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Letty Russell, 77; one of first women to join faculty of Yale Divinity School

July 27, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Letty Russell, a pioneer in feminist theology who taught and wrote about the subject from a global perspective, has died. She was 77.

Russell, one of the first women hired to the faculty of Yale Divinity School, died July 12 at her home in Guilford, Conn., the school announced. The cause was cancer.

"Letty was a foremother of feminist theology," said Nancy Richardson, a senior lecturer at Harvard Divinity School and a longtime friend. "She was teaching it before it had a name."

A Presbyterian minister, Russell developed a Bible study class while she was pastor of the East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York City in the early 1950s. The congregation was primarily composed of African Americans and Latinos. Russell's classes looked at scriptural passages about liberation for the oppressed. She considered all women to be part of that group.

"I myself do not think the Bible is sexist to the core," Russell said, "because the core is a message of radical freedom and human transformation."

As the feminist movement of the 1970s gained prominence, Russell combined Christian church symbols with equal rights issues. She used the symbol of the church altar, which suggests a communal table, to help express her idea about hospitality as a meaningful Christian teaching.

A round table is egalitarian, while a rectangular one encourages prioritized seating based on power and prestige, she reasoned in "Church in the Round, Feminist Interpretation of the Church" (1993), one of more than 15 books she wrote. She proposed "leadership in the round," to allow greater authority for lay people in church congregations.

In 1984, Russell was one of several professors, including Richardson, who founded the Women's Theological Center in Boston. The center offered classes in feminist scripture, theology and related fields at a time when few seminaries did so.

"Feminist scholarship was not looked on as scholarship in seminaries," Richardson said. "To be in academia and be a feminist at the same time wasn't easy."

As scholars of various ethnic backgrounds wrote about feminist theology from the perspective of African Americans, Latinas and others, Russell factored their views into her teaching.

"We don't talk about feminist theology anymore," she said in a 2001 interview with the Chicago Tribune. "We speak about theologies."

Russell was born in Westfield, N.J., in 1929 and graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she majored in biblical history and philosophy. She earned a master's degree from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate of theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

She joined the Yale faculty in 1974 and continued teaching there part time after retiring in 2001.

She married Hans Hoekendijk, a Dutch professor of ecumenism, and traveled extensively with him before he died in 1975. She later formed a lasting partnership with Shannon Clarkson, who survives her. Other survivors include a sister, and many nieces and nephews.

mary.rourke@latimes.com

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