Women in Theology at Marquette

A Brief History

Web Posted: 06/01/2010


The Department of Theology at Marquette University has long been a leader in the theological education of women and in the training of women theologians. From the beginning of the graduate programs in the Department to today, women have been a substantial constituency among the graduate students, and since the early-1980s, the faculty. Graduate alumnae of the Department of Theology have pursued careers as religious leaders, ministers, professors, and scholars. Alumnae include a former college president, an Emmy award winner, a pioneer in Jewish-Christian dialogue, and the former head of a religious order – along with a number of department chairs and officers of scholarly societies.

Marquette’s graduate program in theology began in 1953 under the leadership of Cyril Donohue, S.J., chair of the Department. The year before, the University had added a minor in theology (the undergraduate theology major began in 1959), but Father Donohue saw the need to provide for theological training for those teaching religion in Catholic schools, in colleges, and in religious formation. Thus a summer Master of Arts program began in 1953, and women religious especially came to fill the classrooms as the first graduate students in theology.  In his “History of the Theology Department," Dr. Patrick Carey, holder of the William J. Kelley, S.J., Chair in Catholic Theology, notes that in this early period of the graduate program (1953-1962), “the program was originally composed almost exclusively of women religious," although by 1962, 40% were priests, seminarians, and laity. In 1962, the last year before Marquette initiated its doctoral program in theology, 86 M.A. students were enrolled in the summer program. And religious women were, as Carey puts it, “the heart of the M.A. program.” So it was no wonder that they would be a significant part of the future of graduate studies in theology at Marquette as well.

Graduate studies in the Department of Theology came to further fruition under the guidance and leadership of Bernard Cooke, S.J. He had come to the department in 1957 with a doctorate from the Institut Catholique in Paris. Father Cooke was joined in the faculty in the late-1950s and early-1960s by a number of other Jesuits, including William Kelly, S.J., whose doctorate also came from the Institut Catholique and who would be a successor of Father Cooke as chair of the department. By 1963, the department had 19 full-time members and was ready to embark on the new venture of offering a doctorate in religious studies, the first American Catholic institution to do so for both religious and lay persons. When the program commenced in September 1963, with a class of eight students, four of the eight were women religious: Sisters St. Anne Dunn, I.H.M., Peter McGinty, C.S.J., Elaine Marie Prevallet, S.L., and Vera Chester, C.S.J. Overall, of the 76 candidates to enter the doctoral program in the period between 1963-1969, twelve were religious women and nine lay women.

Marquette’s doctoral program in theology developed during a time of great social, cultural and ecclesial change, with the socio-cultural movements of the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Marquette was responding to national trends in fields of intellectual life with openness towards training women in fields which had primarily been the reserve of men, in this case the vocation of the theologian. In providing opportunities for women to earn doctorates in theology at a Catholic university and to do theological research, Dr. Shawn Copeland, in her 2010 address “Marquette Women and the Shaping of North American Theology,” claimed that Marquette was “at the forefront worldwide.” Since the doctoral program began in 1963, Marquette’s Department of Theology has awarded 96 Ph.D.s and 229 M.A.s to women.

Today’s Department of Theology faculty includes women scholars and teachers who are leading the way: Dr. Susan Wood, SCL, Chair of the Department, is noted for her work in ecclesiology and ecumenism as exhibited in her most recent book One Baptism: Ecumenical Dimensions of the Doctrine of Baptism. Dr. Deirdre Dempsey provides expertise in ancient Semitic languages and her first-hand experience in archeological digs. Theologian and bioethicist Dr. M. Therese Lysaught, co-editor of Gathered for the Journey: Moral Theology in Catholic Perspective, integrates Christian liturgical life into her work on current issues in medical ethics and global health. Dr. Sharon Pace, member of the faculty since 1982, is a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and author of Women in Genesis among other biblical commentaries. A scholar of Medieval history and theology, Dr. Wanda Zemler-Cizewski is known for utilizing the resources of Marquette’s Raynor Library Archives and Haggerty Museum of Art in her teaching. Dr. Jame Schaefer, who directs the undergraduate interdisciplinary minor in environmental ethics, is a sought after speaker at the intersection of theology and science and the author of Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics. And Systematic theologian Dr. Danielle Nussberger contributes her knowledge of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and her engagement with a wide array of doctrinal issues.

Marquette continues to be at the forefront on the work of women in theology. We are proud of the contributions that our women faculty, alumnae, and graduate students have made, and continue to make, to the discipline of theology. They are Marquette!

Click below to see profiles of selected alumnae.

Dr. Wendy Dackson

Dr. Shawnee Daniels-Sykes, SSND

Dr. Kari-Shane Davis Zimmerman

Dr. Elizabeth Dreyer

Dr. Judith Mayotte

Rev. Dr. Cheryl Peterson

Dr. Shannon Schrein, OSF

Dr. Mary Lea Schneider, OSF

Dr. Patricia Talone, RSM

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Theology Department Mission Statement

Theology Department Mission Statement


Marquette University defines itself as Christian, Catholic, Jesuit, urban, and independent. The Department of Theology functions within the university to investigate and understand the Catholic tradition, its relation to other Christian communions, and to other religions of the world. Read more of our mission statement.