The quintessential cranky crone takes flight
Mary Daly, Ph.D., died Jan. 3 in a nursing home in Gardner, Mass., "in a state of calmness and love," according to an e-mail circulated by Max Dashu, founder of the Suppressed History Archives.
The radical feminist philosopher and self-described "Positively Revolting Hag" was born Oct. 16, 1928 and raised in Schenectady, N.Y., by working-class parents who encouraged her academic aspirations. In 1966, armed with three doctoral degrees, she began her teaching career at Jesuit-run Boston College, sharing her towering intellect and razor wit with students of theology, feminist ethics and patriarchy.
In 1968 she published The Church and the Second Sex, confronting the misogyny and discrimination within the Catholic Church. The college fired her, only to rehire her and grant tenure following support from the student body. Daly parried with Beyond God the Father in 1973.
With Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism ( 1978 ) , Daly took a quantum leap from reformer to radical, mounting a full frontal attack on "necrophillic," "phallo-technic society," calling for women-identified-women to create a new way of "be-ing" and a new world in harmony with Mother Nature powered by life-affirming "gynergy." She "makes a number of clear, theoretical statements, each with important political implications for feminism," wrote Hester Eisenstein in Contemporary Feminist Thought ( 1984 ) . "identif [ ying ] women as wholly good and men as wholly evil."
"Mary Daly was a wonderfully brilliant outrageous firebrand, not just her writings but also her performances, her rage and her disdain for all things necrophillic," said Sarah Lucia Hoagland, professor of philosophy and women's studies at Northeastern Illinois University.
"The challenges and the demands she made on us all to be aware of the background, to notice patterns, to resist patriarchal illusions. She shifted consciousness. That was her invitation and her insistence. She was a thoroughly revolting hag and will be sorely missed," concluded Hoagland, co-editor, with Marilyn Frye, of Rereading the Canon: Feminist Interpretations of Mary Daly ( 2000 ) .
"Mary Daly was for me a sort of 'mother' or elder sister," said Frye, associate dean of arts and letters and distinguished professor of philosophy at Michigan State University. "Not that she nurtured menot her style at all, as I knew herbut that she authorized me. I witnessed her lecture the Gyn/Ecology material a year or so before the book came out. I witnessed that she sinned, publicly, against the rules and decorum of the heteropatriarchal order and was not struck dead by a lightning bolt. It got me over my superstitious dread of sinning against the fathers. It cured me, or almost did, of my inhibiting fear of anomie, of falling out of intelligibility if I knew what I knew.
"There is no other text that I have studied more, in solitude or with students, than "The First Passage" of Gyn/Ecology. Its influence in my work and my life is both deep and diffuse; it goes far beyond the traceable and trackable."
Not all academics hold Daly in such esteem. "The climate has changed a great deal since Daly's contributions to feminism, who has been amply, and rightly, criticized for espousing a kind of [ female ] essentialism…," said Dr. Tina Chanter, co-director of the program in Women's and Gender Studies at DePaul University.
Regarding Daly's refusal to allow men into her classroom, the stance that ultimately resulted in a court battle, a settlement and Daly's retirement from Boston College in 2001, Chanter maintained that "feminism needs men to take it seriously before further significant advances can be made, and…men should be encouraged to learn about feminist theory.
"Transgender and intersexuality issues demand more urgently than ever that we bring into question any assumption about a rigid dividing line between the sexes. As gender transitioning becomes more and more common, it is incumbent upon feminism not to remain static on these issues, but to attempt to think them through in all their complexity," continued Chanter. "Daly's contributions to feminist thought remain important from a historical perspective....Understanding how far feminism has come, and its nuances along the way, helps inform us about how far it still needs to go."
Catherine Madsen, an independent theorist and writer of liturgy, interviewed Daly in 2000 for the interreligious journal CrossCurrents, during the heat of her legal battle with Boston College. "Daly's outrageousness was a breath of fresh air when it was new and she did have the cojonesno doubt that's the wrong wordto tell lesbian feminists not to shortchange the intellect," said Madsen in an e-mail interview last week. "But once she got the outrageousness down to a formula it became predictable, and ultimately her theoretical framework was too simple and inflexible. Men bear little resemblance to her caricatures, and not all women's relationships with menor even with the male Godare subordinate. Radical rhetoric generally, whatever the point of view, shares a certain obliviousness to fact, and Daly seems to have absorbed this technique uncritically.
"Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart: a pioneering woman who spends her entire career beholden to the institutions of celibate men will become painfully familiar with those institutions' obstructions and evasions. The very confidence that enables her to withstand them may inhibit quieter and subtler observation. Mary Daly's exuberance was sometimes endearing, but her theories had their own share of obstruction and evasion; in that sense she mirrored faithfully the institutions that formed her."
In 1987 Daly published Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language The book tour included Chicago's Mountain Moving Coffeehouse for Womyn and Children.
"I just remember thinking how brilliant she was, but also I was a bit intimidated to meet the Mary Daly. Then when I did meet her, she was rather shy, relaxed and down to earth," said Kathy Munzer, longtime member of the MMC collective. "The women who came to see her were clearly her fans. There was a sense of pride and a feeling of being honored. She was such an inspirationa feminist with a capital "F." And she was quite the character, with a real droll sense of humor and a bit of mischief in her twinkly eyes. Her presence at the Coffeehouse was, for me, a crowning moment."
Chicago LGBT-ights activist Jackie Anderson recalled Daly with fondness: "Controversial, scrappy, uncompromising in her commitment to dismantle patriarchy….She lived her ideas and captured the imagination and attention of a generation of feminists and modeled courage in the prickly way that I found quite appealing."
Daly's outrage was increasingly expressed through idiosyncratic and ironic wordplay; her prowess in unpacking the language confounded, confronted and ultimately educated those willing to do the work.
"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 Sarah Schulman, writer and founder of the Lesbian Avengers.
"Daly then tried to crack words open so that the reader could understand how they served the status quo. In this way she extended her initial insights about the Catholic Church as a structure of containment to the English language itself. This helped women like myself understand that the cultural structures that ruled our lives were not neutral, natural and objective, but rather filled with value that actively kept women in subordinate positions, while falsely appearing regular and just-the-way-thing-are. 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, which she believed was possible, as do I."
"Audre Lorde's disgust with and critique of Daly's focus on European culture and divinity was profoundly influential in the day [ see "An Open Letter to Mary Daly" published in Sister Outsider, 1984 ] . Daly's dehumanizing approach to trans integrity further alienated her from evolving feminist and queer freedom visions," said Schulman. "However, these significant conflicts do not erase her positive contributions, but instead exist simultaneously with her gifts. Even pioneering thinkers have profound limitations. The greatest challenge to liberation thinking is to realistically understand how one's own condition of subordination is created, and then to extend these insights to people who have less social power. Confronting one's own supremacy ideology is the positive consequence of confronting one's own oppression. In this regard Daly, like most people, was more successful with the first part than the second."
Daly made her last public appearance in June, 2007 in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the Feminist Hullaballoo, organized by radical feminist philosopher Sonia Johnson and her partner Jade Deforest. [ Editor's note: Leventhal's article on the Hullaballoo is online at www.WindyCityMediaGroup.com . ] Daly, already in failing health, made the trip from Massachusetts, speaking before more than 400 adoring women.
"Her incredible power and presence were felt by all, and the memories of what her writings had taught us stirred deep in our spirits," remembered Deforest. "When she finished, there were very few dry eyes in the audience. We all knew that we had witnessed an amazing and wonderful event, and, most likely, Mary's last public appearance."
As news spreads of her death, articles, obituaries and remembrances are showing up in media internationally; she was after all a remarkable and very public scholar. But it is her legions of weird, witchy, wicked, wild, wanton mother-loving women who have begun spinning and weaving worlds of words about her through the world wide web who will keep her memory alive.
"In a conversation with Mary in the warm New Mexico sun she told me she didn't want to die, that she was afraid," said Deforest. 'What's the fear?' I asked. 'That everyone will forget me,' she answered. Not a chance, Mary. Not a chance."
Daly's other books are: Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy; Quintessence: Realizing the Archaic Future. A Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto; Outercourse: The Bedazzling Voyage Containing Recollections from My Logbook of a Radical Feminist Philosopher; and Amazon Grace: Rekindling the Fires of Radical Ecological Feminism.
Mary Daly's friends are grateful for the enormous outpouring of energy and good will following her death. She leaves a large community of people whose lives have been touched and shaped by her and by her brilliant, challenging ideas.
A private burial will take place at the historic Mt. Auburn Cemeteryin Cambridge, Massachusetts. A public memorial event will be scheduled for spring 2010 in the Boston area. It was Mary's hope that those who wish to celebrate her life gather in local groups to read her work and discuss its impact on their lives. Such gatherings are already taking place around the world.
A Web site, www.marydaly.org, has been set up by her estate. The site will include links to various obituaries and commentaries, as well as information and reports on gatherings held in Mary's memory. Please feel free to post materials there and to read the thoughts of others.
Donations in memory of Mary Daly may be made to the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, where her papers are collected and will be made available for research, and to The Nature Conservancy, which protects the natural world she loved.
May her intellectual courage and daring vision continue to spark the world!
Mary E. Hunt