A LEGACY OF
INCLUSION: AN INTERVIEW WITH ROSEMARY RADFORD RUETHER
by Rosalind Hinton
ROSALIND HINTON is currently a
visiting scholar at the Newcomb College Center for Research on
Women at Tulane University in New Orleans. In the fall she will be
an Assistant Professor in African American Religions at DePaul
University in Chicago.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rosemary
Radford Ruether a few weeks before a celebration at Garrett
Theological Evangelical Seminary (GET-S) 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 attempt 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
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 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
RH: What is the most significant development of
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 María 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
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
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
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. Where as the
African American women were not there because they were of another
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 trying 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 example, 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 institution 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
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 scholarship 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 career. 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
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
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
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-à-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
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.