Rosemary Radford Ruether, interviewed by Rosalind Hinton
Editor’s Note: Rosemary Radford Ruether died on May 21 in Pomona, Calif. She was 85. Ruether was a long time supporter of APRIL’s journal CrossCurrents, publishing articles with the journal beginning in 1967, and serving on the editorial board for many years. Articles she published with CrossCurrents include “The Becoming of Women in Church and Society” (1967), “Male Chauvinist Theology and the Anger of Women” (1971), and “Christian Quest for Redemptive Community” (1988).
One of her students, Rosalind Hinton, is now a Cultural Connections Editor at CrossCurrents, and in 2002 talked with Rosemary. We republish that interview here. Originally published in CrossCurrents (Spring, 2002).
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rosemary Radford Ruether a few weeks before a celebration at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary honoring her twenty-five year tenure as the Georgia Harkness Professor of Applied Theology.
Dr. Ruether will retire from Garrett this spring, but this milestone does not mark a withdrawal from her own brand of theological activism. She will move with her family to the West Coast and continue teaching at the Pacific School of Theology in the consortium of seminaries that make up the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley (GTU). While there are many front-page issues that we could have focused upon in our conversation, I asked that we discuss her career. Many of the founders of the modern feminist movement in religion such as Beverly Harrison, Letty Russell, and Rosemary Radford Ruether are leaving their long-held posts in the academy. It seemed a good time for younger scholars to begin a dialogue with these women as we a tempt to fill their shoes. The conversation tripped along a range of issues from Rosemary’s start in the Civil Rights Movement and a discussion of her legacy to her involvement with Third World Feminisms, activism in the Catholic Church, the influence of family on her scholarship and, finally, the work she will be doing on the West Coast.
From her position at Garrett, Rosemary has created a prolific body of work that, in her own words, could be the foundation for a feminist religious studies curriculum. With thirty-six books and over 600 articles to her credit, her corpus is no less astonishing for its depth in quantity than for its breadth of range. Indeed, courses on Feminist Theology, Eco-feminism, Anti-Semitism, Jewish/Palestinian Relations, Third World Feminisms, U.S. Religious Feminism, and Christian Church History could be designed without moving outside of her authored and edited volumes and articles.
While many of us debate how to write an inclusive and embodied theology that respects difference and engages a postmodern critique of universalism that both acknowledges our status as victims and accounts for our sinful limitations, Rosemary has unassumingly created, not only a body of work, but a model of scholarly activism that we would do well to emulate. In other words, like Rosemary, we would do well to ground our scholarly reflections in the marginalized communities with whom we are engaged, rather than in exhaustive critiques of one another’s scholarship in the hopes of advancing our positions within the academy. Each book of Rosemary’s represents personal friendships, an activist front and a feminist community engaged in bettering their world whether in Africa, Palestine, the Philippines or Latin America. She digs deeply into the world around her and uses her relationships as the wellspring of her inspiration and a vital source of knowledge. Yet, she delves into the questions of injustice with what historians call a long view of history and she tends to answer interview questions with a social and historical contextualization of the problematic. Rosemary has an instinct for forging relationships with underrepresented communities within her social horizon and finding ways to articulate their needs. In a word, she is prophetic. With a career rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, Rosemary seems to relish a good fight for a just cause. When I asked what the underlying motivation for her career was, Rosemary responded, “Basically I don’t like injustice and I don’t like to see religion used to justify injustice and oppression.”
We began our conversation at a logical starting place, the beginning of her career in the academy.
Rosalind Hinton: Can you talk about when and how you got involved in the feminist movement?
Rosemary Radford Ruether: There wasn’t a feminist religion movement when I started. There was NOW, but I didn’t belong to the feminist organizations. There is nothing wrong with organizations like NOW, but I just got my start another way. I was part of the Civil Rights Movement and went to Beulah, Mississippi, in 1965 through the Delta Ministries. I was involved with the various religious groups doing peace activism, civil rights, and antiwar activities. Well, when Stokely Carmichael made his famous remark that the only role for women in the revolution was prone, we were already doing a race and class critique and we began doing a a gender critique from within these movements. I was taking my ideas from these movements into the classroom.
I was teaching at Howard University at the time, from 1965 to 1976. It was difficult as a white woman to raise the question of gender there. It was an all-male faculty and predominantly male student body in the theological seminary. Every time I raised the issue, I was accused of being racist. I realized that black women would have to raise these issues within the black community. There was a group of older African American women who were studying in the seminary, but they did not have the educational background for a Masters in Divinity. They were on a continuing education track for ministers. They were not interested in pressing gender issues.
I began developing feminist theology while teaching semesters away from Howard, when I was invited to Yale and really when I was on sabbatical at Harvard. I developed feminist theology in course work and in conversations with women faculty and students at Harvard. Toward the end of my tenure at Howard, a younger group of women ministers who were M.Div. students were concerned about gender issues and asked me to represent their interests with the faculty. I spoke to the faculty. The dean called me in and wanted me to apologize. I was again called racist. I was interviewing at Garrett and it was clear my feminist work needed to happen somewhere else and I went to Garrett. African American women began to challenge the faculty at Howard, and they now have Kelly Brown Douglas.
RH: What is the most significant development of feminism?
RRR: It is the contextualization of feminism across global communities: women in Latin America; the Philippines; Africa; Christian, Jewish; Buddhist and Muslim
RH: What was your part in making this happen?
RRR: I went where people asked me to speak.
RH: Did you help them organize?
RRR: No. These women did not need me to organize. They knew their own problems and how to address them. You know, we also critiqued paternalism while I was in the Civil Rights Movement. What I did was encourage their work and support them and dialogue with them. I helped them legitimize their questions. Many are involved in the liberation movement and are adding a gender critique. When these women invite me to speak, they are involved in their own liberation movements and they are discovering the gender problems and they ask me to flesh out ideas and give their gender concerns a certain kind of legitimacy. They don’t need my help organizing or need my help with ideas of what to do in their context. They want some support for their ideas and I go there and give them support and we share ideas.
RH: Who are some of these communities of women that you have worked with?
RRR: Well with the Palestinian community, it is Jean Zaru. She is the leading person who has tried to support some type of women’s reflection and I have helped get her published. And then you have the Ecumenical Association of Third World Women Theologians. You get Maria Pilar Aquino, Ivone Gebara, Elsa Tamez who is very important and Mercy Oduyoye and Mary John Mananzan. Now, different women may argue amongst themselves over issues and how they are represented, for instance, whether or not to use “Mujerista” or “Latina,” but I wish to be friends with all of these women.
RH: What is your proudest accomplishment?
RRR: I don’t look at my work that way. I can’t say Sexism and God talk is more important than my book, Wrath of Jonah. There is a community of people in Palestine, my friends, that I have known for twenty years who cannot go from Ramallah to Jerusalem and might have a bomb dropped on them at any moment.
It was at this point that I began to understand that Rosemary has a community behind each book. Rosemary gets involved with issues, but the people themselves mean a great deal to her and friendships are both born through and legitimate her writing and activism. Choosing what book is most important would be like choosing between friends or deciding which colleague has the better claim to justice. When I asked Rosemary to confirm my understanding, she answered with another example of a burning issue, a relevant friendship, and her own path-breaking scholarship.
RRR: When I do work with eco-feminists it is me, Ivone Gebara, and Heather Eaton. Heather and I just participated in a major conference in Canada on environmental justice. In 1998 we spoke together at the Harvard Conference on Christianity and Ecology. We were the main ones including gender in the environmental critique. You can’t do justice work in the environment and leave out half the world. How can you have eco justice and not include women in your solutions? If I’m going to be talking about eco-justice, I’m going to be talking about the impoverishment of the land and the poverty of women.
RH: Are there any paths being taken right now in feminism that you think are not so fruitful?
RRR: There is a group of scholars that is very competitive within the academy and are making their careers by critiquing all that came before them as essentialist without making any distinctions between scholars’ work. Some have not even read much of my work. They don’t have an understanding of how we got started. Race and class were central to what we were doing and then we added a gender critique.
Letty Russell, Bev Harrison, and I got our start in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. When liberation theology was being developed, we were the main women at meetings putting in gender. We did not start with a univocal “woman” and then seek to add race and class difference. Our work uses race, class, and gender as interconnected structures that create multiple differences. Mary Daly wasn’t even around. She was in Europe studying Catholic theology and Thomism and trying to become a Catholic theologian. Mary has done some important work, but we do not have the same background. She began with gender and has not added a race and class critique.
RH: What do you mean when you say these critics have not read much of your work?
RRR: I mean that their footnotes show they have looked at Sexism and God Talk, but that is all. They have not read the articles on black theology in my book on liberation theology, or much else.
RH: Can you discuss your legacy and the legacy of this first generation of feminist religion scholars?
RRR: Well, I don’t think our legacy is fairly contextualized yet. It isn’t ready to be written. It has been distorted by these claims of essentialism and claims that there is no race and class critique.
RH: You mean younger scholars are conflating a number of different trajectories in feminist religious scholarship into one claim of essentialism?
RRR: The first group got its start in the Civil Rights Movement doing race and class. There were no black women in the group; they were still to be doctoral students. And of course a lot of us were mentors of the people who were getting those doctorates. Rosemary Keller and I were on Emilie Townes’s doctoral committee. And Bev Harrison has mentored a huge number of African American women scholars, like Katie Cannon. There was a second generation of feminist scholars who were trained in the academy — perhaps they were not doing a race and class critique — universalizing their experience, but that is what we were fighting against. Men were universalizing their experience and white people were universalizing their experience. We were not going to do it too. That is what we were critiquing. We brought that critique from our activism into the classroom. One of my first books that brought black, liberationist, and feminist theologies together was Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power in 1972.
The feminist generation who were appearing at these early meetings were particularly Letty Russell, Bev Harrison, and Carter Haywood. At that point, in the early ’70s, they are all pretty much colleagues. African American women such as Katie Cannon and Emilie Townes were not yet in this circle. They were finishing their degrees in 1985. So I am talking about meetings that we were having in liberation theology in 1972 and 1973, before that generation of people was available. So, I think what was different was that we had a strong commitment to race, class, and gender, but there was not in fact black women’s voices there to do their own analysis.
Although African American women were not at these meetings, those other women were there. In the early days, I was on panels and dialogued with Jim Cone and Cornel West. Peter Paris and I were both on the faculty at Howard together in the early ’70s. So I have a very good relationship with these men because they have a memory of a relationship that goes back thirty years. Whereas the African American women were not there because they were of another generation.
RH: Well, let’s turn a minute to another frustrating issue. You have a thirty-year trajectory of engaging the Catholic Church on feminist issues. Is there any advice that you could share from these experiences?
Rosemary again answered the question by setting up the social context.
RRR: The church has shut the door to a lot of social change and, in the past twenty years, the top magisterium has tried to close all of the progressive doors. They have replaced progressive bishops with reactionary conservatives. They are driving women and liberation theologians out of seminaries. Progressive theologians are fleeing Catholic universities and are being replaced with conservatives. Most of the liberation theologians in Latin America now are essentially based in ecumenical settings, which is to say Protestant-funded institutions. So, I think that that has been a very sad history. My view is that if you want to leave and join another church, that is just fine, particularly if women want to be ordained. Women should go to another denomination if they want to be ordained because it won’t happen in my lifetime or [pointing to me] in yours within the Catholic Church. I am very committed to keeping or try ing to support the continuance of progressive perspectives in Catholicism, but I think that you can only do that by building bases of support that are somewhat independent of the hierarchy and cannot be shut down by the hierarchy.
RH: And that would be?
RRR: That could be all kinds of lay-funded organizations. I write for the National Catholic Reporter. It was created by Catholics that left diocesan journalism to create an independent Catholic paper in the 1970s. So, it maintains a critical and a very creative perspective, but it can’t be shut down because it is not funded by the Catholic Church. Practically every progressive initiative that is going on is lay organized and funded, for ex ample, Catholics For A Free Choice. So, I think you have to go on and keep building that kind of network. And I am therefore very committed to supporting that kind network of progressive Catholicism, but without imagining that you can do more than just simply keep progressive options open and keep them from being totally driven out.
I call it the 10 percent tithe, but it is also the sense that you shouldn’t be burnt out with the frustration of trying to do something with an insti tution that is not going to be very supportive. You know, you sort of make your contribution without feeling like your whole life is going to end if this is not going to improve quickly. So, I have a commitment to keeping a progressive network active, but that commitment is not my whole life. It is what I call 10 percent of my energy. In other words, I don’t think anyone should put all of their energy into such a tiresome situation. But I think that it is worth giving some energy to keep, shall we say, the pot stirring of the progressive wing of the church so that it is not completely destroyed.
RH: Do you have any advice for women who are trying to juggle their careers as feminist scholars and their family life?
RRR: Well, I would say that it is a lot easier to do that if there are two of you than if you are trying to have children by yourself, for starters. A certain number of feminist scholars that I know are actually trying to raise children by themselves. In other words, the husband has departed some time ago and they are single moms.
RH: Has parenting or grandparenting had an impact on your scholar ship or activism?
RRR: Yes, it has a lot of impact. Parenting essentially keeps you grounded in a lot of realities, not only in the whole work of bringing up little kids, but the questions that are important to young adults. What are the options for young people when they start trying to get jobs? For instance, I have one daughter who is trying to have children and keep a ca reer. Another child has decided to pursue a career and have a boyfriend without getting married. Now she has had a rough experience making some decisions and separating out of some bad decisions. How are your children and their spouses and their children essentially making it? All of these types of issues are part of daily experience and I think these are important parts of reality to be involved in.
There is a whole level of experience that has to do with helping other younger people develop that you do not get into if you do not parent or surrogate parent. I’m not saying that people have to necessarily have their own children. But, I do think we have to move to stages of life that we are concerned with helping the next generation of people. But, as I say, you can do it different ways. I am not saying that everyone has to have their own kids.
RH: Will the move from the Chicago area to the West Coast herald a shift in your own research or your activism?
RRR: We [Rosemary and her husband, Herman] have had a whole network of activity in the Chicago area. For instance, I have had the Women, Ministry and the City network which has tied me and a number of women friends to a lot of organizations in the Chicago area. We have had the whole network of Palestinian and Arab concerns and so on.
So, moving away from here means that we will no longer have certain networks. But, we also have parallel networks that we will move right into in California. Of course, California is not an unknown quantity because both of us did our degrees at Claremont and I have been in the San Francisco and Berkeley area for a long time. So, for example, in terms of the Palestinian issue, there is a whole network of people who are waiting until we get to Los Angeles to get us involved in the Los Angeles branch of SABEEL. And I have some of my students in Berkeley who are eager to have me come and network with some of their community people.
RH: And what will you being doing at the GTU?
RRR: I am going to Berkeley to a school that has nine affiliated seminaries and five or six institutes and my job is primarily to do feminist theology which is almost entirely lacking. So in a certain sense, I have a narrower focus. The courses that I will teach there are primarily First and Third World feminist theologies and eco-feminism. But, I’m also doing it across a broader network of seminaries. Because what they have done is organize academic fields across nine seminaries. The ethics field is separate across all nine seminaries, Bible, history and so that you segregate the fields at the same time that you connect them to all of the seminaries. So, there has been no full-time feminist theologian in the theology track, but there are feminists in ethics and the Episcopal school just hired a woman who will teach feminist theology.
RH: Does the lack of feminist scholars reflect a conservative trend in religious feminism?
RRR: The GTU was one of the first schools to get on to feminist issues. They had a course that I actually participated in. I think it was the early ’70s. They founded the Center For Women and Religion which was to be an umbrella center for the whole GTU. But unfortunately, the way that Center has been received by the GTU is, “Okay, feminism is taken care of so we don’t need to pursue it anymore. We don’t have to hire a feminist theologian as part of our faculty.” You have a kind of interesting situation where you have a school that thinks it is very progressive, but has actually not done some things that have been done at a little place called Garrett Evangelical. I mean there is not, for example, a Hispanic Center or a Black Center, like at Garrett. There is not as much commitment to these issues as there has been at Garrett. I find it a kind of ironic situation.
By and large, my best network of support out there is the doctoral students and a small network of women faculty, but the schools themselves are ambiguous and you have some schools that are very conservative. First of all you have three Catholic seminaries the Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan seminaries that are themselves very embattled vis-a-vis the oversight of the Vatican so they barely dare to put their nose above ground on issues of women. You, then, have Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptist, Congregational and then you move to the far left which is the Unitarian Seminary which comes close to being post-Christian. The Unitarian Seminary has a fairly good postfeminist Christian as the President and actually one of the leading feminist ethicist is on their faculty.
RH: I’ve heard you say that the West Coast turns to the Asian Pacific. Will this make a difference in your scholarly interests?
RRR: Yes it’s much more conscious of turning to the Pacific Rim and connecting with Japan and Korea, and the Pacific Area. Unfortunately what it tends to overlook as it gazes in the far distant area of the other side of the Pacific Ocean is Hispanics. You have a remarkable lack of inclusion
of the Hispanic community of California and this is a huge community. And so, again I find myself trying to connect the Hispanic students. Can there be a Hispanic Center here some way that gives Hispanic students some kind of base? And it’s more complicated because you have Catholic and Protestant seminaries. For instance, a lot of the protestant seminaries say, “Oh, Hispanics, that’s a Catholic issue.” Which is obviously not the case.
And so, the setting for Rosemary Radford Ruether will change, but not her instincts for justice, her thoughtful analysis and the forging of new and exciting activist networks that give representatives of the status quo more than just a mild headache. This is, after all, her style, her own brand of scholarly activism that she has modeled for us for thirty years and that has literally changed the face of religion.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/