Yesterday the controversial feminist theologian, Mary Daly, died (short obituaries can be read here and here). Describing herself as a "radical elemental feminist", her views have been variously identified with the separatist, essentialist and transphobic wings of radical feminism.
Daly was probably best known outside of her discipline for refusing to admit male students to 'mixed' theology classes at the Jesuit-run Boston College, a course of action that led to her enforced retirement in 1999. Most obituaries over the coming days are likely to focus on this controversy.
I maybe a socialist and committed to women's equality and liberation, but as a man I find Daly's views deeply uncomfortable. And she would not have had it any other way - she was after all committed to writing for women. Why should she go out her way to mollify those she held responsible for perpetuating sexual violence, systematic discrimination and gendered inequalities? On the other hand, the uncompromising positions she assumed always proved problematic for more mainstream feminists, for whom women's liberation is bound up with a host of other progressive movements (not least anti-racism and the labour movement).
The most troubling aspect of Daly's philosophy as far as radical politics are concerned was her essentialism (which she dubbed her quintessentialism), a position that cast all women as stoic sufferers of injustice and all men as misogynists in on a patriarchal conspiracy - a conceptualisation a million miles away from the actually existing, complex and decentered reality of how women's oppression works. Such a position informs lesbian separatism - both in terms of building a feminist movement (independently of not just men, but also heterosexual/bisexual women and women who advocate coalition building, of so-called "malestream" feminism), and, disgracefully, alibis transphobia in the women's movement. In her Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, she apparently refers to trans people as "Frankensteinian" and living in a "contrived and artifactual condition". Daly also supervised Janice Raymond's PhD dissertation. Published as the notoriously transphobic The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-male, which in all seriousness contends transwomen are patriarchal agents in the women's movement and whose existence "rapes" women's bodies. Unfortunately, such absurd and reactionary views tend to swill about the feminist blogosphere still, inflaming bitter disputes wherever they rear their ugly heads.
Despite this, it would be a mistake to reject Daly's views outright. In works like The Church and the Second Sex and Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation, Daly flails the promotion and perpetuation of patriarchal norms and values at the heart of Catholic theology. She writes "a woman's asking for equality in the church would be comparable to a black person's demanding equality in the Ku Klux Klan." She also elaborated a philosophical position not dissimilar to vulgar Marxist accounts that oppose class consciousness to false class consciousness. According to her Wikipedia entry:
She created a dualistic thought-praxis that separates the world into the world of false images that create oppression and the world of communion in true being. She labeled these two areas Foreground and Background respectively. Daly considered the Foreground the realm of patriarchy and the Background the realm of Woman. She argued that the Background is under and behind the surface of the false reality of the Foreground. The Foreground, for Daly, was a distortion of true being, the paternalistic society in which she said most people live. It has no real energy, but drains the “life energy” of women residing in the Background. In her view, the Foreground creates a world of poisons that contaminate natural life. She called the male-centered world of the Foreground necrophilic, hating all living things. In contrast, she conceived of the Background as a place where all living things connect.Another element to Daly's philosophy is self-actualisation - a celebration of women casting off the shackles of patriarchy and becoming empowered free agents. In an interview with EnlightenNext magazine, she says "... 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 ... I'm trying to name something that can only be recognized by women who are seizing back our power. But the words have been stolen from us—even though perhaps they were originally our words—they're our words, but they've been reversed and twisted and shrunken. I see myself as a pirate, plundering and smuggling back to women that which has been stolen from us." You get a sense of this from her own short biography and statements like "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." Judging by the comments left on her obituaries, this part of her philosophy has been a positive influence on the lives of some of her readers.
The legacy Daly bequeaths feminism is more complicated and mixed than an assessment based solely on her provocative position-taking.