She came to Scripps… the rest is religious history

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

When Kathleen O’Brien Wicker arrived at Scripps College in 1971 to interview for a faculty position, who would have thought this former nun of 17 years, dressed in a green mini-skirt and white vinyl boots, would transform religious studies at Scripps?

No one, perhaps, except everyone who has ever come in contact with this bundle of energy, optimism, and good cheer. Retiring this year after 32 years at Scripps, the Mary W. Johnson and J. Stanley Johnson Professor in the Humanities says of her arrival at Scripps: “I had no idea of the exciting academic and intellectual adventure that lay ahead of me.”

Prior to Scripps and right out of high school, Wicker had entered a convent, where, she said “she lived a disciplined spiritual life.” She eventually earned a Ph.D. in the history of western origins at Loyola University in Chicago and taught at Mundelein College, while living in the convent. After deciding she wanted to leave convent life, she needed a new teaching position as well. A friend at Claremont Graduate University recommended her, and there she was, at the gates of Scripps one week later. In a week she had a job offer. “I said yes on the spot!” enthused Wicker.

And the rest is religious history.

Religious studies at Scripps, once a combined major with philosophy, has become under Kathleen Wicker an independent department and major that reflects both a global and a feminist approach. The discipline increasingly attracts students and majors (currently, there are eight women who are majors, six dual majors, and two minors). Religious studies, as well as Wicker’s career, was capped this spring by the conference on the global future of feminist New Testament studies, which brought leading international biblical and feminist scholars to campus for engagement and debate.

Beneath a seemingly ever-smiling exterior, lies the serious researcher, the scholar, and beloved teacher.

A steady and tenacious proponent of a strong religious studies presence on the Scripps campus, Wicker has been at the forefront of the evolution from Scripps’ dependence on other colleges for most areas of religious studies to becoming a strong player within The Claremont Colleges.

“By the mid-1970s,” relates Wicker, “Pomona suggested that Scripps and CMC create a ‘Northern Colleges’ religion program for our students. We were pleased to oblige.” And, at that point, religion became an independent department and major. “As luck would have it,” she adds, “the ‘northern’ program in religion did well.” And so in the 1980s, discussions began, according to Wicker, which led in the early 1990s to the creation of the Intercollegiate Department of Religious Studies.

Scripps, Pomona, and CMC were the initial members of the Intercollegiate Department, followed by Pitzer a few years later. “Thanks to the commitment of the majority of the religious studies undergraduate faculty to this program,” says Wicker, “we now have a completely integrated curriculum and a program that we believe to be one of the strongest undergraduate religious studies programs in the country.”

Within the past ten years, more religious studies students than ever before are entering graduate programs in religion and theology directly after Scripps, including those at Harvard, Yale, UCLA, University of Virginia, and Claremont Graduate University.

Part of Wicker’s commitment to religious studies lies in her firm belief that religious studies is an important interdisciplinary field of study in a college where connectivity between disciplines lies at the heart of the academic experience and the Core Program.

“For centuries,” Wicker said, “the study of the Bible was considered a doctrinal or devotional matter. However, with the growth of a historical consciousness since the 1800s, the texts of the Bible came to be studied in a historical context. Now, however, social context in the formation and interpretation of texts is taking center stage, thus the importance today of feminist and post-colonial biblical studies.”

Scripps currently has a requirement that all students take a course in women’s studies. For a number of years, Wicker’s “Feminist Introduction to the Bible” and “Women in Antiquity” courses have served as ways in which students could choose to complete this requirement, as well as be introduced to the fields of religious studies and women’s studies. About 25–30 students a semester have taken these courses, according to Wicker. “Other students chose to meet this requirement in women’s studies in other ways, including enrolling in another of the feminist-oriented courses offered in the religious studies program,” Wicker explained.

Currently, the religious studies program at Scripps addresses the history and interests of women from both critical historical and literary perspectives and in global social and religious contexts.

At Scripps, Wicker has been able to expand her academic interests and competencies to include the study of both African traditional religions and African Christianity. “The courses I have offered in these areas,” said Wicker, “have provided an introduction to African religions in their cultural contexts that is generally lacking both at Scripps and in Claremont.” Moreover, she explained, these courses have increased Scripps’ contributions to the Intercollegiate Department of Black Studies curriculum and have also increased student interest in Africa, as evidenced by the students choosing to participate in Study Abroad programs in Africa and the Diaspora.

Her interest in Africa and the religious traditions of the continent began with a dramatic turn of events. Earlier, Wicker had been part of a project at CGU that was studying the writings of the Greek writer Plutarch, and went on to specialize in the study of love spells. “All in the interest of knowing more about women in antiquity!” explains Wicker.

Then, in 1989, Wicker went on a sabbatical to Zimbabwe with her then-husband, Allan Wicker. She became fascinated with the religious traditions of the people. When she returned to Scripps, she team-taught a course on African religions and their literary representations.

Seven semesters and another sabbatical later, she went to Ghana in West Africa intending to do a study of the literary representation of Mami Water, a water divinity, in Ghanaian literature. “A whole new door opened again,” she said. “I was directed to visit a Mami Water shrine. The shrine itself with its colorful paintings and the wise old priest of the shrine, Togbi Abidjan Mamiwater, convinced me that practice was more exciting than the literary representation.”

Wicker, her colleague in Ghana, Professor Kofi Asare Opoku, and their research team studied the shrine and its rituals and preserved them on video, through a grant from the American Academy of Religion, and with support from Scripps and the Hewlett and Irvine Foundation grants for faculty research. Other grants came from the National Endowment for the Humanities and West African Research Association.

In 1996, Wicker was named the Mary W. Johnson and J. Stanley Johnson Professor in the Humanities. “I regard this as the highest honor the College could award me for my work at the College, particularly in the humanities,” said Wicker. The research stipend that came with the chair enabled Wicker to continue her research work in Ghana. Wicker and her colleagues have completed a book manuscript on the Mamiwater Priest and his shrine, dedicated to the Johnsons, and plans to follow with another book on another shrine and its prophet, Jenasman K. Amoaforo, also enabled by the Johnson funds.

A story about Kathleen Wicker would not be complete without mentioning her commitment to her students and how much they mean to her. “They have taught me so much,” she says. “I’ve taught in every version of the humanities program in existence since I came to Scripps, including Core I this year so that I would know the last Scripps class while I’m here.” This semester, she held a seminar that paralleled the Global Future conference, with great response from students:

“I think my classmates would agree with me that the experience has fundamentally altered the ways we look at globalization, sacred scripture, and ourselves,” said Katrina Van Heest ’02. Holly Hight ’04 commented: “This conference exposed me to a field of work that not only deeply moved me, but connected me to a greater community of women passionate about justice.”

And, now, after a triumphant spring, what is next for the former nun in the green miniskirt who gently, but firmly, transformed one area of Scripps? What does she hope for Scripps and her department?

“I am particularly happy to be retiring at this point,” she said, “because I think Scripps is now stronger than I have ever known it to be. I hope that the College will pursue its goals of highlighting education for women, internationalizing the curriculum, and diversifying the faculty.” This would include, according to Wicker, a second position at Scripps, in addition to her replacement, in either African-American religious traditions or in feminist theology. “Neither of these areas is covered by a faculty member in these fields at any of the undergraduate colleges in Claremont.”

For herself, Wicker plans to continue her research in Ghana, but won’t stay completely out of sight in Claremont. She hopes to work in one of the research institutes of the Claremont Graduate University and also engage in some of the local community volunteer organizations. “And then, there is still such a lot of the world for me to visit.” But ultimately, she says, she wants to wind up at Pilgrim Place and “be one of those folks who pickets and protests on street corners for issues that I feel strongly about!”

No doubt, she’ll eventually get her way.