In Memory of Beverly Wildung Harrison

In Memory of Beverly Wildung Harrison

Posted by FiR on Dec 20, 2012

Beverly Wildung Harrison, a feminist religious ethicist, passed away on December 15, 2012.  She was the Caroline Williams Beaird Professor of Ethics at the Union Theological Seminary in New York where she taught for three decades.  She was the first woman President of the North American Society of Christian Ethics and served on the Board of the American Academy of Religion. Her landmark book, Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion (1983), now in its 30th Anniversary re-publication remains a significant contribution to the field.

We are grateful to Carol Robb, Pamela Brubaker, Emilie Townes and Mary Hunt for their willingness to share their thoughts on Bev's contribution to teaching, mentoring, and scholarship.  We invite you to share your memories in the comments section as well.  


Carol Robb, San Francisco Theological Seminary

I met Beverly Harrison when I was a graduate student at Boston University School of Theology.  Jane Cary Peck, who was teaching Christian Ethics at Andover Newton, organized a one-time event, calling together women teaching theological ethics and feminist graduate students in ethics in the northeast corridor.  She asked the question:  Is there a need or desire for us to get together once or twice a year to share papers on feminist ethics?  We answered yes!!!  In that context, Beverly and Jane Cary and others mentored the graduate students and practitioners in feminist agency work, and we mentored our mentors, bringing in our political and professional experience in addition to our explorations in theory.  At the time, Mary Daly and Carol Gilligan were the leading feminist thinkers in matters of moral theory, both important and powerful ground-breakers.  But Beverly was a Marxist, feminist, and theologian.  She was a tough analytical thinker using social theory, and I, in the middle of writing a dissertation on Liberation theologians, felt she had it all together.  Tough as she was, she was also warm and supportive, very affirming of all our work.  How could she be both?  She was a joy to conference with.

After I finished my dissertation, I served for 2 years as a Women’s Research Resource Associate in Ethics at Harvard Divinity School.  For my first course in feminist ethics, I asked Bev if I could gather her articles and presentations as source material to assign students.  She readily opened her files and handed it all over.  Brinton Lykes saw the collection, xeroxed and in a blue cover, and said, “You’re going to publish that, aren’t you?”  It had not crossed my mind.  But Bev and I agreed it was a good idea, and set to cutting and pasting and smoothing transitions, and published it as Making the Connections.  She was a marvelous confederate/consoeur.  Ask me and I’ll tell you stories about how hard it was to rope her in for re-writes.  But that work with her confirmed my vocation in liberation ethics, for which I am forever grateful to her.  For years after, when doing my own writing, I would struggle and sweat to formulate sentences and answer the questions that my own writing threw up.  I’d get something down on paper.  Then the next time I would read something of Beverly’s, I’d see that she had already solved that problem; and I wondered if I would ever have an original idea again.  She was an unparalleled thinker.


Pamela Brubaker, California Lutheran University

I read "The Power of Anger in the Work of Love" in a mimeographed form that circulated shortly after Bev gave it. I'm not sure how it came to me, although I was working in the Women's Center at United Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. It not only helped shape my vocation, but led me to apply to Union's PhD program to study with Bev. As I recall, reading this essay in that form also led Marilyn Legge and Margie Mayman to come to Union. Another essay that was so powerful for me is "Theological Reflection in the Struggle for Liberation: A Feminist Perspective." I remember crying - tears of joy - when I read it in one of the seminars she taught; this was a rationale for theology that I - an Anabaptist feminist with a deep suspicion of formal theology - could embrace!


Emilie Townes, Yale Divinity School

Bev Harrison was the kinfolk of pioneers that brought countless others along with her.  Rather than wage a solitary battle, she taught many of us to stand up for justice in our work and lives every day.  She was the kind of pioneer that could be thoughtful when faced with stubborn wrongheadedness and gracious in showing folk hospitality and welcome.  All of us are indebted to her for breaking open moribund ethical reflection and breathing in the fresh winds of revolution.  I will miss her physical presence, but the ideas, commitments, and generations of students she worked with keep her witness among us living and bright.


Mary E. Hunt, Women’s Alliance for Theology Ethics and Ritual

Feminist religious ethics really started with Beverly Wildung Harrison. She carved out a new field, not so much by design as by default. Thoroughly schooled in a patriarchal tradition, she had no choice but to create a new approach as her awareness grew of the impact of race, class, and gender on persons, institutions, and social structures. Those who studied and worked with her gradually adopted the same approach and voilà, the field was created.

Most people think of Bev as a professor at Union Theological Seminary, which she was with style. But two other locations anchor my sense of her as a devoted practitioner of the art and science of justice making.

I met her in Berkeley, CA, in 1974, where she taught an influential course through the Center for Women and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union. In 1978, she and W. Robert Martin, Jr. (Bob) gave a keynote address at the GTU in which they asked,  “Is Theological Education Good for Any Woman’s Health?”

In that lecture, Bev spoke of becoming “one of the boys” in the academy, only to be challenged in the 1960s by the many social movements, including feminism. She called feminism “a gift of grace which came in the nick of time, and in spite of some pain . . . What had earlier seemed only my ‘personal pains’ (read ‘neurotic hang-ups’) were, in fact, systemic and pervasive realities which has shaped my life below the level of my conscious awareness. Taking the feminist analysis seriously was for me a way of taking myself seriously for the first time.” Thanks heavens for feminism!

My fondest memories of Bev are as a founding mentor of the Northeast Feminist Ethics Consultation, a role she relished and took seriously. FEC was an annual weekend meeting in New York or Boston that began in 1976 and went on for two decades. Graduate students, professors, and practitioners hammered out new ideas in the field in rigorous academic exchange on works in progress. An equally important part of the weekend were the book discussions, usually on novels and often written by women of color. Bev’s sense was that there were many avenues into ethical work. Long, lovely dinners and endless conversations helped to shape the field with Bev an enthusiastic and generous participant.

The feminist religious ethics community can honor her memory and carry on her legacy by convening such gatherings whether virtually or in person. That way we can shape and be shaped by one another in the fashion that she pioneered.

Comments's picture

Bev was ever full of grace, and full of revolutionary spirit! Our department retreats with students at Redbud Springs were amazing. She welcomed us with wisdom--and pastries from the bakery in Brevard. My undergraduate students commented, after a breakfast session with Bev and Carter, "We just ate with the goddesses...." Bev's influence in feminist social ethics is as wide as her intellect and heart.

Kate's picture

When I arrived at Union to do my PhD, Bev had already retired. Through the grapevine she had heard I was doing work on reproductive justice issues. I was so surprised at an AAR, when she introduced herself to me and knew who I was. I, of course, was awestruck thinking I would humbly ask her to sign a book. Instead, she engaged me in conversation asking about my work and encouraging me. Over the next couple of years, everytime I saw her at an event, she asked what my recent projects were and what I thought about the current state of reproductive health, policy, and justice issues.
My work is certainly shaped by her contributions to the field. But more importantly, her commitment to political activism was an example to me as a scholar trying to find a place at the margins of non-profit public policy and theological education.

Mary Elizabeth Hobgood's picture

I would like to add to this conversation about how Bev was instrumental to our vocations as persons, scholars and teachers.
I read Making the Connections when I was a graduate student at Temple University in 1985. This was the year Bev and Carol published it. I was living and teaching at the University of Maine at the time, and my neighbor and colleague, Marvin Ellison suggested I read it. The essay "The Role of Social Theory in Religious Social Ethics," was groundbreaking for me. It took my whole education and focused it. This essay became the seminal piece that inspired my doctoral dissertation on the role of economic theory in Catholic social teaching (published by Temple University Press in 1991). With the help of John Raines, Bev served on my dissertation committee at Temple.
Even though I never took a course with her, I continued to learn from Bev through her writings and especially through the annual meetings of the Feminist Ethics Consultation that met for many years at Andover Newton Seminary and Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.
My subsequent teaching and published work has never stopped asking the question Bev poses in that 1985 essay: how well does a social theory identify the historical dynamics of economic life, as well as how the economy harnesses racism and the sex-gender system to serve its purposes, so that we have a better chance of moving toward social justice?

Eleanor Scott Meyers's picture

Reading your comments, above, brings back a flood of memories of the many roles Bev played in my life . . .first as mentor: it was in a small circle of women in campus ministry as we struggled to create an organization to support the women like ourselves out on the campuses in the early 1970 when Bev challenged me: looking at me she said, 'we cannot all go and do Doctorate of Theology degrees in Christian Social Ethics! Some of us have to actually earn the Ph.D. if women are going to become visible, accepted and able to make the contributions that might enable real change across the churches and the academy.
Bev encouraged and cheered me on as I went to the University of Wisconsin to do a Ph.D. in Sociology. From Wisconsin I joined Bev on the faculty (in Church & Society) at UTS in NYC and there we became colleagues in new ways on the faculty, teaching together and sharing a love of New York City. It was a rich time as I continued to learn from her and with her in ways that expanded my thinking, my teaching, my feminist practice and my life.
However the story I want to tell is a sweet one prompted by my departure from Union to take up a position as Dean of Faculty in Kansas City. Once she knew I was actually leaving she began to drop off small boxes . . . with earrings in them, sitting atop small notes she had written: I recall a pair of violet, mother-of-pearl fired clay 'drops' perfectly luscious in every way, the note said, 'for you to wear in the evenings AFTER faculty meetings to relax and refresh;' a pair of green and purple dinosaurs . . . 'to wear to faculty meetings so you will not forget with whom you are dealing at the moment;' a pair of small, 'silver' hand grenades . . . 'to wear to help you not forget that you are a woman with real strength,' and many others. It was at a farewell party for me with some women faculty and doctoral students when she added one of my favorite pair, green cows . . . 'one might say a lot of things about your earring collection, Eleanor, they are loud, big, colorful, etc. but one thing it is NOT-- is NOT Kansas!'
Yes, Bev Harrison was a seminal thinker, a bold, courageous and generous women who strode a new path and taught and continues to teach us how to think and how to live, but she was also a sweet, good, kind and gracious woman who lives in my heart and it is with deep gratitude that I bid her farewell.

Nancy Richardson, Harvard Divinity School (retired)'s picture

I remember when I was doing reading for my doctoral exams. Paul Deats had given me what was, in 1982, the standard Boston University reading list for doctoral students in Social Ethics -- a zillion-page list of readings that began with Plato and continued more-or-less chronologically to Martin Luther King, Jr. No women, of course. I asked if I could add Bev’s work, and he enthusiastically approved. Since I had no guidelines about how to deal with the list, I just began at the beginning, adding Bev’s articles at the end. It took me a year to plow through the list. When I finally began reading Bev’s work, I burst into tears. It was the first thing on that list that felt like it actually had something to do with my life.

I also remember working with Bev as a member of the Mudflower Collective on God’s Fierce Whimsy. Although Bev was most definitely the senior scholar in that group, having taught everyone in it, I think, except me, there was never an instance in which she “pulled rank” or in any way did anything except participate as a colleague…..and that is how I always experienced her – generous with her time, encouraging, collegial, funny, wise…

I can still see her at in a gathering sponsored by the Women’s Theological Center, answering a question about whether Christian feminists should stay in the church or leave. Her answer: “only you can decide that, but my advice is that if you stay create as much trouble as you can trying to change it, and if you leave, raise hell on the way out” – or words to that effect: collegial, funny, wise!

And two other quotes have stayed with me and shaped my work, both about love and justice. “Love is not a way of feeling, but a mode of action,” and “Justice begins in the bedroom.”

Bev’s life and work shaped the lives of generations of feminist scholars and activists. She will be missed.