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Georgia Harkness, Pioneering Theologian and Former PSR Faculty

Georgia Harkness (1891-1974) was a pioneering theologian in the Methodist tradition, a prolific writer, the first woman hired to teach theology at a Christian seminary, and the first female member of the American Theological Society.  

Harkness served on the faculty of Pacific School of Religion for 11 years, from 1949-1960 during which time she became a leading figure in the field of feminist theology. She advocated for women’s ordination and for the full inclusion of women in the life of the church and held a lifelong commitment to social justice and progressive theology. 

Her education began with an undergraduate degree from Cornell University, one of the few universities that admitted women at the time. In 1917 she entered Boston University’s newly opened School of Religious Education where she would earn a Master of Religious Education and a Master of Arts in Philosophy before completing a Ph.D. in 1923.  

Harkness was ordained locally as a Methodist deacon in 1926 and as an elder in 1938. Under local ordination, she was permitted to exercise most ministerial roles but denied membership in the Annual Conference due to her gender. She campaigned continuously and vociferously for full equality saying that while Scripture has “done more than any other agency for the emancipation of women […] the church itself is the most impregnable stronghold of male dominance.” At the 1956 denominational assembly, when Methodist women were finally admitted to full pastoral status, the entire gathering gave Harkness a standing ovation in recognition of her leadership.  

In addition to fighting for women’s rights and inclusion, Harkness fought for the rights of all, campaigning against war, racism and economic inequality.  

“She grew to be a pronounced denouncer of racism and unbridled capitalism and the internment of Japanese Americans in internment camps during the Second World War, a great defender of women’s rights, a promoter of women’s ordination and ecumenist in a 60 or 70-year career as probably the most pronounced female theologian of her time,” said the Rev. Alfred T. Day, United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History. 

Harkness positioned herself as a leading theological intellectual with her relentless energy, clear and persuasive arguments, and conciliatory relationship style. In her lifetime she published over 30 books, making her one of the most widely-read theologians of the 20th century. 

In 2010 PSR’s Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion (CLGS) hosted their inaugural Georgia Harkness Lecture with Rebecca Ann Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry. Since then, the yearly Fall lecture has continued to honor Harkness’s passion for making vital theological connections among wider cultural and political issues, her keen interest in employing poetry and the arts in her theological work, and her firm commitment to civil rights and social justice. 

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