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Rosemary Radford Ruether, a pioneer of feminist theology, has died

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One of the founding mothers of feminist theology has died. Rosemary Radford Ruether was 85 years old. She was among the first scholars to think deeply about the role of women in Christianity, challenging dogmatic ideas and pushing for change. Monique Parsons has this appreciation.

MONIQUE PARSONS, BYLINE: At a Harvard University conference in 2002, theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether looked back on her long career.

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ROSEMARY RADFORD RUETHER: In 1968, I wrote and gave my first major essay on sexism, which was titled "Male Chauvinist Theology And The Anger Of Women."

PARSONS: She thought it was a great title.

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RUETHER: So I was kind of surprised by how galvanized and, you know, frightened white men were by the term anger of women.

PARSONS: She'd chosen the words carefully. Ruether, a white Catholic who went on to challenge church dogma and write books like "Sexism And God Talk," explained she'd been shaped in part by the Black Power movement. She'd spent the summer of 1965 in Mississippi with civil rights activists and the first decade of her career at the historically Black Howard University School of Religion. These experiences led her to interrogate Christian history in a new way and ask questions like, can a male savior save women, says Kwok Pui Lan, who teaches theology at Emory University in Atlanta.

KWOK PUI LAN: This question is not a small question. In other traditions, you can find goddesses. Why you worship a male savior?

PARSONS: She first read Ruether's work when she was an undergrad at the University of Hong Kong. It inspired Kwok's pioneering study of women and Christianity in Asia. Ruether was among the first scholars to amplify women's voices throughout Christian history, all the way back to the time of Jesus.

EMILIE TOWNES: And recovering these voices, not as exceptional...

PARSONS: That's Emilie Townes, the dean of the divinity school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

TOWNES: ...But as part of the conversations that were going on that got buried from over time because of the assumption that women had little to say. So that was not what was happening in the early church. Women had a lot to say.

PARSONS: Townes studied under Ruether in the '80s at Garrett Evangelical Seminary, a Methodist school near Chicago, where Ruether spent a career devoted to training generations of Christian leaders and where she challenged her own Catholic church on abortion, birth control and the all-male priesthood. She beat popes to the punch. Decades before Pope Francis' encyclical on climate justice, Ruether tackled the topic in her book "Gaia And God: An Ecofeminist Theology Of Earth Healing."

MARY E HUNT: Rosemary turned over all that soil by herself. There was no role model for Rosemary.

PARSONS: Mary E. Hunt is a theologian and co-founder of a women's religious retreat center in Maryland. She says Ruether traveled the globe to meet and learn from feminist theologians and edited volumes of their work. Ruether showed, Hunt says...

HUNT: That you can be a scholar and an activist and be thoroughgoing on both counts. That's where Rosemary's legacy is.

PARSONS: She paid a price for it. A Catholic university once took back a job offer because she supported abortion rights. But many of Ruether's four dozen books were required reading in theology schools. And where Ruether isn't on the syllabus of a feminist theology class, books by her students and their students likely are. For NPR News, I'm Monique Parsons. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.