Virginia Mollenkott, 88, Dies; Feminist Found Liberation in the Bible

Virginia May Ramey was born on Jan. 28, 1932, in Philadelphia, to Frank and May (Lotz) Ramey. Her mother was a butcher and a grocery store owner.; her father was a chiropractor. The family belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist ministry that met in a storefront. Her father left the family when Virginia was 9.

When she was 11, Virginia fell in love with a 21-year-old woman, and when her mother discovered the relationship, she sent her daughter to a Christian boarding school near Orlando, Fla. There the administrators chastised her for her lesbianism, using the Bible to “clobber her,” as Dr. Mollenkott often said. At 13 she tried to drown herself.

At Bob Jones University, a professor told her to “cure” herself of her homosexuality by marrying a man. Dutifully, she married a fellow student, Fred Mollenkott. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in English, she stayed on to teach English at Bob Jones while her husband completed his undergraduate studies.

Dr. Mollenkott earned a master’s degree in English at Temple University and her Ph.D. at New York University. Her dissertation was on John Milton, the 17th-century English poet who wrote “Paradise Lost,” and her deep dive into his work liberated her thinking about the Bible. She began to read it more critically, as a literary as well as sacred text. In studying Milton’s writings about love and marriage, and about divorce over incompatibility, she found the resolve to divorce Mr. Mollenkott in 1973.

Dr. Mollenkott was a professor of English at Temple and chaired English departments at Shelton College, in Ringwood, N.J., and Nyack College, in Nyack, N.Y., before joining the faculty at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. She taught there for three decades, retiring in 1997 as an emerita professor of English.

She married her partner of 17 years, J. Suzannah Tilton, in 2013, after the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Ms. Tilton died in 2018.


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