Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, the U.S. Vice President: a genealogy of women as seen by a theologian
Just after the US presidential election, which saw John Biden become President and Kamala Harris Vice President, an image went viral on the web. It was accompanied by a caption: “Rosa sat down, that’s why Ruby could walk, that’s why Kamala could run” (Beth Perry). In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. In 1960, Ruby Nell Bridges was the first child of color to set foot in a whites-only school in the U.S. The South and the federal district judge asked the government to send agents to protect the children, because outside the doors of the school, a waiting mob was yelling and throwing things. In 2020, Kamala Harris, of Indo-American and Jamaican descent, became the first woman to be sworn in as vice president of the most powerful Western democracy. The words spoken by Harris herself were destined to go viral too, “But while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last”. “[…] I think of the women who have fought and sacrificed so much for equality, freedom and justice for all, including African American women, who are overlooked but often prove to be the backbone of our democracy”.
Between dictatorships and narcissism
Like the photo, these words demand to be recognised in a genealogical context. The fact that Kamala Harris repeated them several times right up to the conclusion of the swearing-in ceremony meant that the message would finally find its way into the media. In addition, they make us reflect because a time like ours still finds it so difficult to accept the subjectivity of women as a historical transformation, and not as a claim.
We cannot predict how Kamala Harris will shape the politics of her country, but that is not the point here. The strength of her words lies in the fact that she asks all women, of all ages, cultures and religions, to feel part of a lineage of women, composed not only of those who gave birth to them, but above all of those who, with their aspirations and their battles, generated them to public life. At a time when politics seems to be forced into a corner between dictatorships and narcissism, Harris calls for a way out of this lethal alternative that has deformed history. Only when it becomes genealogy, that is, when it generates an awareness of coming from afar, does the history of women finally become part of the 'big story'. It in-forms that story, not de-forms it. I would therefore like to try to explain what it is about that story that it evokes in me, on the eve of 8 March which, as has been the case for some time now, drags on amidst controversy and weariness, this immense call to feel part of a genealogy of women who have made history, and endured it. Clearly, I can only do this as a theologian, which I am.
An immense gold reserve
I have continuously suffered from the fact that my Church was incapable of listening to the generations of women who have given life to a tumultuous, contradictory, often disjointed, but decisive movement in human history for a century and a half. Instead, the Church has punished women and gone in search of a “Catholic feminism” before even understanding the most profound demands of feminism or of women with a “dependable” profile. In fact, the church has done this prior to an opening up to the difficult but fruitful cultural debate on themes and problems that have been brought to the table by the combination of all the sciences.
In the meantime, however, an immense amount of work has been done to restore biblical history and the history of faith as the history of women believers. In addition, especially for women believers, to consider the past is a revolutionary choice. The Bible and the great Jewish and Christian religious traditions are an immense reserve of gold made up of practices and words, of life choices and languages, of political actions and mystical experiences. Driven by the discussion within and between churches, the time has come to sift the gold from the dust, to free the “nuggets” that biblical, historical and theological research has extracted from the golden reserve of the Jewish and Christian tradition from the debris that inevitably buried them or rendered their transmission “impure”.
This is why a decisive leap forward is needed today. We can no longer be content with contemplating the “nuggets” that the history of women’s faith has brought to light, by leafing through the photo album. It is time for women to occupy public spaces with a serious critical discussion of their history. Only in this way will they be able to grasp their generativity and feel, at last, that they are part of a genealogy. In her song of praise, Mary of Nazareth gives thanks to the Almighty because his mercy is transmitted “from generation to generation”. For historical criticism, comparisons between generations, and a passing on of witnesses to take place, perhaps, we need many more 8th of Marchs.
By Marinella Perroni
Biblical scholar, Pontifical Athenaeum Saint Anselm