Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Feminist theologian Mary Daly dies


Feminist theologian Mary Daly
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Author and theologian Mary Daly, whose radical and often controversial views about sex and gender had a major influence on second-wave feminism, died January 3 after a long period of declining health. She was 81.

Announcing Ms. Daly's death in an online forum on Sunday, Mary Hunt of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual wrote, "Her contributions to feminist theology, philosophy, and theory were many, unique, and if I may say so, world-changing. ... Even those who disagreed with her are in her debt for the challenges she offered."

Ms. Daly was born October 16, 1928, the only child of a working-class Irish Catholic family in Schenectady, New York. She attended Catholic school and developed an interest in religion and philosophy. She received a BA from the College of St. Rose in Albany, New York, and an MA from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. After earning her doctorate in religion from St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, in 1953, she went on to obtain two degrees from the University of Freiburg in Switzerland, since no U.S. institutions at the time offered theology doctorates to women.

Ms. Daly was hired as an assistant professor at Jesuit-run Boston College in 1967, when the school enrolled only male students. She started out as a reformist, and her first book, The Church and the Second Sex (1968), focused on the patriarchal nature of the Catholic Church. In response, the college attempted to dismiss her, but she received support from students and the general public and was granted tenure.

As Ms. Daly came out as a lesbian in the early 1970s and studied ancient cultures, she broadened her critique to regard all major modern religions as oppressive to women, a view expressed in her second book, Beyond God the Father (1973).

By the end of the decade, Ms. Daly had extended her criticism of patriarchy to society at large across all cultures, branding practices ranging from Chinese foot-binding to American gynecology as manifestations of "gynocide."

As one of the most influential second-wave feminist theorists, she was admired by many for her courage in confronting the church and academia from within the belly of the beast.

"I urge you to sin," she wrote to her women readers. "But not against these itty-bitty religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism – or their secular derivatives, Marxism, Maoism, Freudianism and Jungianism – which are all derivatives of the big religion of patriarchy. Sin against the infrastructure itself!"

Ms. Daly was known for using language in new ways to give voice to women's realties, reclaiming labels such as "witch" and "hag."

"She had the revelation that conventional vocabulary and linguistic design were not neutral tools of expression, but rather trapped us into thinking about ourselves in diminished ways," said lesbian author Sarah Schulman. "This understanding made it clear that women had to have awareness of how power works in all elements of social life, in order to imagine and enact transformation."

Ms. Daly extended her critique of how men treated women to include animals and the environment, influencing the birth of eco-feminism. But beyond simply criticizing the existing patriarchal power structure, she envisioned a joyful new lesbian separatist utopia.

For women who are "pirates in a phallocratic society," Ms. Daly wrote in 1996 essay in the New Yorker , "First, it is necessary to plunder – that is, righteously rip off – gems of knowledge that the patriarchs have stolen from us. Second, we must smuggle back to other women our plundered treasures."

Ms. Daly's ideas provoked controversy on many fronts. Her essentialist views about sex and gender did not recognize power differences within these groups. In an open letter in 1979, black lesbian poet Audre Lorde criticized Ms. Daly's book Gyn/Ecology (1978) for failing to address issues of race or acknowledge the stories of women of color.

Ms. Daly's negative opinions about men extended to transgender people. She saw transsexual women, in particular, as embracing and reinforcing oppressive gender stereotypes that feminists were trying to escape. She was a thesis adviser for Janice Raymond, whose 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, argued that transsexual women were agents of the patriarchy infiltrating women's space.

"Although the resistance Mary Daly's feminist theology offered to patriarchal oppression is commendable, a spirituality that elevates one's own kind by demonizing an 'other' – as hers did for transgender/genderqueer folks – is ultimately one for which I have no sympathy," said transgender activist Susan Stryker. "Her moralistic condemnation of transsexuals as death-loving Frankenstein monsters was a powerful impetus for my own efforts to reclaim the transformative power of the monstrous and refute its stigma for trans people."

"I valued Mary Daly for valuing women in a time when women weren't valued," added Robert Haaland, co-chair of Pride at Work and an out transman. "Of course I am frustrated with her horrific comments about trans folks, but we can all take a page from Audre Lorde, who was able to appreciate Daly for her work while vocalizing an important criticism around race."

Ms. Daly taught theology, feminist ethics, and women's studies at Boston College for more than 30 years, amidst ongoing friction over excluding men from some of her classes. In 1998, two male students, with the support of the conservative Center for Individual Rights, filed a sex discrimination lawsuit. Claiming that she had agreed to resign, the school terminated her contract, prompting her to countersue. In 2001, the parties reached an out-of-court settlement and she agreed to retire.

"There are and will be those who think I have gone overboard," Ms. Daly wrote in her 1992 biography Outercourse . "Let them rest assured that this assessment is correct, probably beyond their wildest imagination."

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