Monday, April 28, 2008

Feminist of the Week - Letty Russell

As a student at Yale Divinity School, I've heard a lot about Letty Russell, leading feminist theologian and one of the first women to attend Harvard Divinity School. She died this past summer, so unfortuantely I never had the opportunity to meet her, but students who have taken classes with her speak highly of her, both personally and academically.

"Women in patriarchal culture are surrounded by messages that negate or trivialize their existence. Their bodily sexual presence is regarded as a dangerous threat to male purity and, at the same time, as a justification for constant verbal and physical abuse. They experience their bodies as constantly vulnerable to assault and are told, at the same time, that they deserve such assault because they "cause" it by their sexual presence. Similarly, women find their own viewpoints and judgments of events trivialized, and this trivialization is justified on the grounds that women are inherently stupid, uninformed, lacking in authority, and incapable of forming significant understandings. Thus they are alienated from their own minds, from being able to trust their own perceptions. These judgments upon the woman's body and mind are, in turn, used to justify women's exclusion from cultural opportunities and leadership. Women are asked to accept this, too, as normal, natural, divinely sanctioned. "

"The critique of sexism implies a fundamental principle of judgment. This critical principle of feminist theology is the affirmation of and promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, to be appraised as not redemptive. Theologically speaking, this means that whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or authentic relation to the divine, or to reflect the authentic nature of things, or to be the message or work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption. "

"Frequently, women with strong religious backgrounds have the most difficulty in accepting that the violence against them is wrong. They believe what they have been taught, that resistance to this injustice is unbiblical and unchristian. Christian women are supposed to be meek, and claiming rights for oneself is committing the sin of pride. But as soon as battered women who hold rigidly traditional religious beliefs begin to develop an ideological suspicion that this violence against them is wrong, they react against it. "

As a leading feminist theologian, she worked to bring about liberation for not just women, but liberation for all, tieing together strands of poverty, racism, and sexism to create a better future.

She said this at one of her last public speeches: "Our struggle is to overcome the fear of difference and to break the bars that keep us apart. [Others] want what we want. They want to work, they want to change the social structure. They want hospitality with justice."

Letty truly was an amazing woman. At her memorial service last October at YDS, her portrait was hung on the walls of the Common Room, becoming the second woman to have her portrait hung at YDS. It's an amazing portrait of a smiling woman - one that reflected her positive nature. Right next to her portrait is that of H. Richard Neibuhr, another YDS emeritus professor and one of the leading theologians of the 20th century. The contrast between these two is immeasurable - Letty's portrait positively glows while Neibuhr's casts a shadow, showing a white man dressed in black against a black background standing imposingly in front of a Bible. It's no wonder that Letty's theology worked to support the fullness of humanity.

You can find the wide array of her books here.

By the way, if anyone has any suggestions for feminist of the week, leave it in the comments.

No comments: