Veteran Feminists of America

 

Patricia Budd Kepler - Feminist of the Month
February 2011


A LIFETIME SPENT CHALLENGING SEXISM IN RELIGION AND LIBERATING GOD FROM A PATRIARCHAL BOX

 

Patricia Budd Kepler

It is 1973 and I am at the National Meeting of the United Presbyterian Church where I am serving as staff person for the Church’s Task Force on Women, the group giving leadership to feminist issues within our denomination. Wilma Scott Heide ( NOW’s third president) is scheduled to speak at our breakfast and I receive a call the day before, saying that she has pneumonia and cannot come.

I remember that day as if it were yesterday. Wilma was a dear friend and knowledgeable, creative, dedicated, effective, and a noted feminist. We so wanted her to be with us, cherishing her depth of understanding of feminist issues and the integrity of her commitment to justice and compassion.

Desperate, the task force asked me to speak. I entitled my hastily written speech “The Liberation of God.” Being forced to step up to the plate enabled me to put into words some thoughts that had been brewing inside me for some time, and continue to evolve to this day.

My work in the feminist Movement led to my understanding that our perception of the nature of God was

Wilma Scott Heide

evolving along with our perceptions of the nature of women and men, and, as our relationship to one another was changing, so was our relationship to God. We were liberating God from a patriarchal box at the same time that we were liberating ourselves. We were dealing with both simple, immediate justice and the complex justice that changes worldviews and internal landscapes.

The Presbyterian Church was one of the first denominations to develop a feminist agenda during the Second Wave of the Feminist Movement. I myself cannot claim any credit for this. I fell into the role as staff for the task force when I was serving as General Secretary for United Presbyterian Women in the national Board of Christian Education.

I was not yet a self-conscious feminist when staff responsibility for women’s issues in our church landed in my office, but I was a fast learner. The first year that we reported to our General Assembly, the commissioners laughed. They didn’t laugh the next year. That first year of laughter awakened many of us to the seriousness of sexism and the need for transformation in the church. A vision of a social order beyond patriarchy began to grow in us as we worked with others in the Movement.

The Women’s Movement allowed many of us to finally give voice to what experience had already taught us. For some of us, our participation in the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement provided important lessons on how to work for change--in ourselves and our world.
I was privileged, as I worked with the Task Force on Women and United Presbyterian Women and traveled across the country to meet and engage with people of all ages, races, and ethnicities.

But I began in the middle of my story. Looking back on my early life, there is nothing remarkable to report. My father grew up in a small coal mining town and was raised by a widowed mother and older siblings. Though poor, they were respected members in the community. That small town and coal mining history is in my blood.

My father was the first in his family to finish college. He went on to earn graduate degrees, in law and in political science. My mother, an immigrant from Germany, came to the States alone when she was seventeen. Her mother followed later, and lived with us.

My parents lived in Lancaster, PA when I was born. Two years later, my sister Mary came along and much later, my brother Harold and my sister, Theresa. We were a close knit family. My mother focused on her children and my father’s career. Over the years, she proved to be a very strong woman.

We later lived in Philadephia where my father practiced law and taught at Drexel. Mary and I attended a magnet school for girls. My siblings and I went on to earn Bachelors degrees from Drexel. I then went to Princeton Theological Seminary where I earned two graduate degrees. I was one of three women in a class of about 200.

In addition to education, faith was an important part of my family’s life. Our church community, St. Paul Presbyterian Church, nurtured me and encouraged my leadership.

My religious experiences clearly influenced my choosing Ministry as a career. All along I was being formed by strong women and men who had faced and overcome challenges. people who had a natural, inherent strength, not one that came from position or money or other outward signs of power.

When I began to address feminist issues, I did not see women’s attaining power or wealth in societal or intuitional terms as the only source of desired power. While we clearly worked for equality between women and men and helped open doors for women in economic and political leadership, we also cared about women’s right to exercise ethical and spiritual leadership in the whole society.
I treasured compassion with justice, civility with equality and relational integrity along with equal rights in marriage. I also learned some rudimental things about international liberation theologies.

I met Thomas Kepler in Seminary. We married before our senior year and I was pregnant with our son when I graduated . My husband and I were the first clergy couple in the United Presbyterian Church.

The year before I graduated, women’s ordination was approved in the United Presbyterian Church. After Seminary my husband became the pastor of a church in New Jersey.. Thirteen months later our second son was born and I was still fixed on being the best homemaker I could be. By the time I was pregnant with our third son two years later, that wasn’t working out too well. Being a Minister’s wife was more challenging than I had ever imagined. For me, being a Minister was easier.

When an opportunity to serve as the Pastor of an African American church nearby was offered to me, I accepted and never looked back. After eight years and a brief teaching stint with my husband in Florida, we moved back north to Lansdown, PA. where I became staff for the national Presbyterian Church. Later I accepted a job at Harvard Divinity School as Director of Ministerial Studies, and we moved to the Boston area.

Before leaving the Board of Christian Education I became involved with our nation’s Bi-Centennial Commission and the birthing of the Women’s Coalition for the Third Century - which brought together women from many organizations, secular and religious, of all different persuasions to celebrate women’s contributions to American life. Eventually, I became President of the Coalition. We drafted a Declaration of Interdependence and I was privileged to write the first draft. In 1776 our nation had adopted The Declaration of Independence and in 1876 had been presented with a Declaration of Women’s Rights. In 1976 it was time for women and the men and children who wanted to join in, to call our country to interdependence.

When we ratified our Declaration, we added Declaration of Imperatives, a document spelling out our commitment to women’s equality in an interdependent society.

After Harvard I become Pastor of Clarendon Hill Presbyterian Church in Somerville, Massachusetts and faced the challenge of putting into practice in community context the feminist principles and issues I had dealt with so long on a national scale. This was the real test! And in that Pastorate of over seventeen years, I continued to be drawn into international interests. especially in the Middle East and Africa.


After retirement, I went on to serve as Interim University Chaplain at Tufts and with my husband, served in two Interim Ministry positions. We became more involved with homosexual rights in the church.

One of the primary issues I have struggled with all my life is the challenge of combining a career with marriage and parenthood. In some ways this remains at the root of feminist issues for many of us. I finally had to write a book that addressed those issues. “Work After Patriarchy: A Pastoral Perspective” was published in 2009. Before taking on that subject I wrote “Life Lessons from my Dog,” a somewhat fanciful book with serious theological reflection.

I am very aware as I write this, that I am not so much writing about my life, but the lives of all feminists as they are set in historical and environmental perspective. The lives of feminist activists are intertwined. Everything I am, everything I did, and anything I will continue to do has come from my relationships with others.

We veteran feminists pass on our experiences to the next generations -- among them our daughters and sons and their children. whose lives grace ours and who will be called upon to make their own contributions.


Contact Patricia Budd Kepler: Pbuddkep@aol.com

Comments to Jacqui Ceballos: jcvfa@aol.com

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