Mary Daly, One of Our Feminist Foremothers, Has Died

8 years ago

Mary Daly is an important feminist foremother whether or not you knew of her, agreed with her, or read her books. Her work was like a powerful intellectual and spiritual snow-plow, taking the risks to clear the roads for others to travel. There are radical pioneers who risk everything the world will say about them or do to them in order to truly inhabit what they believe. They walk what they talk, even when the talking alone is an act of courage. Mary Daly was that kind of pioneer.

She lived her truth.

Did she have flaws? Yes. Was she known for being ego-centric? Yes. Did she veer from the path occasionally? Yes. But she ran with the wolves long before others joined her. And those "wolves" were radical ideas about women and our potential.

Many of you may not have read Daly or encountered her thoughts knowingly. I will give her a voice here, using her words more than my own, by way of an introduction. She was a wild woman. I had to re-type that line because I typed "She is a wild woman." That she has died just seems foolish, as though it cannot be true. How could such a life force be extinguished? Of all the things Mary Daly might have done, dying never seemed like one of them. Mary Daly, radical, lesbian, brilliant, original thinker, died January 3rd at age 81.

EnlightenNext Magazine said of her:

Described as both "a prophet" and "the grande dame of feminist theology," Daly has, for more than three decades, committed her every waking breath to a single purpose: seeing, naming and dissecting the structures of patriarchy in order to liberate women's minds, bodies and spirits from its oppression. One of the most revered visionaries of the contemporary women's liberation movement, Daly, who holds six graduate degrees, including three doctorates in religion, theology and philosophy, lectures throughout the world, is the author of seven groundbreaking works of feminist philosophy, and has taught much-debated women-only courses in women's studies at Boston College since 1974.

I want women to know her, and to honor her contribution. She woke people up. She angered men in charge. She made people comfortable with the oppression of women squirm in their seats. She got people talking. She forced people to think. You didn't have to agree with her to be a better off for what she did in her life.

She knew that to influence thought was to influence action.

She taught for over 30 years at Boston College, a Catholic college. When she taught about feminist philosophy, she limited her classes to women only, although she did offer independent study to males who were interested. Ultimately, she was forced out of her full-time, tenured 30+ year career because of that. At the time she was only earning about 43K a year.

Her comments about that in a brilliant Crosscurrents interview make reference to the fact that she felt she had been set up by right-wing organizations. A male "plant" allegedly was set up to take her class, and then get refused. BC was then sued by the "Center for Individual Rights", and she was apparently hustled (as she says) "out the back door" with a "rotten little retirement agreement". She described it as "a gang rape".

The Boston Globe said:

"She was a great trained philosopher, theologian, and poet, and she used all of those tools to demolish patriarchy -- or any idea that domination is natural -- in its most defended place, which is religion," said Gloria Steinem.

Dr. Daly emerged as a major voice in the burgeoning women's movement with her first book, "The Church and the Second Sex," published in 1968, and "Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation," which appeared five years later. That accomplishment was viewed, then and now, as all the more significant because she wrote and taught at a Jesuit college.

Dr. Daly...died Sunday in Wachusett Manor nursing home in Gardner. She was 81 and her health had failed in the past few years, including recent paralysis due to a neurological condition.

Mary Daly, the first to publish discussions of a feminist theology, did not consider herself a theologian. She felt that she was a philosopher.

She was a profound and imaginative thinker who let her truth evolve, saying in her later years that her early work was not radical enough to describe her position years later.

Theologically she is perhaps best known for her statement "If God is man, then man is God".

She saw, and rebelled against the notion of a patriarchal God, describing God as "a verb" rather than a gender-assigned being. She believed that as long as people continued to see God as male, there would be a patriarchy in place that would demean and damage women. This was radical indeed in the 1960's, and radical again in what some are saying now is the "post-feminist" period. Daly would have seen the phrase "post feminist" as abhorrent.

Here are some quotes from Mary Daly:

• "God's plan" is often a front for men's plans and a cover for inadequacy, ignorance, and evil.

• It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God.

• Why indeed must "God" be a noun? Why not a verb -- the most active and dynamic of all?

• We will look upon the earth and her sister planets as being with us, not for us. One does not rape a sister.

• Work is a substitute "religious" experience for many workaholics.

• I had explained that a woman's asking for equality in the church would be comparable to a black person's demanding equality in the Ku Klux Klan.

• Patriarchy is the homeland of males; it is Father Land; and men are its agents.

Mary Daly, from an interview:

I keep inventing. I just don't think that way, see, about guarding against. I'm thinking about plunging ahead. All right, I think you guard against decay, in general, and stagnation, by moving, by continuing to move. And with courage. And courage is like -- it's a habitus, a habit, a virtue: you get it by courageous acts. It's like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging. I often draw the Spiral Galaxy on the blackboard, and instead of stars there are Moments. So each Moment, a real Moment, is an act of courage, and that means that the world will speak back to you -- and that Moment speaks to the next one, and the next one, and the next one. OK, take the labrys: everything is double-edged. You "guard against" best by not even guarding -- just by risking tremendously, and then you jump -- Leap -- into another sphere, or dimension.

The New York Times, in a 1999 interview said of her [ed. note. underline is mine]:

Another word in Professor Daly's lexicon is "foreground," which she defines as the illusory reality established over the centuries within a male-dominated, hierarchical culture bent on destroying women, animals and the earth. Its antonym, "background," is what she has spent her life trying to reach: a primeval, female-oriented consciousness that would replace conquest with interaction and the hunger to own with the lust to create.

The Boston Globe also said:

An only child, Dr. Daly had no immediate survivors. Friends plan to schedule a memorial service, but noted that she had her own ideas of how her death should be marked.

"It was Mary's wish that if women or people want to memorialize her in any way they should stay in their own locality and have a get-together where they read or discuss her work," said Linda Barufaldi of San Diego, one of several former graduate students of Dr. Daly's who cared for her as her health declined.

Crosscurrents has a fine interview with Mary Daly discussing her final book, and the evolution of her thinking in parallel with the New Physics.

The 1999 Elighten Next magazine's interview with Mary Daly at age 70.

The Advocate published a brief obituary.

Wikipedia's summary of her life and work, with bibliography. provides an obituary and commentary, including references to Daly's "wrong notes".


Demetria comments "What are the ramifications of referring to God as He, as Father? Who stands to gain from this gendered image of God? Who stands to lose? How might my image of myself change if I imagined God as a woman, the Mother of us all?
These and other questions are gifts Daly gave me and so many other women.

Melia posts comments by Linda Barufaldi, a friend and former student of Mary Daly's. This comment stands out: Equally important is the power of her fiery call to freedom in the lives of women she reached in her worldwide readership. After Beyond God the Father came out, thousands of women wrote Daly to say they saw more clearly now and had found the courage, as Daly loved to say, to "take their lives and throw them as far as they would go."

Debra Dean Murphy says: Like most iconoclasts, Daly was not subtle. But the times in which she lived and wrote and taught did not call for subtlety. "For the hard of hearing you shout," Flannery O'Connor once said. "For the almost blind you draw large, startling figures." An Irish-Catholic like O'Connor but, unlike Flannery, a fierce despiser of the Church, Daly seemed to take this insight on as a kind of personal and professional motto. Because she did, a couple of generations of feminist theorists, thinkers, and theologians are in her debt.

BlackAmazon comments on the fact that Mary Daly incurred the wrath of Audre Lorde for what Lorde felt was disregard of women of color in Daly's 1978 book "Gyn/Ecology", and for Daly's reported lack of support for transgender persons.

...NONE of it is okay to leave out. Mary Daly should be remembered for her pioneering, in all it entails . The blazing of new trails, the new ideas, the doing of those things across the backs of others and based on ignoring others agency and history as she saw fit.

She is a fitting saint for feminism. In the middle of the lions' den, creating small miracles, both of creation and destruction, imbued with divine purpose and bathed in blood and complexity.

For me, while history-making and an informer of my thinking, she is also terrifying and a cautionary tale of trans hate, privilege blindness, and selective critique. Of what happens when brashness and agitation are the focus than collaborative movement thinking, whose writing makes me thank god she existed and thank god she never got the things she asked for.

But mostly she is a cautionary tale, of why a movement must reconnect with its history and focus on its future with a clear-eyed assessment of what that will hold.

Susan Henking says: For Daly, women, (W)omen—that's what she was all about. And, even more radically, she was about women loving women, lesbians with a capital L, meaning not those of a certain sexual orientation embedded within patriarchy, but those who truly loved themSelves. For Daly, as she eventually came to see it, debates between Jungianism and Freudianism, between Marxism and Nazism, Christianity and Judaism or Buddhism, were all what Freud (whose work she also drew on) would have called "the narcissism of small differences." All were, for her, sects within the grand (and tragic) religion of patriarchy.



~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool

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