Constance Buchanan Dies at 73; Gave Women Voice in Religion,

For nearly 200 years, the portraits of leaders at Harvard Divinity School were all of white men. Not until 2005 was the portrait of a woman included in the collection that hung on the mahogany-paneled walls of a vaulted-ceiling room with shields emblazoned on the windows, a room that exuded masculine tradition.

That first woman was Constance Buchanan, who was director of the school’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program for two decades and built it into an influential center for research on faith, gender, race and sexual orientation.

“Women students came to her office and said, ‘I don’t feel like I belong here — all I see on the walls are portraits of white men,’” Dr. Ann Braude, the current director of the program, said in an interview.

“Connie’s the one who made that an issue and did something about it and made sure women were represented in scholarship, in the curriculum, in the syllabus, in publications and had a voice,” Dr. Braude said. “She was the pioneer in advancing women’s voices at Harvard Divinity School.”

Ms. Buchanan died on Sept. 16 at her home in Manhattan. She was 73.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to Al Bingham, a longtime friend.

With her women’s studies program, which accepts five scholars a year to teach and work on books, Ms. Buchanan nurtured a nascent field of academic inquiry that focused on women as religious scholars and as the subject of religious scholarship. These scholars have gone on to teach at universities around the country and the world.

Credit…Harvard Divinity School

Ms. Buchanan was brought to the Harvard Divinity School in 1977 by Krister Stendahl, then the dean, who fought for the ordination of women, gay men and lesbians, and fought against the use of sexist language in Scriptures.

At the time, women divinity students were protesting the exclusion of women from theological studies and from religion in general.

“She was hired to be a bridge between the righteous anger of the young radical feminists in the divinity school classrooms, and the millennia of theological education that had been exclusively in the hands of men,” Dr. Braude said.

Ms. Buchanan gave permanent shape to the women’s studies program as an arena for credible feminist scholarship. She also ensured that the program would exist into the future by reaching out to philanthropists to build an endowment.

Harvard Divinity School, founded in 1816, did not accept women students until 1955, long after they had been accepted at other divinity schools and at many of Harvard’s other professional schools. Only when the school celebrated the 50th anniversary of admitting women in 2005 was Ms. Buchanan’s portrait displayed along with those of the men.

Speaking at the dedication of her portrait, Ms. Buchanan said: “I wanted the portrait to encourage women of different races, religions, classes and cultural backgrounds to boldly claim the school’s rich legacy, mission and authority as theirs too.”

Constance Hall Buchanan was born in Northampton, Mass., on June 19, 1947. Her father, the Rev. Albert Brown Buchanan, was head of the religion department at the Northfield Mount Herman School in Massachusetts before moving the family to New York City, where he served as rector at various churches. Her mother, Barbara (Masten) Buchanan, helped start the Women’s Talent Corps, which trained women for jobs in their low-income neighborhoods in the 1960s; it is now the Metropolitan College of New York.

Ms. Buchanan attended the Spence School, graduated from Barnard College in 1969 with a major in history, and received her master’s degree in history from Brown University in 1971.

She taught history at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Mass., a unit of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. After studying at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., for two years on a Rockefeller fellowship, she was hired at Harvard Divinity School.

The Women’s Studies in Religion Program was founded in 1973, but Ms. Buchanan helped define it. She served as director until 1997, during which time she was a member of the divinity school faculty and associate dean. She also served for six years as special assistant to Harvard President Derek Bok.

She was the author of “Choosing to Lead: Women and the Crisis of American Values” (1996). The book examined the cultural barriers that have limited women’s participation in public life and argued that if they could break free of these strictures, women had the potential to create a more democratic vision of work and family that would include financial compensation for motherhood.

She left Harvard in 1997 to become a senior program officer in religion at the Ford Foundation, where she stayed until she retired in 2007.

Ms. Buchanan is survived by a niece, Katherine Tytus, and a nephew, John Tytus.


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