Buoyancy and Splash: The Legacy of Virginia Ramey Mollenkott

A photo of Rev. Gail Ricciuti and Dr. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott at Virginia's 80th birthday celebration.
Gail Ricciuti and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott at Virginia's 80th birthday celebration

This article is a transcript of a presentation given at the 2024 50th Anniversary CFT Gathering, Saturday, June 22. 

by Rev. Gail A. Ricciuti

Fifty-three years ago last month, before EWC or its first conference was even a twinkle in the eyes of Nancy Hardesty, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, or Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, I was nearing the end of my first year of seminary. One evening in May, I had sat down with my supper tray at a round table in the dining hall just across from a young man named Anthony Ricciuti, a senior about to graduate, and right next to one of his classmates named Gary. I won’t give you the last name, although I remember it.

Gary and I didn’t know each other well; and as was so often the case for the twenty-three women in an institution of some 650 men, Gary popped the tiresome question we were all so used to hearing: “So… what are you doing here?”

Patiently I told him of my call to ministry, enrolled just like he was as a Master of Divinity student. After dessert, I excused myself to trek across campus to the library to study for finals.

Later that evening, Anthony searched me out to tell me, chuckling, that after my departure Gary had turned to him and asked “Do you know that woman?” Though Anthony and I had become quite serious about each other at that point, he had played it cool and said, “Oh, we’re acquainted…”

“Well!” his classmate responded, “Be careful of her. She is really serious about this. She’ll ruin your life!”

I tell you this story because it was, as you recall, in that kind of cultural milieu that the seeds of a Christian feminist group had begun to grow in secret—in the blessed darkness where all life begins.

In the fall of 1974, a year after I graduated with the divinity degree, but unbeknownst to this “life-wrecker” at the time, a powerful group of feminist women who would eventually call themselves the Evangelical Women’s Caucus began to join forces… and here we are remembering them, cherishing all the dear friends and co-conspirators who were serious about it, who have followed them and embraced us through these fifty years, celebrating their energy as we look toward an as yet-unknown future.

Among them, Dr. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott– our late, beloved sister, mentor, founder and friend– keynoted the inaugural conference and was already brilliantly ahead of her time in all that put this organization at the vanguard of the arc toward gender- and social-justice. In theology, language, spirituality, advocacy, and equality of persons across all spectra, Virginia’s strong voice and insightful writings led the path that most could not have envisioned decades ago. I’ve been asked to recall with you today some of the ongoing wisdom that continues to flourish and unfold from her life and work.

Her 13 books and countless scholarly essays continue, as we heard about last night, to transform our thinking and thereby our very lives. Among hundreds of other public appearances, she delivered plenary speeches at nearly every subsequent gathering of this organization for the next 40 years.

When the Supreme Court cleared the way, she married longtime partner Judith Suzannah Tilton, who nourished her mind and heart until Suzannah’s death in 2018. And the mutually supportive, loving relationship with prior longtime partner Debra Morrison, which lasted throughout the final quarter-century of Virginia’s life, was also a testament by both of them to the power of holy love.

Among countless well-earned honors, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from SAGE in 1999; was winner of the Lambda Literary Award in 2002; and perhaps most proudly of all, was awarded the inaugural Mother Eagle Award from EEWC in 2017. And just last year, the LGBTQ+ Religious Archives Network instituted a significant award in her name, for outstanding papers by LGBTQ scholars.

Let me offer an aside here at the outset, regarding language in reference to Virginia: Although in the latter years of her life she publicly referred to herself as transgender in terms of being “a somewhat masculine, two-spirited woman,” Virginia continued to be comfortable using “she/her” pronouns. And we heard that from each other last night, it just comes naturally. So, while it would also be accurate to attach “they/ them” to this giant of faith, you will hear me using “she” and “her” as Virginia welcomed. But neither did she shrug off the potentially confounding aspects of the wide and complex spectrum of sexual continuity explored in her revolutionary book Omnigender, nor the challenges presented by dilemmas about pronouns and syntax–envisioning there, a quarter-century ago, an eventual cultural shift to entirely gender-inclusive wording. An entire cultural shift that she foresaw. And we haven’t made it yet. But adding, in her words, “…[C]learly, pronouns are something we’ll have to work out as we go along.”1 I can picture the playful look in her eyes when she said that. And the when she added, especially, a few pages later: 

“Since I do not believe in racial boundaries or any other boundaries that separate and antagonize, I am contented to be a person who sometimes causes people to feel a confusion they cannot instantly settle. Like the English Romantic poet John Keats, I consider ‘negative capability’– the ability to live with uncertainty – to be a valuable trait.”2

There’s another one of those new words, “negative capability.” I would add then her own spiritual self-description: “I believe my lesbianism and my transgender characteristics are aspects of the eternal Self, created by the Source in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). God apparently wanted to be embodied here and now in someone just like me…”3  To which insight, I can only say “Indeed!”

Upon first reading Virginia’s early writing, another dear, departed sister, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, noted how she found herself “admiring both [Virginia’s] intellectual brilliance and her devotion to God– and especially the way she brought these characteristics of her life together.”4

In a book review of Sensuous Spirituality, our own Fran Mayes described Virginia as having “the insight of a Mary Daly without the rage, the love of the Bible of a John Spong through the mind of a lesbian woman,” and being a mystic like a twentieth century Hildegaard. Fran noted that Virginia read scripture from a feminist liberationist humanist pluralistic perspective.5 What a rich and refreshing mouthful for the time in which we now find ourselves! (Virginia often summed up her own position as one of “radical inclusiveness.”)

And so there’s a question I would lay in your hands to contemplate for our subsequent conversation together, as you listen to this presentation: Where are her life and her thought still beckoning us (or teaching us anew), for this time and place in our individual lives, current culture, I should say, our current fraught culture, and also within CFT history?

On Mutuality

I will be leaving ample time, at the end of this, for us to have that conversation, because of one of her teachings that lodged in me when our lives first crossed. It happened in the early 80s, eight or nine years after the birth of EWC, when then in my third pastorate, I realized how much sheer energy I was pouring into listening to people who would come to talk to me–and how I too needed someone, a kind of spiritual director, I decided, to fill that role for me. And you who have pastored churches probably know that feeling.

Try as I might to think of other likely candidates, having heard her speak on a couple of occasions, I could not get Virginia Mollenkott out of my mind. What was clearly evident to me was “This woman knows God.” That was the whole of it. But, I told myself, get real: this woman also has her hands full–a professor, a public speaker, already a voluminous writer. Finally, after trying to talk myself out of it, I decided just to get it over with. I would write to ask her. And I was 100% certain the answer would have to be no. Imagine my astonishment when, a week or two later, there arrived in my mail a long, handwritten letter. You know she wrote every one of her books in longhand, every one of them, on legal pads! She replied that although she had never done such work before, yes: she would be willing–on the condition that the relationship be mutual.

For almost four decades following, what I would observe again and again was that Virginia was not content to be treated as the only expert in the room but expected the exploration to be mutual. She would listen intently to the insights of others, with an active curiosity about their thinking.

So, to honor her today, there will be ample time to let her hear how you are growing even yet from her life and work.

And for Virginia it was mutual with all of you: in a panel presentation given at Harvard Divinity School in 2002, Virginia stated “For me the greatest ongoing experience of community has come from the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus”: that through this organization, she had come into herself “by joining with others in a way that could not have occurred without such a nurturing community.”6  That’s what you were to her. It all supports an observation she had made some fifteen years earlier that “The opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, but mutuality–and therein lies our hope.”7

Out from Fundamentalism

Virginia was well into her thirties before she was able to liberate herself–through careful reading of the Bible–from the fundamentalist system’s belief taught to her by her childhood church, the Plymouth Brethren: that the deepest core of her being was evil, with neither feelings nor perceptions worthy of trust. That doctrine was what had led to her unsuccessful attempt to take her own life at the age of 13, believing that God had no use for the likes of her.8

In speaking about her journey in adulthood out of those “fundamentalist blinders,” as she called them, Virginia described studying the interpretive method of John Milton, the 17th century Puritan on whom, through award-winning PhD work, she became an authority recognized in the scholarly community. Later, beginning to apply Milton’s literary interpretive methods, she found that the biblical text was transformed “and I in turn,” she said, “was radicalized by the Bible.”9

To quote, as she did, Margaret Atwood’s deeply horrifying but (sadly) now entirely plausible work The Handmaid’s Tale, “[The Bible] is an incendiary device: who knows what we’d make of it, if we ever got our hands on it?”10

Using that metaphor, one could say that Virginia lit fires with everything she wrote!

Attesting to such radicalization, Virginia mused during a long 2004 interview with the LGBTQ Religious Archives Network:

“I mean, my best friends in the mainline churches are queer, theologically. They know they’re queer. They don’t like the way the Christian church teaches people to behave. . . they believe the things Jesus believed. Jesus was queer. You know, Jesus appealed to all the outcasts of his society. The people that I love also care about outcasts. People who don’t have jobs, people who are on welfare, people who are hungry and homeless. And that’s queer in this society, where consumerism is everything. So give me queer. Any day.”11

But she would also want to remind us that the path to such radical liberation is never easy or smooth for anyone. Virginia said that while writing Women, Men, and the Bible, she discovered “it is very easy to defend the patriarchal status quo. You don’t have to be particularly rational or thorough, because most folks already assume that you’re correct. But to challenge the dominant paradigm, you have to weave an airtight argument.” 12

On Theology

Theologically, weave she did: writing so precisely and radically that her thought will remain challenging far into the future! Look at the broad and far-ranging realms of inquiry in the Mollenkott “opus,” and notice how there were no artificial boundaries in Virginia’s intellectual, spiritual, or advocacy-shaped life. For instance: Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach, that 2001 book with the title that invites volumes of discussion even now, going on 25 years later, revisited the subject of Jesus’s own gender, as Virginia detailed research from a 1983 scientific journal on “A Proposed Biological Interpretation of the Virgin Birth.”13 To hear and see with what humorous delight she conveyed this in a brief but punchy panel presentation at Harvard.14

[At this point in the presentation, a clip from this YouTube video was shown. The clip begins at 19:19 and ends at 22:58.]

The point, of course, is that Jesus Christ, the “Perfect Human Being,” was androgynous, being female as well as male their entire earthly life. You can see where this revolutionary line of thinking takes us theologically–knocking supposedly biblical prohibitions against the priesthood of women all to Kingdom Come, so to speak! Gary, at my dining table in seminary, should have heard this.

It’s another delightful example of how Virginia would methodically sneak up on you, leading you on a perfectly logical line of thinking until “Blamo!” You came out on a mountaintop so high there’d be no going back.

But imagine a book written at the turn of this century that already envisioned the kind of gender-fluid society we have even yet to realize: where, for instance, children could be brought up simply as persons, until the child is old enough to decide and express their own gender identity… where there would be no gender typing on government records such as birth, marriage, or death certificates, passports, motor vehicle licenses, or marriage applications.15

Just imagine.

On Religion and Politics

It was that way, too, regarding artificial distinctions between religion and politics. Reflecting in an interview on whether certain stances are religious or political, Virginia stitched them together:

“Now the thing about going all out to embody what you believe is that it becomes difficult if not impossible to compartmentalize religion as something distinct from politics. …For evangelical feminists, feminism means working toward a peaceful, egalitarian, humane world. Being a follower of Jesus means the same thing. So for us, feminism is both a religious and a political expression of our convictions.”16

In taking a prophetic stance in our culture, even in our current political situation nationally, what about methods and means? To that, at the time, her answer was that “[as long as the heteropatriarchal system is in place] we feminists and womanists and trans-les-bi-gay people are living in occupied territory.” It was a reference the French resistance to the Nazis, actually. And she went on:

“And a different set of ethics applies in occupied territory… Only people in the normative power group can afford to pontificate grandly about never lying and never deceiving and never subverting. … [A]s oppressed people have always known, sometimes they must confront, and sometimes they must subvert. Subversion means a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a political system by persons who work secretly within the system involved.”17

Citing the story of Shiprah and Puah, from the Hebrew scriptures, Virginia pointed out that when the king decreed a plan to empower Egypt by destroying newborn Israelite baby boys, the two women did not confront him—they secretly subverted the king’s unjust system–reassuring Pharaoh of their loyalty by appealing to his racist opinion that the Hebrew women were more like animals in their speed of giving birth. “And the Scriptures tell us,” Virginia wrote, “that God blessed them for their actions–subversion, ethnic slur, lying, and all!”18

In 1991, at a conference sponsored by the National Council of Churches, Virginia was asked “Do we always have to be against something?”

“Clearly the asker was feeling some emotional turmoil over the thought of religious institutions entering the political and economic arenas as combatants for justice. And I had to reply that because systems are so rigged in favor of those who already have power and privilege, yes, it is necessary to take a stand. By apparently not taking a stand, we actually throw our weight on the side of the iniquitous status quo. For instance, to oppress their wives or sweethearts, men don’t have to do anything at all; systemic sexism will do the oppressing. White people don’t have to do anything at all to profit from the oppression of people of other colors; institutionalized racism will do the oppressing. People of the First World don’t have to make an effort to profit from the oppression of people in the Two-Thirds World; economic policies already in place will do the job for us. So whether we actively oppose injustice or not, we are profiting from injustice and therefore are involved in it.”19

I began by saying earlier that because of Virginia’s belief in mutuality, you will have a part in these reflections before we’re finished. The value of mutuality, for her, was closely tied with justice. In her workshop at the 1982 Seattle conference (just think: more than forty years ago!) Virginia said “True mutuality is not possible in patriarchy. So either you’re going after the whole ball of wax, all the injustices, as one common front–not dividing off justice for just us–but justice for the whole of everybody. Otherwise, you’re not really doing anything.”20

One aspect of being so far ahead of your time as Virginia was, is that you are publicly revealing your thinking in a landscape not at all hospitable to it. So being a leader in this way is never comfortable, ultimately, nor is it safe. For her work in the world–such as editorial advisor to the National Council of Churches Inclusive Language Lectionary Committee–Virginia received death threats… mailed to her home, posted on her answering machine (then, of course, at a landline linked to her physical address)–to the extent that she and other members of the national committee had to be assigned a security detail, accompanying them even in hotel elevators, during their in-person meetings. While shaken by such stalkers, yet she decided, “There are things worth dying for.” In an email to CFT’s Council as recently as 2018, Virginia offered this:

“First off, I must speak from my own experience: people will accuse us of anything they fear most about themselves; so we must listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit within our souls and not live in fear of what will be said about us. For years I have laughed off the names I have been called, because I know they are ‘not about me.’ I think our organization must take its prophetic stances faithfully and fearlessly.”

So much that Virginia wrote is timeless–applicable guidance for the juncture where we find ourselves as CFT. Everything old is new again, unfortunately: from women’s rights being rolled back sixty or seventy years to the determined resurgence of heteropatriarchy and misogyny. In fact, here’s a two-sentence summation I offered on Sensuous Spirituality last summer for a meeting of CFT’s book club What They Wrote. “The good news is–it’s very contemporary. The bad news is–it’s very contemporary!” But as Virginia reminded us, a sensuously spiritual being “has a specific role for co-creating a more just human society.”

One image in particular that she probed continues to jump out at me as we face new decisions as an aging organization:

“To use a well-worn but effective illustration, most of the time while we spiritual beings are in the midst of the human condition, we are looking at the back of a huge piece of needlepoint, where there is chaotic ugly crisscrossing and knotting of the woolen strands. It is easy to assume that chaos is all there is. … [W]e would be wise to meditate, to … look underneath the chaos to assure ourselves that even if the design is very incomplete and we cannot imagine what the artist has in mind, nevertheless things are progressing with an order that is not discernible from the backside of the needlepoint.”21

And also:

“The ability to confront the sufferings and systems of this world with a tough-minded realism, and yet to remain willing to be shown some lovely possibilities beneath, beyond, and within those realities, possibilities that may not be apparent on the surface–that is what I mean by sensuous spirituality.”22

Virginia left this earthly plane just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, before the January 6 insurrection against the capital of this country, and before the groundswell that continues to assault so many decades-old rights of women. Would she be surprised at how prescient she was in her writings about the struggles that we in all of these groups–feminist, liberationist, activist, non-binary or gender-nonconforming, gay or lesbian, people of color–are still facing today? I think perhaps not. You might say that she intentionally wrote for the ages.

And that intentionality always governed the way Virginia lived in the world: In the LGBTQ-RAN interview in her elder years, she remarked, “…I made a vow to myself… that I will never allow doctrine, which is just knowledge or theory, to cause me to do something unloving to another human being. Not if I can possibly help myself. Because I want to do the eternal thing. I don’t want to put my stock in what’s going to pass away.”23

Amy Frykholm, now a contributing editor of The Christian Century who had also grown up in a fundamentalist church, wrote about Virginia’s work in the spring after her passing:

“Mollenkott was an evangelical, and so was I. This label allowed her into my life. In a world that divided people into safe and unsafe, us and them, she was one of us. But in truth, there was nothing safe about Virginia Mollenkott.”

To this day, Frykholm still cherishes the now well-worn copy of Women Men, and the Bible that her father gave her at the age of 16 and told her to read for herself. “I read it deeply and completely,” she wrote. “I poured it into my veins. It became a part of me the way that few books ever have… It reminds me of the way a book can walk into your life and set you free.” And then Frykholm went beyond Virginia’s prophetic intellect to reflect at an even deeper level on heart and spirit:

“I don’t believe that it was Mollenkott’s arguments, at the end of the day, that made a difference in my life. It was her compassion. Mollenkott’s work contains great compassion for girls like me. It was her compassion that gave me the courage to speak [out] and allowed me to stay in conversation with the Bible and with the Christian tradition. It surprises me to this day.”24

So what might be next for us as Christian Feminism Today? What guidance does Virginia still offer us? I invite you to hear her poetic words entitled “Buoyancy and Splash”:

This is the time of letting go.
A flower cannot bloom until a seed bursts its hot heart,
Yields its identity to moisture, soil, and sun,
Surrenders its seedness to stem and leaves and life
And at long last, to the juicy thrust of flower.
A river cannot open into sea
If it clings to its identity as river,
Hanging back in stagnant side-pools,
Afraid to take the plunge.
Only if it can gird up its river-heart,
Release all it has ever known
(Those familiar riverbanks)
Can it learn the buoyancy and splash
Of an ocean wave. And even then
If it defines itself as a solitary wave
Crashing against a singular rock
It will think itself little, limited, and helpless.
But letting go of its separated waveness
The wave relaxes into moon-sucked motion
Surging with the vast pulsebeat of the sea.

Oh, my cowering, crouching heart:
Do you want to be a seed clenching its teeth
Against a flower that struggles to be born?
Do you want to be a river growing brackish
In a backwater pond, toxic with fear of flowing?
Do you want to be a wave that thinks itself only a wave
Instead of the movement of Infinite Ocean
Embracing Earth and rocking with the moon?

Ah, my constricted heart:
To know the power that is your heritage,
You must let go.

Let go.

Let go.25

 

References:

1 Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach. (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2007 Revised and Expanded edition), 187.

2 Ibid., 192.

3 “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith” https://eewc.com/secret-thoughts-unlikely-convert-english-professors-journey-christian-faith/

4 Letha Dawson Scanzoni, “Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, My Coauthor, My Friend: A Special Remembrance” 2020

5 Rev. Dr. Fran Mayes, in her review of Sensuous Spirituality: Out from Fundamentalism, 1992 edition.. https://eewc.com/sensuous-spirituality/

6 https://youtu.be/WjdD5-GGSEc?si=5vJftQPmCNw9A7Ps

7  Godding: Human Responsibility and the Bible. (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company,1987), 138.

8 Sensuous Spirituality: Out from Fundamentalism, p. 161.

9 “Feminism and Evangelicalism: An Interview with Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.” From a panel held at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan on May 16, 2005, entitled “Muslim, Christian and Jew: Women Who Changed American Religion.” https://eewc.com/feminism-and-evangelicalism/

10 Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 112.

11 LGBTQ-RAN archived interview conducted by Doris Malkmus Sept. 25, 2004, p. 58. https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/oral-histories/virginia-ramey-mollenkott-ph-d

12 Op. Cit., “Feminism and Evangelicalism: An Interview…”

13 Edward L. Kessel, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, September 1983, 129-36.

14 Religion and the Feminist Movement Conference, Harvard Divinity School. Nov. 2, 2002. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjdD5-GGSEc

15 See Omnigender, 185.

16 Op. Cit., “Feminism and Evangelicalism: An Interview with Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.” https://eewc.com/feminism-and-evangelicalism/

17 Op. Cit., Sensuous. 2008 edition, p. 42.

18 Ibid., 2008, p. 40f.

19 Ibid., 1992 p. 130; 2008 p. 149.

20 “Merits and Demerits of An Inclusive Language Lectionary.” Seattle EWC Conference (Women and the Promise of Restoration), 1982. https://eewc.com/inclusive-language-lectionary/

21 Op. Cit., Sensuous. 1992 p 23/ 2008p 11.

22 Ibid., 2008 p. 14.

23 Op. Cit., LGBTQ-RAN archived interview, 78f.

24 Amy Frykholm, “A Book’s Compassion.” The Christian Century, May 19, 2021.

25 © 1996 Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. Originally published in Update, volume 20 number 3 Fall 1996.

© 2024 by Gail Ricciuti and Christian Feminism Today.

Please contact us for permission before reprinting any portion of this article.

To read more about EEWC’s history, click here.

CFT 50th Anniversary logo (CFT regular logo in gold)In honor of CFT’s 50th anniversary, CFT is publishing some important historical reflections, articles, reviews, and other pieces. See more from this series here.

Rev. Gail Ricciuti
Gail Anderson Ricciuti is associate professor of homiletics at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York, where she has taught for many. Before that, she served as a Presbyterian pastor for 25 years. She has served as a member of the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today Executive Council.