Gender, Friendship, Collaboration, and Unacknowledged Authorship by Carol P. Christ

Carol in Crete croppedIn recent weeks Judith Plaskow and I have been revising the manuscript of our new book Goddess and God in the World in preparation for sending it to the publisher. Yes, we have a publisher. We signed a contract with Fortress Press a short time ago. The book should be out in 2016.

We have been hard—and I mean very hard—at work revising the four chapters in the book that are jointly written. The versions have been going back and forth and forth and back as we revision what we want to say and revise each other’s revisions of the drafts we have. We both want the final manuscript to say things just right and it is very hard not to make one more set of (alleged) improvements.

In the process we have realized that while we often disagree on words and wording, we have come to think alike on a wide variety of issues to the point that it becomes hard to say who had the ideas first. In addition we have both become so familiar with each other’s positions that we can each easily articulate both sides of our dialogue on the issues on which we disagree.

All of this has gotten me to thinking again about authorship and co-authorship and original and shared ideas. This train of thought led me back to the subject of Judith’s and my first essay together originally titled “Against My Wife” but published as “For the Advancement of My Career: A Form Critical Study in the Art of Acknowledgement.”  We discussed 5 formulaic tropes used in acknowledgements to wives in academic books, ending with “the wife as unacknowledged co-author.”

While rewriting one of our joint chapters for the ump-teenth time, I sent Judith an email asking: “I wonder if the wives who edited their husband’s manuscripts were as free in adding their own words and opinions as we are when we write together?” Judith responded that she has one friend who actively rewrites all of her husband’s scholarly work to the same degree.

Charlotte von Kirshbaum Late one night when I had nothing better to do I decided to revisit the question of Karl Barth and the mistress who was his unacknowledged co-author. Although I certainly never heard a word about Charlotte von Kirschbaum during the years of my graduate study when the great man’s name was uttered in hushed tones, it is now well-known that for thirty-five years Karl Barth, his wife Nelly Barth, and, while they were living at home, his five sons shared their home with the theologically-trained “secretary” and “editor” of his work.

Charlotte von Kirshbaum and Karl BarthSuzanne Selinger wrote a book about their relationship, hoping to trace the extent of von Kirschbaum’s contributions to Barth’s writing. In the end, she had to admit that the story of an independent von Kirschbaum could not be recovered because “the life we would speak of was not lived.”

Next, I googled Paul Tillich and was reminded of his well-known womanizing (another subject not spoken about when I was in graduate school). I found his psychiatrist son Rene Tillich’s reflections on his parents’ deeply troubled relationship illuminating, but that is another story. I did not find out anything about who edited Tillich’s work, but there must have been someone, not only because there usually is, but especially because Tillich’s first language was not English.

ursula niebuhrFrom there, I moved on to the third great Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr. Though I taught at Columbia University in the years following Reinhold Niebuhr’s retirement and death, I never heard a single mention of his wife Ursula Niebuhr, who founded the Barnard Religion Department and served as its chair for many years.

Ursula, who was fifteen years younger than Reinhold and on a graduate fellowship when they met, had a much more independent life than von Kirschbaum. However, like von Kirschbaum, she was devoted to her husband’s work and published very little in her own right. People remember her as having carried on a lively theological conversation with her husband during all of his productive years.

Those who have pursued the question find that Uruslua Niebuhr was an unacknowledged co-author, perhaps of all of his works. Urusla left documentation of transcriptions of their on-going theological conversations, which if studied in detail, might document the extent of her contributions. I note here that Reinhold Neibuhr did not publish any of his major works until after they met. Still, the quest to discover the independent thinking of Ursula Niebuhr may founder on the rocks of “a life not lived.”

What are we to make of the unacknowledged contributions of wives, mistresses, secretaries, and editors to the works of great men? To say that intelligent intellectual women happily chose the role of helpmeet says something about their times, but nothing about their choices not to become theologians, as the option to become one was not available. Indeed, Charlotte and Ursula may have considered themselves lucky to have gotten as far as they did by hooking up with great men. They may have recognized that there was no future for female theologians in their days.

hulda_niebuhr_ce20Reinhold Niebuhr’s older sister, Hulda Niebuhr, who must have been as intelligent and capable as Reinhold and their younger brother Richard (also a leading theologian), was told by their father that a woman’s desire for an education was an example of the sin of “egotism” and would hinder her chances of marriage. Hulda enrolled in college after her father’s death, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s at Boston University, and later completing “all-but-dissertation” towards doctorate at Union Seminary. Hulda Niebuhr remained unmarried, a status that would have been pitied in her time, and instead of pursuing a career in the masculine field of theology, chose Christian education. It will do no good to search for the contributions of Hulda Niebuhr the theologian, for this too was “a life not lived.”

The question I am having a hard time asking is: what would women in our time or theirs have been able to do if we had “helpmeets” like Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Ursula Niebuhr? I cannot answer this question because it seems obvious that no woman I know would want a relationship in which one person’s talents are swallowed up by the other.

I would rather have a collaborator who is an equal, who is acknowledged, and who has a life of her own. I am very lucky to have exactly that!

See: For the Advancement of My Career by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow Goldenberg

Updated August 23, 2019

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–space available on the spring and fall 2015 tours.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions; and forthcoming in 2016, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photo of Carol by Maureen Murdock.

Categories: Academics, female friendship, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

27 replies

  1. Carol, I like when you ask, “The question I am having a hard time asking is: what would women in our time or theirs have been able to do if we had “helpmeets” like Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Ursula Niebuhr?” This also true for the many male artists whose helpmeets were subsumed by their fame and had to live in the shadow of their great men…


  2. Yes for sure. A famous feminist essay asked about “Shakespeare’s Sister.”


  3. Loved this post, Carol. Partly because I have been feeling frustrated this Easter season at having attended services where only the “Presider” (male) is acknowledged by name on the Mass booklets, with no naming of the cantor, a young woman with a heavenly voice who opened the service with a long a capella exultation; where the prayer of the faithful mentioned the Pope, bishops, priests and deacons and all the church but, incredibly, did not think the sisters who do so much of the real social justice work in the community merited a special mention.


    • That is a good point, freecatholic. As Elisabeth Schussler and Judith Plaskow have discussed, in one sense, women are the unacknowledged co-authors of the traditions in which we have participated. But in cases where texts and laws were written by men, our contributions are not so easy to disentangle from the opinions of men.

      Last week I was surprised to discover that 23 of Kassiani’s hymns are part of the “official” Orthodox liturgical tradition. I wonder if there are any known women who contributed words and melodies to current or past Catholic or Protestant or Jewish liturgical traditions. I suppose a few Protestant hymns were written by women. Which ones?


  4. Thanks Carol, wonderful collaboration you have there, you are very fortunate, indeed, to work with Judith Plaskow. Look forward to that upcoming GODDESS AND GOD IN THE WORLD!!

    On collaboration. I am currently working on a website on the modernist art of Georgia O’Keeffe. I’ve spent a lot of time not only studying her artwork, but going over many photographs of her, and in which her masculinity came forward in surprising ways. Her paintings are so deeply feminine it surprised me. She kept her hair pinned back tightly, wore no makeup, her clothes exceedingly plain and casual. I happened to have met her when I was very young and was working as a registrar at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and where she had an exhibition and was herself quite elderly. I sat and talked with her several times as we worked on the exhibit. She immediately picked up on an attraction for someone there I thought I had kept a secret, but she mentioned it to me and made me laugh, and it bonded us wonderfully.

    When I finally get the O’Keeffe project completed and published online, I will certainly not have done it alone. O’Keeffe throughout the research has been walking with me, and without her magnificent art and her kindness when we met, there would be no website.


  5. First, congratulations on your publication contract! I am anxious to read it! I love this post. You bring up so many important points. I believe that if all the unacknowledged contributions by women in so many works of all kinds were magically correctly attributed, we would suddenly realize the tremendous amount of our culture that was actually created by women. Even now, I know so many women, especially older women, who are brilliant but who have been forced by the time and place of their birth to be invisible either because they never had the opportunity to do the work they could have done or because they were silent collaborators with their husbands or male colleagues. This is true in so many fields. I am reminded of the “Harvard Computers,” women who worked at the Harvard Observatory processing astronomical data under a male astronomer around 1900. Two of them significantly changed the way stars are classified yet they were paid less than clerical staff (whose contributions throughout history also need to be acknowledged). I hope that over the coming years we can both bring women’s contributions out of the shadows, as you have done, as well as encourage women of our own time to demand the recognition they deserve as well as they time and resources they need to conduct their own work, whether alone or in equal partnership. Thanks so much for writing this post!


  6. Congratulations on the forthcoming book! I am looking forward to reading it. I first “ran into” you and Judith (in the 1980s) with the book, WOMANSPIRIT RISING, a collection of essays that you and Judith edited. I still have the book and refer to it every now and again.

    Enjoyed reading your essay this morning. I’ve often heard women express (usually in an off-handed manner), “Every woman needs a wife,” reflecting the frustration (perhaps) that many women feel regarding societal expectations–especially the “helpmeet” status that has been passed down to many of us as “God’s Truth.”


  7. If you feel the work/project/idea is important and needs to be conveyed to the rest of the world, then individual recognition is a secondary concern. The work takes priority.

    I have always felt that every highly successful person has a whole team of people helping them actualize her/his achievements.


    • I imagine Ursula and Charolotte felt that way, but these feelings are not part of my experience of self and world.


    • I don’t disagree with anyone’s opinion on this, but recognition is not important to me, the work is what matters much more. I am very shy, though, and it’s easier to be NOT in the limelight. So there’s no sacrifice if I do my work anonymously, in fact it’s quite the opposite.


      • Recognition may not be important in terms of the work itself, but is VITAL to history/herstory! Without knowing the full extent of women’s contributions to culture, our picture of humanity itself remains skewed.


  8. I love the collaborative model you and Judith are embodying and bringing forth in your book. I have appreciated the glimpses of your process along the way. Right on, write on, and revise on (till it’s time to say done!)


  9. Brava! And we also know that Clara Schumann wrote a lot of her famous husband’s music. I wonder if we have any real idea how many wives and sisters contributed more to their more famous husbands’ and brothers’ work. There’s someone dissertation topic!

    I had a brief experience with a coauthor at the beginning of work on my second book, A Woman’s Book of Rituals and Celebrations. The other author didn’t want us to blend our voices or to write as one author, and she had some very different ideas from mine. The publisher didn’t want two different voices. My literary agent negotiated a contract for me alone…….and then the other author-no-more began accusing me of stealing her stuff. Which I didn’t do.

    You and Judith seem to be the ideal collaborative model. Hooray for you both. I’ll be eager to read your new book. I love your work, here and in your books.


  10. Yes! Congratulations on the publication contract – quite a feat in today’s cyber-world of publishing. I do so love holding a book in my hands and look forward to holding your and Judith’s new one.
    The long list of “great” men who have been helped in life tasks and their work continues to grow.

    So many male painters could not have created what they did without the help of their wives or mistresses – as model, cook, cleaner, financial support, etc. Camille, sculptor and mistress to Rodin was more than likely a huge influence on him. Her story is very tragic – rejected by him and the world – institutionalized and died in an asylum.


  11. One of my friends once said that the time she spent on her child in a relationship in which child-rearing was shared, cost her at least one book. Women have played many roles as helpmeets, from feeding and taking care of the physical needs of the artist, to bearing and caring for his children, to providing him with sexual release and love, to serving a secretary and editor, to serving as muse or inspiration for his work, and many others. In the case of Charlotte and Ursula, we are talking about women who also put their intelligence and learning at the service of their men, which is another level of self-sacrifice or exploitation, or whatever you want to call it.


  12. Wonderful! So much needs to be said, and you say it so elequently! Thankyou!

    The art world also is infused with the unacknowledged contributions of wives, mistresses, and “muses”, and that phenomenon is still around in large portions……I myself have been rather amazed at reading bios of several male past colleagues (one an ex-husband) how they conveniently have ignored my contribution to their success, although they still use designs and techniques that I myself taught them. Its a kind of entitlement that makes me invisible I have never found with women colleagues.

    I look forward to your new book – greatest congratulations to both of you.


  13. Brilliant as always, Carol. Thank you. I did find one such “supportive” relationship between two women poets: Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Adams Fields. Jewett was the better known, but both were poets. In many respects, I enjoy Fields’ poetry more. They met when Jewett was working with MR. Fields, the literary editor of Atlantic magazine, to publish her work. Mr. Fields relied heavily on Annie’s professional advice, so it is very possible that it is Annie who first encouraged the publication of Jewett’s poetry in the Atlantic magazine. When Mr. Fields passed away, the two women became inseparable. I strongly suspect that Annie remained Jewett’s editor, and simply took a step back in her own career. I don’t know as much as I would like to know about the two poets — perhaps someone else can shed some light on their relationship.

    Jewett remains the better known, but do take a look at Annie Adams Fields poetry as well:


  14. Mary Ann, I can’t answer your question but two women who inspired each other profoundly might be Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.


  15. Carol – I’m looking forward to reading your (and Judith Plaskow’s) new book also. “She Who Changes” was a book that I loved! I just read a fascinating interview in the 10/14 edition of Sun magazine with Reverend Lynice Pinkard where she discusses (among other things) how she has more of a process theology now. I’m willing to bet that she has also read “She Who Changes” too. Susan Gifford


  16. I am haunted by the photo of Charlotte, so young, so eager, so naive, so like Judith and me when we started graduate school.


  17. Congratulations, Carol, on your new book! And thanks too for this interesting and thought-provoking article. I think you’re right in saying that the women you’ve written about probably felt lucky to be shadows attached to the corporeal bodies of famous men. It was as close as they could get to their own cerebrality, their need to exercise their brains and then have the products viewed by the wider world.

    But what a lonely, barren life it must have been. After all, what is there to say if you live in a world so patriarchalized that you’re forbidden an education, or to be heard in most public forums? When most of your inner truth has been buried – the immense importance of the female, the history of your sex/gender, the magnificent history of female divinity – what is there, really, to write about, or say, that’s of any importance?

    The only ideas any of these women could have hoped to disseminate were patriarchal ideas almost completely devoid of any aspect of the feminine. And, therefore, ideas that were essentially worthless.


    • Such an important point Jeri. I was thinking of this too in response to the earlier comments about the ideas being important, not who said them. As I was thinking and you point out, it is also about the ideas, about whether they are being expressed in a patriarchal context, about whether they are being created and expressed in a way that erases the contributions of women, about whether issues relevant to women are being expressed, about whether the work will inspire women to express their truths, and sooooo much more.



  1. “God is Not a Man, God Is Not a White Man” {Carol P. Christ} | The Motherhouse of the Goddess

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