2016-06-30
NEW HAVEN, Conn., Jan. 3 (RNS) -- Letty M. Russell was one of only two women seminarians 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 not ordain women clergy. What is now the Presbyterian Church (USA) began ordaining women in 1957, and the Episcopal Church didn't recognize the ordination 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 contribution to feminist theology and to take stock of the movement.

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

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

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

To begin with, Russell says, "We don't talk about feminist theology anymore. We speak about theologies. There's womanist (African-American women'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 the Ascension of the East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York, an ecumenical, interracial community ministry.

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

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

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

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

Still, there have been changes in the way the movement understands itself 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 theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. "They assumed that oppression came 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 of oppression (for women)."

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

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

Mujerista theology brings together Hispanic women, living in the United States, with the liberation perspective, said Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, professor of Christian social ethics at Drew University in Madison, 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 religion in the home rather than in the church. They pray and have home altars."

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

In addition, feminist theology now is global, Isasi-Diaz said.

Feminist theology has also had an impact on Judaism. But Judaism is more a religion of "behavior" than of "belief," said Sylvia Barack Fishman, author of "A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community."

Fishman, who heads a program in Contemporary Jewish Life/Sociology of American Jews at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., said many of the changes brought by feminism "have occurred in life-cycle events. For example, Kaddish (the prayer of mourning for the dead) used to be said only by men.

"Now, it is also often said by women in synagogues in all the movements of Judaism."

But unfortunately, Fishman added, there has been an "anti-Semitic" element to Christian feminist theology.

"Large numbers of the most influential Christian feminist thinkers promulgated the notion that the ancestors of contemporary Jews invented patriarchy. ... With such charges feminism became one more weapon against Judaism."

Carol Newsom and Sharon H. Ringer, co-editors of the "Women's Biblical Commentary," agree with Fishman.

"I don't think there was a conscious attempt (by Christian feminists) to be anti-Semitic," said Newsom, professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. But, she said, in the early '70s, there was an attempt to explain away any negative interpretations of women in the Bible. "Then, in the 1980s, there was an admission that the Bible was patriarchal, that there was a silencing of women's voices in both the Old and New Testament."

Despite its increased acceptance, there's "a growing backlash against feminist theology," said Elizabeth Dodson Gray, coordinator of the Theological Opportunities Program at Harvard Divinity School, "because feminism has made such inroads in the church and society.

"Some people are frightened by this," she added. "They'd like everything to go back to how it used to be."

Russell, 71, remains optimistic.

"There's a lot of good people coming up," she said. "Some seminarians say they don't need feminism. But when they get out in the parish -- in the real world -- they see how valuable it is."

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