Friday, May 7, 2010

Red Shoes

There is a beautiful tradition at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary of wearing red shoes at graduation. In the past, this has primarily been a tradition of the women of G-ETS, but I hear rumors we may see some red shoes on our male colleagues. Fabulous, I say!

The tradition, though, fails to be beautiful if no one knows the story behind the shoes.

Why do we wear red shoes?

We wear red shoes to remind us of our place as courageous, outrageous women, and to celebrate the rich tradition of female scholarship at GETS.

What does wearing red shoes have to do with female scholarship?

It begins with a story that Georgia Harkness used to tell of her great-grandmother Abigail.

As Georgia told the story, "Abigail was not only not a quaker, but was known as a 'worldly woman,' who affronted neighbors by 'appearing out of plainness' and was referred to scornfully as ' the woman in the red coat.'

Whether because of the red coat or more abiding charms, she won the heart of Daniel Harkness and they were married in November, 1802."

In response, the Society of Friends presented Daniel Harkness with a letter of dismissal for marrying out of the meeting. To 'make satisfaction t o the meeting' he would only have had to say he was sorry he married her. But he was not sorry, and he would not say it!" Georgia stated flatly-and proudly.(Keller, 33)

Wait... Who was Georgia Harkness?

Georgia Harkness has become one of the legendary personalities of Garrett-Evangelical. She was the first professional female theologian in the United States. She served as the first ever Professor of Applied Theology at Garrett Biblical Institute from 1939-1950 before moving to California to teach at the Pacific School of Religion until 1961. In addition to her teaching she was a prolific author and hymn-writer. Most telling of her character, though, is a story she told of her struggle to be accepted the Ph.D. program of her choice.

Edgar Brightman, the distinguished professor of philosophy at Boston University and Georgia’s mentor in her doctoral program in the 1920s initially questioned whether she was that exceptional and whether he should take her as a Ph.D. candidate. He judged that “I had the preparation, probably the brains, but that I lacked the stick-to-itiveness.” Clear in her own mind, Georgia “told him that if that was all, I would see to that.” And she did. (Keller, 35)

Click here for a link to a much more in-depth look at Georgia’s life

So who decided we should wear red shoes?

The story of the woman in the red coat was recorded in a biography of Georgia Harkness’s life, For Such A Time As This written by Rosemary Skinner Keller. She feared that Georgia’s story, and with it, the history of women’s entry into professional theology in the US, might be lost. Keller was on faculty at Garrett-Evangelical from 1978-1996, and she served from 1993-1996 as the seminary’s first female Academic Dean. During her time on the G-ETS faculty she took to wearing red shoes to honor the legacy of Georgia Harkness and her great-grandmother Abigail Cochran. The tradition spread to other female faculty members, and has in recent years become a tradition of the student body.

Read more about Rosemary Skinner Keller here:

Our red shoes are not a privilege we earn, but a history we claim. We honor Georgia Harkness, Rosemary Radford Reuther, Rosemary Skinner Keller, and so many others with our red shoes. We claim our place in their legacy, and with it we accept the responsibility to continue to move the world forward, to maintain their history, and to advance theological thinking. We proclaim our willingness to be bold, to be ourselves, and to show the world how much stick-to-itiveness we have!

*I have pulled biographical information about Georgia and Rosemary from both of the links embedded in the post. In addition both quotes above, as well as addition biographical information about Georgia are from Rosemary Skinner Keller's biography of Georgia Harkness For Such a Time as This, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992

Special Thanks go to Dr. Lallene Rector, Dr. Gennifer Brooks, and Dr. Ruth Duck for pointing me to the origins of our red shoes.


  1. I can't wait to wear red shoes at Garrett! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Harkness wasn't the only female faculty member on campus. Ruth Wick and Esther Bjornberg joined her that first year, each woman embracing various theologies and teaching styles so different many wondered how they could get along. But get along they did with "resiliency" (thank you Frederick Norwood).
    The beauty of the shoes is that some are simple, some are outrageous, some are tall, some are low, some are candy apple red, some are burgundy, some are matte and some are shiny. Each woman has an opportunity to find her perfect red shoe, and each of us shall do just that.(Thanks for the beautiful post!)

  3. Thanks for the added information about Harkness's female colleagues. I had never even heard of Ruth Wick and Esther Bjornberg. Clearly I have more to learn! You make a great point about the opportunity for each person to find the perfect red shoes, and for those shoes to reflect a beautiful diversity.

  4. Thanks for this! I am going to post a link to it on my blog! :-) Someone tried to explain this to me once, but it didn't work out so well.

  5. Vayhi,
    I should also clarify that there had been women faculty at seminaries before Harkness, the significance of her position at Garrett was that she was the first to be given a position teaching Theology.