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The Other Tillich

Our brilliant co-founder Lottie Moore wisely reminds us that “we mustn’t forget the wives” – we all owe a huge debt to the unknown womxn who have supported our well-known men. 

‘Behind every great man is an even better wife.’ 

This well-known phrase has largely been consigned to the annals of history. Women no longer need to be wives if we don’t want to be. When we do become wives, in the twenty-first century, we are assured in our identity as people first, wives second. But we all know this hasn’t always been the case. So, what of the womxn in theology whose relationship to the discipline has been through their position as the subordinate, silent and supportive wife? 

Any reading of a great male theologian is incomplete without a reading of the women behind them. We cannot fully understand the work of any great man, without understanding the women who fed and watered them, who bore their children, read their proofs and listened to their thoughts. 

Hannah Tillich (1896-1988) was the wife of Paul Tillich (1886-1965). Paul Tillich remains one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. Having lived through the turbulence of two world wars, the second of which forced him to flee his native Germany to the US, Tillich was the first to incorporate the atheism of the post-war secular age into a sturdy Christian theology. His work is both popular and academic, studied and read across the world. But what of his wife? 

Hannah Tillich was a formidable woman in her own right. She famously wrote about her open marriage to Tillich in a book published after his death in From Time to Time (1973). In this she revealed the unique sexual preferences of her husband; his frequent extramarital affairs and the advances he had made on female students. The book scandalised the academy. By waiting until her husband’s death to publish the book, Hannah allowed herself to finally take centre stage. Having supported her husband through his rise to fame, she put herself in the spotlight and reclaimed it as her own.

There are many hundreds of great wives like Hannah behind our celebrated male theologians. We often don’t know their names, nor what they did beyond their relation to their husbands. But without their work, our discipline would be much the worse for it. Womxn in theology come in many forms. We mustn’t forget the wives. 

Writer: Lottie Moore of Mansfield College

Editor: Mary Whittingdale of Mansfield College

Illustrator: Isobel Innes of Christ Church College

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