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Rosemary Radford Ruether, a founding mother of feminist theology, has died at age 85

Rosemary Radford Ruether was among the first scholars to think deeply about the role of women in Christianity. She died Saturday at the age of 85.
Garrett–Evangelical Theological Seminary
Rosemary Radford Ruether was among the first scholars to think deeply about the role of women in Christianity. She died Saturday at the age of 85.

One of the founding mothers of feminist theology has died. Rosemary Radford Ruether was among the first scholars to think deeply about the role of women in Christianity, shaking up old patriarchies and pushing for change.

Ruether died in California on Saturday at the age of 85 after battling a long illness, according to the theologian Mary Hunt, who announced the death in a statement on behalf of Ruether's family.

"Dr. Ruether was a scholar activist par excellence. She was respected and beloved by students, colleagues, and collaborators around the world for her work on ecofeminist and liberation theologies, anti-racism, Middle East complexities, women-church, and many other topics," the statement said.

"Her legacy, both intellectual and personal, is rich beyond imagining. The scope and depth of her work, and the witness of her life as a committed feminist justice-seeker will shine forever with a luster that time will only enhance."

She was a theologian who challenged dogma

In 2002, Ruether looked back on her long career during a Harvard Divinity School conference on religion and the feminist movement.

"In 1968, I wrote and gave my first major essay on sexism, which was titled 'Male Chauvinist Theology and the Anger of Women.' I thought it was a sprightly title," she said with a chuckle. "So I was kind of surprised by how galvanized and frightened white men were by the term 'anger of women.'"

She'd chosen the words carefully. A white Catholic who went on to challenge church dogma and write books like "Sexism and God-Talk," Ruether said she was aware that a young generation of feminist theologians assumed their older, white predecessors were blind to issues of race and class. Ruether pushed back, explaining she'd been shaped in part by the Black Power movement.

After earning a doctorate degree in classics and patristics — the history of the Christian church fathers — at Claremont Graduate University in California, she spent the summer of 1965 in Mississippi with civil rights activists. For the next decade she taught at the historically Black Howard University School of Religion in Washington, D.C. These experiences led her to interrogate Christian history in a new way, think about church power dynamics and ask questions like: Can a male savior save women?

"This question is not a small question," says Kwok Pui Lan, who teaches theology at Emory University in Atlanta. "In other traditions you can find goddesses, so why do you worship a male savior?"

Kwok first read Ruether's work when she was an undergrad at the University of Hong Kong. It inspired Kwok's own pioneering study of women and Christianity in Asia. She says Ruether was among the first scholars to amplify women's voices throughout Christian history — all the way back to the time of Jesus.

"And recovering these voices not as exceptional, but as part of the conversations that were going on that got buried over time because of the assumption that women have little to say," says Emilie Townes, the dean of the divinity school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "That was not what was happening in the early church. Women had a lot to say."

She beat Popes to the punch

In the '80s, Ruether served as an advisor on Townes' doctoral dissertation at Garrett Evangelical Seminary, a Methodist school near Chicago. Ruether spent much of her career there, training generations of Christian leaders and challenging her own Catholic church on teachings around abortion, birth control and the all-male priesthood. She beat Popes to the punch: decades before Pope Francis' encyclical on climate justice, Ruether tackled the topic in articles and her 1994 book "Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing."

"Rosemary turned over all that soil by herself. There was no role model for Rosemary," says Mary E. Hunt, a theologian and co-founder of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual in Maryland.

Ruether served as an advisor on Hunt's doctoral dissertation from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and Hunt says Ruether was a famously caring mentor, one who traveled widely to meet with students and colleagues around the globe, from Gaza to Latin America. She collaborated with Muslims, Jews, Protestant Christians and Buddhists on a wide range of scholarship and championed writing by feminist theologians from developing nations.

Ruether showed, Hunt says, "that you can be a scholar and an activist, and be thorough going on both counts. That's where Rosemary's legacy is."

Her books are required reading in many theology schools

She paid a price for her activism. A Catholic university once took back a job offer because she served on the board of Catholics for Choice, an abortion rights group. Despite her challenge of Catholic dogma, Ruether continued to self-identify as a Catholic, and much to the dismay of some conservative Catholics, she became part of the canon herself: many of her four dozen books and hundreds of articles were required reading in theology schools. Where Ruether isn't on the syllabus of a feminist theology class, books by her students — and their students — certainly are.

At the 2002 Harvard conference, Ruether reflected on what inspired her and gave her the courage to challenge male church authority. She turned to the summer of 1965, when she volunteered with the Delta Ministry in Mississippi. She saw a dorm at a Black college that had been sprayed with bullets and visited a town under siege by the KKK.

"I experienced what white America looks like from the context of Black people in Mississippi," she said. "That was the kind of defining moment for me; when one had to decide, are you going to be governed by fear, or are you going to go ahead?"

Ruether went ahead.

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Monique Parsons