Saturday, January 23, 2010

What Happened to Mary Daly?

By Karen Doherty

Editor’s Note: This commentary was first published on Doherty’s blogsite, Nihil Obstat. It's reprinted with permission.

Mary Daly, 81, died two weeks ago, mostly forgotten, certainly unshriven. Carolyn Moynihan, deputy editor of MercatorNet, noted that Daly “seems to have departed this life as a kind of orphan herself. The New York Times obituary notes that she ‘leaves no immediate survivors’. No family on earth? No father in heaven? I hope it really was not like that for Mary Daly at the end.”

After her two first two books, which stood the Catholic world on its head, Mary Daly spun off into the ether, writing books with titles like: Outercourse: The Be-Dazzling Voyage; and Quintessence . . . Realizing the Archaic Future. Daly created her own language, but most people weren’t interested in learning it. She lost her hold on the larger Catholic imagination.

In the 80s the lesbian herd moved past her, too, migrating on towards the mainstream – Ellen, The L Word, Rachael Maddow, Suze Orman, human rights, marriage rights and child rearing. The labrys pendant was lost or forgotten. Daly was, too.

Quintessential Irish Catholic girl

Mary Daly was the quintessential Irish Catholic girl. Born October 16, 1928, in Schenectady, NY, she went all through Catholic schools, and received a BA from the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY and a MA from Catholic University in Washington, DC. After earning her doctorate in religion from St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, in 1953, she went on to obtain two degrees from the University of Freiburg in Switzerland, since no U.S. institutions at the time offered theology doctorates to women.

Dr. Daly was hired as an assistant professor at Jesuit-run Boston College in 1967, when the school only enrolled men. She started as a reformist, and her first book, The Church and the Second Sex, (1968) she argued that the Catholic Church was patriarchal in nature and had systematically opposed women for centuries. In response, the college attempted to dismiss her, but the support she received from students and the public kept her in the classroom.

As a student in the early ’70s at Trinity, an all-women’s college in Washington, DC, I was thrilled about Mary Daly and her books. “Someone speaking for us,” I thought as I picked one up. “Someone speaking the truth about what it’s like to be a woman in the Catholic Church.”

Sr. Joan Chittister reflected on Daly’s impact on history: “I learned how to look newly at things I’d looked at for so long that I was no longer really seeing any of them. Women need to thank Daly for raising two of the most important theological questions of our time: one, whether the question of a male God was consistent with the teaching that God was pure spirit, and two, whether a church that is more patriarchal system than authentic church could possibly survive in its present form. These two questions have yet to be resolved and are yet rankling both thinkers and institutions.”

Coming out and moving beyond

Daly came out as a lesbian in the early 70s – when she was in her 40s. She began to study ancient cultures, and came to regard all major modern religions as oppressive to women, a view expressed in her second book, Beyond God the Father (1973). Her original critique of the Roman Catholic Church as a bastion of patriarchy was extended to the entire Christian tradition. She rejected Christianity’s focus on a monotheistic deity and what she attacked as its intrinsic patriarchy. She asserted that Christianity’s focus on Jesus Christ was just another dimension of its patriarchy – a Savior in a male body.

As Margaret Elizabeth Kostenberger explains, Daly’s “compete rejection of Scripture” on the basis of its “irremediable patriarchal bias” took her far outside the Christian faith. While other feminists called for the adoption of female or gender-neutral language for God, Daly attacked those efforts as half-measures that fail to take the “phallocentricity” of theism seriously.

Her famous dictum, “If God is male, then the male is God,” stood at the heart of her argument against religion. She accused Christianity of “gynocide” against women and suggested that all monotheistic religion–and Christianity in particular–is “phallocentric.”

“I urge you to sin,” she wrote to women readers. “But not against these itty-bitty religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism–or their secular derivatives, Marxism, Maoism, Freudianism and Jungianism–which are all derivatives of the big religion of patriarchy. Sin against the infrastructure itself!”

A mystery to solve

In 1999 Professor Daly left Boston College after a male student threatened a lawsuit when he was denied a place in her class on feminist ethics. She had long limited enrollment in some advanced women’s studies classes to women only, maintaining that the presence of men there would inhibit frank discussion.

What happened to Mary Daly, that she imposed the same gender barriers in her classrooms as she experienced? Daly went to Europe for advanced degrees because no U.S. Catholic university would accept a woman in a theology program. Years later, Daly bared men from her advanced courses in women’s studies because she felt their presence would have a negative impact on the other students. Men, she said, “have nothing to offer but doodoo.”

It may be retribution, but it doesn’t seem right. How do you rail against a system of discrimination, and then implement it with glee yourself?

So I am left with a mystery to solve: why did Mary Daly, a “post-Christian,” continue to affiliate with Boston College, an unabashedly Catholic institution? Love and hate are bound very closely. Daly was never indifferent.

Perhaps it began with a girlhood hurt. Daly wrote about her intellectual formation in a 1996 article in the New Yorker “Sin Big,” in which she recalled being mocked by a male classmate, and altar boy, at her parochial school because she could never “serve Mass” because she was a girl.

“(T)his repulsive revelation of the sexual caste system that I would later learn to call ‘patriarchy’ burned its way into my brain and kindled an unquenchable Rage,” she wrote.

Daly described herself as a pagan, an eco-feminist and a radical feminist in a 1999 interview with The Guardian newspaper of London. “I hate the Bible,” she told the paper. “I always did. I didn’t study theology out of piety. I studied it because I wanted to know.”

So with all that, how could she in good conscience continue to teach at a Catholic university?

Here’s what I think: at Boston College, Daly could be an outlaw, get a pay check, credibility for book deals, and still have the protective mantle of identity that gave her cachet: a professor at a highly regarded Catholic university.

She lived on the piercing insights she fearlessly raised 40 years ago. But Daly had ceased to be a theologian, and even her philosophical writing declined into self-important gibberish. She should have taken her own advice–a person becomes stagnant if they don’t move on.

If you’re going to call yourself a Post-Christian, then be Post-Christian. If you have moved on… move on, and stop clinging to institutions that you say you no longer believe in.

A man wrote the best epitaph for Daly that I have read: “When I was in the seminary, attending class at B.C. during the eighties, Mary Daly was a joke. Imagine my surprise when, years later, as a purely cynical move to impress a feminist scholar, I cited Mary Daly in a paper, but was not able to put her work down. Although her work never persuaded me to abandon my beliefs, or my own thinking, Mary did push me to consider a whole world of concern that years earlier I would have dismissed as nonsense. Now, when I think of her, I do not think of a nut, or a totally whacked out feminist. I think of a pioneer, who, although not worthy of discipleship, is certainly worthy of being taken seriously as a thinker and a human being. I wish I had met her, although I’m not sure of how it would have turned out.”


  1. this is really interesting I'd not heard of her before . It is not true however that just the big modern reliogions have oppresseive history . ones religion also has nothing to do with why people are abuysive or controlling etc. yes people hide and use religion as an excuse . People make the assumption all the time . many pagan religions were oppressive to women the roman pagan culture is one example . Not all aboriginal peoples were and are pagan either . Some indigenous groups were very strict with women and thier roles . Some women wore chastity belts while other tribes women were leaders etc. Hindus do not consider themselves pagan .etc. people so easily try and put us in boxes and it is so easy to stereotype etc.
    I so would love to have the chance to be a priest if I wanted or my daughters too . I always think what if Mother Teresa was called to be pope ? she was stopped just because of human stupidity , opinion & ideals . Who knows if she would've been called to be pope or not but that she'd not been given the opportunity is just crazy insanity I think.
    anyway ,nice blog . thanks for the article

  2. I read and heard of Mary Daly when I was in a Protestant seminary. Despite her eccentricities she was, IMO, a ground breaking theological intellect of the first order.

    However, the passionate scholar became a resentful scholar. As her seminal works became the basis for others work, she never added insightful enhancements to keep pace with the evolution of a new way of think of women in the Roman Church. Bitterness clouds good judgment.

    In Mary Daly's case, it was both regretful for her as a person, and for the world of theological scholarship.