GTU Alum Profile | Dr. Mary E. Hunt (PhD, 1980)
Dr. Mary E. Hunt is a prominent Catholic feminist theologian who lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to social justice concerns. She has taught at Georgetown, Iliff School of Theology, and Pacific School of Religion, and she has published numerous books, articles, and chapters, and co-edited several works, including New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2010), with Diann L. Neu. She is the cofounder and codirector of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER) in Maryland, a non-profit educational center and public charity with a commitment to engaging theological training and scholarship in the service of social change. Dr. Hunt received her PhD in Systematic and Philosophical Theology from the GTU in 1980. Selected as the Alum of the Year in 1996, she supports the GTU’s mission through the values embodied in her work.
GTU: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. You have offered robust contributions to feminist theology over the course of your career. What work are you most proud of in this area?
Dr. Mary E. Hunt (MEH): Thank you for inviting me.
I am a longtime supporter and proponent of the GTU, which I consider to be a marvelous model for theological education in a religiously diverse world. I am honored to be an alum when I read about the many and creative ways GTU grads put their studies into practice.
Like most scholar/activists, I have tried to put the fruits of my research and analysis at the service of social change in an unjust world on an ailing planet. While I have lectured and written on many topics, I think my most important contribution has been to help create the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER). WATER is a nonprofit organization inside the Beltway in the Washington, DC area with a global reach, where feminist work in religion can be part of discussions that influence public opinion. Moreover, we take seriously that people who are marginalized and/or alienated from their religious communities, and those who have no formal religious connection whatsoever, still have spiritual needs. So WATER is a place where study, spiritual direction, ritual, and many other forms of support are available for a diverse public.
GTU: How do you feel about the current state of gender and sexuality justice, considering the challenges you have attempted to address in your work?
MEH: I began my work in simpler times, when the gender binary—male and female—was taken for granted and when sexual orientation was either homosexual, heterosexual, or, in rare instances, bisexual. Today, all of those categories have outlived their usefulness as we realize how many and splendored are the ways of life and love.
Religions are often late adopters instead of thought and ethical leaders on such questions. So it is with the Catholic tradition that I know best. Change takes time, and change that erodes deeply held, religiously influenced prejudices takes even more time. The key strategy is to know how and when to pivot toward fresh ways of framing issues as new, welcome voices enter the conversation.
I look back at my work at the GTU and in the first three subsequent decades (I finished my PhD in 1980), and see monumental changes. We never imagined in my GTU years that we would have to explain and debate what a woman is, that queer is good, that we do not have and may never have all the answers about many aspects of the human condition. How naïve we were to think we knew much at all!
Many shifts took place and took hold from 2015 to the present. Now a wholesale reordering of society is visible, despite virulent backlash. Marriage equality changed many things, and the increasingly public voices of trans and non-binary people put to rest the pat answers we had developed in progressive movements. It was back to the drawing boards to find new ways of thinking about family life, sexual, and reproductive ethics, patriarchy/kyriarchy, and the impact of these emerging changes on religions. That work is what keeps me busy.
GTU: What are the key concerns and themes of your work today? Have those concerns and themes changed since your time at the GTU?
MEH: My doctoral dissertation was entitled “Feminist Liberation Theology: The Development of Method in Construction.” I continue to flesh out what that means in the 21st century, when Liberation theologies seem to have crested in a time of tremendous backlash. The Supreme Court Dobbs case annulling abortion rights is cause for doubling efforts for women’s and other pregnant people’s well-being
There are many prominent issues now that were hardly on the horizon in the 1970s when I was at the GTU. These include anti-racism, which, while long recognized as a need, remains to be faced squarely by most people. Climate change and environmental causes of injustice and destruction cannot be ignored any longer. The wisdom of the world’s religions, and not simply the myopic views created by studying just one tradition or in parochial settings, is reconfiguring religion as we know it and how we study it.
Likewise, the important insights of “Nones,” those who have no connection to a religious tradition, and even “Never agains,” those who want no such connection ever, are all part of the rich mix of scholars of religion.
These factors, among many others, now figure in my analysis and strategies in ways I could not have imagined when I studied on Holy Hill. I am grateful to be able to continue my work, always seeking the social justice implications of theology, while now drawing on a fairly long view to see patterns, exceptions, and strategic ways forward.
GTU: Many at the GTU felt the significant impact of Dr. Rosemary Radford Ruether’s recent passing. Can you share what her work has meant in your own life and work?
MEH: The passing of the great and good Dr. Rosemary Radford Ruether reminds me of how fortunate I have been to be so well accompanied in the field of theology. I met Rosemary in the fall of 1972, during my first week at Harvard Divinity School. Coming from a Jesuit college (Marquette University), I had never met a woman theologian. She was brilliant, compassionate, bold, at the same time modest, involved, committed, and connected. Rosemary was simply Rosemary, and so much more.
She modeled the kind of scholarship for which feminist theology is justly known, namely equal parts erudition and engagement. Her more than thirty books and hundreds of chapters and articles, not to mention countless lectures and courses, comprise a corpus of theological work that generations will study. Her involvement in Israel/Palestine, Catholic progressive circles, women-church groups, international organizing, and promoting feminist scholars were all integral parts of her professional life. Rosemary was a scholar/activist before we had the name for it.
Still, what most impressed me was her quiet kindness. She was deeply committed to her family and friends, while simultaneously connected in meaningful ways to people around the world. Stories abound of her endless support for graduate students, her personal touch when it came to comprehensive exams and dissertation defenses, in which she always conveyed her enthusiasm and respect for students. I served on boards with her and engaged in strategizing on Catholic problems. She was savvy with a moral compass that didn’t quit.
I never heard Rosemary say a negative word about an individual, even though she was tireless in calling out injustice. Her humor was the stuff of legend. She and her women colleagues were said to dress up in the academic regalia she received from her many honorary doctorates, and laugh rather than take themselves or others too seriously. One time in Palestine, a group of theologians were invited to meet in a mirrored room with church leaders who were known a Patriarchs, some of whom were addressed as, “Your Beatitude.” One of the gentleman delivered himself of an oration on “Jesus, the divine embryo” as he rocked dangerously close to the edge of the platform on which he stood. It was all we could do to contain our giggles while watching others in our group doing the same in those blessed mirrors. The scene was not lost on Rosemary. Virtually my whole career to date has unfolded in the light of her brilliance and her goodness. In a field where there were few women role models, she was a lucky find for me.
GTU: What initially led you to the GTU for your PhD studies?
MEH: I did a Masters in Theology at Harvard Divinity School, where I was later told that the Dean was disappointed that I did not even apply to stay on for the doctorate. I had gotten what I wanted from Harvard and was ready for a new adventure and a more open, progressive environment in which to explore feminist and liberation issues that were just beginning to take hold in theology. I had seen how Harvard Divinity School marginalized both Rosemary Radford Ruether and the Uruguayan Jesuit liberation theologian Juan Luis Segundo during their visiting stints. They simply were not the white, male, Protestant norm, which I am happy to say is no longer the case at HDS. I realized that they were more like me, so I would do well to find greener pastures.
The West Coast, [and especially] the Bay Area, had its allure, and the GTU was part of it. I liked the newness and the openness to many ways of living, thinking, believing that were operative in Berkeley. My decision was intuitive not rational—in those days one didn’t usually go visit before deciding on a school. I was attracted to the ecumenical nature of the GTU, the rich resources of the University of California, Berkeley, and the wonderful cultural life in the region. I was not disappointed. Holy Hill and Gourmet Gulch were lovely places to study and socialize.
GTU: What word would you use to describe the GTU?
GTU: With whom did you connect at the GTU who made an impact on you and your work?
MEH: The people at GTU were as unique as the institution. When I arrived, I made a beeline to what was in 1974 known as the Office of Women’s Affairs, later the Center for Women and Religion (CWR), a name change we joked was made to protect the guilty! Friends and colleagues in those circles were my introduction to feminism West Coast style. I remain close to some of them today, including my dear friend Clare Fischer who was a doctoral student with me and later a highly respected professor at the Starr King School for the Ministry. The real bonus was meeting Diann Neu, with whom I have been partnered for more than forty years.
Pioneer feminist theologian Anne McGrew Bennett was a friend and colleague whose wisdom and activism inspired me. There were not a lot of women professors at the GTU in my early years, but a grant from the Ford Foundation allowed CWR to bring such foundational scholars as feminist theorist Charlotte Bunch and feminist ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison to the GTU as visiting faculty.
My academic advisor for both the MDiv at the Jesuit School of Theology and for the PhD at GTU was Joseph M. Powers, SJ. He was an honest, if modest, man who said he knew little of what I was interested in but would be happy to stay out of my way! In fact, he was quite helpful and a lovely person, so I was well accompanied in a way that worked for both of us.
GTU: What recent work are you especially excited about? What difference do you hope this work will make?
MEH: At WATER, we offer monthly talks by scholars in feminist studies in religion. I am helping to shape the discourse by choosing the people who present from among the movers and shakers in the field. Likewise, the 25 years of the work of the Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network that WATER sponsors, with annual gatherings at the AAR/SBL that include colleagues from many countries, is another way in which I interact with people and ideas that make for change.
Over our long history at WATER (1983-present), we have had more than 90 interns for year-long or summer stints. I have learned that theology is a team sport, not an individual activity. So the more collaboration and cooperation we can foster, the more powerful is our impact. To that end, I hope to develop Our Spirits, Ourselves, a compendium of useful spiritual resources from across traditions.
I work with several Catholic women’s groups as that denomination remains almost impervious to the efforts to bring about gender equity. My main worry now, watching backlash strike in so many arenas, is how to keep Catholic women from accepting crumbs when we are due double loaves, from being co-opted by a two-thousand-year-old institution that seeks to homogenize differences rather than change in structural and systemic ways.
One of the things I learned early at the GTU is not to be afraid to be the only person in the room who holds a position that might be unpopular. Over time, it is amazing how many people eventually join. Being early and alone is not always a bad thing when the issues at hand are crucial to global justice.
It was said of Anne McGrew Bennett that she insisted on things that other people postponed insisting upon. She has always been my role model in these matters.
GTU: As the GTU celebrates its 60th anniversary, we are inviting GTU community members to begin imagining what a brighter future 60 years from now might look like. What does that future look like to you? How would you like the GTU to be contributing to that brighter future?
MEH: I have a 22-year-old daughter, so the future is quite concrete for me: I want her and her age cohort to live in peace and with maximum resources to fulfill their potential. I watched as they creatively found their way through COVID, went to college with all of the hopes and dreams of every young person. I see now how they face the complications of climate change, war, economic upheaval, and the rest as they build their adult lives. They are fortunate, we are fortunate, to have abundant technical resources, especially global communication and transportation, to build an interdependent world. How we use them will tell the tale.
The GTU has a jumpstart on many theological schools. We of the GTU have never been deluded into thinking we were the pre-eminent place to study religion, as some other schools have bragged; we know there are lots of good places, and that we are one. We have never rested on our laurels when it comes to inclusion; diversity in every imaginable way has long been the norm at the GTU, with always more people and ideas to include. And, we have never lost the spirit of our founders, who managed to build this consortium from scratch and bequeathed to us a unique and challenging way to be scholars and practitioners in a religiously pluralistic world. We are well positioned for the future because we are nimble and humble enough to change.
I hope to continue doing my work as part of the GTU “team,” with deep gratitude to all of the players.