Letty Mandeville Russell, leading feminist theologian, dies at 78
Letty Mandeville Russell, one of the world’s foremost feminist theologians and longtime member of the Yale Divinity School faculty, died Thursday, July 12 at her home in Guilford, CT. She was 78. A leader for many years in the ecumenical movement, she remained active in ecumenical circles until her death, working for the World Council of Churches and the World YWCA.
She was one of the first women ordained in the United Presbyterian Church and served the East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York City from 1952-68, including 10 years as pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Ascension. She joined the faculty of Yale Divinity School in 1974 as an assistant professor of theology, rose to the rank of professor in 1985 and retired in 2001. In retirement, she continued to teach some courses at Yale Divinity School as a visiting professor.
At various times Dr. Russell was employed as a consultant to the U.S. Working Group on the participation of Women in the World Council of Churches and as religious consultant to the National Board of the YWCA. Her first position was as a public school teacher in Middletown, CT in 1951-52. Over the years she served on numerous units of the World Council of Churches, including the Faith and Order Commission; the National Council of Churches, including the Task Force on the Bible and Sexism; and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the successor to the United Presbyterian Church.
In an introduction to a festschrift published in Dr. Russell’s honor in 1999 under the title Liberating Eschatology, fellow Yale Divinity School theologians Margaret Farley and Serene Jones called Dr. Russell’s influence on contemporary theology “monumental” and wrote of her “uncanny ability to articulate a vision of the church that is radical in its feminist-liberationist critique but that nonetheless remains anchored in the historic traditions and communities of the Christian church.”
In the East Harlem Protestant Parish, Dr. Russell focused her ministry on equipping her congregation of mostly black and Hispanic people to claim their voices as leaders in the parish and the community. Her experiences in Harlem led her to develop Bible studies that encouraged people of color to explore ways in which the Bible gives them voice and liberation.
At Yale Divinity School, Dr. Russell’s influence extended far beyond the confines of classrooms on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle. She was the inspiration behind creation of the school’s international travel seminar program, under which Yale Divinity School students have traveled to countries around the globe for direct encounters with the realities of religion on the world stage, frequently in impoverished countries.
Dr. Russell graduated with a B.A. in biblical history and philosophy in 1951 from Wellesley College, and she was among the first women to receive an S.T.B. from Harvard Divinity School, in theology and ethics, in 1958. She earned an S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary in New York in Christian education and theology in 1967 and two years later received a Th.D. in mission theology and ecumenics from Union.
A global advocate for women, Dr. Russell was a member of the Yale Divinity School Women’s Initiative on Gender, Faith, and Responses to HIV/AIDS in Africa and was co-coordinator of the International Feminist Doctor of Ministry Program at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The author or editor of over 17 books, her book Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretations of the Church and her co-edited work, Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, characterized her commitment to feminist/liberation theologies and to the renewal of the church. In 2006, she co-edited a book with Phyllis Trible of Wake Forest University entitled, Hagar, Sarah and Their Children: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives.
Letty Mandeville Russell was born in Westfield, NJ in 1929. She was predeceased by her sister, Jean Berry of New Jersey and former husband, the late Prof. Hans Hoekendijk. She is survived by her partner, Shannon Clarkson; her sister, Elizabeth Collins of Salem, OR; seven nieces and nephews; 14 great nieces and nephews; and a great-great niece. In addition, Dr. Russell felt that her wider family included generations of feminist and womanist activists and scholars around the world.
Memorial contributions can be sent to the Sarah Chakko Theological Endowment Fund, US Conference of the World Council of Churches, 475 Riverside Dr., Suite 1371
New York, NY 10115; the Global Women in Theology Fund at San Francisco Theological Seminary, c/o Pat Perry, 105 Seminary Road, San Anselmo, CA 94960; and the Letty Russell Travel Seminar Fund, Office of External Relations, Yale Divinity School, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511.