An icon of the feminist movement, “thealogist” Mary Daly died January 3. Not exactly a household name outside the academy, Daly was in her lifetime a major influence in women’s studies programs, treating women’s role in religion. Her demise at the age of 81 will likely serve to pique the interest of a new generation of students, hopefully an objective and less emotion-driven bunch than the last.
Those non-academics to whom Daly’s name is hazily familiar may have a vague recollection of a highly publicized lawsuit Daly fomented: Boston College, the Jesuit institution Daly taught at for decades, was forced into sex-discrimination litigation in the late 1990s with a male student who had been barred from the militantly feminist Daly’s women’s studies classes on the grounds of his sex. Effectively fired as a result, Daly “retired” from academic life in 2001.
Daly’s intellectual trajectory coincided with the rise of dissident Catholic theology in the 1960s and 70s after the Second Vatican Council, a time when rebellious Catholics worked vociferously (and unsuccessfully) to bend normative Catholicism toward more liberal approaches to contraception and homosexuality and abortion.
In 1968 Daly published The Church and the Second Sex, her seminal j’accuse work indicting the Catholic Church for its humiliation of women by a patriarchal hierarchy. Her most inflammatory book followed in 1973, Beyond God the Father.
Out of whole cloth, there being not a shred of historical or literary or archaeological evidence to support it, Daly invented a vanquished anticipatory religion to Judaism and Christianity. Goddess spirituality was at first a strictly ivory tower phenomenon, but would later be popularized and absorbed into the public domain via the hugely popular books The Chalice and the Blade (1989) by Riane Eisler and The Da Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown.
In Daly’s and a few other like-minded feminists’ reworking of the Genesis narrative, the first human cultures worshipped the Great Mother Goddess and lived as peacefully and collaboratively and ecologically responsibly as the blue-skinned Na’vi on Pandora in the movie Avatar, who worship a goddess Daly would have loved and whose creation she may have inspired.
Humans inhabited this paleo-Eden under the benevolent spiritual tutelage of the Goddess. She nurtured specifically female values of peace and harmony and environmental sensitivity. From 40,000 to 5,000 BCE, all was good. Men and women rejoiced in collaborative productivity.
Then barbarian hordes marauded and pillaged their way across the pacifist Goddess’ domains. These savage men introduced the evils of racism, social hierarchies, war mongering, and eco-depredation. The rest of human history is the tragic tale of a violent, controlling patriarchy, aligned with ruthless capitalism, environmental despoliation, and unrelieved misogyny.
It’s all nonsense: Goddess spirituality is ideology posing as religious history and theology. The distinguishing feature of all pseudo-religions, as McGill University researchers Katherine Young and Paul Nathanson point out in their just-published, magisterial study of Goddess religion, Sanctifying Misandry, is exactly this kind of historical revisionism. Historical revisionism is also a marker pointing to a conspiracy theory, in which category the authors situate Goddess spirituality.
Conspiracy theories require both good guys and bad guys. The “truth,” which would lead to a resolution of the presenting problem and thence to a perfect world, is known only to an enlightened few. They’re the good guys, in this case Mary Daly and her apostles.
When reality intervenes, when it becomes clear that little headway has been made in fulfilling the precepts of the utopian “solution” (see under communism), scapegoats must be found to blame: those perennial villains — in this case men tainted by the original sin of patriarchy — who are consciously and assiduously preventing progress toward the promised nirvana.