The Death of a Radical Feminist
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.
Under the guise of her soi-disant religious scholarship, Mary Daly got away with shocking sexism. Daly was a lesbian, which doesn’t explain her hatred of men, but perhaps explains her sincere belief that in a perfect world -- a messianic return to the prelapsarian golden age that Goddess spirituality subscribes to -- men are not actually necessary and are therefore expendable.
Thus, Daly got away with a lot of hate speech in her time -- and, come to think, even in death. Her most extreme misandric statements were scanted, when not entirely ignored, in the mainstream media.
A Wall Street Journal op-ed by Charlotte Allen says she “pushed the envelope” and, delicately, she “embrace[d] more belligerent brands of feminism”; the New York Times discretely allows that her work “explored misogyny in religion in general” and that “critics alternately praised and condemned Professor Daly for her pyrotechnic, bitingly witty, eccentrically capitalized and punctuated style.” The Los Angeles Times allows that Daly was “brilliant, bawdy, and cantankerous” and “a fractious presence at Boston College.”
But all of this is like saying Osama bin Laden’s videotapes are tedious in patches and that he “explores” anti-Westernism in his ideology. No authoritative medium I saw cut to the chase on this horrible woman: her visceral, exterminationist loathing for men, as evidenced in hatred-inciting statements such as (cited in Young and Nathanson):
- “Phallocracy is the most basic, radical, and universal societal manifestation of evil, underlying not only genocide, not only rapism but also racism, not only nuclear and chemical contamination, but also spiritual pollution.”
- “In general, patriarchal culture is necrophilic, fixated on hatred and love of death.”
- “If you have to choose between the two, female obviously is better [than male]. And I don’t even have to choose between the two; I mean, the other isn’t worth consideration any more. It’s just hanging all over putridly.”
And most famously:
If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the earth. I think this will be accomplished 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.
Well, perhaps you and I are afraid to say that kind of stuff, but teaching in women’s studies apparently means never having to say you’re sorry for honoring a hate monger who takes pride in saying “that kind of stuff.”
Associate any other identifiable group with the word “decontamination” -- blacks, gays, natives, women (oh, Lordy, yes, above all women!) -- and see if you can get your book published, let alone as scholarship; and if you self-published such rot, what credible university departments would dare include you on their reading lists?
Lest you think Daly was considered a harmless nut amongst real scholars of religion, like a Raelian or a Scientologist, Daly was pronounced “the foremost feminist theoretician and philosopher in the United States” by the Encyclopedia of World Biography, and she was published by respectable houses like Harper San Francisco. Moreover, Daly and her disciples have demonstrably inhabited the corridors of influence within all mainstream religions in the service of her subversive mission.
In 1987, for example, at a conference sponsored by the American Academy of Religion -- hardly a fringe organization -- she spoke in front of a vast adulatory crowd who, in evangelical mantra-like fashion, chanted her name over and over: “Mary, Mary, Mary.”
A panel at the 1998 conference offered a tribute to her work in “empowering hag presence” (reclaiming pejorative female words like “hag” and “crone” was something of a fetish for Daly). Her transgressive trickle-down influence can be seen in the words of one representative acolyte, Carter Heyward, the first female Anglican priest: “[Clerics] like myself … because of you, Mary, knew very early in our professional sojournings that God the Father was a necrophilic overseer of nothing but lies.”
According to Young and Nathanson, Daly herself left the church, but many of her disciples have stayed on as “infiltrators” in Christian and other religions with the object of colonizing and destroying normative religious theology from within. Jewish feminist Judith Plaskow, for example, in her 1991 book Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, urges Jewish women to reject historical Judaism.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, Mary Daly wrote: “There are and will be those who think I have gone overboard. Let them rest assured that this assessment is correct, probably beyond their wildest imagination, and that I will continue to do so.”
Women’s studies classrooms are emptying out, because this generation of young women does not identify with the kind of hateful messaging that Mary Daly represents. A hopeful sign. Since this is already the case, Daly’s death offers universities sponsoring women’s studies an opportunity to reconsider their own future vis-à-vis women’s studies. Should American universities continue to lend their name and their resources to conspiracy theories that openly scapegoat half of humankind while knowingly sowing harmful delusions of superiority in the other half?