A woman of valor: Rosemary Radford Ruether

In tribute to Rosemary Radford Ruether: Nov. 2, 1936 – May 21, 2022.

Rosemary Radford Ruether in 1974. Photo from National Catholic Reporter.

Since Rosemary Radford Ruether died in May, many tributes have celebrated this scholar who influenced generations of students and colleagues across the world. Her knowledge was wide and deep; her commitment to the well-being of women was beyond compare; and her analysis and critique of patriarchal ideologies and arrangements were trenchant. Her written output was phenomenal. A bright star, she was one of a large group of women scholars and activists who put their mark on our lives in the second half of the 20th century and beyond. We may rest assured that her influence was not a fleeting one; it will continue long after her departure from this world.

Those who knew her well write about her unassuming presence and her sense of humor. I met her for the first time when she came to Louisville, Kentucky, to present the 1982 Caldwell Lecture at the Presbyterian seminary where I had begun teaching. Ahead of me in age by only a few years, Ruether was already an established scholar, a woman of renown. Her 1983 book Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology was partly the product of the lectures she gave at our institution in the early 80s.

At the time of her visit, the seminary still had a women’s caucus – an organization that was instrumental in my being called to my position – and we hosted Ruether for a reception at my house. From that occasion and later conversations, I remember her as exceptionally good-natured with a great sense of humor. She delivered her comments in such an agreeable tone and with such a friendly mien that their full import only sank in over time.

I invited her to walk with me in the park where the seminary is located. Upon our return we sat down for lunch in the cafeteria. I was in those years the only female faculty member. One of my colleagues, a theologian, engaged us in conversation. “Well, Rosemary,” he asked, “which branch of theology do you line up with?” She gave him a quick look over her glasses and replied, “Oh well, actually, my own, really.” I have never forgotten that statement and the self-confidence with which she made it. With others, she was indeed giving voice to and shaping a new branch of theology with the label “feminist” attached.

In the opening pages of Sexism and God-Talk she wrote, “The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women, is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive.” With that statement she began the project of outlining a theology based on this principle. The full humanity of women – what some have called “the radical idea that women are people” – is still the basic principle that guides our work in our different fields of scholarship and activism, of writing and ministry. We who followed in the footsteps of Ruether and many of her sisters always ask whether whatever is taking place at work or in the household promotes the full humanity of women.

A prolific writer, she had by her early 40s already published a formidable number of books. When I pulled a selection of her works from my bookshelf to consult for this remembrance, I counted seven books that saw the light of day before she stood in the pulpit of Caldwell Chapel to deliver her 1982 lecture. One constant theme in her writing is the false dualism of nature and spirit in which “maleness is identified with intellectuality and spirituality; femaleness is identified with the lower material nature,” as she wrote in her 1975 book New Woman, New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation. As a symbol of the material and the physical, women represent not only nature but specifically “evil lower nature.” In Sexism and God-Talk she wrote, “Nature ceases even to be the arena of divine sovereignty and becomes an antidivine sphere, grounded in ignorance and darkness.”

The Caldwell Lecture of 1982, presented by this female star in the firmament of our scholarly world, was only sparsely attended. The chapel, not known for its excellent acoustics under any circumstances, posed special problems for speakers when few bodies were in the pews. Of Ruether’s many witty remarks, which she tossed off in asides, I missed a number. I count myself lucky not to have missed the one in which she protested nature-spirit dualism: “I am not your Nature, I am not your land, and get your foot off me!”

Without being in the least pompous or self-aggrandizing, she exuded self-confidence and a certain practicality. These characteristics were present already in her exchanges with Thomas Merton, with whom she corresponded in the latter 1960s. In her introduction to the 1995 edition of At Home in the World: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Rosemary Radford Ruether, she wrote about her 29-year-old self who initiated the exchanges with Merton, who was at the time, in her terms, “a seasoned thinker.” She was then gripped by profound questioning about Catholicism, which she felt the need to discuss with someone. In her introduction, she surmised that, at that point in Merton’s life, “he also needed to ask himself some searching questions.”

In one of their exchanges, which became heated after Ruether raised critical questions about monasticism, her reply to him began: “Dear Thomas. I am really kind of disappointed in you. Do you realize how defensive you are, how you are forever proving, proving how good your life is etc.?” She continued to counter both his words and his tone and ended with a postscript in which she commented on his identification of her as “abstract” and “cerebral”: “If I weren’t a woman would it have occurred to you to accuse me of being cerebral? … I am just as fleshy as you, baby, and I am also just as much a ‘thinking animal’ as you.” Entirely in possession of all her faculties, she was quite able to engage with Merton on an equal level.

She was an early proponent of new ecological approaches. She connected the domination of women to the domination of the earth. Sexism and destruction of ecological systems are linked, in Ruether’s view, and both social ills reached new depths in the industrial age. She argued for the need to transform worldviews based on domination and subjugation and for the creation of an alternative value system. As early as 1975, she called for phasing out gasoline-powered modes of transportation. At all times she claimed new theological insights to counter predominant cultural and ecclesiastical systems. In the context of ecological concerns, she noted that our traditions – also the biblical traditions – can be shown to have contributed to the evils that beset us. But as she wrote in To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism, published in 2000, “revelatory paradigms by which to construct a redeeming vision of an alternative humanity and world.”

As I write this, more than 40 years after Ruether articulated her insights, I find it depressing that her observations on women and work still ring all too true. For example, she wrote in New Woman, New Earth, “Work in our society is based on a male workday that presupposes a wife. … Mass liberation of women depends on the fundamental restructuring of the socioeconomic relation between work and the domestic support structure.” When I first read and taught these words in my classes, many changes were at hand in our society and religious communities. From having one female faculty member (me) employed at our institution, we progressed to having a fair representation of women and diverse ethnicities among my colleagues by the time I retired in 2017. Yet in the larger world in the United States, we are once again fighting forces of domination that seek to deprive women of the right to make decisions about our own bodies.

Going beyond analysis and critique of prevailing ideologies and practices, Ruether always explored alternative visions of existing and relating. As she wrote in New Woman, New Earth, “We must seek the fundamental reconstruction of the way resources are allocated within the world community,” and “Our model of relationships must cease to be hierarchical and become mutually supportive, a cooperative model” of related systems. In the final decades of the 20th century, many of us gained access to spaces where women had no presence before. But the work on fundamental transformation of perspectives and patterns of thought lagged, creating openings for the gains to be reversed. Historian Gerda Lerner, who published The Creation of Patriarchy in 1986 – a few years after Ruether published Sexism and God-Talk – stated, “As long as sexism as ideology exists, patriarchal relations can easily be re-established.”

From the early stages of her career, Ruether had an eye on the structural connections between race, sex and class. In New Woman, New Earth, she wrote, “To recognize structures of oppression within our own group … would force us to deal with ourselves, not as simply oppressed or oppressors, but as people, who are sometimes one and sometimes the other in different contexts.” She wanted us to recognize clearly the links between sexism, classism and racism, so that the feminist movement would not become stuck in an analysis of sexism confined to the experience of a small, privileged group of people who belong “racially and socioeconomically to the ruling class.”

One does not have to agree with everything she wrote to appreciate the ongoing significance of her contributions. Her views on the Bible are not always presented in a just and accurate light. Yet for a woman like me, coming into feminism at the time I met Ruether, she was a shining light who went ahead so that others could follow in her footsteps. I was soon teaching a class on feminist liberationist theology and used her books throughout my career as a teacher.

While I was browsing through her writings on my shelf for this piece, I came upon an edition of The Radical Kingdom, one of her earliest works. To my surprise I found two small pieces of paper clipped inside the cover, containing short notes Ruether gave me after we met in Louisville. In one of them – dated March 8, 1982 – she referred to our encounter and a Dutch journal she sent me, published by a group of Jewish women. This was followed by a March 10, 1982, handwritten note referring to more “Dutch stuff.” I have no memory of the material she sent me, but the personal kindness of this great scholar and supporter of women shines through the messages.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, a woman of valor! “Let her works praise her in the city gates” (Proverbs 31:31).