Liberation Theology Blog Series. Post #1: Rosemary Radford Ruether and Women as the “First and Final Proletariat”

Liberation Theology Rosemary RuetherIn light of the overwhelmingly positive response to my recent post, Liberation Theology Reading List, I have decided to begin a blog series devoted to liberation theology and related liberative projects. When I issued a call for papers for the series, several excellent contributors stepped forward and presented creative proposals, all of which intersect with liberation theology and/or key themes of liberation theology. I hope that you enjoy the series as much as I have enjoyed interacting with and learning from the various authors who have made this series possible.

Brief Author Biography:

Lilian Calles Barger, is an independent historian, her current book project The World Come of Age: Religious Intellectuals and the Challenge of Human Liberation is a long hemispheric history of the emergence of liberation theology. Contact her at [email protected].


The intersecting feminist, black and Latin American theolog(ies) that became know as liberation theology had its genesis in the 1960s cauldron of the hemispheric New Left. Through the 1970s, male liberationists focused on class and race oppression with gender asymmetry remaining at the center of their thought and discourse. Nevertheless, women found evident connections between race and class oppression and sexual oppression. The women’s movement, with its consciousness-raising groups, encouraged many to identify sexism in their faith communities and articulate a distinct theological narrative.[i] When the personal became political, many women sought to break through what they perceived as the impenetrable sexist veil of religious institutions. Like blacks and the poor, the struggle for women’s full participation in all areas of society included confronting the modern and liberal theology and religious practices that produced political and social exclusion.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, as a Catholic theologian, served as catalyst in the move from a fragmented liberal theological consensus to a new paradigm by challenging the language, interpretation of sacred text, symbols, and hierarchies that underwrote women’s subordination. Coming from the progressive wing of the Catholic tradition, as early as 1967 in The Church Against Itself, Ruether called for a radical reformulation of Christian doctrine. This was the beginning of her argument against the rhetoric of privatized religion, whether Protestant or Catholic, which hid the political and sexist nature of theological discourse. Ruether went on to uncover the political structure of theology and viewed the reinterpretation of Christian symbols and language as key to women’s liberation.

The daughter of a Catholic mother and an Episcopal father, Ruether grew up in a humanistic and ecumenical household. After earning a doctorate in the history of Christian thought at Claremont School of Theology, she went on to teach at the predominantly black Howard University School of Religion in 1966. As a white woman and a feminist at Howard, she read the emerging black theology and participated in the peace and Civil Rights movements. Unlike her cohort Mary Daly who rejects all monotheistic religion, Ruether did not leave the Catholic Church or Christianity; she stayed to remake them from within through an expansive ecumenism.

Trained in the classics, Ruether drew from a wide history of Western thought to write a collection of essays published as Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power in 1972 and New Woman New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation in 1975. She called for an abandonment of all forms of dualism founded on Gnostic body–soul dichotomies and the subjective–objective dualism of modern science. Platonic anthropology was the source of the idea of a male mind and female body. A dualistic view of reality impeded the development of a true liberating theology that addressed alienation from the body, community, and the earth.[ii] Ruether perceived dualism as infesting every area of life, resulting in sexism, racism, and classism. The goal was the reconciliation of nature and grace, individual and community, the oppressed and the oppressor. In the triad of race, class, and sex, the oppression of women was nevertheless the oldest in human history and the basis for all other forms of oppression.[iii] As a subordinated caste within every race and class, women made up the “first and final proletariat.” [iv] For Ruether addressing sexism was the key to solving the problems of both class and race.

Ruether regarded sexism and racism as integrally and historically linked with the white male ruling class pitting blacks against women in a strategy of divide and conquer. White feminists, argued Ruether, did not understand the underwriting of racism by the “feminine mystique” and the “cult of the ornamental ‘white lady’.”[v] Black feminism was in the position to illuminate the intersection of race, class, and sex, and challenge the tendency among liberationist groups to emphasize polarity, pitting one oppressed group against another.[vi] She also looked to Latin America, as part of the Third World, for a cosmopolitan theology that could provide a key interpretation of the Christian faith and revolutionary struggle. Through development of a critical consciousness, the poor and oppressed were becoming a prophetic community and perceiving the ideological content of Constantinian Christianity that simply “baptizes the [U.S.]empire.”[vii] Liberal feminism would remain a movement of the privileged unless women in the developed world engaged in creating the socioeconomic conditions for the liberation of all women. Race and class liberation would follow.

The contributions of Ruether and her cohorts, including Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Sheila D. Collins, and Letty M. Russell completed the triad of race, class, and sex of the emerging liberation theology. As an intellectual movement, feminist liberation theology drew from black and Latin American theological discourse, but also represented an immediate challenge to the new theologies that categorically elided women’s oppression. A key difference between women and other groups was the basis of the challenge. While blacks and the poor in Latin America were struggling against oppressors outside their communities, women found themselves in intimate relations with their oppressors; fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons characterizing the struggle as not only one of social structures but located within a lost female self. Rosemary Radford Ruether’s body of work, including many essays written in the 60s and 70s, remains one of the most significant early interventions in the development of liberation theology as a hemispheric movement.


[i] Rita Gross, Feminism & Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 39. For the religious roots of the North American New Left, see Douglas C. Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[ii] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Foundations for a Theology of Liberation” in Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power” (New York: Paulist Press, 1972), 16-17.

[iii] Ruether, “Is Christianity Misogynist? The Failure of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the Church” in Liberation Theology, 95.

[iv] Ruether, New Woman, New Earth (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), 162.

[v] Ibid.,121.

[vi] Ibid.,132.

[vii] Ruether, “Latin American Theology of Liberation” in Liberation Theology, 180.


4 thoughts on “Liberation Theology Blog Series. Post #1: Rosemary Radford Ruether and Women as the “First and Final Proletariat””

  1. This looks like a promising series! I hope you will consider giving all posts in the series a distinctive tag so that we can provide a single link to the posts in it. All the best, Wayne

  2. Hi Wayne, Thanks for your comment. If I make sure that all post titles begin with, “Liberation Theology Blog Series,” would that be sufficient? If not, give me some suggestions, and I’ll see what I can do. Best, Cynthia

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