You may have already heard that Mary Daly, theologian and radical feminist, died on January 3 after a couple of years of poor health. And if you did, you might have recalled how she excluded men from her university classes. Or maybe you thought back to her playful use of language, which becomes downright baffling (to this reader) in her later work.
Quite possibly you remembered her as a radical separatist who took the essentialism of cultural feminism to its logical extreme, locating the ills of patriarchy in the natures of men themselves. For a historian – especially a feminist historian – her essentialism just won’t fly. Men have not behaved precisely the same throughout history, nor have they all been villains. But even apart from her ahistoricity, Daly’s vision of men as hopelessly mired in misogyny is politically and theologically bleak. There’s no potential for change unless you want to box out half of humanity from liberation. I happen to believe that men and women alike deserve a better, freer, kinder world. I’m not convinced in the least that men are the lost cause Daly makes them out to be.
Then there’s her transphobia, which appears to be part and parcel of a certain kind of separatism. (After all, separation is feasible only if you can draw a clear, bright line between your chosen allies and the Other.) Phil BC at a Very Public Sociologist notes:
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. Unfortunately, such absurd and reactionary views tend to swill about the feminist blogosphere still, inflaming bitter disputes wherever they rear their ugly heads.
Raymond’s views cannot speak for Daly’s, but I know that if a student wanted to write a thesis celebrating the KKK as pro-white woman, I’d politely tell them they’d need a new adviser. If Daly had a beef with Raymond’s argument, she could have excused herself from Raymond’s committee. She didn’t.
But I’m not writing about Daly only to bash her for her politics. She’s one of those complex figures whose odious views in one area didn’t preclude daring and deeply thought-provoking theory in another area:
It is reasonable to take the position that the sustained effort toward self-transcendence requires keeping alive in one’s consciousness the question of ultimate transcendence, that is, of God. It implies recognition of the fact that we have no power over the ultimately real, and that whatever authentic power we have is derived from participation in ultimate reality. This awareness, always hard to sustain, makes it possible to be free of idolatry even in regard to one’s own cause, since it tells us that all presently envisaged goals, lifestyles, symbols, and societal structures may be transitory. This is the meaning that the question of God should have for liberation, sustaining a concern that is really open to the future, in other words, that is really ultimate. Such a concern will not become fixated upon limited objectives. Feminists in the past have in a way been idolatrous about such objectives as the right to vote.
(From Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, 28–29)
She then goes on to identify three false deities – or idols – in Christianity. The first is the “God of explanation” to whom we turn to explain, and thus justify, that which is unexplainable: the suffering and death of children, the structures of social privilege. The second idol is “otherworldliness,” conceiving of God as a judge in a remote heaven who keeps people docile with the promise of rewards and punishments after death. Daly says this idol can be dethroned simply by living a full and rich life in this world – which women, particularly, are discouraged to do. The third idol is God as the Judge of sin, which promotes self-destructive guilt, especially in women who violate patriarchal church teachings on sex and family roles.
All of this is radical but also reasonable and compassionate, assuming one has any interest whatsoever in reforming Christianity/religion and liberating women within religions. If you’re an atheist, then Daly may be a waste of your time. Yet even then, don’t her comments on idolatry within the feminist movement still ring true today?
And might not Daly’s harsh views on men and trans people have melted away, had she simply followed her own counsel by recognizing that separatism was historically transitory, and that women, as “presently envisaged,” was conceived too narrowly? Of course people often harbor great contradictions, and so it’s not surprising that Daly did, too. But here, in her early work, she imagines a path toward human liberation – one that should be open to all persons, not just womyn-born-womyn.
Update January 7, 12:30 a.m.: In a follow-up post, I explore Daly’s Gyn/Ecology to assess whether she really was a transphobic as the interwebs make her out to be. The short answer: Yes. The long answer: Oh my, and with eunuchs and power-mad scientists to boot! Yet, late in life, she may have moderated her views.