Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“The Power of a Woman’s Voice: The Legacy of Sue Hiatt”

An hourlong teleconference with

Carter Heyward

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER thanks the Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward for her wonderful presentation of the work of her friend and colleague, the Rev. Suzanne Hiatt, in the new book, The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me: The Writings of Suzanne Hiatt(New York, Seabury Books, 2014).

Following are notes from the presentation and from the discussion session that ensued. They are not verbatim, but are meant to be used in conjunction with the audio version of this event.

Carter explained that inclusive language was not Sue Hiatt’s major concern. Hence, Carter did not feel any misgivings about using “Lord” language in the title. She called Sue a prophetic voice, a major strategist and organizer for the ordination on July 29, 1974 of the first Episcopal women priests.

Born in 1936, Hiatt moved to Minneapolis as a child. She graduated from Radcliffe College in the late 1950s, worked with the Girls Scouts, and then went back to school to get a Master of Divinity and a   Master in Social Work at Boston University. Her work as a community organizer made her indispensable for the social change movement that was the ordination of women in a church that previously had had only male clergy. After her ordination in 1974, she joined the faculty of Episcopal Divinity School where she taught until her retirement in 1998. She died in 2002.

As the literary executor of Sue’s work, Carter worked with Janine Lehane to compile this collection of sermons, lectures, and articles. The final section of the book includes reminiscences from friends such as Bishop Barbara C Harris, Bishop Robert DeWitt, among others. Sue’s prophetic voice and prowess in the world of social change emerge.

Carter read selections from the book including:

1. “The Domestic Animal,” an early essay, 1953 (Hiatt was 17),  p. 37 last two paragraphs.

2. “The Life of the Spirit,” a sermon preached at Harkness Chapel at Connecticut College, 1974, pp. 71 bottom-paragraph to 72 top 2 paragraphs.

3. “Challenge of the Churches: Why Bother?” a lecture at her alma mater, Radcliffe College, pp. 91 middle 2 paragraphs and then p. 92 a section on Mary Daly.

4. “Address to the Trustees and Faculty of Regis College,” 1988,  p. 135 first full paragraph.

5. Excerpts from an interview with Bishop Robert DeWitt, 2003, p. 175.
These inviting parts of the book provide a useful overview of the work of a committed and stalwart sister whose singleness of purpose and resolve helped to bring about major change in the Episcopal Church and beyond.

Discussion followed.

1. The first questioner asked how Sue Hiatt stayed true to her commitment to transform and not conform in a patriarchal church.

Carter said that this was a major theme for Sue who did not want to get divided from her sisters. They had transformative work to do. In ordination sermons she spoke to this issue, reminding ordinands not to forget their sisters, to stay in touch with their peers, to avoid isolation.

2. The moderator follow up by asking how the move toward women bishops represented a transformation rather than a conforming to the status quo.

Carter affirmed the need to be bi, tri, even quadricultural. It is important to create structures of mutuality and still gain enough power in an organization to help women and/or LGBTIQ people called to ministry. Hiatt’s view was that one had to conform enough to get into a system, and keep enough integrity not to fall into conformity with it. Walking the tightrope between totally conforming and stepping outside entirely to work on one’s own is part of the challenge of a church vocation.  Sue was an unofficial bishop to women. She was helpful to those who sought be ordained priests, coaching them on what to say/not say to standing committees and still keep their integrity.

3. Another caller affirmed how the ordination of Episcopal women affected other laywomen in the church. She believes that one cannot underestimate the power of women in ministry.

4. One of the priests ordained in July 1974 reported that the ordination of those women had an impact on women inside as well as outside the church. In a discussion some years ago, a person acknowledged to her, “Because of what you’ve done, I am doing something else.”

5. Still another colleague reported that she had met Carter and found the experience of her preaching to be transformative. She was also impressed with the Roman Catholic Women Priest group, especially Bridget Mary Meehan, who structures her home community in an egalitarian way

6. A theology/ethics professor thanked Carter and Darlene O’Dell for their books, especially the sections on the Rev. Pauli Murray, the first African American woman ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in

1967. There may be a documentary in the works on her life.

Carter responded by reading p. 129, a section on Murray’s book, Song in A Weary Throat, (add publishing info) affirming that civil rights movement as the prototype of subsequent social justice movements.

7.  Author Darlene O’Dell (The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven) commented on Pauli Murray, a relatively little known but singularly important figure in American history.

Carter pointed to the war on women and people of color, the anti-Obama sentiment, the racism

that persists, honor killings, trafficking of women and children, reproductive injustice, sexual assault, women having no voice in some religious traditions. She cited President Jimmy Carter in his recent book, Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power (add publishing info), who linked the religious oppression of women to other social ills.

Carter added that there had not been a great deal of change for women in the church, that it is harder than it was five years ago to talk about racism. We need to use our best resources to figure out how we in our own time/place can speak and be heard without giving up hope. As Audre Lorde famously declared, “our silence will not save us.”

Carter concluded using the four points that Sue Hiatt insisted on (pp. 15-16):

1. Women are responsible for resisting their own oppression and struggling for social change

2. Women need to learn how institutions work and how to influence them.

3. Women must be united and not played off against one another.

4. Church women should realize that the church needs us — and Sue Hiatt would add in her later years:  “more than we need the church”

Thanks to Carter Heyward and Janine Lehane for this inspiring collection of the work of Sue Hiatt. Thanks to Cathy Jaskey for editing the audio.
Please join WATER on Wednesday, July 16, 2014, 1-2 PM with Darlene O’Dell discussing The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven. Information on this and all WATER activities can be found on our web site at