The Joy of Team-Teaching with Rosemary Radford Ruether

Susan Thistlethwaite

with response by Tracy McEwan, Sydney, Australia

Fall 2022

From academic years 1984-1985 until 1990-1992, Rosemary and I team-taught a course together.

The catalogue description reads:

:TEC 495 Women in Crisis

Crises in women’s lives with particular attention to issues of violence. Combined historical and cultural background, socio-economic analysis, practical experience, and models of decision-making. “

Teaching that with Rosemary is, hands down, the highlight of my teaching career.

I first met Rosemary when she came to give a guest lecture at Duke Divinity School where I was a seminary student from 1970 to 1973. There were four women in the school and 234 (or so) men at that time. I and one other woman showed up for

Rosemary’s lecture. The all-male faculty members sat in the back row of the auditorium, the male students in the middle and we two women in the front. Rosemary was her usual witty, brilliant self, speaking on St. Augustine and his physical problem with controlling his will. Some of you may know the lecture I mean.

The lecture as published is called: “Augustine’s Penis: Misogyny in the Church Fathers.[1]

I was not the same person after I heard that lecture then I was before, and I can remember looking at the male faculty and the male students as I was exiting and thinking, “They’re terrified of her.” With good reason. And I wanted to be like her.

But it was hard, when I joined the Chicago Theological Seminary faculty a decade or so later, to get over my starstruck admiration for this brilliant and courageous scholar. We met for the second time at a faculty gathering of the Chicago area seminaries where Rosemary was on the Garrett faculty. It took about two minutes into our meeting for Rosemary to sweep away the hero worship I had and replace it

with her inimitable energy and intellectual curiosity. Who was I? What was I teaching? What was I writing? What were my kids’ names? What were my dogs’ names?

We spoke often on the phone and a year later we had crafted the syllabus for “Women in Crisis” and were teaching it together.

Since Garrett is on the north side and CTS on the south side of Chicago, we arranged to often teach it in a battered women’s shelter downtown. Changing the location added tremendously to the changed dynamic we were trying to create. Every woman lives with the spectre of violence and often carries the physical memory of violence done to her. We needed not to be in our seminaries, but in a woman-defined place dedicated to safety and honesty about women’s lives.

I had done counselling at a battered women’s shelter outside Boston, and Rosemary, of course, knew the historical and cultural roots of the ubiquitous violence in women’s lives better than anyone.

We had a goal in that class and that was for all of us to get to the place where we had a concrete answer to the question, “So what are you going to do about it?”

I also recall that we constantly changed the reading and assignments as those classes unfolded. I know it made some students upset that one week to the next, they could not necessarily count on what the syllabus said. But our shared view was that life was unfolding in the class and we had to engage it.

While an incredible historian, Rosemary was also a liberation theologian. Engaging life as it is really lived and doing critical analysis of the forces conspiring to oppress and harm people is the essence of liberation theology.

Rosemary and I did not see each other nearly as much after we taught that last class, but I have many wonderful AAR memories of seeing her and sitting down for “just a chat” that would last hours.

Rosemary Radford Ruether was the singularly greatest influence on my intellectual life, and I am grateful beyond words for her life and work.

Tracy McEwan’s Response

In the preface to my PhD dissertation, which I submitted in February this year, I reflected on what “me”, at the beginning of my studies, would have thought if she’s come across “me”, some 6 years later. If I reflect honestly, when I began my research in 2016, I was rather ambivalent about feminism and its contribution to religion. Now, I am ardently feminist, consider myself a feminist scholar, and am heavily involved in feminist activism.

Thinking back, there were several key moments which brought about this self-transformation – many involve Rosemary.

One of the first moments, was one of my early meetings with my PhD supervisor, Kath McPhillips. I asked where I should start my reading for my literature review, and she directed me to the work of Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. My reply was “aren’t they a bit radical?” Very patiently Kath suggested I read and make up my own mind. And so, I did.

The first work I read was Rosemary’s “Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church” (in the edited volume Religion and Sexism). Hungry for more, I read Sexism and God Talk, There was no going back.

Just like Susan said, “I was not the same person … And I wanted to be like her.”

Rosemary’s books were radical, and I was radicalized.

And so, in late 2017, a newly radicalized Tracy came to her first AAR/SBL meeting. Here, another key moment happened. I arrived in Boston not knowing anyone and attended my first FLTN meeting on the Friday night. It was here I heard the shocking news that Rosemary was unwell. Again, the ground shifted for me.

In my admiration, I had made Rosemary immortal.

Being a passive bystander was no longer an option –the question rolling around in my mind was “So what are you going to do about it?”

It often strikes me that a woman I never met has had such a profound impact on my life.

I am now vice-president of WATAC, Women and the Australian Church, a feminist, ecumenical, activist organization. This organization, which began in 1983 continues to be inspired by Rosemary’s Women-Church movement and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s “Discipleships of Equals”.

Thanks to this legacy, Christian feminism as an activist movement is growing rapidly in Australia. Since 2019, WATAC’s paid membership base has more than doubled and our private Facebook page has gone from 5 to more than 750 members. We have monthly Zoom meet-ups and regional in-person groups. In 2021 we launched, with the Grail in Australia, a podcast “Australian Women Preach” which celebrates the diverse preaching talents of Australian women. In the recent Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia, women and their allies stood in solidarity when a motion affirming the equal dignity of men and women failed to pass the deliberative vote of the bishops. This kind of solidarity among Catholic women in Australia is unprecedented.

As I look back and look forward, the legacy of Rosemary’s scholarship is like a beacon of light for Christian feminism in Australia. Like Susan, I am enormously grateful for her life and work.

[1] Publication date 09/02/1972.