Fathers: Women who Changed American Religion (2004), edited by Ann Braude.

Theory of womanism vs feminism[edit]

Womanism is a byproduct of Black feminism for which both are derivatives of feminism. The emergence of both Black feminism and later Womanism is due to black women not being able to identify with the issues presented by the Feminist Movement led by white women, who were more or less looking for various forms of both individual and relational equality with white men so as to eliminate sexism. For the African–American woman equality would include the elimination of racism and classism, something that feminism did not directly address. Feminists' main focus was on the disparity between white men and women and did not consider the plight of black women in relation to her counterpart alongside the other oppression that would impact directly on the black women’s true liberation.

The theory of womanism is intended to provide black women a platform where they can freely relate their stories of oppression, which are inherently different from the feminist groups, which are led by mostly middle-class white women. The goal of the womanist movement was not only to eliminate inequalities but to assist black women in reconnecting with their roots in religion and culture and to reflect and improve on "self, community and society".[3]

Biblical comparison[edit]

Williams eloquently articulates the plight of black women by comparing the plight of the biblical character Hagar, a concubine of Abraham. Hagar was servant to both Abraham and his wife Sarah. Hagar’s role as handmaiden, giving birth to Ishmael when Sarah and Abraham were unable to conceive, functioned similarly to the role of black women during and after slavery. In particular, Williams' notes the ways Hagar's position in relation to Sarah was comparable to black women in relation to white women. Hagar's conceptions of reproduction and surrogacy are used to show the forced labor black women were forced to participate in during slavery (reproducing enslaved children or taking care of their master's children) and after slavery as laborers in the homes of white people. Williams' work shows the different positions black women had in relation to white women and the overlooked oppression of black women in white women's theology and theory.

Feminist–womanist dialogue[edit]

Williams was not closed-minded to opening up dialogue between the two groups – feminists and womanists – to achieve a greater good. While not naïvely believing that this would eradicate racism among the two groups, Williams is assured that "all women regardless of race or class, have developed survival strategies that have helped [them to] arrive sane at [their] present social and cultural locations". She recognizes that "there has been little to no conversations among women for the purpose of swapping stories about the nature of these survival strategies". She states in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion: "We feminist-womanist women need to remember, commemorate, and lift up for ourselves and subsequent generations of women the resistance events and ideas that have birthed and kept alive women’s rights struggle...create resistant rituals that can be enacted wherever feminist and womanist meet to share survival strategies and plan attacks upon patriarchal and white supremacist mind-sets and practices in American institutional life."[4]


  1. ^ McEmrys, Aaron (200). "Engaging the sacred wisdom of our sisters in the wilderness: A unitarian universalist/womanist dialogue". The Journal of Liberal Religion. 7 (1): 1–17. 
  2. ^ a b Williams, Delores (1985). "Women's oppression and lifeline politics in black women's religious narratives". Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 1 (2): 59–71. 
  3. ^ Sarah Pinnock, "Williams, Delores S.", in Bron Taylor (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Vol. 1, 2005, p. 1751.
  4. ^ Williams, Delores S. (1985). "Womanist/feminist dialogue: problems and possibilities". Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 1 (2): 59–71. 

Further reading[edit]

  • McEmrys, Aaron (2006). "Engaging the sacred wisdom of our sisters in the wilderness: A unitarian universalist/womanist dialogue". Discourse: The Journal of Liberal Religion 7(1), 1–17.
  • Pinnock, Sarah. (2005). "Williams, Delores S." In Bron Taylor (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (Vol. 1, pp. 1751). Oxford University Press.
  • Russell, Letty M. (1993). Church in the Round: Feminist interpretation of the church. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
  • Williams, Delores S. (1993). "Visions, inner voices, apparitions, and defiance in nineteenth-century black women’s narratives". Woman’s Studies Quarterly (Vol. 21, pp. 81–89). New York: Feminist Press.