THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Reverend Patricia Budd Kepler
“Once a Feminist – A Feminist Forever”
Interviewed by Rosemary Trowbridge, October 2018.
RT: This is Rosemary Trowbridge and I’m interviewing Reverend Pat Budd Kepler. So Pat can you give me your full name?
PK: Patricia Budd Kepler.
RT: And Pat – shall I call you Pat?
RT: When and where were you born?
PK: I was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1934.
RT: And what is your family background – your ethnic background?
PK: I’m probably mostly Irish and German – as far as I know. My mother was an immigrant from Passau, Germany. And on my father’s side – his mother was German, but his father’s mother came from Ireland. So we’re all relatively new and appreciate immigrants.
RT: What was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement?
PK: It was sort of unremarkable. I went to Girl’s High School in Philadelphia. I grew up in Philadelphia. And then I went to Drexel University, which was Drexel Tech at the time. And later I went to Princeton Seminary. I graduated there in 1958. I was married by the way while I was in seminary.
RT: That’s significant.
PK: And equally significant I was pregnant when I graduated with our first son.
RT: In 1958 how many women were in your class at Seminary?
RT: Three – well, that’s significant too. What would you like to share about your seminary experience as 3 out of 200?
PK: In addition to having a ministerial program at Princeton they had a Christian education program and most of the women were in their Christian education program. And when I first applied, they accepted me into that program.
RT: As opposed to?
PK: The BD [Bachelor of Divinity] program which is now the emptive master divinity – they become a minister.
RT: So the women had another track?
PK: Yes. And I told them that I didn’t want that track that I was really going to seminary for a ministerial degree. So I went in for an interview with the associate dean and he eventually let me in – but conditionally.
RT: And what was the condition?
PK: That I was able to handle the work. Partly because – in their defense – I had a business degree from Drexel. And most people going to seminary come from a completely liberal arts background with majors in religion and philosophy and English and I majored in business. But they let me in and I loved it.
RT: Super. Anything else you want to say about your life as a minister before you got involved in the women’s movement?
First Ministry Job at an African-American Church
PK: Yes my first job actually was as the pastor of an African-American church in rural New Jersey. My husband was pastor of a middle-class church right nearby. And this African-American church needed a pastor and they couldn’t find any African-American ministers. My husband volunteered me. And the first day I went – there was one person there. A man – one of the Elders – and I said well they sent me to preach – we’ll have a service. And we did.
And from there on it grew. I was there for seven years. It was wonderful. And I have to tell you a little story related to that. One of the teenagers in the group was Elenora Giddings who then became Ivory [Giddings]. Just the other day got a book she had written about her life from her. She went on to become a Minister. She was at Harvard Divinity School when I was on the faculty there.
RT: Wow. I’m sure you were inspiring to her.
PK: Well she was inspiring to me. It was very exciting.
RT: So how did you get involved in the women’s movement?
PK: Well after that church I we went to Florida and then back to Philadelphia and I was hired to be the director of women’s programs at the National Presbyterian church.
RT: When was that? Do you know what year that was?
PK: That was around 1967. The first year that I was there I was working with United Presbyterian Women. There were three of us who were staff people for National Presbyterian Women. And in that first year a report came to our General Assembly, which is our governing board at the national level. It was about a woman’s place in society.
And they didn’t know where to put this report. So somebody suggested that it come into my office. And so from that time on, I became the staff person for what became the Task Force of Women at the Presbyterian Church. I think we were one of the early task forces on women during the women’s liberation movement days.
RT: I know in your book you talk about bringing the report to the General Assembly at some point – I think it might have been later. And the response was one that shocked you.
PK: The Presbyterian Church in those days at the national level was very liberal and had responded very favorably to the civil rights movement. And the first year we brought a report – the commissioners at the Assembly vote on reports and the church takes stances.
We brought a report about women’s place in the church and sexism.
And the reaction was like this twitter – this kind of laugh from the commissioners. And it was really quite remarkable. There weren’t a lot of women representing various districts at that point in time. Not all women understood the women’s movement either. But as we were giving this report and people were laughing, we could see women around the edges who were on the staff and connecting in various ways to the movement – the Presbyterian Church coming to life.
RT: So back to the women on the edges.
PK: Yes – a lot of people – that was a conversion experience for them.
RT: You can see [it] on their faces.
PK: Yes, you could see in their faces. And later I’m talking with them – you could see that they were now on board.
RT: And was it because of the information or because of the reaction of people laughing?
PK: It was the reaction of people laughing.
RT: Mostly men laughing.
PK: It was sort of a junior high uncomfortable laugh. We weren’t talking about people out there anymore – we were talking about their wives and their daughters and their sisters.
RT: And also talking about Women in Ministry.
PK: And Women in Ministry of whom there weren’t very many at that point in time. The way it was organized – the task force was made up of women – laywomen from around the country. Laywomen and a few clergy from around the country. And I was their staff adviser. So we set the agenda and the program for the women’s movement in the church. And we covered a wide range of issues.
RT: Such as?
PK: For instance in the Presbyterian Church we have governing boards at the local level and we have ruling Elders. It’s a category that people are ordained to. There were I think probably 40 percent of churches at that point didn’t have any women Elders on their governing board. So we addressed that issue. We eventually addressed the issues that were of importance to the secular women’s movement too.
We became involved in pay. We became involved in abortion issues. We began to study divorce laws, which are different in every state. We began to study childcare. And we began to look at issues related to theology. And eventually to language. Because in those days we weren’t using inclusive language and women’s names would appear on official reports as Mrs. John Smith.
So we asked the church to take a stance on naming women by their own names. Which was – it seems so simple now – but it was very important that women go by their own name and not by their husband name.
RT: What about God as a male?
PK: That was the last issue we addressed. Because obviously when you address that – you’re getting at very root issues. You’re getting at myth, deeply systemic and organizational issues. You’re getting at theological frameworks and how everything’s organized. It was hard because you’re also hitting an emotional place in people who pray to God and have been brought up to express their faith in a particular way. Not to actually believe that God is male, because in the Presbyterian Church we say God is a spirit and those who worship God in spirit and in truth.
But in truth, when you name God with masculine pronouns, you’re giving the impression that God is male. So we began to tackle that particular issue. And eventually the National Council of Churches came out with an inclusive language lectionary that really changed the names for God as well as for people.
And the people who did that had their lives threatened.
RT: Well you’re questioning the authority and the male figure. The basis of power. And they had their lives threatened.
PK: They did. We were addressing obvious issues of power and balance between women and men. And we were looking at equality. I mean nobody was trying to flip it – so that now women are doing what men have always done. We were trying to create a new order. And in this new order, which we really came to believe was God’s will, women and men would be equal. And I must say that having three sons helped me understand that feminism is about changing stereotypes.
RT: Totally, I have three brothers – totally.
PK: Yes, for everybody. Men have their problems too and raising three sons – I grew up in a household with two sisters and a brother. It was a shock to me to find out what a violent society men are often exposed to. And actually the Vietnam War was going on while we were involved in these other things.
And the thought of my sons going to war at the age of 18 – it was not thinkable for me. Though I must say that the young men in my African-American church served in the Vietnam War. And even though people from one family were not supposed to go at the same time – one of our elders had three sons serving at the same time in different areas.
RT: How did that happen I wonder?
PK: I don’t know – they were drafted.
RT: There was the draft and then there were people like my three brothers who managed one way or another to avoid that.
PK: My sons were a little young. One of them signed up as a conscientious objector – the others did not. They had to register.
RT: They were too young.
RT: That was not a fair system. What issues were of greatest concern to you within the realm of issues that you worked on?
PK: Oh my. The issues snowball. So we began – obviously interestingly enough the ordination of women was approved by the Presbyterian Church in 57. I graduated in 58. So the issue of Women’s Ordination had been resolved by people before us. At 57 it took a while. But then the issue of women’s employment in the church loomed large. Because it was one thing to ordain women it was another thing to have them employed.
So we actually established an organization called Church Employed Women, which was our minor version of a labor union. It included church secretaries and musicians and educators and women clergy. Some of the non-clergy women did not have pensions and were not included in the Board of Pensions, which is our pension service. And they didn’t have Social Security. So we worked on all of those issues.
So one issue leads to another – leads to another.
RT: Everything is connected.
PK: Yes, and then we addressed laywomen’s leadership in the church and began to look at the issue of minority women. And we finally established a program called Women in Leadership and we hired an African-American woman as one of the co-staff people for that. She happened to be Mary Kenyatta who was the wife of Muhammad Kenyatta who had stormed the Presbyterian Church the year before demanding reparations for Blacks. So it was kind of wonderful the way these things evolved.
RT: Yes – you just never know.
PK: But I think the issue that remains closest to my heart is – somehow or other – changing theology. Changing the worldview that we have across the board – complex questions of power. And it’s not just that God is not male. God is not a human being to begin with. But we have gotten used to saying God is all-powerful – all present – all wise. And we have begun to question those concepts that maybe divine power is shared with people. A positive power, not negative power. I mean clearly we have the power to blow up the world as human beings.
I see the women’s movement as part of a creative process for good and for change.
And for making the world a better place. And addressing issues such as peace and war. I’ve also come to believe that it’s time to bring all of the movements together. The LBGT issues – minority issues -peace issues – women’s issues. These need to be joined now so that we can work together because I think we are in a difficult place.
RT: Yes. More effective.
PK: We all need to own one another’s movements.
RT: Yes. And do you see – if I understand what you’re saying – that the Spirit of God is the good that all these groups do to make the world a better place. Are you saying good theology – am I understanding that?
PK: That’s right. As a Christian we rely a lot on the teachings of Jesus and he had a vision I believe of a new creation.
RT: The meek shall inherit the earth.
PK: We struggle with the concept of meek – because women have too often been told to be meek and mild. Meek in a good sense is not power over or under – but power with.
RT: I like that part in your book when you talked about that.
PK: Yes. It’s not a new concept. A lot of therapists and psychologists have emphasized that too. I think everything that I accomplished, I accomplished with other people. I was actually trying to think of who is our Martin Luther King Jr. in the women’s movement. Some people come to the forefront but there is no one person.
We’re in this together.
Whatever I’ve managed to do – I’ve done in community with other people.
RT: But what are some of those things that when you look back you’re really proud of or you feel were significant – made a big difference – or turning points?
PK: Here’s the thing. We’ve opened a lot of doors. There’s no question about that. I see my grandchildren going through doors that we never could have gone through. And I saw my sons taking part in household chores that my father never did. And my husband began to. So I see that our lifestyles have changed. And we opened doors and people began to think differently and approach life differently. But we’ve slid back in other ways. So it’s very hard to know what things are permanent. I think we’ve raised consciousness – there is no question about it.
We certainly started to revise theology.
I’m glad to see that sexual abuse is now on the agenda. The MeToo movement is huge. Because we were addressing more pragmatic issues. Workplace issues, battered women. We got into marriage and divorce laws. We were addressing LBGT issues. We were working together. So that in itself – this combination of working together with other people. A dear friend of mine just died. She was a professor – Katie Cannon.
RT: I know Katie – I took a class of hers.
PK: Well Katie just died. Katie was a Presbyterian Minister and the first African-American Presbyterian Minister – and I worked with her. I also sparred with her I have to say. Over the period of years getting the women’s movement on the agenda along side of the civil rights movement wasn’t always easy. So we did that. And then after that we paid a lot of attention – womanist theology developed alongside of feminist theology. Womanist theology coming out of the black women’s community. But one of the hardest things – you didn’t ask me that about the hardest things.
RT: Well that’s a better question – go ahead.
PK: Well one of the hardest things I think – has been addressing heterosexual white women’s issues which it seemed in the beginning – the whole feminist movement was about. And yet – in the church at least – white women have a history of caring about everybody else – caring for everybody else and not wanting to be verbal themselves and put themselves forward.
I think this is true of my lesbian sisters too who are white. Although it’s been extremely hard for those who are black in the African-American community too. But finding one’s voice – individually – has been one of the hardest things to do and to address. The issues in intimate relationships are complicated. You don’t want to put anybody down in the family system.
We want to protect people.
And yet – I think the wives of these men [who] have been accused of abusing women are in a terrible position. They knew this was going on. They didn’t blow whistles on their husbands. I’m waiting for somebody to do that.
RT: Why do you think that is? Why do you think they were so afraid to speak up or didn’t speak up?
PK: I think there’s a very deep instinct to support, protect and forgive. And I must say – this is going a little aside – I respect Hillary Clinton for taking this stance she did. I would also have respected her if she took a different stance.
RT: You mean vis-à-vis Bill Clinton?
PK: Vis-à-vis Bill Clinton. Right. And I must say that Bill Clinton was the one on whom the whistle blew. But there are all presidents before him who got away with it. And it wasn’t a thing you know. I just think intimate relationships are very difficult to address. And I think another reason – I’ve noticed in Elenora’s book – my friend who is a pastor wanted to protect her children. So when she was talking about issues in her marriage she checked with them. Because she wanted to be sure that she wasn’t doing something that would be harmful to them.
RT: It’s complicated.
PK: It is very complicated.
RT: Well that leads into the next one. How has your involvement in the movement affected your later life personally and professionally?
PK: Well for one thing, once you’re a feminist, I think you’re always a feminist. I am a feminist – period. So that affects everything I do and how I see the world. And I was president of the Women’s Coalition for the Third Century. I was co president with Wilma Scott Heide. By the way that’s another thing that means a lot to me – the relationships that women in the church establish with women in the secular movement. And I have to say that women in the religious community have often gotten a bad rap.
RT: I just want to add that Wilma Scott Heide, she was president of NOW; I think she was the third president. Was she president when you’re working with her or afterwards?
PK: I think it was after. But she had – I think she may have served two terms.
RT: I don’t want to get off the track here but just at some point you did start the Religious Task Force on the national NOW level?
PK: Yes, Joyce Slayton Mitchell and I were involved in that at one of the national meetings. It was a lot of fun. So we were very involved with NOW. And Wilma and I used to speak – we traveled all over the country doing this stuff.
RT: The Coalition for the Third Century?
PK: Before that she was involved with the Presbyterian Church. She had wanted to be a minister when she was young. And they told her she should see a psychiatrist. So when we traveled she got a kick out of saying that I was a minister of the church and she was a minister of the truth.
RT: That’s wonderful. So was that something done as part of the Religious Task Force of NOW that you were traveling together or with the Church?
PK: No, we were just invited to speak on college campuses among things and at various church gatherings around the country.
RT: What was your role that people were inviting you? How did they find you?
PK: I was a staff person for the Task Force on Women with the Presbyterian Church when I first was involved with Wilma. And then when I went to Harvard Divinity School as Director of Ministerial Studies I was president of the Women’s Coalition for the Third Century. So I had some visibility at that point. And Harvard gives people visibility.
RT: And how did Wilma Heide connect up with you during that period?
PK: Well once we had connected we were good friends.
RT: OK. So you were partners in crime.
PK: We were partners in crime, yes.
RT: You need a partner in crime – it’s much more fun.
RT: So when I asked the question of how did your involvement in the women’s movement affect your later life – personally and professionally – but you were always a feminist. Throughout your life you were a feminist.
PK: And when I left Harvard I became pastor of a local church and that’s where the rubber hits the ground. Because then we had to decide – do we use inclusive language in worship? How do we negotiate this with people who have not gone through steps that we’ve gone through – who aren’t on the same page? And it was sometimes a little dicey, but we ended up using an inclusive language hymnal. And whenever I preached or read from scripture I used inclusive language and the thing was that everybody followed their conscience when they were reading or participating. That’s how we ended up doing it.
RT: Have you been involved as an activist in the women’s movement in other areas since your second wave experience?
PK: Certainly in the church and I’ve been writing books, which is my way of expressing myself. It’s the way I’ve chosen. There are three of them. I started with an easy one, which is about my dog. And it has a lot of – so here’s the thing – once you begin to see the world in a certain way, doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about your dog or talking about your marriage or whether you’re talking about parenting. It’s just in you.
RT: It’s a philosophy.
PK: Yeah, exactly. It’s part of you – it’s total. So it’s in all my books. The hardest book to write – and the one I would revise I think – and it may be out of date, maybe not, is Work After Patriarchy. The hardest thing for me to address was putting together work and parenting.
RT: Culture makes that very difficult.
PK: It’s because people expected women to work the same hours and with the same intensity that men did. So then it became difficult. Once we’re on an even playground, men also have to make some compromises with work. And our society is organized so that if you want to be a CEO, a teacher, a nurse, a doctor, a lawyer – really anything – all of these are demanding.
And now we’re faced with an issue of how to combine all of our various work roles. We can’t just do one at a time. In the old system men worked, women took care of the home and the children – so there was no combining. Perhaps for a few women. And actually for my forebears – my grandmother lost her husband when my father was five so she was always a working mother. So was my aunt who also lost her husband.
A lot of women were doing that and a lot of minority women. But we didn’t talk about it. Finally with the women’s movement, we discovered people have been doing this and now more people are. It’s shifting so that more than half of women with small children are working.
RT: Yes, huge quality of life issues for everyone – stress issues. Time for family.
PK: What I’m trying to address in this book is the changes in our over arching patterns of thinking that have to shift. How do we see motherhood – how do we see fatherhood – how do we envision a good life?
RT: Important questions.
PK: Yes, and you think you’ve got it all solved – but we don’t – we’re still working at it.
RT: Right. And as we know there’s no guarantee that things progress. You often go backwards.
PK: I think that’s right. But I do think that even when they go backwards the important thing – especially right now is to stop the backward trend. We have to name what’s going on. Women need to step up and unfortunately not all women are feminists and not all women recognize…
RT: The danger.
PK: The danger – yes – without naming names. We’re in a very difficult place.
RT: Oh we are in a very pivotal place I think.
PK: And actually Black Americans are facing it first. But you know women are not going to escape.
RT: No. Black women aren’t escaping.
PK: Their sons are being shot.
RT: Of course. Of course. When I was just driving over here there was something on BUR. [It] involved the black woman that was stopped by the police and someone came by to comfort her – it was actually the mother of the woman who was killed in Virginia. And the black woman who was just kind of berated by the police – she was terrified. I think she thought she’s going to be killed. You could just hear it in her voice – she couldn’t breathe. It was for [a] parking incident.
PK: There’s this whole alt-right and white supremacy coming out of the woodwork. It’s been there, but it is coming out of the woodwork.
RT: The president has just opened up the door and has invited them in. Two more questions – are you currently involved as an activist?
PK: Well, my mind is involved as an activist that is for sure. I’m old enough to be slowing down a little bit in terms of – I don’t march – I don’t go to demonstrations and that kind of thing. Although, I could at some point but that’s not my form of activism at the moment.
RT: Well, activism takes many forms.
PK: It does and I think it takes all of us doing whatever we’re comfortable with and we actually enjoy doing.
RT: And doing this interview is important for history.
PK: I appreciate your doing this Rosemary. I am delighted to find you.
RT: It’s wonderful. And we will continue after this too.
Anything else relevant that we haven’t covered?
PK: I’m sure there is and I think probably this is good for now.
RT: Well, you’ll have a chance to edit this so if you want to add something you forgot you can do that.
PK: OK. I can’t think of anything. Thank you so much.
The International Women’s Movement
RT: Well thank you, it has been a pleasure getting to know you. OK, we’re back with a question of the international women’s movement. So go ahead.
PK: Well after we stopped talking I just realized that we need to mention the fact –
RT: 1975 Mexico?
PK: Yes this is an international movement and the U.N. had a meeting both in Mexico and then later I think it was in Nairobi. I was in Mexico in 1975 and women from all over the world were addressing these issues. And of course women’s issues differ according to where they are located and what their issues are in their native countries. But we had a worldwide agenda.
And later – I’ve been fortunate to be able to go to Kenya and meet women who are working on gender issues in Kenya. And also women working in the Middle East. I’ve worked with Muslim women who are addressing Palestinian issues. And Jewish women who are trying to connect with the Muslim women who are working on these issues. So we’re worldwide and it’s a small world.