Teaching Feminist Theology to College Students: The Influence of Rosemary Radford Ruether

Article excerpt

I am honored to be here to say a few words about Rosemary Ruether's contributions to feminist theology. I first became acquainted with Rosemary's work when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1970s and feminist theology was just beginning to find its voice. In those days, there were no courses on feminist theology, and I learned about the literature from my fellow students at the Divinity School. During the last two years of my graduate studies, I began to read this new literature in feminist theology-some of it by Rosemary-and so when I started teaching fulltime in the fall of 1980, it made sense (at least to me) to put my reading into practice by teaching a course on women and religion. What I would like to share with you this morning is how Rosemary's work has helped me in my own teaching over the last twenty-two years.

Most of my teaching involves undergraduate students, although I have taught at schools with graduate programs for all but three of these years. My undergraduate students, for the most part, have not gone on to graduate study in religion--although a few have. For many of them, my course may be the only connection with feminist theology they will ever have. Rosemary's work has enabled me to share with my students some very important ideas and ways of thinking, and I would like to talk about how specific books of hers have impacted my own teaching and have taught both me and my students a great deal. I would venture to say that, indirectly, Rosemary Ruether's work has influenced hundreds of my college students; we can only guess, and hope, at the continuing impact it has had on them.

When I was asked to teach three courses in the fall of 1980 at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, I was assigned two sections of "Introduction to Theology" and one section of "whatever I wanted." I thought this third course would be the perfect opportunity to share with my eager students (remember, I was just beginning!) some of what I had been learning. And so I told my new department chair that I would teach a course called "Women and Religion." I received by return mail his concerned response. I was hired, he wrote, to teach "systematic theology" and how would such a course be "systematic theology"? Anne Carr was very helpful in responding, and with her advice, I wrote back to tell him that this would be a course in systematic theology: the doctrine of God, the person, Christ, church, sin and grace, from the perspective of women. He wrote back to say that this would be acceptable, but not what they expected. So when I walked into the classroom that fall almost twenty-two years ago, I was amazed th at what my students expected then was a course in the Blessed Mother and St. Joan of Arc. We were all in for a surprise!

On my reading list for that course were three books that Rosemary had either edited or written. Two of them were Religion and Sexism and Women of Spirit: both collections of essays on women throughout Christian history that either exposed the sexism of the tradition or filled in some of the blanks--or should we say, gaping chasms--in the history of theology. The other was New Woman, New Earth, a book that I still think is one of the most important books in feminist theology in the last thirty years. My students and I read this together and learned about the interconnection of oppression: how sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and the ecological crisis were all part of a way of thinking--dualistic thinking--that pitted one against another. This course was a learning experience all around. My students were shocked at how their own tradition had been so oppressive over the centuries, and often had to struggle with their anger over this situation. But they learned, as did I, that there was a much more complicated his tory than they had ever learned about. I still remember the efforts of one of my students at St. Norbert to learn more about the medieval practice of double monasteries. …