THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Mary E. Hunt
“What a Privilege It Is to Do This Work and How Lucky to Be a Feminist.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, December 2020
MH: I go by Mary E. Hunt. I was born in Syracuse, New York in 1951. My parents were Elizabeth Grey Campbell Hunt and Francis Charles Hunt, both from Syracuse. I was born on Tipperary Hill, which is where the Irish immigrants settled who eventually dug the Erie Canal. My mother was from Tipp Hill, as it’s called. It’s distinguished by being the only place in the US that has a traffic fixture where not only is the fixture itself painted green, but instead of having the red, the yellow and the green, it has the green, the yellow and the red by order of federal law. The stone throwers in the earlier part of the 20th century were young lads who were not happy to see the orange and red above the green; they threw stones until the light was out. They did it so often that it was cheaper to pass a law to make sure that that fixture would always be painted green and have green on top.
That’s the neighborhood where my mother was from and I was born not far from that signal. It gives you an idea of the Irish Catholic roots from which I come. It’s illustrative of both my humor and a lot of my theo-politics and my politics. We moved from that neighborhood to another neighborhood in Syracuse where I lived, the Strathmore neighborhood, which is not far, by the way, from where soon to be President Joe Biden and his first wife lived in Syracuse.
I grew up in a fairly typical 1950s Catholic home. My father worked in paper; he was a salesman for a paper company. He also was a real estate investor and my mother was a teacher. My parents were married late in life. When I adopted my own child at 50, I thought it was late, but they were in their mid-thirties when they married after the war and that was unusual. In those days, people got married much, much younger, but they were in their mid-thirties and in rapid succession, had three children where I was the middle child of those three.
We were upper middle class standing in terms of our economic situation with a premium on education. My mother having been a teacher and my father being a businessman, were very keen that we would all go to college. All three of us went not only to college, but on to graduate studies. There was a premium on education; that was expected. It wasn’t whether you were going to go to college, it was what college you were going to go to.
I didn’t realize how lucky I was in those days because my parents not only sent us to college, but also were the scholarship fund and donors to our college educations so we didn’t come out of college with student loans, which so many kids did. I came to understand that that was not normative, but that was really the stuff of privilege.
I have spent a lot of my life dealing with the fact that people do not all have the same means and that it is critically important that we give and share and volunteer and give back and donate and all those things that belong to the common good. That’s where it comes from.
When I was in high school, the nuns shipped us off to the inner city to do work in an after school in a program for African-American children, or they sent us to the Native American reservation in the Syracuse area, to the tribal land where the Onondaga Indians lived. These were early formative experiences. They also shipped us off to Berea Kentucky to the Christian Appalachian Project in high school, where not only did I meet friends – and discovered that my now partner actually was there about the same time I was though we did not meet – but met kids from all over the country who were doing several weeks in the summer of volunteer work. That was the early formation in my understanding of how poverty and racism worked. Sending kids to have those kinds of experiences, especially when they’re white, cis gender, middle class kids makes a big impact. For me it was deeply formative.
MJC: When did you discover feminism or was there a specific moment?
MH: I was in college at Marquette University in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and there I discovered both anti-racism work and the peace movement. I was very involved in the Marquette Community Action Program, not only for working with people in the inner city, but also the peace movement in 1970, 1971. Those were really the roots of what I came to understand as feminism: both seeing the role or lack of it for women; the famous expression that “the only position for women in the movement was prone” (attributed to Stokley Carmichael, mid-1960’s about the civil rights movement) began to set off bells for me.
By 1972 I had graduated from college and went to graduate school at Harvard University at the Divinity School. At that point it was accepting its first sizeable cohorts of women. They had had women since the mid ’50s, but one or two at a time; three or four would be a lot. By the time I got there, they were accepting cohorts of women. Quality rose in terms of the student body and the intellectual life by admitting larger cohorts of women. But all the women, with the exception of two of us, were there because they were going to become ministers.
The other woman and I, Sheila Greeve Devaney, who was a Catholic who had gone to Manhattanville College, and I had been at Marquette, went because we wanted to study theology. It never occurred to us that we’d be ministers. I didn’t even think about women ministers before I went. The beginnings of serious feminist activities in this country began in ’71 or ’72. I was a 21-22-year-old kid coming to see that the issues of racism and anti-war and poverty that I had been schooled on through my Catholic education, but it had not taught me anything about women.
It didn’t take very long to figure out why based on Catholic theological ideology that was always seeing women as subordinate, always putting women aside or pedestaling women as being so wonderful, great, pure and virginal that women were different. I put the pieces together fairly quickly. The women at the Divinity School, most of whom were going to become ministers, were a wonderful and wild bunch.
This was around the time when Mary Daly’s, Beyond God The Father was published and Mary was at Boston College across town from us. We were all in the Boston Theological Institute, a consortium of theological schools so we would have classes together. The most inspiring part of it was a women’s self-defense class that was held at Harvard Divinity School. Mary Daly and some of her friends from Boston College came over and actually took the class with us.
So, we were all in self-defense, throwing each other on the floor and knocking each other down and trying to defend ourselves against each other. That’s how I got to know some of those wonderful women – [Mary Daly’s] book came out and that changed the theological landscape. But the women of Harvard Divinity School, especially the class right before me, were very active all the way through.
Florynce Kennedy came for the famous “Pee-in” at the Lowell Lecture hall where they were protesting the fact that women didn’t have a restroom in this major building on campus. The Divinity School women got the two to three in the morning shift: they had to go over and everyone would urinate on Harvard property in order to show that women needed to have a restroom at Lowell Lecture Hall. That was led by Flo Kennedy.
The women of the Divinity School were very clever: they were trying to teach their professors inclusive language. Instead of complaining, every time a man said “mankind” or “he/him/God/father,” whatever we now call theological pornography, whatever pornographic language they wanted to use to restrict our understanding of things divine, they would throw an M&M when they got it right.
Harvey Cox was one of the professors and I think Time magazine picked it up that the women at the Divinity School threw M&Ms until Harvey got it right. Those women were quite bold: Emily Culpepper and Linda Barufaldi, really a wonderful cohort of women in that era and those women very close to Mary Daly. Feminism came to me as a student through the classes in a really organic way.
We also had the great famed feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether on the faculty at Harvard Divinity School for a year. My first week I went in and sat down by myself with my tray after coming through the cafeteria line and over came a woman in a purple pantsuit carrying a briefcase that said, “Question Authority.” And that was Rosemary Radford Ruether, her very self. She sat down and started chatting for a moment, she didn’t say much.
A student came over and told her the women’s caucus was meeting in the small dining room. Without excusing herself, Rosemary picked up her tray, never said goodbye. I didn’t even know where the small dining room was, and I didn’t know what the women’s caucus was, so I was just sort of left bewildered. From there I began to find my own place.
My initial reaction to it all was quite negative. I was a rather high minded, Jesuit educated Catholic, going to become a theologian. And here were these ministers worrying about these rather trivial things like inclusive language. I went back from a class one day and put on a skirt or a dress and marched myself back to the classroom, quite put out and wanting to be distinct from these feminist women that were wearing jeans and t-shirts. I don’t remember a time after that that I put a dress on. You’re quickly disabused of these things; it becomes so clear and obvious and it’s painful. Those were painful days.
The women at Harvard Divinity School were so smart, the majority of my cohort ended up in high leadership positions. One of them became the highest ranked woman in the Unitarian Universalist Association, Diane Miller. Another woman became the president of McCormick Seminary in Chicago, Cynthia Campbell. Another one is the head presbyter for the Hudson Valley Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church, that’s Susan Andrews. The Catholics went on to graduate school to take doctorates.
The Catholic piece of it, which is so virulently anti-woman to this day, really was very shaping. I hope I’ve been creative in my ways of not giving it too much attention, but also because I speak ‘Catholic’ and I know the language, I’ve been able to fairly effectively, as Rosemary Ruther put it, “put that burr under the saddle of the Catholic horse.” There’s a reason why we do that, because we can therefore we must, and other people are doing it elsewhere.
MJC: What happened after Harvard?
MH: I finished Harvard in two years and then I was ready for a doctorate. To the consternation of the dean of Harvard, I went to Berkeley. Upon graduation, Krister Stendahl handed me my HDS diploma and said, “we’ll see what happens.” It came to me later that he had taken some offense at the fact that I hadn’t even applied to stay at Harvard to do the doctorate and I wasn’t interested.
We referred to Harvard Divinity School in those days as all white, male and Yale as faculty was. When Rosemary Radford Ruether came and at the same time, a Jesuit from Uruguay, Juan Luis Segundo, who was a liberation theologian, I saw how both of them – differently, but both of them were marginalized by what I called the “white male Yale” normative frame of Harvard Divinity School. I didn’t want to continue there because I saw how they were marginalized: Rosemary, as a woman; Juan Luis Segundo, because he was from Latin America and didn’t speak English particularly well.
Both of them brilliant scholars who made enormous contributions to both feminist and liberation theology. But I saw how that worked and it was not something I wanted to continue to participate in. I’d already taken what I needed from it. So, I went to Berkeley and did a doctorate at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. And along the way, because of the politics of Catholicism, I also did a Master of Divinity degree, which is the degree for ordination with the Jesuits.
I was sick and tired of listening to how hard the Jesuits studied. So, I said I don’t want to be just an academic theologian I also want to be an activist and I want to have a ministerial component to my work. Having a Master’s in Theology Studies from Harvard, the M. Div. took green stamps; as a doctoral student I have to confess it was not a heavy lift. One of the fellows in my class said to me, as if to flatter me, “It’s just too bad you weren’t a guy because you would have been a great Jesuit and you would have brought up our class average.” I don’t think they could imagine how (A) relatively easy it was for competent women and (B) how competent the women were.
The other woman in my class was quite a bit older than I was; she was a long-time Sister of the Good Shepherd. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd always took in wayward girls. This woman, Eileen DeLong, had more street smarts than these little wet behind the ears boys would ever get in their lives and she was my classmate. That was a very interesting experience to get a Master of Divinity that way. And I really did it because I had finished all my doctoral courses and I was too young, I thought, to finish. I really wanted to hang out a little more in Berkeley.
It took about eighteen months to finish the degree, including a summer at the California Institution for Women, which is the women’s prison. Squeaky Fromme and the Manson women, and that crowd were imprisoned there. I did something called Clinical Pastoral Education, which is a requirement for ordination in many Christian and Jewish traditions. It’s a 10-week summer program where you work either in an institution like a prison or typically in a hospital, a mental hospital, or a drug facility.
I worked at this women’s prison, and that’s really where I got my education. They didn’t know that I wasn’t a minister. Those women really were my teachers about what it means to do ministry. That was an extraordinary experience and a very, very positive experience. There were seven of us in the program. There were two women – my colleague was from Southern California – and five men.
We got to the halfway point in the program and the men were Lutheran, a couple of Catholic seminarians, I think a Methodist, and a man from the United Church of Christ. The other woman was United Church of Christ. The men very kindly told us that we shouldn’t be offended by the women who were doing our evaluation inside. We shouldn’t take it personally; they never had women chaplains before, they weren’t going to be too excited about it. And they just didn’t want us to feel badly about it.
We sat down in a circle and the women inside the prison, inmates, were among the evaluators to help us to learn. It’s like being an intern in the hospital; the patient gets to tell you. The first woman shot her hand up and said, “I just want to say the best thing that’s happened at this prison as long as I’ve been here is we now have women chaplains.” It literally went from there and the women, one after another, talked about the fact that they finally had women chaplains and they could talk to women chaplains about things they wouldn’t mention to the men.
This was very informative for me as a 25-year-old. This is all woven together with the academic work that I was doing because I was really looking at how feminist theology in the US and Europe and Latin American liberation theology came together in terms of their methodology, in terms of how you do them. I was saying that there’s some crossover in terms of how you do them but there also is something new that happens when you do them together, which we call now “Feminist Liberation Theology.”
The term actually came from someone else, as far as I know, but the development of it was mine and the systematic putting together of those methodologies and weaving them into something new was my dissertation. That was very much relevant not only to the times in the late ’70s, but also interwoven with it was this experience of ministry with these women. They didn’t care that I was Catholic or not ordained or when it was my turn in the rotation to do the Eucharist.
My first Eucharist was on Mother’s Day around 1977-78, somewhere in there. And as you know, the majority of women inside any prison have children outside and it was Mother’s Day. I was white; the majority of them were black and brown women and I was wetter behind the ears than anybody and it was my job to preach and to do a Eucharist for them. I was beside myself; I had no idea; this was not something I had bargained for.
The day came and I got a nice bottle of wine and first into the chapel were the Spiritualettes, an African-American women’s choir all dolled up in their robes. They came in one step forward, two steps back. I looked very white and very naive and they made me look good. They made the celebration and I preached something about Mother’s Day, and they were very kind about it. Then it came time for communion and every single woman received the Eucharist under both species of bread and wine. Flies were also dive-bombing into the chalice for the wine.
They said, “The reason we go to communion is because the wine is so good and all we have inside is prison hooch that we make ourselves and sometimes it’s even poisonous.” That was the end for me. If they only come for the wine, that’s fine. Those were the kinds of things that I learned from women that shaped my whole sense of what ministry would look like from a feminist perspective. They are my teachers; I take my hat off to them to this day.
One of them asked me if I were lesbian. This had not come up quite yet, especially in the program. It was in the late ’70s, so it wasn’t as if a lot of people were out. I asked her some diverting question along the lines of why did she want to know? She told me she wanted to know because she was in for life and she had family visits with her sister. But in fact, her sister was her lover, it was not her blood sister.
She told them it was her sister so she could have a family visit because men and women had conjugal visits, but these women did not. She said, “This woman who comes to visit me is really not my sister, she’s my lover.” I said, “Good for you.”
We lived in the officer’s quarters of another prison, so I actually lived inside another prison. It was a wild summer. But I was so ashamed that I never denied or passed the opportunity to say I was a lesbian ever again because of that woman. She’s telling me because she trusts me.
Those are the kinds of experiences that helped me realize from then on, what was I going to lose? I’m a white, cis gendered lesbian with a Harvard degree and a doctorate on the way – nothing to lose, nothing to lose. I finished my M. Div. in 1979. In 1978, there was the second Women’s Ordination Conference meeting, and I was asked to be a speaker. There were several thousand people, it was in Baltimore.
MJC: Can you talk about the origin of that organization?
MH: The Women’s Ordination Conference began in 1975. The first conference was held in 1975 in Detroit, and that was the first time that Catholic women got together in the U.S. to talk in a serious public way about ordination. And I believe the capacity was somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen hundred people. They had to cap it and put it on closed circuit TV because so many people showed up. It was a several day conference that became the organization called the Women’s Ordination Conference.
Even from that first meeting, there was a lot of prophetic feminist thinking about the fact that women did not want to be priests like men, that we wanted an overhaul in the system. Some did get ordained outside of the official channels, and that became and remains a tension. By 1978, the second meeting took place in Baltimore. By that time, the Vatican had already become so upset by this that they were forced to issue a statement that made clear that women would never, ever, in the history of the world be ordained as priests.
I gave a lecture at that conference as a young graduate student called “Roman Catholic Priesthood: Patriarchal Past, Feminist Future.” In that talk, I laid out what a non-celibate, non-clerical, nonhierarchical priesthood might look like, because that was in my view, the only kind of priesthood that Catholic women should even imagine, much less accept. Non-clerical, without a difference between priests and laypeople; non celibate, your sexuality as your own business and has nothing to do with your work; and nonhierarchical where there would not be major differences between people who have all the decision-making power and people who have none and give all the money.
That was kind of a springboard in my own career as a theologian because I hadn’t finished my doctorate yet and I was still in my 20s. From there, my work just took off and by 1979 I had finished the Master of Divinity using that lecture actually as my master’s thesis. In 1980 I finished the dissertation on feminist liberation theology. Then I was invited to Argentina. There’s a program called the Frontier Internship in Mission, a program started by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. which eventually became international and was headquartered in Geneva.
We always called it the kindergarten to the World Council of Churches, which is in Geneva. Or, we called the World Council of Churches, the rest home for Old Frontier Interns. There were about a dozen of us every year from around the world who were selected for this program. Despite the title, it was an experiment in “mission.” Frontier Internship in Mission gave me one hundred dollars for my excess baggage allowance. As a graduate student, I didn’t have any money, so I paid the typist for my dissertation with my excess baggage allowance and went to Argentina for a couple of years with my suitcase and a backpack.
The difference was the fact that we got a subsistence wage. We lived and worked with people at the level at which they lived and worked. I was assigned to the seminary in Buenos Aires to teach. There was a woman there, Beatrice Melano Couch, who was the only woman teaching theology and the first Latin American woman to get a doctorate in theology. She invited me. I worked as a colleague of hers and as a faculty member. I went and found out what I didn’t know about liberation theology, having just finished the dissertation.
It happened to be ’80 and ’81 which was the time of full dictatorship in Argentina. On the 22nd of November in 1980, the seminary where I lived and taught was firebombed and the library lost almost two thousand books. Thank God we didn’t lose the librarian and his family. The reason for the firebombing by the government was because as a faculty, we had agreed to host a program that Saturday, on human rights with the youth.
The government was not happy about the fact that we would sponsor such a thing, so they taught us a bit of a lesson that night. But that really cemented my relationship not only with Argentina but with Latin America in general. I was like everybody else. They took us down to the police station; we had to account for our time and where we had been, and they wanted to claim it was an inside job. We were all kept inside for days in the seminary. My apartment was upstairs, I was perfectly comfortable, but it was a bonding experience and I learned Spanish fast, let’s put it that way. I learned Spanish fast.
That was a wonderful experience of two years in Buenos Aries, which was a very feminist place. I became friends with a number of the women who were feminist identified. There were a couple of feminist journals, there were anthropologists and artists and photographers and historians and other feminists who were working at that time. It was also a dangerous time for lesbians, you really couldn’t be too sure where you were meeting.
We’d have these meetings of feminists and/or lesbians and if it was at your house, people had to leave in ones or twos; you couldn’t have a whole bunch of people spilling out into the street at once. Also, two women having coffee together could be picked up on suspicion of being lesbians. It’s an eye opener and a place where I really fell in love with a different culture, with new people, and with the need for our respective cultures and countries to work together like never before.
I also came to know Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who was the Nobel Peace Prize winner that year. The Argentine radio wouldn’t even broadcast that. I remember sitting in the library studying at the seminary and a friend of mine came over and told me Adolfo got the Nobel Peace Prize. I told him he was crazy, but he said he heard it on the Uruguayan radio channel. Uruguay was much freer, of course, in those days. And they publicized this Nobel Peace Prize, which is a huge thing.
We quickly scampered onto the bus and went down to support our friend whom we had just met a couple of weeks before and volunteered to do any work we could do in terms of translating and helping with press over something that was very important. When they talked about it in Argentina, they referred to Adolfo as an architect, not as a human rights activist, which he was. And through him, we came to know the Mothers of the Disappeared (Madres de Plaza de Mayo), who every Thursday afternoon put on their white handkerchiefs and walked around in front of the Pink House (Casa Rosada) in Buenos Aries.
At three thirty, people would come out of the woodwork and start walking together around the circle for about fifteen minutes or so. They put their handkerchiefs on – that was how you knew they were the mothers. One woman took my arm and said, “you’re about the age of my daughter who disappeared.” I realized that having a blue passport and being a U.S. citizen, I probably was in a little better position. It was moving to have such an experience with people whose children were gone. They were gone, many of them were dropped from airplanes in the Rio de la Plata, which is the river between Argentina and Uruguay and they never were found.
Those were important experiences to have in my late 20s, early 30s and always feminist at that point, always with women, working with women. I even worked with church women: Protestant women, especially, through a study center. And then I was invited both to Chile and Uruguay to do that work as well. And even when I finished my two years there, I was invited by the United Methodist Church to go back for a month a year for the next three years.
The first year I went alone, the second year I took my partner who could do liturgy and ritual. The third year we took a lawyer and we did literally theology, ethics and ritual on questions of sexual and domestic violence. The theological issues, the legal and ethical issues, and then ways of virtualizing healing and prevention. That was early work of WATER in a project that we call Women Crossing Worlds.
In the intervening year when I had come back to the States, I spent about four months in Europe doing what was called ‘interpretive work’. I was itinerating especially in Scandinavian countries in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, lecturing at seminaries and explaining to people what feminist liberation theology was and how it fit in both here and in Western Europe, but also what it looked like in places like Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, where there were almost no women theologians by that time.
When I came back here, I was rather all dressed up with no place to go: out lesbian, pro-choice and partnered, and so I really didn’t have the easiest time finding a job. But I was at a party one night with the women of NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby – people now know them as the ‘nuns on the bus’. I was with the founding group, Carol Coston and Nancy Sylvester in the crowd that founded Network many years ago. Maureen Kelleher, who was a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary said, “Why don’t you start something like Network, but for women and religion, for women in theology?”
That really sparked my imagination, so I went home and ran through the typewriter three little pieces of paper, Women’s Alliance for Theology, and had no idea what I was doing. And then I got some people together and we had a little discussion about it, and I began to think more about it. The next day I woke up and I said to Diane, if we added ethics and ritual, we could call it WATER, and wouldn’t that be funny?
I peddled that little proposal to some women at the Methodist Building on the Hill across from the Supreme Court, which is where the Protestant churches at that time, still some of them today, had their lobby offices. I went in and talked with some of those women and a couple of them really got it and called their offices in New York and said we’ve got a good idea here.
We started brown bag lunch programs with those women to talk about feminist issues in religion with religious lobbyists and others. And from there WATER grew. We started it at home, Diana and I, and then eventually got an office on 13th Street in Silver Spring. Now our office on Georgia Avenue, where I am speaking today 37 years later.
MJC: Why don’t you talk more about your work in WATER over the 30 some years?
MH: When we started, WATER was a good idea, it was something to do. Charlotte Bunch always said it’s necessity and not ideology that creates things. And Charlotte was right as she was right on so many things and continues to be right on so many things. But it’s true. The necessity was that we needed a place where feminist women and religion could function unfettered by the demands of tenure or the constraints of institutional religion. And WATER is both of those things.
I never had to worry about teaching Theology 101 at Our Lady of the Snowdrop and whether I would get tenure. And I never had to worry about the institutional Roman Catholic or any other institutional church. There’s just no way to touch people who are not in their clutches. There are structures that you can create, WATER being one of them, a very modest structure, but a structure nonetheless, where we can’t be touched. We don’t have to respond, nobody cares. The Vatican does not put upon us.
You’ll remember The New York Times ad that Catholics for Choice, Frances Kissling et al put together and one hundred or so of us signed. The Vatican really took great umbrage at that, because what we were basically saying is that Catholics in good standing could talk about abortion. It didn’t mean we were pro-choice. It didn’t mean we favored abortion, although many of us were and are proudly. But it meant that we would defy and put to rest the notion that anyone was going to tell us what we could talk about.
If you read carefully, the reason that was done was because Cardinal John O’Connor in New York had bestirred himself to the pulpit to make clear that Catholics could not in conscience vote for Geraldine Ferraro as the vice-presidential candidate with Walter Mondale. That was absurd. We knew it then. But what happened, the consequences, were frightening for many people.
The women religious, the nuns who signed the ad were called on the carpet through their religious superiors, it was through the top down hierarchical institution that they were forced to retract their signatures or clarify their signatures or not as the various cases played out. Some of the so-called lay signers, although nuns are also laypeople, the rest of us, were promptly fired from jobs or not promoted or not tenured or had many lectures or opportunities to publish canceled because of this.
I remember at least two times when I was canceled for previously scheduled things and I said, that’s fine, but we have a little contract here so you can just send me the honorarium. And I remember sending money both to Catholics for Choice and to Dignity, since those were considered two of the offending organizations that I was connected with. So, it wasn’t as if I were feathering my nest off of this, but making clear that these donations would be given in the church’s name. So, I’ve had to do that a number of times in my career.
St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana once disinvited me for something. Shortly thereafter, The New York Times published some gay scandal in their library stacks with the priests and seminarians or something, but I was canceled because of their fears. So, I demanded the honorarium and they sent it and I distributed it as I saw fit. The point is that the Vatican could go after the nuns, the priests who signed and the brother who signed The New York Times ad. They very quickly regularized their situations because they were absolutely under the canonical gun.
And those of us who were not, were simply punished in other ways that we were able to absorb, some more easily than others. That’s one of the reasons why WATER has always been so useful, because it has provided a place for women and feminist men and non-binary people to gather and do the work we need to do. We don’t ask anyone’s apology. We don’t ask anyone’s permission. We simply do the work. What we have created, and I don’t mean this in a boastful way but in a in an historically accurate way I hope, is a space where people can do that work, where books can be published, where programs can be held, where people can get counseling that’s appropriate, where we can connect.
At first I thought the most important thing here was going to be the theology, which is what I do. We always think that what we do is the most important! Well, I was disabused of that notion quite early on and then I thought ethics, which I also do but that has a secondary role really to what people want, which is liturgy and ritual. If their mother gets sick, their baby dies, their cat gets stuck in a tree, they want someone to help them do something about that. So, Diane’s work in liturgy and ritual has been very popular, very helpful, in some instances lifesaving.
But now I realize that the most important thing about WATER is the alliance that we’ve created. In over 35 years you can imagine that we have connections not only here, but also in many parts of the world. When the Covid pandemic hit this year, we were well positioned not only to do the work that we had been doing, mostly teleconferences, but we were able to put them on to video and to Zoom.
Not only do we do a monthly WATER talk, which is an intellectual program about a new book or a new project with the author. We also do a monthly meditation, which is an evening of five minutes of input and 22 minutes of silence and then some conversation.
We do a monthly ritual, which is a liturgy or ritual depending on the season. Diane’s just published a book of those called Stirring Waters. And the fourth thing that we’ve instituted during Covid is a what’s called a WATER tea, which is kind of a hybrid of both intellectual content and a community building dimension.
So, we’re getting double and triple the number of people on the first three programs. And the teas run in the neighborhood of 50 to 80 people, and they come from all over. – lots of Canadians, lots of Europeans, Swedes, Brits, from Ireland, from Germany. We’ve had women from Asia, Latin America, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil. And it’s a remarkable way for people to come together.
This was the 24th year sponsoring the Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network, which meets every year at the American Academy of Religion. That is the big trade show, as it were, for people in religion. Eight or ten thousand strong this year, of course, all on Zoom. We had over a hundred people signed up for the FLTN program with excellent speakers and just a marvelous audience of people from all over the world. For whatever reasons, whatever we’ve been doing for the last thirty-five years have only flowered this year at a time I call in extremis.
You remember from your Catholic training that if you had a baby that you had to baptize and you couldn’t get the baby to the church, it was considered in extremis so any person could baptize. So, I said, we’re in extremis and the resources that we need, we simply avail ourselves of those. So, we moved rather seamlessly into the Covid period. But it has been very sobering to realize what the need is. Very sobering.
MJC: In a weird way, it has extended your reach.
MH: Yes. And I’m very grateful that we’ve had the resources to do that and that means the people who are willing to do the work. We’ve also had over 90 interns over 35 years. And I know that you have great faith in, and I do too, young women. And we have had over 90, whether for the summer or for the full year through programs like the Loretto Volunteers or the Mennonite Voluntary Service Program. Those are yearlong programs where young women – in our case, we’ve only had one or two men, and now non binary folk – work in nonprofits. We are thrilled with the experiences of these programs because it’s a yearlong exposure. The Mennonites and the Loretto and others have yearlong programs where young people live together in community and then go out and work in nonprofits. We pay a stipend for their room and board and they get health insurance and that sort of thing. So, it’s not like paying a full-time employee, but it’s not a ‘volunteer’ in the sense that they don’t get compensated. Our summer interns come from colleges and seminaries and universities, mostly from the U.S., but some Canadian and some others from abroad.
So those women and watching what they’ve done with their lives is really the product of WATER. They’ve gone on to Harvard, Yale, and Vanderbilt; they’ve gone on to ministry and social work and the arts; they’ve gone on to do marvelous things. What they tell us is things that they learned at WATER they’ve taken with them into the ministry. And the only problem we’ve ever had is that we apparently treat them too well! We treat them like colleagues and then they get to that next job and somebody says, here, carry my purse. They don’t take too kindly to that and I say, that’s good.
In a couple of cases I’ve had to say, it’s not like this everywhere, we don’t ask you to make the coffee, we make the coffee, too. It’s a different way. But it’s surprising how some even so-called feminist organizations do not embody those principles, much less now an intersectional analysis and understanding of anti-racism and dealing with questions of sexual orientation and gender identity in a just way. And also dealing with the problem of being in a country that has been living for the last four years through a nightmare scenario of a kind of proto Nazi experience has required all of us some new ways of thinking and doubling our efforts to bring about justice, which is why we exist.
MJC: There’s your writing also that I think we should at least talk about a little bit and its influence on this whole process.
MH: My only complaint these days is that I don’t have enough hours in my day because I do love to write, and I write a fair amount. I learned early on that while books are important, there are lots of other things we should be doing with our writing skills and I’ve tried to do some of those. I do some blogging, I serve on editorial boards of the Journal of Feminist Studies and Religion, Theology and Sexuality. I’ve done a lot of writing for Religion Dispatches and National Catholic Reporter and other publications that people actually read.
I’ve got a couple of book projects going, but they tend to get put on the back burner because there tend to be some more urgent things that come along though that’s not going to last much longer. I do think we have to be nimble and WATER allows us to be nimble because we’re so small. We’re nimble in terms of what needs to be done. We always try to let the needs of the world, and not the failings of the church, set the agenda.
That’s something that we’ve done with the Women-Church Convergence, too. It is a coalition of Catholic-rooted feminist groups, what we laughingly call the best and the brightest of the bad girls including Catholics for Choice, and Dignity, and some of the more progressive women’s religious communities. I do most of the writing for that group, statements that come out and people sign on to. We try to have a voice that is not reactive to the institutional church, but is creative and constructive and forward-looking, that takes us to a new place. And that’s really what I try to do. It’s hard work, but it’s important.
MJC: I think it is, too, so would you just comment on the changes you’ve seen, the impact that feminism has had on religion and theology over your time?
MH: On the one hand, I don’t think it’s had any impact at all, and I say that in total candor. Think about the Lutheran young woman who came from Gettysburg Seminary to write about the history of inclusive language in the Lutheran Church. To have that seen 30 years later as church history, when in fact the language and worship in the Lutheran Church has not changed, is an enormously depressing moment.
On the other hand, I think that our impact has been enormous, and I don’t mean WATER’s, but I mean the impact of feminist work in religion has been enormous. One of my dear friends and colleagues is Sue Fulton, who was in the first class of women who graduated from West Point. Sue Fulton is now in charge of the Department of Motor Vehicles in New Jersey and destined for even greater glory and was very involved in Knights Out, which is the queer group from West Point and also was very involved with trans people at West Point.
When the women in the army were going through Ranger training she pointed out the fact that there were women in typically male positions, and we did not yet have that in the Church. We don’t even have altar girls, let alone women priests or deacons. “I agree with you,” she said, “you’ve spent all this time and what have you accomplished?” She wasn’t being mean about it; she was just being sisterly.
But I said, “It’s true you have really made marvelous progress in the military in terms of getting women into the military and getting them up the ladder. But the thing that we’ve done that you haven’t done is we have changed the institutional church. You have not changed the military.”
The women who are going in the military are going to be different, and God love them, and God bless them, but they’re going to be different. The military has not changed its fundamental mission, which is war, to keep peace, but through war. And I said, “What we have succeeded in doing is we have changed the fundamental mission, whether they like it or not, whether it’s reflected in the institution or not, we have changed something very different in the culture, which is how women and especially feminist women understand their own spirituality in two ways.”
One is women are agents of our own spirituality. We decide what we want to be, if we want to be religious, if we don’t want to be religious. If we want to be Catholic fine, if we want to be Jewish fine. But nobody has to be. So that’s a big social change and the numbers are there to prove it. The second thing we’ve done is that we have made so much space in the religious world and the patriarchal religious institutions have made what the Irish call a “dog’s dinner” of the whole thing.
You begin with the sexual abuse and clerical cover up in the Catholic Church and you don’t have to go any further to say they’ve made a mess and we are not going to come and clean it up. We are moving in entirely different directions in terms of religiosity, even those who want to keep some kind of connection with their tradition of origin or with major religious traditions in the world. But women are not coming in to clean those up. Those are major, major differences.
A third thing that I would add is the scholarship that women bring, my own included, because we all do it, the scholarship that we bring cannot be challenged on the basis of its quality. You can speak about differences of opinion and that’s what the whole scholarly process is. But the quality of women’s work has very consistently been so high that it has been almost impossible to do anything that would make a fool of yourself. For example, the question of women’s ordination in the Catholic Church. Why are women not ordained as priests in the Catholic Church?
I’m not an apologist for this. I don’t want to see anybody ordained. I don’t want to see this top down thing happen, and women are on the top. But if I were to make the argument that the Vatican makes, I would have to say women are not ordained because they do not bear a natural resemblance to Jesus in the Eucharist. That is to say, if you do not have a penis, you cannot be a priest; that’s the English translation. And the second reason is because women were not at the Last Supper. And of course, they have no video to prove that, so the arguments are absolutely bankrupt. There’s nothing left.
So, it’s not as if we spend our time rehearsing these arguments for which there is nothing to say, but we simply go on. Some women are getting themselves ordained by their local communities. Some women are getting ordained through the Roman Catholic Women Priests group. Whatever chimes their bells! And other women, myself included, belong to small based communities where we’re not interested in ordaining anybody.
We like to touch base, have dinner, have some spiritual expression, and that’s fine. We like to have our children in safe environments like that where we don’t have to call the National Guard because we worry about their well-being in Catholic circles, which I do worry about. I think it’s very dicey to have children involved in things Catholic these days because these problems are not over.
While Sue Fulton has generals and Rangers to show for her work, I have – but not personally, it’s not about me – movements like the Women-Church movement, groups like WATER that are organizations. What we can say is that we have transformed the religious landscape. I don’t say it boastfully, but historically, it’s true. From the time Mary Daly said, “If God is father, father is God,” things have never been the same. They will not be the same.
In some ways, from an institutional perspective, our impact has been minimal. You don’t want to be around me when a president dies or there’s a war and George Bush goes to the pulpit in the National Cathedral and carries on. And then it’s as if there’s been nothing, there’s been no change. Except for Bishop Budde, Mariann Budde, in the Washington Cathedral, she’s my real hero in all this because she’s able to do things differently. I only met her once or twice. Her position there shows something quite different.
A few years ago, when one of the funerals or at one of the wartime things, even NPR got it wrong. They referred to the presiding bishop at the time Jane Holmes Dixon, as John Holmes Dixon. They couldn’t even imagine that Jane was Jane. So, in that sense, the public face of religion is changing very slowly, but the religious consciousness has changed enormously. One of the things I have long predicted, and we are eventually beginning to see is that religion, particularly ministry in the Christian tradition, is a recipe for a woman’s job in patriarchy.
It’s long hours, it’s endless nurture, it’s low pay and it’s low recognition now. Men will tire of it fairly quickly as that becomes clear. It’s more like nursing and teaching. Then you’ll see more women in ministry. In fact, now the Unitarians are approaching parity, certainly in their theological schools, they’ve passed parity. It’s more women studying for the ministry. But that’s becoming the case in a lot of traditions as well where women are becoming the majority or at least approaching parity in the pipeline. It doesn’t mean that they get the tall steeple churches; it doesn’t mean they become bishops, but it means that you can see that coming in.
And I’m not altogether happy about that because I don’t think that it gives women their due. The Catholic Church will never admit they were wrong for 2,000 years. Women will come in and clean up and the mess is significant; the finances are in smithereens and it’s a prime time to bring women in, absolutely. Well, not this one. And I don’t recommend it for anybody. The much clearer, more helpful way to go is beyond the church. Covid has been helpful in this too, God help us, because it has been very useful to put an end to the notion that people will be going back to church the way they used to. That’s not going to happen.
I wrote about this in the National Catholic Reporter in April or so of last year and one of their “pearl clutching” male columnists was apoplectic. He was just so offended by the fact that I was saying that this was not going to go back to normal. And he was suggesting that I was instrumentalizing the pandemic for my own purposes. But the fact is, I have turned out to be right. Even where you have people wanting to go, wanting to get larger numbers, it’s really a money game.
That’s what was so disgraceful here in Washington last week that the Catholic Archdiocese sued the city to allow larger crowds for Christmas. That’s only to get larger crowds to give money in the Christmas collection, regardless of the health of people. I was very surprised that Mayor Bowser kowtowed to them – I wouldn’t. I think that was disgraceful. Let’s see what the numbers are. But that is not going to happen.
Most churches that are now taking reservations are not sold out, I can assure you, and they won’t be. People are doing fine and dandy in their own Zoom masses etc. and that’s what we nurture. We nurture people’s creativity and their agency so that they can decide, we can decide for ourselves. Religion is a volunteer thing after all. Irish Catholics feel like it’s something in our DNA, but the reality is that being religious is a volunteer activity. No one forces you and you can make choices and you can make feminist choices.
And one of them is not to be religious at all and that’s a perfectly good choice too. At the same time your mother is going to get sick, your baby is going to die, your cat’s going to get stuck in a tree, so what are you going to do? We try to be there and be well trained and train other people to be there in ways that are meaningful, so people do not have to have inferior quality or no ministry when they need it or want it, which is a human right. That’s part of our work here at WATER.
MJC: Is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you would like as a part of your legacy discussion here?
MH: I think we’ve covered the main points. I guess what I would say in conclusion is how much I have enjoyed it and continue to enjoy it and what a privilege it is to do this work and how lucky to be a feminist. My grandmother was someone who campaigned for the vote, and she was one of the people who campaigned for Al Smith, the first Catholic candidate in Syracuse, New York. My mother was born in 1913 so she was a young girl who tagged along with her mother.
I can see in my own daughter, I didn’t mention my daughter, but Diann Neu and I adopted a baby when I was 50 from China who was 14 months and she’s now a first-year college student. She has sat at our table with the many, many amazing feminists who have come our way from around the world. She has met and traveled extensively with us. I think the kid has gone to Europe at least ten times or more and traveled extensively with us and met people and feels close to people in other parts of the world, as well as many people here.
I feel that coming from my grandmother and my mother and my experience, my sister who adopted two girls in China, that we have fulfilled some of the kind of responsibility that white, cis gender women who were given certain advantages in the world that other kids didn’t have. We were gifted with good education and good health, that we have carried on that tradition of strong Irish women doing the work that the great womanist theologian Katie Cannon said, “doing the work our souls must have.” I think that we’ve done that and continue to do that.
But it’s with such pleasure and such joy. It’s amazing that I get paid for it. I make a living, have always made a living at it and have always lived simply but well, and that’s what I think we all want. We all want to do what our passion is. We want to do what I think of as a vocation – what I can do that nobody else can do; it doesn’t mean it’s better or more important, it just means it’s a thing that I can do.
It’s about a movement and that’s what I think feminism has brought to the world. It’s this sense that we are connected to each other, not in Hallmark, soft touch, intergalactic ways that we can sing about, but in concrete ways where we can share resources, where we can put coalitions together, where it’s going to be tough to work, but it’s going to work. And I feel very privileged to do that work. I really have no regrets, but if I had one it would be not having been earlier and louder on some of the things that we’ve all gone to the mat on.
But also, just grateful and hopeful that I have good health and can do this work for some time to come because it does need to be done. When I see my daughter and her friends doing social justice work, she goes to Gwynedd Mercy University, she’s doing her own social justice work. In high school, she got the award for social justice for her school. They had to make a new one because she had so many more hours of volunteer work and I thought, of course, she should – she goes with me on these junkets to the food pantry or whatever, but now it’s part of her habit. And so, I’m very pleased about that. That to me is the sort of legacy that comes from this and it’s just passed right along. As Rosemary Radford Ruether said, “as we become compost, something else does grow.” So that’s my hope.