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Rita Rippetoe Oral History

Interview

Biography

Rita Rippetoe is a noted author, scholar, and early leader in the Wiccan movement in California in the 1970s and 80s. She has published two books. The first is about detective fiction, Booze and the Private Eye: Alcohol in the Hard-Boiled Novel. The second book is Reappraising Jane Duncan: Sexuality, Race, and Colonialism in the My Friends Novels. She has been a passionate and unapologetic supporter of queer and trans rights for all of her adult life. 

Rita was born in northern California in 1948. She has one sister who is so close in age (1 year 13 days) that people assumed they were twins. Her family lived in northern California until she was about ten years old. That is when her parents divorced, and the family moved to Los Angeles. While in Los Angeles, her mother fell in love with a salesman from British Columbia. When the salesman left Los Angeles, her mother and the two girls followed him. He told her mother he lived with his sister, niece, and nephew. Instead, the woman was his wife, and the children were his. During all this, her father sued for custody in the Canadian courts. He lost the case but instead won back his wife's heart. The reunified family moved back to Northern California, where Rita eventually graduated from Folsom High School. 

She attended the University of California, Davis. It was there she met two of her future spouses. They were Lynn Alcorn and Deborah Frankel. She married Lynn in her junior year. This was before Lynn started identifying as a woman. Lynn was admitted into what was then called the transexual program at Stanford University. The program involved counseling and Lynn living a year as a woman. The culmination of the program was gender reassignment surgery. Ultimately, the program's goal was for those in the program to integrate fully into society as women. The transition was difficult for their relationship, even though she supported Lynn. One of the promises of the Stanford program was that those transitioning would divorce their spouses. One of the possible reasons was that if they were still married after the transition, their marriages would be homosexual ones, which were not yet legal in any state. In 1970, the possibility of such legal unions couldn’t be imagined. This was an era when the police still actively raided gay bars. Stanford couldn’t be seen as condoning illegal marriages. Rita and Lynn divorced amicably and remained friendly until Lynn’s passing in 2023. The two continued to live together until they separated when Lynn left to study in Santa Cruz. Rita has always sought to honor Lynn’s experience when speaking of her. 

In between her marriages to Lynn and Deborah, she was partnered with Bob, a leader in the Wiccan movement in California. He was involved in a Gardnerian coven (The Diamond Bar Coven) in the British traditional witchcraft mold. She and  Bob have three adult children.  

The other great love of Rita’s life is her current spouse, Deborah Frankel, whom she also met in college. At one point during college, Rita, Deborah, and Lynn shared a home together. Deborah left the house but stayed in contact with Rita. Deborah and Rita have a shared passion for the Wiccan/Pagan movement. 

After college, she moved to San Francisco. After working on her master’s in literature at Sacramento State, she wrote her master’s thesis on detective fiction. She eventually went on to do her Ph.D. at Reno State. She had initially intended to do her doctoral work on Arthurian tales. However, she was talked out of it by an advisor and ended up doing her dissertation on detective fiction. Her dissertation became the basis of her first book, Booze and the Private Eye: Alcohol in the Hard-Boiled Novel. Her intention in getting her Ph.D. was to become a professor. After some deliberation, she realized the life of a professor wasn’t for her. Instead, she spent several years working for the Girl Scout organization in Sacramento. 

The 1970s were a decade of sexual and spiritual exploration. Rita was originally a Christian who had spent time in Methodist, Presbyterian, and evangelical churches. At some point, Christianity ceased to resonate with her spirit. In the oral history, she wryly states: “ I was sitting by the phone waiting for Jesus to ring, and he never did.” This was not an uncommon sentiment in the 1970s when people were turning to alternative spiritualities in droves. This era was when Richard Bach’s novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a bestseller. The novella revolves around a seagull who refuses to conform for the sake of conforming. Rita was much like the beloved seagull in her approach to Wicca and spirituality. 

Rita’s initial formal involvement with Wicca/Paganism came through the summer solstice ritual up in Ukiah, California, sponsored by Nemeton, an early pan-Pagan organization. A nemeton (plural nemeta) is a sacred space in ancient Celtic (pre-Christian) religion. Nemetons have been primarily located in nature. Her initial connection to this tradition caused her to seek more profound experiences. She first found those more profound experiences in the Ursa Maior circle, of which she became a key member. The circle was initially made up of seven members. Its single-sex makeup sparked some controversy in the larger movement. The controversy was whether single-sex covens were covens or perhaps something else altogether. Rita was a powerful advocate for both mixed and single-sex covens. 

A founding member coven of the Covenant of the Goddess, Ursa Maior lasted from 1975 to 1977. Despite the group’s short lifespan, they considerably influenced the burgeoning women’s spirituality movement. The group didn’t have a single influential leader like other organizations at the time but instead was run by the consensus of the members.

The New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn is an organization with daughter and granddaughter covens primarily in the Bay Area and scattered throughout the US and elsewhere. It has very little control over its covens. They are autonomous in much the same way that the historically congregationalist churches are. Rita eventually became a part of the NROOGD through the Silver Star coven. She was a member of Silver Star from its founding in 1976 into the early 1980s when the Silver Star coven disbanded after two of its key leaders moved. She ascended to the role of high priestess in July of 1978 after the original high priestess didn’t return after her sabbatical. 

The alternative spiritualities of the 1970s (of which Paganism is an integral part) were generally more socially and sexually liberating than the mainline Christianity of which she was initially a part. They were open to the leadership of women and LGBTQIA folks. In the early 1970s, there were still several mainline denominations that stubbornly resisted the idea of women’s ordination. By the late 70’s in the US, all major mainline churches had started ordaining women. Rita’s participation in several pioneering Pagan organizations has helped shape the unique character of the movement today. It is because of the work of her and others that the movement became so empowering to women (particularly LGBTQIA women) who were marginalized in so many other religious organizations of the time. 

(This biographical statement written by Damian Baker for a Queer and Trans Theologies class at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities from the oral history interview with Rippetoe conducted by Michelle Mueller on August 4, 2023, and from the sources below.)

Biography Date: December 2023

Additional Resources

Profiles:

Tags

WICCAN | Neo-Pagan/New Age Movements/Occultism/Spirituality | Women's spirituality | Author/editor | California | Rippetoe, Rita

Citation

“Rita Rippetoe | Oral History”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed May 30, 2024, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/oral-histories/rita-rippetoe.