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This article was originally published in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society. If you would like to see some other articles from Missionalia, have a look at the list of Missionalia articles on the Web


An epistemological and methodological base for feminist missiological/historical research amongst contemporary South African women

by Annalet van Schalkwyk 1

Ms Annalet van Schalkwyk teaches in the Dept of Missiology at Unisa. Her special interests are womens issues in ministry and society and the churchs involvement in development.
I wish to thank Dr Jaco Dreyer of the Dept of Practical Theology at Unisa for making me aware of a number of new developments in research methodology. See Dreyer (1997).


This paper searches for a feminist research methodology to enable research on contemporary South African women. It shows how women have been marginalised in theology and mission as a result of the Western dichotomy of mind and body. This resulted in a separation between (male) rationality and (female) emotion. In traditional research, conceived of as rational and objective, women were therefore marginalised. In post-empirical research approaches that recognise intersubjectivity, experience is acknowledged as the base of all knowledge. However, since women and gender issues are still not mainstreamed, women researchers opt for a position on the margins of science, from where they do committed research, connected with the social movement for women's liberation. This position regards women's experiences as its main source and uses narrative to translate these experiences from real life to a text. Women tell their stories in their own terms and uncover the liberative leitmotiv in these. Appropriate methods to record women's stories are participant observation, life histories and unstructured interviews. The article closes with the missiological significance of revealing women's participation in the creation of new life in the midst of oppression.


On my lounge wall hangs a framed poster which usually evokes some response from visitors and friends. The poster depicts a woman running towards the viewer from the middle of a sea of flames. Her outstretched arms and body posture form a cross. Her face expresses great pain. Simultaneously and paradoxically, her facial expression and bodily posture connote strength and suffering, endurance and fatigue, purposefulness and dejection. In the midst of pain, danger and violence, she is forced to find a way out.

This poster is titled Sister, we bleed and we sing. The original artwork was done by Shelley Sacks in 1986, to commemorate the struggle of women during the unrest in the Cape Flats' squatter areas in the turbulent mid-eighties. When I saw it in an art gallery, the poster immediately caught my attention and spoke to me; it subliminally suggested many things to me which I did not immediately understand. Gradually it became a reference point and metaphor which I came to know and to physically visit and re- visit, nearly daily, as I moved around my home.

The burning woman of the Cape Flats became a symbol of all my sisters whom I came to know, as I moved through various experiences, with women and men in various contexts, in the course of my life. She also became a symbol of my own struggles and victories as I moved through my life experiences. She symbolises the power and the powerlessness, the victories over constraining life situations and defeat by those same situations, in the lives of the women and men with whom I was confronted and who formed my consciousness.

My experiences with various women I met and worked with as a community worker in the Western Cape from 1989 to 1994, impelled me to write my doctoral thesis about contemporary women in South Africa all of whom participated or are participating to transform our society and to realise liberation, justice, peace and healing in short, shalom in our society. The title of my thesis taken from the title of the poster mentioned above is Sister, we bleed and we sing. Since I wished to relate my own and my sisters' experiences and struggles to the wider context of South African women's struggles, the stories are about the participation of a few well-known and lesser-known contemporary women from greater South Africa who in some way played or are still playing a part in realising shalom in a transitional South Africa. I have selected women who made significant contributions in the fields of politics, community development, work for justice and peace, the ministry of the church, the women's movement and ecological awareness.

I aim to narrate the stories of these women, or to let them narrate their own stories, in such a way that the particularity and uniqueness of their contribution towards shalom will be made clear to the reader. Details of their lives, both personal and public, will be narrated in order to form a holistic picture of their lives and work in relation to their communities. My further aim is to focus in these stories on the leitmotiv of liberation (in all its forms) in the context of their life-struggles, constraints and defeats. I shall highlight points of conversion or change, both of a personal and public political nature, and how such turning points function as pivots in the growth and development of the women's life stories. In the words of my promoter, Christina Landman, I will search for the ways in which women's perspectives on their own lives change in order that they may rename and reclaim the liberative themes of their life stories. These themes of liberation and transformation will be summarised and reflected upon at the end of each story in order that the shalomatic or missiological importance of the life story may be clear. Alternatively, I, as researcher, will rename and reclaim the liberative themes or leitmotivs in the stories. In this way, I hope to tell stories that have a missiological impact on the reader of the stories and on society in general.

In order to fulfil these aims through my research, I needed an epistemology and methodology that would enable me (and the subjects of my research) to translate the women's experiences and realities into stories that would express Women's research from the periphery their meaning and their liberative themes. This became a real challenge to me, not only because I want to write a good thesis with a substantial methodological chapter, but because I want to create the space for women's voices to be heard. I wanted women to tell these as new, liberating, religious stories and to find new meanings and symbols of hope for the women, men, boys and girls of this beautiful but troubled country. In so doing, I hoped to be able to help them to find new ways of living liberated and fulfilling lives in the midst of all the crises and negative realities of our times. My purpose was to practise feminist theology in a way that would be both liberating and life-conferring. In other words, I want to practise feminist theology missiologically .

The following paper is, then, an abbreviated version of the methodological chapter of my thesis.


A reading of African and South African mission history leads to an inescapable conclusion that, although both missionary and missionised women undoubtedly played a major role in mission and in the resultant growth of indigenous churches and Christian communities, they became trivialised and marginalised figures in written-down mission historiography and in missiology. This is but one example of the marginalisation of women in theology, which is in turn but one consequence of patriarchy and the resultant sexist discrimination against women.

But what has sexism to do with good, objective research? I am supposed to write on research methodology, isn't that what this paper is about?

Rosemary Ruether describes the mind-body dualism in Western Christian thinking as the basic intellectual construct which has supported a negative and therefore subordinate view of women. Women are associated with the lower, baser, weaker and evil part of human nature, whereas men (and God) are associated with the head of human nature spirituality, morality, intellect, rationality and power.

In her book, New woman, new earth, Ruether (1975:3f,79,83) continues to make the connections between a dualistic view of self and world, body and spirit, and the oppression of various groups such as women, blacks, Jews and others. She links the symbolic devaluation of the feminine to the dominating mindset behind racism, classism, sexism, economic exploitation of people and the exploitation of the earth. Sexism is thus understood to be at the heart, at the point of intersection of various forms of oppression.

The body-soul dualism described by Ruether has also resulted in the objectification of Western thought, science and, of course, theology. The Italian physicist, Elizabetta Donini (1994:63-64), describes this objectification in strongly critical terms. Science is pursued from an elevated, hierarchical, head position, from whence the (traditionally male) researcher is in the position to rule and subdue the research object by way of his objective, neutral, rationalistic approach, from the outside. From this objectified stance follows the death and degradation of women and nature, as the lower, viler part of creation that is studied (and thus ruled and used) by androcentric science. Thus, in science, as in religion and society, women and other subjugated categories are kept in the inferior body position.

Theology was the efficient instrument by means of which misogyny, sexism and hierarchicalism were religiously justified and entrenched in Western thought, science and society. A Father-God and a male-led, hierarchical church went hand in hand with a theology that continued to entrench the relationship of God and male religious leaders as superior to women and the rest of humanity (and to nature) in a domination-subordination model.

It followed from the logic of this domination-subordination theological model that the church's missionary activities and reflection would follow the same general pattern. The triumphalist, imperialist and paternalist manner in which mission was largely practised and often still is practised (Bosch 1991:5- 6) reveals this underlying paradigm of domination (Russell 1984:77).

In her book, Beyond God the Father: towards a philosophy of women's liberation, Mary Daly (in Spretnak 1982:351-361) critically describes the conquering and impositional propensities of the Christian concept of mission.

In contrast to this content that the word mission has very often carried in history, Daly describes an alternative concept that subverts and transcends the mission-as-conquest concept. Sister- hood as cosmic covenant is the title of the final chapter of Beyond God the Father. In it Daly (1982:354-356) describes this covenant:

... as the deep agreement that is present within the self and among selves who are increasingly in harmony with an environment that is beyond, beneath and all around the non-environment of patriarchal splits and barriers. ...Insofar as there is sending at all it is mutual an interpenetration of insights coming from discovery of participation together in being, in the cosmos.

One need not agree with every aspect of Daly's radical, post- Christian feminism to admit that the impositional, conquering way in which mission was often done has irredeemably coloured the term Christian mission. We have to seek a new inclusive, participatory and dialogical content for the term mission. We can also recognise that these aspects of the cosmic covenant already exist in mission history, but they need new recognition and emphasis.

In the light of this vision of mutuality and participation in a cosmic covenant, it is now possible to look at changing concepts of mission and theology. In the wake of liberation theology, the idea of people as subjects of their own histories became important (Robert 1993:1-3). Terms such as localisation, inculturation and contextualisation are regularly used in contemporary missiology. New hermeneutic approaches to Scripture and Christian tradition, approaches which recognise subjectivity and inter- subjectivity, have developed over the past decades. One can call this new phase in scientific enquiry the post-empirical period (McCarl Nielsen 1990:7) Here we may also mention the sociology of knowledge and critical theory, which recognises that scholars always work from their own frame of reference (Schssler-Fiorenza 1982:xix; McCarl Nielsen 1990:7-15).

But this does not mean that the participation of women in church and mission history, or the repression of their participation, is accounted for in these new hermeneutical developments. Although critical analysis of the context became a basic part of a liberational theological hermeneutic, the categories of gender and women's experience are rarely included in the analysis (Ackermann 1994:130).

This neglect of women's issues is further manifested in the way in which feminist theological research is withheld from entering the mainstream of theological research, although the current feminist movement has engendered an explosion of scholarly works in all areas of scientific enquiry and research. But the search for major women role-players in the ongoing story of the Christian faith is still regarded as trivial, marginal and merely a women's problem in academia. Women as worthy research objects are just not taken seriously in traditional male-dominated theology (Schssler Fiorenza 1982:xix; cf. Meyer-Wilmes 1990:7).

Despite the fact that a paradigm shift is taking place in that male scholars are now more prepared to recognise that research is done within a subjective, engaged frame of reference, and in that the category of gender is gradually receiving more attention in scientific circles feminist women's studies remain peripheral.


In contrast to the objectivist research model's disregard of other historical subjects and the (inadvertent) lack of attention to gender in the post-empirical research paradigm, feminist researchers consciously place the (varied) peripheral or marginal conditions of women at the centre of their research. We now make our experience and condition as marginalised women (both as researchers and as research objects) our key interpretive category (Meyer-Wilmes 1990:152-164). By so doing, women researchers demonstrate the importance of recognising the subjective knowledge of women and other marginalised groups in a more humane scholarship that is inclusive of all people in their subjective state of knowing.

This feminist research poses a major challenge to androcentric scholarship and invites it to undergo a paradigm shift from a neutral (but in fact androcentric) stance to a truly human stance (Schssler Fiorenza 1982:xix), and secondly, from a post- empirical stance in which the subjectivity of all forms of research is recognised, but where the perspectives and contributions of women are still not fully accommodated; to an intersubjective model of research, where the perspectives of various groups, including those of women, are in interaction with each other. Thus the false universalisation of male experience as general human experience is subverted and deconstructed.

Ursula King (1994:315-317) also highlights the challenge and impact that feminist thinking and theology have had on society and consciousness in recent years. It is part of a profound social transformation and paradigm shift of our time.

As a feminist missiologist, I might comment here on the profoundly missiological role that feminist theological research has to play in order to open up theological disciplines in this way. Feminist research and theology introduce a liberational and shalomatic emphasis into the practice and reflection of faith among oppressed and peripheral groups alienated from mainstream androcentric scholarship.

This is especially true of women's theology in the African and South African context. African women's theology feeds on, and uses, religious women's daily life experiences and struggles as source material. Moreover, African women's theology focuses on the use of religious women's faith as source of strength and empowerment, to overcome and survive the many difficulties of the African context. African women's faith and daily struggle demonstrate the presence of shalom in the midst of death, poverty, and cultural, political and economic oppression.

To make each periphery a new centre in feminist historiography is to retrieve muted voices, to remember forgotten stories. It is to reclaim our heritage. Our heritage is our power, as Judy Chicago said (this phrase is the title of the introduction to her book, The dinner party: a symbol of our heritage, republished in Spretnak 1982:153-156).

In a missiological sense, working with women's peripheral positions in mission historiography is to recall the ou, ou tyding (Afrikaans for the "old, familiar message") of the liberating gospel as it took shape and meaning in women's lives amid repressive conditions in church and society. It also means that we can rejoice over this liberative, shalomatic gospel's meaning for women in times gone by, in our present time, and in time to come.

After investigating the reasons for the relegation of feminist science/theology to the margins of science and theology, I adopted a feminist epistemological stance and strategy for use as an alternative or peripheral position and as a point of departure. In the following section I will continue to clarify the epistemological and methodological consequences of this periphery stance. The main consequence is that a commitment to women in their experience of their peripheralised conditions leads to a new, involved praxis- and change-orientated research approach. I shall indicate that commitment to and involvement in women's struggles will lead to an exploration of women's experience and of the best tools to express and describe that experience. The one tool that I will focus on is the use of narrative, and I will specifically investigate the narrative quality of biography. This will finally lead to a quest for practical research methods that will serve the purposes of the described methodology.


The peripheral position of feminist research provides feminist researchers with the epistemological argument or stance against which researcher's theses or data may be tested in order to lay claim to a uniquely feminist scientific validity.

Hedwig Meyer-Wilmes describes this condition in the introduction to her book, Rebellion on the borders (1995:9- 10):

The metaphorical title of this book, Rebellion on the borders, is taken from the idea that feminist theology cannot merely be characterised as doing theology on the borders between science and movement, knowledge and self-image, theory and experience, but rather that its position on the border and its capacity to go beyond that border is its constituent element.

Feminist science and theology are therefore directed against the boundaries within science, especially the encyclopaedic boundaries within theology. These boundaries should be shifted and put under pressure in current interdisciplinary discourse. This is very much the current role of feminist theology dealing, as it does, not so much with the fundamentals of theology as with the practical, socio-political problem of the oppression of women and the political movement for their liberation.

This is clearly reflected in the feminist academic debate which, on the basis of its problem-oriented self-image or definition (overcoming the oppression of women) and of its structural foundations, attempts to present itself as an interdisciplinary discourse (Meyer-Wilmes 1995:9-10).

Yet feminist science is defined by its positioning, not only on the borders of science, but also by it anomalous position beyond the borders of science. This again has to do with the fact that feminist theology is driven, or rather pulled, by the social movement for women's liberation. The questioning from the women's liberation movement is not yet science, and yet it challenges feminist theology to come to an awareness of certain problems which should be scientifically known (Meyer-Wilmes 1995:11).

Feminist scientific discourse is, then, a discourse which is acted out on the borders in front of and beyond science (Meyer- Wilmes 1995:11). Again, this positioning of feminist theology determines not only its epistemological stance but, flowing from that, its methodology as well.


In the light of the borderline positioning of feminist scientific discourse and theology between social movement and science, and in view of some of the social implications of women's liberation, it is clear that feminist theology is practised from a committed and subjective stance (commitment to the cause of women's liberation), as opposed to the so-called objective and neutral stance of traditional scientific and theological discourse, or the often women-exclusive practise of science in a post-empirical period .

This epistemological and methodological stance, namely one of involvement and commitment, is described in different ways by feminist scientists.

Elizabetta Donini

The Italian physicist Elizabetta Donini (1994:63) takes a critical view of the objectification of Western thought, science and theology. As against this objectified scientific approach, Donini (1994:63-64) opts for radical immanence a subjective stance that implies locating oneself as a woman, thus undermining objectivity but without regressing into a subjectivity that is beyond scientific accountability. She describes this stance as contextualised knowledge, in which a subjective commitment to women's liberation is balanced by a continuous shift of the researcher's perspective in the light of the various subjects' respective stances, which she calls an awareness of partiality.

An intersubjective dialogue is suggested here. This dialogical and dialectical approach in feminist research is also stressed by Marcia Westkott (1990:61-62), as I point out in the next section.

Joyce McCarl Nielsen and Marcia Westkott

The involved stance of feminist research is further characterised by the sociologist Joyce McCarl Nielsen (1990:24) as feminist standpoints. McCarl Nielsen (1990:7) describes how feminist theory links up with new approaches such as hermeneutic theory and method, critical theory and standpoint epistemology.

According to standpoint epistemology, less powerful members of society have a potential for a more complete and complex view of social reality precisely because of their disadvantaged position in the social stratification. They need a double consciousness a knowledge of their own immediate social condition and also that of more advantaged groups in order to survive. This social standpoint of a disadvantaged person or group therefore has epistemological consequences it constitutes a person's or a group's knowledge of the social world (McCarl Nielsen 1990:7).

Feminist standpoints imply a developed form of standpoint epistemology. They involve a level of awareness of one's social location and of this location's relationship to one's lived experience. The awareness leads to an emphasis on change and on interaction with one's context or environment. But how do feminist researchers deal with the need for a level of objectivity and verifiability that is necessary to science?

Here McCarl Nielsen refers to Westkott's description (1990:56-66) of the dialectical process in feminist research. Dialectical processes characterise feminist inquiry in many different ways and at various levels feminist researchers, for example, use traditional academic disciplines and yet simultaneously challenge and revise them (McCarl Nielsen 1990:24-26). This dialectical process also takes place between women themselves, in their capacities as objects and subjects of knowledge. Knowledge of the other and knowledge of self are mutually informing, because self and other share the common condition of being women.

The idea that subject and object are humanly linked converges with the interpretive or hermeneutical tradition in social science. According to this tradition, social knowledge is always interpreted within a historical context, in a dialectical relationship of intersubjectivity of meaning between the subject and the object of knowledge (Westkott 1990:61-62).

Maria Mies

Ever since its publication in 1978, Methodische Postulate zur Frauenforschung by the sociologist Maria Mies (Mies 1978) sparked off a transdisciplinary debate on a feminist under- standing of science, not only in the Netherlands and Germany but also in the Anglo-Saxon world.

In terms of Mies's research experience in India, where the situation was typified by colonialism, neo-colonialism and ethnocentrism (Mies 1984:67), she exerted herself for a transformation of research conditions. For her the dialectic of action andreflection, rather than reflection in the established scientific- theoretical mode, should become the main criterion of truth. She objected to a qualitative approach to research as being positivist, and opted instead for one particular approach to social research, namely action research. She opted for involvement as the heuristic pathway to the discovery of a new definition of the concept of truth and new research methods.

Her choice of a new epistemological position led her to formulate the following seven methodological principles or postulates, as discussed by Meyer-Wilmes (1990:131-144):

(1) Partiality rather than freedom from value judgements

The postulate of freedom from value judgements, neutrality and indifference vis-…-vis the subject of research which until now has been the major yardstick for objectivity will be replaced by a conscious bias, partiality. A conscious biased identification of the 'object of research' with the 'objective of research' is made (Mies 1984:12).

(2) View from below rather than from above

"The vertical relationship between researcher and researched, the 'view from above', is replaced by the 'view from below'..." (Mies 1984:12).

(3) Active emancipation research rather than detached spec- tator knowledge

"The contemplative, detached 'spectator' knowledge (Maslow) will be replaced by active participation in emancipatory actions and the integration of research into such actions" (Mies 1984:13).

(4) The priority of transformation over knowledge

Participation in actions and struggles and the integration of research into these struggles means, moreover, that the trans- formation of the status quo is regarded as the starting point for academic knowledge. The motto for this way of action could be: In order to know something, it must be transformed (Mies 1984:14).

(5) Selecting subjects of research on the basis of the requirements of the movement

"From what we have just said, we see that the choice of subjects of research cannot be left to the whim of the individual woman sociologist or to her subjective career interests, it must rather be dependent on the common aims and the strategic and tactical requirements of the social movement for the abolition of the exclusion and oppression of women (Mies 1984:14).

(6) The research process as a growing realisation of awareness

"The research process becomes a process of growing realisation both for the former 'subject' of research and for the former 'object' of research. This approach was first formulated and applied by Paolo Freire in his method of problem formulation (Mies 1984:15).

(7) The pre-eminence of a feminist theory of society

"Appropriating one's own history as subject and as a prerequisite for women's emancipation means developing a feminist theory of society... (Mies 1984:15).

Involvement and commitment in Third World and African women's theology

Although African women's theology does not have the same technically sophisticated methodology that the above-mentioned Western feminists have, the principles of involvement in and commitment towards African women's struggles are intrinsically present in their writings.

This commitment is shared by other Third World women theologians. In Passion and compassion, Fabella and Oduyoye (1988:xi) say: A key requisite of our methodology is that our reflections are done by Third World women ourselves. Our theology must speak of our struggles and the faith that empowers us. Here involvement of women theologians in the life struggles of women in various Third World contexts is evident. Furthermore, the commitment towards the aim of Third World women's theology, namely the inclusive liberation of both women and men from various forms of oppression, is clear in the following section:

The context of poverty, multiple oppression and tokenism shows up as a common experience of all the three continents. The Third World is a cross-ridden universe of economic, political and religio-cultural oppressions within which women are doubly or triply burdened. Liberation thus takes on an existential meaning, but its goal ... is the liberation of all men and women from whatever binds them, both internally and externally. Thus freedom from selfishness and acquisitiveness is just as vital as liberation from all exploitative and unjust practices and structures, whether political, economic, or social, whether based on gender, race or creed. Liberation leads to wholeness (My italics). (Fabella and Oduyoye 1988:xi)

Commitment therefore means both a consciousness of various forms of oppression (a consciousness which comes from deliberate social analysis) as well as a commitment to women's struggles for liberation, which cannot be separated from the liberation of men and children. This inclusive vision of liberation and wholeness is typical of Third World women's theologies, and means that women theologians commitment is broader than just towards the women's struggle. Women's life struggles are intrinsically connected to the broader community's struggle for survival, liberation and wholeness. It is furthermore contextually determined; each local womens theology will deal with a struggle against specific, local forms of religio- cultural, political and economic oppressions (Fabella 1988:114- 117).

Third World women's theologies, but especially African women's theology, are theologies of life. In the words of Musimbi Kanyoro (1996:6): In our African context, religion is not usually separated from other aspects of life. Theology for us is life, it is life as we live it, life as we experience it, when we eat, when we sing, when we dance, when we greet one another.

African women's theology is therefore not a strictly academic discipline, separated from women's everyday life. By participating in African women's daily struggles for liberation and wholeness, African women cross over and eradicate the borders that, in Western-oriented academic life, exist between science and social struggles.


In the above sections, we discussed how a feminist epistemology is generated by the peripheral and transitional position of feminist research, both in terms of its exotic placement on the border of academia and its mediatory position between science and social movement, reflection and praxis. We saw that the epistemological basis of involvement and commitment means that the practising of feminist or women's science and theology cannot be distinctly separated from life, or from the women's movement in various contexts. Involvement and commitment mean that the (artificial) borders between science and social struggles or movements are (to some extent) overcome and eradicated. This is especially true of the theologies practised by Third World and African women.

Precisely because of its advocacy role in the women's movement and its reflection on the epistemological importance of the movement, feminist research in its location on the border between science and social movement practices a science of involvement. Involvement in and commitment to the cause of the women's movement become the heuristic path towards the discovery of a new definition of the concept of truth and new research methods.

Feminist methodology at one and the same time uses involvement as a starting point and recognises the different feminist standpoints in women's experience and feminist research. It therefore recognises that a dialectical process takes place between the various levels of consciousness which a feminist researcher experiences. This dialectical relationship of intersubjectivity is the guarantee of scientific accountability in feminist research, as against the possibility of a subjectivist entanglement in the research material and project.

While we have looked at the feminist epistemological and methodological basis as formulated by social scientists and by a physicist, this basis remains much the same for feminist theology since it is part of the interdisciplinary feminist scientific endeavour. For example, we saw clearly how the basis of involvement and commitment is present in Third World women's theologies.


Two inextricable categories: involvement and women's experience

In Maria Mies's (1991:66) view, women's experience is defined as follows:

Experience is often equated with personal experience, with the atmosphere, the feelings which a woman has in a certain situation. In my opinion, however, experience means taking real life as the starting point, its subjective concreteness as well as its societal entanglement. ...This term [experience authors note] denotes more than specific, momentary individual involvement. It denotes the sum of the processes which individuals or groups have gone through in the production of their lives; it denotes their reality, their history.

She goes on to say that the challenge to begin our scientific endeavour with women's experience arose from feminist researchers' frustration at realising that women's lives, histories and struggles formed no part of dominant science. To initiate a new scientific basis on which to build the feminist movement and feminist research, we must recognise that this basis is none other than our own subjective experience, our own critical self- reflection on it and the resultant practice (Mies 1991:66).

The epistemological and methodological base of commitment and involvement in feminist research is also a recognition that the subjective experiences of women (both as researchers and researched) in their contexts or standpoints must be fully taken into account. When we say that involvement is the heuristic path to a new feminist definition of truth, we can at the same time say that women's experiences are the main source and the hermeneutical key to feminist research and theology. We cannot separate an epistemology and methodology of commitment and involvement from women's experience as the source of and key to feminist research and theology. The feminist researcher's active involvement in the women's movement, and her experience of sexist oppression, are the two strands that shape her epistemology and methodology.

Feminist theology, at its most basic level, is a theology born of women's experience of oppression under patriarchy and out of engaged action for change. In the words of Linda Hogan (1995:16):

It is with the dialectical relationship between the praxis emerging from the women's movement and the hermeneutics of suspicion generated by women's experience that feminist theology is emerging as a truly transformative force.... By placing women's experience at the centre of feminist thought we will begin to transform our epistemology by placing questions of what constitutes knowledge, how it is produced and who produces it, firmly on the agenda.

But the use of (women's) experience in research and theology is not that unique. As Rosemary Ruether (1984:12) points out:

What have been called the objective sources of theology; Scripture and tradition, are themselves codified collective human experience. Codified tradition both reaches back to roots in experience and is constantly renewed or discarded through the test of experience.

The uniqueness of feminist theology lies not in its use of the criterion of experience but rather in its use of women's experience, which has been almost entirely shut out of theological reflection in the past.

By naming these androcentric distortions and omissions of (women's) reality in ideology and research, it becomes possible to recover women's contributions and experiences which have been buried from view. It now becomes possible to name women's experiences (O'Hara Graff 1993:217).

The diversity of women's experience

Women's experience is as varied and diverse as the world in which women of different contexts live. Whereas feminists may formerly have used the category women's experience in a somewhat uncritical and universalising fashion, we are coming to realise that such an understanding is untenable (Hogan 1995:59). In a sense, it is problematic to work with the category women's experience, as women's experiences differ so much. Denise Ackermann (1988:24) points out that feminist theology has been accused of being white and middle-class, as it originated largely in Europe and North America. Thus the European and Anglo-Saxon experiences of women were the first to be taken into account.

This, however, has changed in a postmodern age. Feminist theory now tends to be explicitly temporal, historical, and attuned to the cultural specificity of different groups in society. Comprehensive historical analyses of sexism (e.g. the prevalence of patriarchy all over the world) are thus still used, but are located in the temporal, historical and cultural specificity of local groups of women in their contexts. This approach recognises the diversity and plurality of women's needs and contexts, without doing away with a tough analysis of sexism in its various contextualised forms. This practice of feminisms is the theoretical counterpart of a broader, more complex and multilayered feminist solidarity between women of different contexts (Fraser and Nicholson 1990:19-35).

This understanding of women's experiences as pluralist and con- textual, relates to Donini's (1994:64) epistemological under- standing of situative knowledges and McCarl Nielsen's (1990:24) reference to feminist standpoints. When speaking of women's experience as contextual, we have to start with our own context and the way in which our experiences in and of our context forms our theologising.

African women's experience and theology

African women's theology is done from an experience of the African context. African women do theology from their daily experience (Kanyoro 1996:6).

Much relating of African women's experience must still be done. The first-hand experience of African women is still largely untold (Kanyoro 1996:5). It is also problematic to speak of and to analyse women's experience of the African context. Again, in the words of Musimbi Kanyoro:

The African continent's history of colonialism and western imperialism causes a dilemma for African women theologians and activists at large. There is always a struggle with how to relate western culture, indigenous culture and religious culture, coupled with the daily need to support life in difficult situations. The quest for justice for women is often trivialised in favour of larger issues such as national liberation, famine, disease, war and poverty!

But it is these uniquely African experiences of African women and their faith which set the tone for African women's theology.

Women's experiences in the South African context and South African women's theology

In the South African context, there exists a close inter- relationship between cultural, political, gender and economic discrimination. Sexism exists both within Western and African cultures (Kretzschmar 1991:110). It is furthermore particularly difficult to separate race, class and sex oppressions. This combination of discriminations profoundly influences the experiences of different groups of women. In the first place, old and new political barriers that reflect the view of the dominant group will clearly separate women. These political views will be reflected in still-prevailing racist practices, still another barrier. The superior economic status of most white women in relation to black women in turn creates economic and class barriers, which are again reinforced by racist structures (Ackermann 1994:14-16). Even in the new political dispensation, these barriers are still prevalent.

Essy Letsoalo (1986:226) further points out that black women fall mainly in two groups: the first is found in the rural tribal enclaves and the second is located in the black urban areas. Although their roles in employment and socio-cultural situations differ, they are all triply oppressed in the sexist, racist and economic sense.

Women's theology in South Africa is steeped in women's experience of these multiple forms of oppression. It is South African women theologians' concern to oppose sexism wherever it is found. They seek not only to transform old patterns of thought, theological formulation, church practices and social evils, but also to develop new ways of expressing the re-creation and reconciliation of humanity in Christ (2 Cor. 5:11-19; Gal. 3:28).

I have now discussed the way in which context influences women's experiences and the forming of women's theology. The following kinds of women's experiences, all of which are influenced by con- text and locality, are also important for the purposes of my thesis:

(1) Women's experience as a search for liberation

This is the experience of those women who are conscientised, or in the process of becoming conscientised, with regard to sexist oppression in their specific context and the way it affects their and other women's lives.

(2) Women's traditional experiences

These comprise whatever sexist culture has rejected or denigrated. These experiences, such as feminine intuition, relational emotions, child-bearing and the nurturing of children and relatives, are then revalued in a holistic feminist fashion.

(3) Women's bodily experiences

This category refers to the physical, sexual body of a woman, but also includes the relation of our bodies to nature and the inanimate physical aspects of the universe. Women's bodies, as well as nature in general, have been denigrated, not only in Western thinking, but also in African culture and thought. Feminist thinkers have contributed greatly to the re-introduction of an integrated, revalued body-soul relationship and a human-to- environment relationship in metaphor and language, as well as personal and social life.

(4) Women's spiritual experiences

According to Anne Carr (1986:49), spirituality (and our experience of our spirituality) may be described as our deepest religious beliefs, convictions, patterns of thought, emotions, and behaviour in respect to what is ultimate, to God. Spirituality is holistic, encompassing our relationships to all of creation to ourselves, to others, to society and nature, to work and recreation. Thus spirituality encompasses the whole range of our experiences, in their relation to our ultimate experience of God or the ultimate.


Carol Christ (1980:1), in Diving deep and surfacing: Women writers on spiritual quest, writes: The expression of women's spiritual quest is integrally related to the telling of women's stories. If women's stories are not told, the depth of women's souls will not be known.

The search to recover women's experiences has brought about major challenges for theology. This change is associated with a search for the best symbols or myths for salvation/liberation, based on women's experience. This includes a new affirmation of the concrete, imaginative, embodied modes of theological explanation: in particular, the mode of story. Since the beginning of feminist theologising in the 1960s, there has been a growing awareness that traditional theology has been far removed from the experience of women. By failing to address the experience of women, theology has been incomplete. In being ignored, women's experience has been diminished, devalued or invalidated (Everson 1984). The act of women telling their stories poses a fundamental challenge to patriarchal reality. Women's storytelling, as Carol Christ has made it clear, makes a claim to the power of naming that reality. Women's stories provide one of the primary means for creating an awareness of women's reality and women's history. Patriarchal reality has to be revised fundamentally, when a tradition of women's story-telling and historiography is developed (Say 1990:4, 110).

Narrative as grounded in the experience of the individual is a foundation for an awareness of reality and truth. Narrative therefore serves as an epistemological basis. By telling women's stories, women make a claim on their own subjective reality as basis for truth (Say 1990:190). In her study of the theology of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, Sex, sin and grace, Judith Plaskow included an extensive analysis of Doris Lessing's series of novels, Children of violence. By so doing, she acknowledged the value of women's experience as against its devaluation in traditional theology (Plaskow 1980:34-500). Plaskow turned to literature as a source of women's experience. She called on theologians to speak to women's experience through intentionally appropriating it in all its particularity that is, through its expression in narrative form (Plaskow 1980:173).

Like Plaskow, the post-Christian feminist theologian, Carol Christ, also turned to literature as a source of women's experience. Her book, Diving deep and surfacing: Women writers on spiritual quest, examines women's stories as the source for discovering women's spiritual experiences, particularly their encounters with great powers (Christ 1980:1-12). Because women's stories the articulations of their experience have not been told, Christ maintains that women have been alienated from their deeper experiences of self and the world. Christ goes beyond Plaskow, however, in using stories as a source for constructing a theory of women's spirituality. In her book, stories can function as texts that can empower women to alter the shape of their worlds (Christ 1980:27). Within the broader theological community, there is a considerable body of theory which explains why narrative may be important experiential data for theologians and students of religion. Theologian Stephen Crites (1975:29-31) claims that narrative is the closest we get to experience and the most complete communication of that experience. He says of story or narrative: Narrative form is common both to stories told, enacted, et cetera, and to the way we experience in everyday life. It is not that reality in itself somehow has a narrative form, but our experience does have. ... (Crites 1975:30).

An abstract, analytical mode of communication extracts only part of the experience. It fails to account for the dimensions of time and process. In stories, however, Crites (1971:291-311) claims, that there are ... neither disembodied minds nor mindless bodies. There is the self given as an activity in time. In stories, he says, we meet what is concrete in experience in the most concrete language that we have Crites (1975:31-32).

Scholars working in the area of religion and literature have stressed the strong religious roots of stories. For Crites, religion is a fundamental story which creates a sense of self and world for a community of people. Fundamental or sacred stories, he says, are what orient people to the great powers that establish the reality of their worlds (Crites 1971:295-296).

The theories of narrative theology describe a variety of ways in which story can function to affect the spiritual orientation of an individual or group, or to give coherence to inner experience. Story can be used to exorcise old patterns and help to reorient toward the new. Crites notes that a social revolution or conversion that transforms consciousness requires a change in one's story and a need to reorient one's personal story through a new story. Story, he believes, has the power to model new ways of being in the world (Crites 1971:305). The narration of women's stories is thus important so that women can create new models of truth from women's experience and so that they can live and reform the society in which they live.

Carol Christ (1980:4) points out that men have actively shaped women's experiences of self and world by telling the religious stories that orient women and men to the great powers of the universe. But since women have not told their own stories, they have not actively shaped their experiences of self and world nor have they named the great powers from their own perspectives. That is why the simple act of telling a woman's story from a woman's point of view is a revolutionary act, because it has not often been done before. By telling women's stories, a new language is created to express women's experience and insight, new metaphors are discovered and new themes are considered. New women's stories and literature have both a spiritual and social dimension. They reflect women's struggles to create new ways of living in the world and a new naming of the great powers that provide orientation in the world (Christ 1980:4-7).

African women's theology is particularly well attuned to the use of narrative as it is so closely related to women's life- experiences. But African women's reality still has to be reclaimed by means of their story-telling. Musimbi Kanyoro points out that the first-hand experience of African women is still largely untold. The despair of the women of the African continent is, in most instances, only uttered by a choked silence (Kanyoro 1996:5-14). African women theologians wish to claim and interpret this silence, to open up and tell the silence.

This study is a contribution towards the breaking of African women's silence, by means of the narration of their life- struggles and contributions towards the realisation of shalom.


Susan Corey Everson (1984:28-31), whose work I mentioned above, indicates how important narrative is when using women's stories as sources of women's religious experience and women's new or altered religious experience. In her doctoral thesis, entitled Bodyself: women's bodily experience in recent feminist theology and women's literature, Everson uses literary works by women authors. In her literary criticism of the works, she is not so much interested in the aesthetic analysis of a work. Her concern is quite different. She begins with the assumption that the literary works are grounded in cultural experience and that the authors have found their plots, characters, imagery, language and themes in their cultural experience. The purpose of her study is to understand how these stories express women's spiritual experience and what role women's bodily experiences play in the characters' formation of identity. She aims to consider how the stories may challenge or break up old patterns of thought and help to visualise new futures or orient toward new realities (Everson 1984:31).

I have much the same aim as Everson, namely to search for women's stories that express their spiritual experience and the change or transformation that such women have experienced in their lives. I will purposefully search for women's stories that have the ingredients to challenge and transform social and religious realities of the women themselves and of the people with whom they have contact. In other words, I will search for women's stories with a strong missiological content, in the sense that missiological can be understood as the bringing about of social and religious transformation.

With regard, however, to the source of the stories, I aim to go a step further than Everson by not reading available women's literature, but by interacting with actual women and interviewing them, in order to extract their stories from their day-to-day lives and experiences. In other words, with the consent and cooperation of the interviewed women, I will write their biographies or personal stories. For, in my view, biography can be viewed as narrative. David Nelson Duke (1986:137) affirms this when he describes biography as historical narrative. He says further that biography is true story, true human story.

In this way I want to make a contribution to the existing body of (mission) history on South African religious women. This thesis will also be a contribution towards the use of narrative as one of the tools of African women's theology. According to Elisabeth A. Say (1990:110), women's stories or biographies are part of women's history and are the process by which women are establishing a tradition of women's experience. I shall now discuss in greater depth three important methodological aspects of writing the stories of women.

Telling a woman's story in her own terms: The method of feminist oral historiography

First, when I speak of narrative biography, I imply that I want to let the voice of a woman speak through her (auto)biography in such a manner that all the particularity and uniqueness of her own life experience will be heard. This means that I, as the interviewer or the spreekbuis (conduit) through which the person will tell her story, will have to be very sensitive and receptive to the person's own, unique rendering of her life story, if I am to be able to render her story in a written form and as truth- fully to her experience as possible. This also means that I have to render a woman's experience in a narrative style, or will have to allow her own narrative of her experiences to be reflected in my research result. I will therefore search for the sensitive tools I need for this delicate task, namely the methodology for feminist oral historiography, in order to let a woman tell her own story.

What does it mean to develop a feminist method of oral history that will reflect women's own experiences and perspectives? According to Kathryn Anderson (in Armitage et al 1991:98-101), it means to pursue the subjective experience of women more rigorously. In the writing of history, there is often an insensitivity to feelings, attitudes, values, meaning and consciousness, and usually a greater emphasis on actions and facts. In the feminist application of the method of oral history, a direct link is made with how women feel and think.

In order to achieve this, feminist oral historiography assists women to tell their stories as fully, completely and honestly as they desire (Andersen 1991:101). The researcher should therefore hear and interpret what women say about their psychological experience. The woman can only be fully heard if she is considered to be the expert on her own psychological experience, and if her maturity, self-reliance and autonomy is respected (Jack in Armitage et al 1991:101).

A further aim of feminist oral historiography is to let women not only articulate their experience, but also to reflect on the meaning of their experience (Jack in Armitage et al 1991:102). The language and concepts that women use reflect the cultural and social forces affecting them. However, the meanings that women ascribe to their own behaviour can be reduced neither to the behaviour itself nor to the dominant ideology. It is derived from women's consciousness, which is influenced by the ideas and values of men, but is nevertheless uniquely situated, reflective of women's concrete position within the patriarchal power structure. We must listen to what women actually desire and value and not how the language of culture denies that to women. Women tell their own stories, from their primary level of consciousness (Jack in Armitage et al 1991:103). In other words, the critical question that the researcher/interviewer has to ask herself, is: Whose story is the women-subject asked to tell, who interprets it, and in what context? Is it the woman's story, or is the researcher restructuring it to conform to the researcher's orientation? (Jack in Armitage et al 1991:102).

Apart from feminist oral history, feminist social theory recognises the validity of the diverse experiences and truths of women. It is more about letting women speak up for their individual selves in interaction with others, than letting a more dominant feminist voice (such as that of the researcher) silence the voices of other women. Feminist research is more about the articulation of the diverse truths of women, than about toeing an ideologically correct feminist line (Bernick 1991:131-133). In other words, both the method of feminist oral history and feminist social theory supports a research method that enables a woman to tell her own story or the researcher to tell a woman's story in her own terms.

Uncovering the salvific leitmotiv in women's stories (Reclaiming and renaming stories)

Secondly, I want to tell women's stories that have a spiritual or religious dimension, and more specifically, a salvific, trans- formative dimension. This will be the missiological component in the story. I have already referred to Carol Christ's book, Diving deep and surfacing: women writers on spiritual quest, in which she examines women's stories as the sources for discovering women's spiritual experiences. She searches for spiritual experiences since these often empower women to alter the shape of their worlds. In other words, I am interested in women's stories in which a conversion or progressive change in the person's (religious) consciousness brings about a change in the person's story (or stories), that is, in which (in Christina Landman's words) the women change their perspective on their own lives and reclaim and rename (or re-interpret) their experiences.

The stories of transformation may then become what Stephen Crites (1971:305) envisages as religious stories: models for new ways of being in the world. In other words, the stories will be missiological. I now need to look more closely at the method that one may use to deal with this liberative aspect in women's stories and in history-writing.

Telling women's stories is the first step in creating new, liberative meanings, models and metaphors for women. The next step is consciously to interpret (reclaim and rename) women's stories or biographies in such a way that the liberative import of the story is uncovered and used as example for the future. As I have already said, it is the women who have themselves undergone change or conversion who become the first interpreters to rename and reclaim their own stories so that the liberation leitmotiv becomes clear. In my view, the researcher becomes only the secondary interpreter: she plays a further role in the renaming and reclaiming of a woman's story, in order to retrieve and interpret the liberative leitmotiv, and to narrate and present the woman's liberative story in the final research result. In this way, the researcher plays a facilitating/catalysing role in renaming/reclaiming women's stories of liberation as new models for being in the world. According to Christina Landman (1991:26), the historiographer should move beyond objectivity. The historiographer moves beyond objectivity when he/she indicates how bourgeois institutions in society have used history to keep people in captivity to certain ideologies. Whereas the historical consciousness of people has been used to keep them in a state of oppression, the historiographer refers to the people's history to suggest ways in which the historical consciousness of the people can be liberated. In other words, the liberative themes or leitmotivs in the people's history are pointed out and the suggestion is made that these themes can be taken up in order to acquire a liberative historical consciousness and to change the course of history.

This historical method converges with a feminist research methodology of involvement, according to which the research is not done to achieve objective research results, but from the perspective of the researcher's and the research subject's commitment to changing society in order for the society to become more just and inclusive towards women and other peripheralised groups.

In such a way, by telling the stories of women, we are creating new meanings and new ways of understanding, naming and directing the powers that form our society.

Narrative as the connection between struggle and salvation

Thirdly, I want to underline that the salvific or liberative leitmotiv in a person's life-experience is brought into the open, as indicated, through narrative. In other words, it is possible for a woman to rename and reclaim the liberative leitmotiv in her story by means of the narration of her story. Susan Thistlethwaite (1987:74), in an article entitled Narrative and connection, refers to African American women writers who write about the struggle against and resistance to racism which is connected or tied to covenantal relationship with ancestors, friends, children, self and God. She then refers to the writer Toni Cade Bambara, for whom this connection between struggle and salvific religious experience is made through narrative. In an essay entitled Salvation is the issue, Bambara (in Thistletwhaite 1987:74) says the following: The issue is salvation. I work to produce stories that save our lives."

Suitable research methods

In the greater part of this paper, I have dealt with the relevant epistemological and methodological issues with which to orientate ourselves to feminist research into the stories of women. I will now deal briefly with the practical research methods that I will use to do the research on contemporary South African women who participate in the realisation of shalom in a transitional South Africa. It may already be obvious from the sections on the methodology for the narration of women's experience that the best suited methods may be

I will use all three research methods in combination or separately, as the situation demands. In a case where I cannot personally meet the woman, or where she is able to express her innermost thoughts fluently in writing, the subject's writing of her own personal life history may be the most appropriate. Some very sensitive editing may be done afterwards. The use of personal documents may also be appropriate if a woman has a record of personal documents which describes her life and career, documents which she is willing to make available to the researcher. These may be well combined with participant observation if the woman is still active in one or another sphere.

If the woman is not literate but can speak fluently, I will choose to have unstructured interviews with her. Again, I may combine the interviews with participant observation. In all cases, I will describe my previous knowledge with the research subject, my arrangements of meetings as well the interaction with the research subject, as I have experienced them. The interaction between the researcher and the research subject will be highlighted throughout the research report.


I hope that I have succeeded in conveying a methodology of involvement in women's lives, sensitive listening to, and narration of their stories, in order that the liberative themes or leitmotivs that are present in women's lives, amidst their daily struggles, will be revealed. In conclusion, I wish to summarise the reasons why the use of such a methodology may be of missiological importance. The reasons are as follows:

  1. The research will contribute towards the establishment of a body of historical and theological writing of African women. This, in itself, will be of missiological importance because of the paucity of adequate historical and theological writing by African religious women. Furthermore, I have made a deliberate effort to develop a sound methodology, as an alternative to established research approaches. In this regard, the research will also be a contribution, as African women theologians still need to develop a sound epistemological and methodological basis for their work.

  2. I believe that this research can contribute, apart from its scientific contribution, towards the establishment of an awareness of women's reality, especially of African and South African women's experience of their reality, in a context where women are very often denied the possibility of a fulfilled existence due to many forms of oppression. This epistemological reason for women's research is of critical importance in a continent where the despair and suffering of millions of women is often only uttered by their silence. Amidst conditions which deny women's existence, women's powers of resilience and survival is creating a new reality for women and their families to live in. I want to acknowledge women's silent creation of a new world. This regeneration of women's reality by women is in itself missiological.

  3. I hope that this research project will offer stories of hope so that new, liberative meanings to all the women and men of this continent and this country who need new models and symbols in the midst of turbulent societies in transition. This, to me, represents the obviously missiological dimension of this research project.


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