Is feminism another "f word"?

The Editors Interview Rosemary Radford Ruether

Just because Rosemary Radford Ruether is getting close to retirement doesn't mean she's going to stop stirring things up. First as a civil rights activist and now as one of the world's preeminent feminist theologians, Ruether has consistently called for equality and inclusivity in society and in the church.

In June she will leave Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, the United Methodist school of theology in Evanston, Illinois where she has taught for more than two decades, for the Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California, where she will teach for three more years. Then, she and her husband, Herman, plan to retire in Southern California.

Although she will soon be leaving the classroom, Ruether's influence will surely continue. As probably the most widely read feminist theologian, she has more than 30 books to her name. Her most recent works include Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (Beacon, 2000) and Women and Redemption: A Theological History (Fortress, 1998).

A recipient of the U.S. Catholic Award for furthering the cause of women in the church, Ruether returned to our offices to talk about the state of feminism and feminist theology today.

The last time we interviewed you was 17 years ago. What's changed since then?

To tell you the truth, I'm not sure there's been that much change. Backlashes against feminism mean that old patterns are reasserted and sometimes reasserted in more extreme ways than before. Interestingly, the recent media focus on the Taliban helped people realize that the oppression of women not only isn't over, but that significant right-wing religious movements—not just in Islam—are creating extreme reactionary repression, probably worse than it ever existed in the classical traditions of these religions.

In a certain sense, this has put the issue back on the agenda in a way that can't just be dismissed.

What about in American society?

I think feminism has helped open up the professions. Women have always worked, obviously, including a large amount of unpaid labor. But feminism helped create much broader access to better-paying jobs. What hasn't been solved, though —and is really necessary—is more available, less expensive child care and the adjustment of work hours. That was all part of the feminist agenda in the 1960s: shorter, more flexible work hours and daycare.

The feminist movement didn't envision both parents being away all the time and somebody else taking care of the children. They envisioned subsidized child care and flexible, shorter work hours, so that kids might need five or six hours a day, not 10, of daycare.

My daughter is a lawyer in downtown Chicago. She left a better-paying job for a city job because it gave her good maternity leave and she was able to work three days a week instead of five. She's taken a huge pay cut, but she's been able to keep a foot in her profession. Of course, their child care bills are astronomical and they might as well have been sending their kids to Harvard all these years. Who can do this except professionals?

Poorer women have to work, but they have very little access to opportunities to balance their lives. The contradiction between classes is still very extreme, and it's hard to address the issue because the assumption is, "Now you have a job, so what are you complaining about?"

Some younger women hear the "f word"—feminism—and are really reluctant to identify with it, even though they benefit from the movement.

The extreme image of the word feminist is that these are unlovely women who hate men and are lesbians. The dominant culture poisons critical words. As soon as you hear words like socialism, feminism, and so on, you conjure up extreme images. Obviously I don't agree with it, but you get a stereotype like that going and very few people want to claim the word.

For example, Pat Robertson has characterized feminism as a movement that makes women "leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians." Who'd want to get behind most of that? Although it attributes an extraordinary amount of power to feminists, and I love the "destroy capitalism" part.

You go, girl.

Hey, we must be doing something right! Seriously though, feminism is simply about the full equality of women and men, not about a separation from or hostility toward men. In fact, it's about men also being liberated from sexism.

How does it do that?

Sexism is a relationship. You can't change a relationship without changing both sides. It's not possible for women to get liberated without men getting liberated. That was quite evident in the National Organization of Women declarations of the late '60s. They saw how both men and women having equal work opportunities meant the whole relationship of home and work needed to change to something much different than men and society on one side and women and home on the other.

Somehow, though, that idea always got lost. But it was already well understood during the 19th-century suffrage movement. They were saying that both women and men are distorted and are operating out of only a part of their humanity. So to change this to a mutual and equal relationship means that women have to grow out of being passive and dependent and men have to grow out of patterns of domination.

The point that sexism is a relationship and that both sides need to be changed is continually treated as though it's a surprising new statement. People still say, "Wow, I never heard this before! Is this some new idea?"

What do you think of the men's movement?

Unfortunately, the men's movement, which made a big splash but then tended to disappear, wasn't one movement at all, I think. A variety of people were saying different things and those that captured the most attention, I think, were kind of silly.

Like the Promise Keepers?

No, the Promise Keepers are really evangelical, right-wing men getting back to being the head of household and women obeying them. I'm talking about the Robert Bly kind of things: Asserting wild manhood and beating drums in the forest, reclaiming your wild manhood and then attributing it all to the fact that you never saw your father. But they never ask, "Well, why didn't you see your father?" Maybe it was because he was working all the time.

This approach remains completely on a psychological level, rather than making a social analysis of why this problem exists. Mainstream feminism says we need to change the relationship so that men and women will share home and work. Then children would recover having fathers. At least that's what I'm saying in Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (Beacon).


You said that feminism as a whole hasn't accomplished nearly as much as it set out to. What about in the church? What has feminist theology accomplished?

Let's talk about women's employment in the church first. For virtually all Protestantism, except right-wing groups, women are ordained and are serving in significant numbers. Women now make up about 15 percent of the clergy overall—over 50 percent in the Unitarian Church—and they're making inroads in the hierarchy, as well. So that's an extraordinary development.

But like all professions, if you're married and you have kids, you've got a conflict because the church thinks you ought to be there 40 to 80 hours a week. The Methodist Church thinks you should be able to move at will, which is hard to do. We don't really deal with the structural problems of that. So there are jokes that churches really prefer either single women or widows.

In the Catholic context, obviously there has been not only the continuing denial of ordination, but virtually a ban on discussing it. But below the surface women are taking on more and more parish leadership and most prison and university chaplaincies. They're just leading in a nonordained capacity.

Feminist theology has partly shaped that and has been influential in other ways, too. But on the other hand, feminist theology remains limited. It's still primarily just an elective course for women—and very few men—in theological education. In our seminaries and theological schools it's not really integrated into foundational work.

How has it reached parishes?

It comes to the parish level in two ways. First, a lot of theologically trained women are now parish leaders. Some of them, usually very carefully, weave new ways of thinking into their sermons and teaching, and thus they share insights from feminist theology. Second, it's hard to know how much, but here and there you get groups of laypeople—again, usually women—who read feminist theology for study or book groups. Like at the Sheil Center. Not that the Sheil Center is totally representative.

That's where you go to church?

Right. It's the Catholic ministry at Northwestern University. They've had groups for years that read feminist theology, and there are a number of other churches around the country where groups discuss feminist theology.

Looking back, has feminist theology had as much of an impact as you would have liked?

No, absolutely not. It's part of the whole movement of women in leadership, renewal, and theology, but it remains limited. Today, there's this kind of covert message that we don't need this anymore. We did it. The same thing with black theology, liberation theology, all of these theologies of the '70s and '80s.

What's kept you Catholic through the years? Are there some elements in the tradition that you really identify with?

Frankly, if I hadn't been born into the Catholic Church I doubt I would have joined it. But then I would have had a whole different history. See, my family is Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. I didn't grow up in a Catholic ghetto; I grew up in a family that was itself interreligious. The Catholicism I grew up with, on my mother's side, valued serious intellectual religion, serious piety. Early on I learned that I should disregard what my mother viewed as "vulgar" Catholicism.

Such as?

Such as feeling like you're going to hell if you ate a hamburger five minutes after midnight on a Thursday—all that kind of stuff she just dismissed. Her idea was reading Meister Eckhart and other good Catholic intellectual authors. Coming out of that background, I really didn't have the struggle of repudiating a lot of oppressive things, because they had already been dismissed.

But getting back to the question of what keeps you Catholic.

What keeps me Catholic is the commitment I have to the meaningfulness of Christianity. To me, Catholicism represents a memory of the whole history, although not entirely the whole history because we tend to ignore the Eastern Church. But I'm interested in having the whole history, not just a Protestantized New Testament and then a jump to the 16th century. This is not adequate.

I'm also interested in promoting the transformative meanings of Christianity within the Catholic Church, which I think people began to recognize and discover again in new ways in the last several decades. That wing of Catholicism I would not like to see die out.

What do you think of the polarization around women's issues? More and more people, especially in the younger generation, disagree with current policies of the Catholic Church. Many leave, but another big group is encouraged by the Vatican edicts.

There is a polarization in the Catholic Church on a number of issues, and they tend to line up in some connection with each other. I don't think it's generational, because we've got pretty conservative younger women, and the women who started thinking about feminist theology in the '60s aren't young anymore. The split is right through the generations, and people choose their parishes along those lines. They don't necessarily go to their local parish.

Where do you see that leading?

It's hard to know how long the current church can be sustained. At what point do conservative Catholics basically say, "We want a smaller church that's ideologically cohesive" and just eliminate more dissenting folks?

Women who want to be ordained eventually move toward another denomination. Everywhere I go in theological education I find ex-Catholic women who have decided, "Well, I'm just giving up and becoming Episcopalian. I'll be on the ordination track and everything will be OK."

What do you say to women who leave the Catholic Church because they feel called to ordination? Have you struggled with that yourself?

I don't say anything to them, because there's no future for being ordained on the immediate horizon. Personally, I have no interest in ordination in the Catholic Church. I regard it as untenable for a lot of people, both men and women, because of the control system.

It's interesting though, that we also get people wanting to join the Catholic Church. Even as I was talking to one woman who was leaving, I met a Unitarian woman who wanted to become Catholic. She's attracted by the liturgy, because she doesn't see Unitarians as having a lot going for them in that area or in mysticism or contemplative life.

Did you encourage her?

I said, "There's a whole lot of contradictions in the Catholic Church, and if you join, are you really going to accept this, this, and this?" Well, no, she's not going to accept this whole list. So I told her she could also just participate in these things without signing on as Catholic.

I've had several young seminarians from Garrett become Catholic, too. One of them was baptized on Holy Saturday evening. He had all his friends from Garrett there, and they kept telling him, "We've got the car outside with the engine running; anytime you want out, we'll be ready."

Obviously there are things attracting people to become Catholic—young people, men and women—but I think most who do usually do it by selectively appropriating things they like and ignoring things they don't, which is, of course, what a lot of Catholics do, too.

Your most recent book, Visionary Women (Fortress), looks at women mystics. Is this tradition just now being recovered in a big way?

There's been a lot of interest in Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich—those have been the favorites. But in a new book I'm writing I also look at a couple of others. In addition to Mechthild of Magdeburg, I study Margaret Porete, who is not exactly a healthy model to adopt. She's basically into self-annihilation. The church obliged her by burning her to death.

Do you think medieval women mystics have something to offer women today?

They have something to offer when you appropriate certain things and radically reinterpret them. You can only do it in ways that are really not very historic. My problem is that I'm too much of a historian. To me, it's a very different worldview of a different time period and one cannot easily appropriate them. Part of the problem with people like Matthew Fox is that they try to do that and people think they're getting the 12th-century Hildegard when they're not getting the 12th-century Hildegard at all.

Your book Gaia and God (Harper-SanFrancisco) was published a decade ago, and since then many feminist theologians have written about ecofeminism. What is eco-feminist theology?

The basic idea behind ecofeminism is that there is some symbolic and social connection with how woman and nature have been treated and how they're often symbolized in a similar way. Once you get that idea across, the big question is what you do with it. Some say that women are just closer to nature than men are. I think that's a very dangerous position.

One of the problems with that is that it means women ought to do all the recycling. Again, I think that we need to change the patterns for both men and women. Nature is not your mother. She's not going to clean up after you.

What's left on your plate as you near retirement?

I have a commitment to keeping some critical thought going and supporting that wing of reform Catholicism. To do that, I need to continue to identify as a Catholic, although I also function ecumenically and interreligiously, so it's not a limitation for me. I don't have a particular struggle around that, but that's because I'm not trying to occupy spaces from which people can eject me.

Is that why you teach at a Methodist school?

Right, and I go to nice progressive churches. My immediate contacts are within the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, and bishops rarely talk to me.

Has this finding a niche for yourself worked for you? And is it a healthy way to deal with the current reality of the church?

I think it's working; I'm not sure it's healthy. The church has such a range of people from right to left, you're obviously going to create these niches for people and that could continue indefinitely.

This article appeared in the April 2002 (Volume 67, Number 4) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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