In Memory of Beverly Wildung Harrison
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.