The word womanism was adapted from Pulitzer Prize winning author, Alice Walker. In her book In Search of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose, Walker used the word to describe the perspective and experiences of "women of color". Although most Womanist scholarship centers on the African American woman's experience, other non-white theorists identify themselves with this term.
The need for this term arose from the early feminist movements that were led specifically by white women who advocated social changes such as woman’s suffrage. The feminist movement focused largely on oppressions based on sexism. But this movement, largely a white middle-class movement, ignored oppression based on racism and classism. It was at this point that Womanists pointed out that black women experienced a different and more intense kind of oppression than did white women.
The roots of theological womanism grew out of the theology of Jacquelyn Grant, Delores Williams, and James Hal Cone. Cone developed black theology which sought to make sense out of theology from black experience in America. In his book A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone argued that “God is black” in an effort to demonstrate that God identifies with oppressed people. Grant, a first generation womanist theologian, argued that Cone did not attend to the fullness of black experience — specifically that of black women. She argued that the oppression of black women is different than that of black men. Grant pointed out that lower-income black women must navigate between the three-fold oppression of racism, sexism, and classism in her books Womanist Theology and White Woman's Christ Black Women's Jesus. For her, Jesus is a “divine co-sufferer” who suffered in his time like black women today. Therefore, black women are more oppressed and in need of further liberation than black men and especially white women. Delores Williams took the work of theologians such as Cone and Grant and expanded upon them. She suggested that womanist theologians need to “search for the voices, actions, opinions, experience, and faith” of black women in order to experience the God who “makes a way out of no way.” In her book Sisters in the Wilderness, she defines womanism in the following way:
“Womanist theology is a prophetic voice concerned about the well-being of the entire African American community, male and female, adults and children. Womanist theology attempts to help black women see, affirm, and have confidence in the importance of their experience and faith for determining the character of the Christian religion in the African American community. Womanist theology challenges all oppressive forces impeding black women’s struggle for survival and for the development of a positive, productive quality of life conducive to women’s and the family’s freedom and well-being. Womanist theology opposes all oppression based on race, sex, class, sexual preference, physical ability, and caste” (67).
With the increasing use of the term in Master of Divinity, African American Studies, and Women's Studies, programs have clearly begun to incorporate womanism into university and seminary courses. Two examples of educational institutions that incorporate womanism in their graduate coursework are Eden Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri and Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee.
Professionals such as historians are regarded by some as "womanist" historians if they have incorporated the views and experiences of African American women in their accounts of history.