Shortly after Mary Daly died, I speculated that the notion of “idolatry” might be useful for secular feminists, but I didn’t develop the idea much further. In Beyond God the Father, Daly suggests that in the past, feminists positioned suffrage as a kind of secular idol, and she warns against the “new wave” of feminism (e.g., the second wave) doing the same. For Daly, idolatry isn’t the worship of a false deity. It’s not making sacrifices to a golden calf. It’s setting up an idea or goal as “ultimate” when it’s actually transitory, like the achievement of suffrage. I’d argue that “choice” has had a similar status in second-wave feminism.
Unfortunately, she fell into precisely this trap by setting up “women” as a kind of idol in her later work, beginning with Gyn/Ecology, with the result being an “ethics” that demonized both transsexuals and men.
The shift in Daly’s thinking between Beyond God the Father (1973) and Gyn/Ecology (1978) is massive. She moves from examining social constructions and stereotypes to making universal pronouncements about the essence of men and women. Consider this passage from Beyond God the Father:
The roles and structures of patriarchy have been developed and sustained in accordance with an artificial polarization of human qualities into the traditional sexual stereotypes. The image of the person in authority and the accepted rationale of “his” role has corresponded to the eternal masculine stereotype, which implies hyper-rationality (in reality, frequently reducible to pseudo-rationality), “objectivity,” aggressivity, the possession of dominating and manipulative attitudes toward persons and the environment, and the tendency to construct boundaries between the self (and those identified with the self) and “the Other.” The caricature of human being which is represented by this stereotype depends for its existence upon the opposite caricature – the eternal feminine. This implies hyper-emotionalism, passivity, self-abnegation, etc.
(From Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, 15)
Daly goes on to say that both women and men have begun (as of the early 1970s) to free themselves from these stereotypes. I’d quibble with the idea that those stereotypes have been eternal. Historians have shown them to be just a couple of hundred years old and limited to white women and men in the West. However, in light of her later work, it’s remarkable how much distance Daly places here between these “caricature[s] of human being” and actual men and women.
Compare this to how she view men, women, and stereotypes five years later:
Thus women continue to be intimidated by the label anti-male. Some feel a false need to draw distinctions, for example: “I am anti-patriarchal but not anti-male.” The courage to be logical – the courage to name – would require that we admit to ourselves that males and males only are the originators, planners, controllers, and legitimators of patriarchy. Patriarchy is the homeland of males; it is Father Land; and men are its agents. …
Despite all the evidence that women are attacked as projections of The Enemy, the accusers ask sardonically: “Do you really think that men are the enemy?” This deception/reversal is so deep that women – even feminists – are intimidated into Self-deception, becoming the only Self-described oppressed who are unable to name their oppressor, referring instead to vague “forces,” “roles,” “stereotypes,” “constraints,” “attitudes,” “influences.” This list could go on. The point is that no agent is named – only abstractions. …
As a creative crystallization of the movement beyond the State of Patriarchal Paralysis, this book is an act of Dis-possession; and hence, in a sense beyond the limitations of the label anti-male, it is absolutely Anti-androcrat, A-mazingly Anti-male, Furiously and Finally Female.
No longer does Daly see a chance for men to liberate themselves. Instead, humanity is divided into two opposing camps, men and women, and all men are tainted by their sex. In her concluding chapter, Daly describes an exorcism through which Hags and Crones purge their gathering of the male (or male-identified) Demons that have “infiltrated” them. She literally “Demon-izes” men.
Daly’s idolization of women forms the basis for a friend/enemy distinction that suggests women need to destroy their enemies as a matter of self-defense. As I’ve already discussed here, Daly accused MTF transsexuals of being the necrophilic pawns of patriarchy who sought the destruction of women. She postulated that they were the agents of a “Final Solution” that would violate women’s boundaries and render them “‘living’ dead women.” By appropriating the language of genocide, Daly implies (though never says explicitly) that MTF transsexuals have no right to live. She never says bluntly that they should be “exterminated.” Instead, she says they should be “eliminated.” However, I don’t think one can read “elimination” in a post-Holocaust world without understanding it as a potential euphemism for “extermination.”
Daly’s friend/enemy distinction is similarly virulent when it comes to men. In a 1999 interview with What Is Enlightenment? magazine, Daly made concrete the fantasy of purging men that she outlined in the closing chapter of Gyn/Ecology.
WIE: In Quintessence, your idyllic continent is inhabited by women only, but the rest of the world is inhabited by women and men.
MD: I didn’t say how many men were there.
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.
WIE: Yes. I find myself now thinking that’s a bit shocking.
MD: Well, it’s shocking that it would be shocking.
A bit shocking? The language of “decontamination,” too, harks back to the Holocaust. She reduces men to un-persons, mere objects to be destroyed due to their toxicity, a contaminant that threatens womankind. This is the sort of objectification that any feminist – indeed, any decent person – should denounce as hateful and dangerous.
How, exactly, is the population of men to be “reduced and maintained”? Note the euphemism, again – it’s not Daly’s, but she accepts it enthusiastically. What would be done with the present generations of men? Would they be allowed to die a natural death, or would she want to hasten the process along? As for future generations, would she favor prenatal selection, which would require universal usage of IVF – surely a “technophallic” solution, in her own terms? Selective abortion? Male infanticide? Who would decide which men were allowed to live? Daly sidesteps these questions by suggesting an “evolutionary process” will do the trick, but that’s scientifically untenable and patently absurd.
Reverse all the genders in the above, and you’ve got a dystopia to rival Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And we shouldn’t be shocked, just because the vision entails the elimination of men instead of women?
Of course, Daly’s us/them thinking went even further. As Daisy Deadhead points out, Daly excluded many women from the category of “women”! – or at least the women who count:
As a Catholic, I believe she did irreparable harm to Catholic women who sought to reform the Church; she advised radical women to withdraw from it, leaving the liberal women who preferred to stay, twisting slowly, slowly in the wind. (I notice she didn’t advise them to withdraw from other patriarchal structures such as, um, academia.) In her later books like Pure Lust, she was positively hateful to any feminists who did not follow her out of the Church, but instead chose to stay and fight. Her way or the highway.
Daisy also mentions a point that my previous posts didn’t address (on the assumption that most feminists already knew about this): Daly never gave an adequate public response to Audre Lorde’s contention that Gyn/Ecology was racist and colonialist. If this is news to you after all, you can read Lorde’s “An Open Letter to Mary Daly” here.
This is the problem with idolizing one category of people. The resultant us/them thinking draws the circle ever more tightly around “us.”
None of this would matter if Daly’s most venomous ideas had died with her, but they didn’t. At Questioning Transphobia, Queen Emily has laid out the legacy of excluding trans people from feminism, which has been deadly in some instances. The consequences for men have been less dire simply because they’re not a marginalized group like transgender people.
However, Daly’s idolatry lives on among a subset of self-identified feminists who embrace her defense of male-hating. (See also here, and don’t miss the comment thread.) They are relatively few in number, but it’s incumbent on the rest of us feminists who love men, who love humans, to categorically reject a feminism that leaves any space for eliminationist thinking. It’s up to us to reject what Daly originally called “a caricature of human being.” In fact, that’s the best way I can imagine to honor Daly’s better legacy.