Monday, 4 January 2010

Mary Daly: Death of a Feminist

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.


Simon said...

"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 that transwomen are patriarchal agents in the women's movement and whose existence "rapes" women's bodies."

Was that PhD actually awarded?

Anonymous said...

Re: Simon

Oddly, PhD's are awarded on the basis of scholarly research and argumentation, not on the agreement of others with the ultimate conclusion.

Simon said...

Some conclusions imply a questionable (at best) level of critical argumentation.

Clare Slaney said...

Your prejudices are very clear. Why did you write this obituary?

Phil BC said...

Since when has criticism ever = prejudice?

Ms Chief said...

I love Mary Daly, I was introduced to her in 1990 and loved her work - she's very challenging and through her work I read much more on feminism and believe it or not decided that I was a Marxist - I much prefer the materialist view on the world. I understand why people get cross with her but I think she really really challenged the hegemony that is the patriarchy and the world that supports the hegemony. There weren't may like her. She has played a huge part in my thinking, so I will miss her.

Ms Chief said...

In defence of Mary Daly. Mary Daly was a feminist and a radical one in a man's world - she was a theologian and taught in a Jesuit University - she did not compromise at all.

When I first became an atheist her works helped me work out theologically and politically why I had become so outraged by my Catholicism - why was God always a man, why was everything about the Catholic Church so masculine and anything feminine was secondary - reading mary Daly allowed me to rage about this. I didn't understand all she had to say but she helped radicalise me - not just as a feminist but as a human being.

Her book Beyond God the Father is a great book - she challenges God a substantive subject. She laid out her theory of western religions and why men are the centre of everything even projecting themselves onto God! And she's funny with symbols and words. I loved Gyn/Ecology.

Even as a socialist I think there is plenty of evidence that men throughout history have sought to oppress women. OK perhaps not every individual man but the oppression of women benefits men - why do men not fight for women's liberation and why women dare to or challenge women's oppression are women castigated from the right to the left - being called man hating lesbian lefties to petty bourgeois feminists?

I love all her stuff about history and language about witches and hags - calling the alternative to the male hegemony - hagemony.

OK perhaps she wasn't right in refusing to teach male students, and isn't it funny it was a right wing think tank that supported the male students to take out a litigation against her?

She was a strident feminist, she protested physically against Condoleeza Rice, against the war, against vivisection, against fur and was a progressive environmentalist.

On supervising Janice Raymond's PhD, many phD's are sublime and ridiculous in their argument it does not mean they should not be written. If she argued her case well and develops a theoreom then it merits a phD, just like a counter argument could be a phD - you could not say you can't do a phD on transgendered women because we accept them nowadays.

Anyway I will miss her - goodbye Ms Mary Daly - sleep well.

Chalicechick said...

((((Oddly, PhD's are awarded on the basis of scholarly research and argumentation, not on the agreement of others with the ultimate conclusion.))))

As a theoretical physicist who isn't in to string theory about that.

Phil BC said...

That's what I hoped to bring out in this piece above, Ms Chief, that beyond the controversy there were some worthwhile arguments about patriarchy, religion and women's self-empowerment. Unfortunately the obituaries to come in the press will be more interested in her separatist politics and the stances she took that flowed from this rather than her substantive contributions to philosophy.

Re: the transphobic stuff, I think the arguments Daly and Raymond outlined are risible. But in the political hothouse of 70s radical feminism it's not surprising some groups of activists found it a persuasive position. Doesn't make it any more palatable though.

Kathleen Williamson said...

I have been complaining for years that scholars, including feminists, have written Mary Daly out of history. The trend for decades has been to borrow from and build on her groundbreaking work without giving her credit, as if acknowledging her would be stigmatizing in some way because she was so controversial. There is no room for trendiness in feminism and scholarship. Synchronistically, just last night I posted an old NYTimes review of the Wickedary on my facebook page. Then today, the news of her passing.
I don't owe my feminism to Mary Daly, as I was born with it. But I do owe the first seeds of the articulation of my feminism to her. After reading Gyn/Ecology in 1979, I was inspired to many roads of education and empowerment, and belonged to that tribe of feminists who sported a double battle axe as a charm. And her writings were the acorns for me, and many other women, for mighty oaks that continued to shed acorns forever. Let her work be revisited, studied, and keep "spinning" as did she. Thank you Scholar Warrior, Thank you.
ps: i have a ph.d and came by it honestly.

Ruth Rocchio said...

How unfortunate you are clearly a bigot and exactly the kind of male that Mary Daly warns all wise women about in her magnificent books. We will not be silenced.

amazon grace said...

I don't agree with your characterization of Janice Raymond's book. As I read it, she is not accusing transsexuals of being patriarchal agents. She is making this accusation against the medical professionals who sell "sex-change" surgery and hormones to gender nonconformists. She says that this actually undermines gender nonconformity -- by turning gender nonconformists into the "proper" sex.

You might disagree with what Raymond is actually saying. But I don't think she actually holds the point of view that you report.

Dr Diana said...

Mary Daly did not refuse to teach male students. She offered them independent study. She wanted to keep the classroom experience for women. Yep it's radical. But it's not the same thing as refusing to teach men.

Phil BC said...

Is Ruth for real? Get a grip!

Amazon and Dr Diana, fair enough - my clumsy language got the better of me. I accept your points.

Penny Lowery said...

forgive typos! going too fast....

Penny Lowery said...

I'm getting a bit irritated with this blog - not the content, you understand, just the fact that while I navigated off to create a Google identity (which I don't want) my lengthy comment was lost!

so: the short version!
radical femnism needed to be radical - look at the centuries of oppression it had to counter.

Mary Daly was an essentialist - so have some other brilliant thinkers been.

Janice Raymond helped me to think about the issues around transgender people - you don't have to agree with her (I don't).

Without the ground-breaking work of these women, I probably wouldn't have got a full scholarship to write my own PhD - about lesbian feminism writing on age theory.

sad that Daly's passed - I hope the obits don;t all portray her as a man-hater - she was muh more.

Chris said...

She seems very misguided, instead of sitting in her ivory tower doing her unproductive parasitic duties; she should have picked up a shovel and tried working alongside men to better understand society. This goes for many so called academics.

Daniel said...

Ruth Rocchio, how unfortunate! You are clearly a nutcase, and the kind of female who ought to be shunted off and left to fend for herself in Antarctica. The good news is that there aren't any men in Antarctica to oppress you! Isn't that nice? It's a feminist's wet dream. And in the meantime, you can stop harrassing the rest of us who want nothing more than to live normal, sane, healthy lives without having to hear the idiocy of lunatics like you. If you are so miserable in Western civlization, why don't you get the hell away from us and start your own society? You can have as many Earth goddess circle dances as you like - and no men to bother you! It'll be nothing but Background... so you can harass, manipulate, and cajole each other, and let's not forget complain about how awful the Western patriarchy was, while the rest of us get on with living normal lives free of your stupidity.

Mark P said...


Congratulations on making yourself even more obnoxious than Ruth, whose comment at least had the merit of brevity.

Those of you who have studied Mary Daly's works:

Various internet sources, not necessarily reliable ones, lay heavy emphasis on the claim she apparently made in Gyn/Ecology that the Witch hunts and trials of the early modern period accounted for 9 million deaths. Did she actually make this claim and, more importantly, was it an important part of her argument in that book?

Eddie Truman said...

I thought that was a good piece Phil and some really informative comments.
'Daniel' your post is a brilliant example of why the feminist analysis remains as important to this day, fuckwit.

Eddie Truman said...

And due to the likes of Chris and Daniel this is why we need feminism!

Shame Penny we lost your long post - I would have liked to read it.

Julie Bindel is doing an obitury for the Guardian

Phil BC said...

Yes Daniel, there was no need for your response. Come on, Rosie is obviously a troll and we know from bitter experience on this blog what happens when we feed one.

Suze said...

I had the pleasure of taking a "Readings & Research" (BC's version of an independent study) with her in 1987 while she was on Sabbatical. I was quite nervous when I called to ask her to do it, but she said she knew who I was. I was too scared to ask how (and unsure if this was a good or bad sign). When she agreed to take me on independently, she told me I could also invite two or three interested friends, as long as they were "serious" students.

As for me, she was the most intelligent person I ever got to learn from up close or privately; very dynamic in her thinking and her ability to express those thoughts verbally. She was extremely generous as a teacher, it was what she was born to do. I was tremendously honored to be invited into her home to be taught and just to listen to her words. She was a phenomenal woman, writer, speaker, and teacher. I hope she is in a better place.

Lastly, to debate something mentioned in this article, at least during the late 1980's, while she would not allow men into her classes, she would teach them independently, if they were interested enough to take one of these. I believe, at least while I attended BC, that she felt men disrupted the flow of conversation and changed the dynamics in the classroom. That is why she initially stopped letting them into her classes. I don't know if her reasoning changed, or she just got fed up and decided not to teach them at all anymore. I just know that she did offer Readings & Research options during the '80s, yet few young men followed through on that.

Audrey said...

Mary Daly blasted open a hole for women in philosophy. She was the major radical lesbian feminist dreamer of my time. I was so lucky to have heard her lecture a few times..even posed for a picture with her when her brilliant autobiography "Outercourse" came out. Dr. Daly said women come first, and she gave her all for us.
She said that male supremacy was killing the planet, destroying the environment, raping women and she was absolutely right. Janice Raymond wrote many great feminist classics as well. "A Passion for Friends" is my favorite book.
Remember, before Daly, there was erasure of women's past by men. She understood this, she described it, and she alerted us to patriarchal reversal and erasure.
She warned all women that patriarchy attempts to erase famous women the minute they die.
Thank the goddess for the feminist blogs everywhere, and for all women who write proudly on the Internet. We all owe a life of great intellectual and spiritual freedom to the great mother of the gold standard for feminism!

DaisyDeadhead said...

I wish you had included Audre Lorde's Open Letter to Mary Daly> ... which Daly couldn't be bothered to reply to. The fact that she simply ignored a prominent black feminist's criticism of her as colonialist, was reprehensible. In fact, it was the same way male theologians had ignored HER, and she didn't even make the connection.

queen emily said...

Interesting interview with Daly here from awhile back..

WIE: Which brings us to another question I wanted to ask you. Sally Miller Gearhart, in her article "The Future—If There Is One—Is Female" writes: "At least three further requirements supplement the strategies of environmentalists if we were to create and preserve a less violent world. 1) Every culture must begin to affirm the female future. 2) Species responsibility must be returned to women in every culture. 3) The proportion of men must be reduced to and maintained at approximately ten percent of the human race." What do you think about this statement?

MD: I think it's not a bad idea at all. If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth. I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males. People are afraid to say that kind of stuff anymore.

So.. genocide, anyone? "Evolutionary process" or not, if you read Quintessence I don't think there's any real doubt that she was in favour of the extermination of the larger part of men, and those women she deemed unfit for existence (heterosexual women, transsexual women etc).

If it's supposed to be bracing rhetoric, then it's of a fairly dangerous kind ("oh I didn't mean *kill* people, just that they should die naturally within 50 years.. somehow). But personally I rather suspect it's not. Feminist pioneer or not, that's beyond the pale to me.

queen emily said...

And re Raymond,

to say that she's against medical providers but not trans women is wildly inaccurate. eg the infamous statement that "the problem with transsexualism would be best served by morally mandating it out of existence."

So yeah, it's always so productive when you cast a group of people as a problem needing to be removed from society, don't you think?

Given the introduction to the 1994 edition where she argues against other forms of transgender gender nonconformity, I think it's fairly clear that no transgender, transsexual or genderqueer person could live up to her standards to avoiding said moral mandating out of existence...

Penny Lowery said...

in reply to Chris's comment, 'She seems very misguided, instead of sitting in her ivory tower doing her unproductive parasitic duties; she should have picked up a shovel and tried working alongside men to better understand society.'

Yes, of course, we all know how effectively digging has changed the world!

And what a relief to see men putting the bigots in their place -saving us the trouble of doing it! You see, feminism HAS changed the world. thanks, Eddie.

Chris said...

I really don't see how you can call me a bigot from what I said. I am not against feminism at all but I am against just accepting anything in the name of feminism.

I reserve the right to criticise views I believe are objectionable.

Has for digging not changing the world, what kind of mindset can believe coal mining, diamond mining, engineering etc has not changed the world? Probably the kind of mindset that reads too many Mary Daly books.

Audrey said...

Somehow, digging is what Mary Daly was best at. She dug into the past, she dug into patriarchy and explained its workings to millions of women all over the world who had no idea that womanhating was deeply imbedded in "major religions." And surprise, Mary Daly did indeed meet with Audre Lorde and she wrote her a letter too. Lorde actually lied and said she never received a letter until a black woman found it in her papers. It all came out decades later. So I think things are a little bit more complicated.
Mary Daly spoke to women who wanted to break free of patriarchal mind bindings, and you know that any woman who has that kind of courage is not going to be liked or appreciated by the tribal mindset that is organized religion and rituals. In a world of repetitive male supremacy and all its rituals, Mary was the original!

Audrey said...

And I would sumise that very few people writing about Mary Daly have read all her works, and I am most certain that most of the people who are calling her a racist, have not read both sides of this debate. Basically Mary Daly did not live up to what Audre Lorde expected of women, and Daly was quite direct in saying her books were not about African goddesses and that she wrote from her own roots and catholic background. Is questioning medical science and operations transphobic? Well a lot of women are pretty upset at how common face lifts and elective surgery have become. Women need to be wary of medical/gynecological science and what the doctors do to the human body. Years from now, when trans people are dying young of cancer as a result of all the drugs being pumped into their bodies, they'll all cry transphobia for not warning of the health dangers. Calling Mary Daly a racist is a rather empty epithet. She obviously attempted to explain the limits of her research, and I think we need to question why the messengers are killed rather than heeding the message. Mary was about liberation for all women, and never once did I ever hear her say a racist thing in any of her lectures. If anything, she remained silent, worked away, was loyal to her students, had thousands of men march to save her job the first time she got fired.
What people are afraid of is her radical message, but it was meant for the women who needed it, women who were ready for change. Her work is academically challenging, you have to have a good grounding in medieval catholic theology to really get her, and her writing was complex. She covered topics as diverse as medical science, theology, women's history, lost foresisters, several cultural attrocities against women worldwide, in Europe, in Asia, in the U.S, everywhere. She was an early exposer of female genital mutilation, and an early warning sign about what this could mean for women today. Talk to British muslim girls who aren't being protected under British law right now... those women who survived, escaped, and the women of the UN and in African countries who are trying to combat this would not call Daly's expose racist at all. They'd thank her, and have done so on many occasions.
Mary Daly was brilliant at a time when brilliant women were hated. She didn't go along to get along, liberal women can do this, liberal men do it. She was something else entirely, again not a scholar for the comic book set, but a real thinker ahead of her time.

Hagatha said...

This "obituary" illustrates precisely why Mary Daly wanted to teach women-only classes. The fact that you find her theories troubling is predictable. Her theories tear down the false ideologies upon which contemporary male identities and egos are constructed. Therefore, it is impossible to fully define, illustrate and explore the theories (in order to interrogate them one way or the other) in the presence of males. The discussion is invariably shut down before it even starts, with male input involved.

Furthermore, an 'obit' is not the proper place to debate her theories, even though there is much to discuss. Yet you feel so threatened by them that you will use any opening to tear them down. Citing Wikipedia firmly demonstrates your shallow research and understanding of that which you criticize. May your obituary be written by a detractor, and criticize the most controversial things you did in life, while paying false tribute to your contributions.

Phil BC said...

Get off your high horse and try engaging with what is really said in this piece.

1) On the use of wikipedia stuff, I tend not to use it unless the statements it makes are properly referenced. If there are misrepresentations these have been discussed and acknowledged in the comments above.

2) Had you cast aside your faux outrage for a moment, despite saying I personally found her ideas uncomfortable I think I offered a pretty balanced assessment of what she had to say. Was her work an important contribution in exposing the patriarchal and gynophobic bases of Catholicism? Yes. Have many women been inspired by her work to get involved in feminist politics? Yes. Both are pluses in my view.

3) Your relativism is really an attempt to shield criticism of Daly's wrong and reactionary positions. Aside from being totally impractical and having as much chance as being implemented as Britain has of becoming a caliphate, the "population reduction" of men she advocated is utterly reactionary and incompatible with any kind of politics of liberation.

Hagitha said...

Relativism is the root of your conception that population reduction is a threat. Daly is branded radical and attacked for simply raising the idea as an evolutionary possibility (see whip-tailed lizard, sharks and other species, resisting extinction through milinia).

Patriarchy has perpetuated genecide for centuries, but the man-age (world) is finite. I celebrate the infinite 'biophilia' made possible by Mary Daly, who pointed out that patriarchy only coined a term for 'love of death' (necrophilia).

Mandos said...

The problem is that she raised the idea as a *desirable* possibility and as an *improvement* over the current state of affairs, thereby suggesting that 80% of the *extant* male population are wastes of breath.

That's pretty necrophilic in its implications.

Linda said...

Hagitha, your points are very well taken. Discussing Mary Daly in detail with men is about as worthwhile as expecting a whale to walk down the middle of main street. It is the wikipedia mentality. It really is up to women to fully assess the power and genius of Mary Daly, for she really spoke to us, and was a philosopher who devoted her life to women, and our freedom. All the other male philosophers only spoke to men, Aristotle thinking that only male sperm created children, and that women were incubators. Augustine believed women didn't have souls. Mary Daly simply posited the death loving patriarchy might become exstinct, because of it's own dead weight. Of course, men instantly pounce on this, but Mary Daly was just positing the death of male supremacy itself, with its realized capacity to contaminate the earth. Women simply went off to a different world to talk with each other. Our own philosphical journeys with each other are what matter. Men aren't a part of our discussion at all, they merely distract or derail. That's all they are really capable of doing.

Mary Daly broke open the world of philosophy for women struggling for freedom on our own terms, not a potted passion of patriarchy, not penile procession of prickers and snools, but the genuine experience of ontological freedom in the voice and key of women. We had our own philosophy at last, it gives us life, energy and creativity. It is the philosophy of tree biophilic sisterhood.

Phil BC said...

Linda's another one who can't be bothered to read what is said - I suppose it might contradict her simplistic black and white view of the world. But then again I am a man and therefore have nothing of interest to say. But whatever.

Despite concluding the piece with "the legacy Daly bequeaths feminism is more complicated and mixed than an assessment based solely on her provocative position-taking" it seems that Daly's "authentic" philosophy has little traction among the women's movement at large. And that is a good thing - ultimately her political proscriptions are as much a dead end for feminism as the Nation of Islam is for anti-racism/black empowerment, and the various species of ultra-leftism are for the labour movement.

Anonymous said...

As a man I am clearly not part of the demographic that Mary Daly was interested in.

I have little time for the kind of myopic Radical Feminism that presents men as all murderers, rapists and abusers and women as the universal victims in our society.

Having said all that doesn't blind me to the fact that Mary Daly had some very interesting and significant things to say in terms of philosophy and spirituality.
I am particularly interested in her 'Elemental theory'. I dont feel the article above really does justice to the distictiveness of her ideas. As a Feminist philosopher/Thealogian I am sure she will be studed by future generations. That doesn't mean she will not be subject to criticism.

Can anyone suggest which book most clearly sets out her elemental theory? I would be interested in following that up.


KJB said...

As a non-white feminist, I'm keeping my distance from Mary Daly. I'm sure she is important to some white feminists, but she defended the horrendously racist American conservative Katherine Mayo, who wrote the book Mother India for the express purpose of smearing the Indian nationalist movement and weakening the case for independence or dominion status.

Anyone interested in this can go to for Joanna Liddle and Shirin Rai's article 'Feminism, imperialism and orientalism: the challenge of the
'Indian woman'', Women's History Review (1998), 7: 4, 495 — 520.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to say that she was not a feminist, but a biggot. The fact that she refused to admit men to her classes should serve as an example of the antipathy she planted and nurtured. She was quite simply a loud-mouth bulley dressed in academic clothing. She was most acutely guilty of that which she so vehemently accused others of: inequality and intolerance.