Thursday, January 28, 2010

In Memory of Mary Daly (1928-2010)

A theological and philosophical giant died on January 3 with little more than a responding murmur. In a way, this may be appropriate. Mary Daly didn't make many friends in her long academic career. Her early books, The Church and the Second Sex (1968) and Beyond God the Father (1973) were veritable feminist bombs on an androcentric theological landscape. And, her later volumes, which include Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978), Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (1984), and Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1987) further undermined the "religion" of patriarchy (her term) by playfully altering language, thought-patterns, and practices in such a way that women and women's flourishing are prioritized and empowered.

As you can imagine, Daly was no friend of men. In an interview with What is Enlightenment? magazine, she said, "I don't think about men. I really don't care about them. I'm concerned with women's capacities, which have been infinitely diminished under patriarchy. Not that they've disappeared, but they've been made subliminal. I'm concerned with women enlarging our capacities, actualizing them. So that takes all my energy." Needless to say, her brand of radical lesbian feminism turned many away, even sympathetic feminist theologians who see her as an important influence. Eventually, she was forced to resign from Boston College, the Catholic Jesuit school where she taught for 32 years, when she refused to allow men in her upper level women's studies classes.

Despite the controversy and despite the many, many ways in which I am at odds with Mary Daly's theology, philosophy, and methodology, I think its important to acknowledge the passing of a great thinker and exceedingly important feminist scholar. Indeed, Beyond God the Father remains a foundational work in feminist theology. And, even though Daly would have a serious problem with my aspiration to be a Christian feminist theologian (like my conservative evangelical friends, she would reject the premise that one can be a feminist and a Christian), I am grateful for her trailblazing in the field. So, this short blog is my inadequate offering in memory of Mary Daly. She passed on alone and left behind no children. But, I trust the truth that can be mined from her work will continue to influence thoughtful women and men for years to come.

(You can listen to an NPR broadcast remembering Mary Daly here, a Boston Globe article remembering her here and view her official website here.)


Steve said...

Her career seems to raise the question of balance. If you make your arguments small enough to fit in with how those around you are ready and able to hear them, do you betray the cause of how badly people have been treated? By making you point "fit," do you kill its impact while not scaring most observers away?

Or, if you go full-out with just how much society needs to change and, by the way, RIGHT NOW, do you blow away those most able to effect the very change you wish to create?

I wish I knew more about her now. Her male students saved her job once, and yet, like many educators, she wanted single-gender classes so that the floor was open for the questions and thoughts of at least some of the women. I can understand her feelinmg this way as I remember the reactions males have had in both these areas, feminism and theology.

Looks to me like there's a good biography here from a writer not too tied in with the Catholic world. Hmmm...

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

:) Thanks, Steve. The points you raise are points that I think every feminist (or general liberationist) theologian struggles with, including me. I don't have any answers, yet, but I guess I'm in a more moderated position at present.

Christiane said...

It makes me proud as a Catholic that Mary Daly was able to teach at a Jesuit college for thirty-two years.

I know she was finally dismissed, and that it had to do with her unwillingness to admit male students into her class.

But still, for all those years, she found a home among people who recognized that in the Body of Christ there is a place for all, even for the controversial and most certainly for those who would have us remove the scales from our eyes so that we can see 'beyond' the phony images that we have created for others to inhabit, because in our pride, we are unable to accept them and love them as they truly are.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I think its possible to make the argument that only in a Catholic institution could a theologian like Mary Daly teach and write with (relative) freedom. I certainly can't imagine that amount of liberty being provided in the context of any other tradition.

Thanks for commenting!