- Rita Gross as Colleague and Collaborator
When this panel in honor of Rita was first listed in the AAR Annual Meeting program, I found myself listed as Rita's "colleague." This was accurate only in the broadest sense of the term "colleague." I have never worked on the same faculty as Rita or watched her teaching her students. A more appropriate description of my relationship to her would be "collaborator," and perhaps, for a time, mentor—although Rita never needed mentoring for very long. I coedited with Rita three editions of the volume Unspoken Worlds and was in frequent communication with her during the several years in which she chaired the AAR's Women's Studies Section.
I knew Rita best during a very early stage of both our lives' work when I was the one doing Buddhist studies and she was still a convert to Judaism, busily castigating every male scholar who had written about Australian Aborigines for their failure to recognize the secret and sacred religious practices of women. Many years later, by the way, I had the privilege of visiting the Pitjantjatjara cultural center at the Australian site called Uluru/Ayers Rock and discovered that Rita had been right on target with that criticism. The center's exhibits are full of references to women's important roles and practice, while the path to the women's sacred cave at the rock's base is clearly marked and barred to casual visitors.
Although I am well aware of Rita's contributions to women's studies in general, to Buddhist studies, and to the American Buddhist community, I shall leave those for others to discuss. I want to point to three aspects of her contributions that might otherwise be missed, because hardly anyone other than myself is aware of them. These are her initial critique, while still a graduate student, of our mutual field of study, History of Religions; her work with me in conceiving and editing Unspoken Worlds; and her work as AAR Women's Studies chair.
To me, it has been especially fitting that I was asked to discuss my collaboration with Rita at a panel convening in Atlanta. This is because it was at an AAR annual meeting in Atlanta that my link to Rita began—as did the constellation of circumstances that would make her a major force in women's studies. It was in 1971 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. That year the annual meeting program held an announcement of a meeting for women scholars, scheduled within a room so tiny that many who [End Page 63] came could not get all the way in. I was one of those left standing in the doorway, craning my neck and trying hard to hear what was going on. That meeting planned a coup that challenged the AAR's previously all-male leadership. One of its decisions was to pack the annual business meeting with women. At that time AAR officers were elected at that meeting. A slate of nominees was presented, with the provision that additional nominations could be made from the floor. Normally very few members attended that business meeting. But this time the AAR women showed up in force, and then nominated and elected Christine Downing, the first AAR woman to become a line officer and therefore, in succession, an annual meeting program chair and AAR president. Rosemary Reuther of this panel was one of that coup's ringleaders. A second component of the original meeting, more relevant for Rita and myself, was establishment of a working group on women and religion, to begin its deliberations at the following year's annual meeting.
As I left that original meeting in its tiny room and walked into the Hyatt's immense central atrium, I heard a voice behind me: "Hello, Nancy." I turned and found myself looking at a young woman whom I could have sworn I had never seen before. She introduced herself—Rita Gross, a first-year student at Chicago when I had been a last-year student, preoccupied with exams, job interviews, and dissertation and oblivious to everything else—including the group of entering students. We sat down...