Beliefnet
NEW HAVEN, Conn., Jan. 3 (RNS) -- Letty M. Russell was one of only two womenseminarians to graduate from Harvard Divinity School in 1958. More than four decades later, Russell, now a world-renowned feminist theologian who joined the Yale Divinity School faculty in 1974, is retiring. This spring will be her last teaching semester.

She leaves a changed landscape in Christian feminist theology as well as for the role of women in the church.

When Russell was a seminarian in the 1950s, many Protestant churches did notordain women clergy. What is now the Presbyterian Church (USA) beganordaining women in 1957, and the Episcopal Church didn't recognize theordination of women until 1976. Now virtually all mainline denominations ordain women.

This past fall more than 100 -- mostly female, but a few male --alumni returned to Yale Divinity School to honor Russell's contributionto feminist theology and to take stock of the movement.

They recalled the 1970s, when feminist theology struggled forself-definition and academic acceptance, Russell was one of only twowomen on the divinity school's faculty, and using inclusive language --such as "human" instead of "man" -- was the exception rather than therule.

In this context, Russell and others developed feminist theology asa parallel to the wave of feminism dominating America in the 1970s.Spurred on by the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements, womenalso began demanding equal rights and the same access to the professionsas men.

In many ways they were successful. Yet feminist theology now isdifferent from what it was in the 1970s, said Russell and others of boththat first and the current generation of Protestant and Catholic women theologians.

To begin with, Russell says, "We don't talk about feminist theologyanymore. We speak about theologies. There's womanist (African-Americanwomen's) theology, Asian theology, mujerista (Hispanic) and `queer'theology (the theology of gays and lesbians)."

Russell's own work in feminist theology grew out of the years(1955-1968) she served as pastor of the Presbyterian Church of theAscension of the East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York, anecumenical, interracial community ministry.

"We fought against racism," she said. "But we weren't thinking aboutthe oppression of women then."

Gustavo Gutierrez and other Catholic Latin American liberation theologiansalso influenced the fledgling feminist theological movement.

Says Russell, whose most well-known book is "Human Liberation in aFeminist Perspective: A Theology," "My theology is liberation theologywith a feminist perspective."

Over the past 25 years, feminist theology has won acceptance inmainstream academic and religious circles and had a broader impact onthe church, as well. Today, for example, at Yale Divinity School womenmake up 48 percent of the students and 30 percent of the faculty.Inclusive language, though still controversial, is more often seen asthe norm rather than the exception.

Still, there have been changes in the way the movement understandsitself as a younger generation of theologians has come to the fore.

"In the '70s, white, middle-class women defined feminist theology,"said Kathleen Talvacchia, assistant professor of ministry and theologyat Union Theological Seminary in New York. "They assumed that oppressioncame from patriarchy."

A generation later, Talvacchia said, feminist theologians believe"gender (discrimination) is just one part of what oppresses women.Racism, sexual orientation and socioeconomic class are seen as issues ofoppression (for women)."

Womanist theology developed because African-American women wereleft out of earlier feminist theology, said Emilie M. Townes, professorof Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary. Black women, Townessaid, began to use the term "womanist" after it was used by the writerAlice Walker in her 1983 book of essays, "In Search of Our Mothers'Gardens."

"We liked `womanist.' It evolved from `womanish.' Young black girlswere told not to act `womanish' if they acted older than their age. Wethought, let's call our theology something that grew out of ourcommunity," Townes said.

Mujerista theology brings together Hispanic women, living in theUnited States, with the liberation perspective, said Ada MariaIsasi-Diaz, professor of Christian social ethics at Drew University inMadison, N.J. "We look at theology from a perspective of culture,ethnicity and socioeconomic issues."

Religious life is different for Latino than for Anglo women,Isasi-Diaz said. "In my community, women carry out the life of religionin the home rather than in the church. They pray and have home altars."

They're aware that religious hierarchies can be oppressive, shesaid, "but they work at the grass roots."

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