Born 16 October 1928, Schenectady, New York
Daughter of Frank X. and Anna Catherine Morse Daly
In her first book, The Church and the Second Sex (1968), Mary Daly examines Simone de Beauvoir's accusations against Christianity (particularly Catholicism) found in the book The Second Sex. Daly supports her indictment of the church as an oppressor of women by citing its denial of women's full participation in the affairs of society, thereby restricting their maturity, as well as excluding women from the church's hierarchy. Underlying this oppression, according to Daly, is the church doctrine that denies women equality in this life while promising they will be equal souls in heaven. In addition, she analyzes the impact of the women's liberation movement on nuns and Catholic women in general.
Daly's examples are well organized and lucid, and are drawn from scripture, patristic doctrine, historical evidence, and specific papal documents on marriage and abortion. In a chapter entitled "The Pedestal Peddlars," she traces the church's identification of woman with nature rather than culture, with Eve rather than Mary. She also shows how woman is oppressed through what the church calls her "place" in the divine plan, a term Daly feels silences and awes the critical faculty of most women. Her language of reform is rather strong: she would "exorcise" the idea of man's superiority and use "radical surgery" on the theology that genderizes God and sustains a static world view. This idea of man's superiority wounds the marriages of its members through insistence on the inferiority of woman. She calls for the ordination of women priests and a movement away from the masculine principle in the hierarchical patterns of society. Daly also advocates the release of nuns from the cloister into the service of their societies and champions universal coeducation. Daly hopes theological wounds can be healed from within the church. While this book was accused by some reviewers as "overkill," it is actually a clear, well-documented statement of what Roman Catholicism has done to women.
Daly's second book, Beyond God the Father (1973), sparkles with brilliant, original concepts. Although it did not receive critical acclaim, its importance lies in its setting forth seminal philosophical and theological ideas. Whereas her first book is derivative of another thinker (Simone de Beauvoir), the second reflects her own deep understanding of ancient, medieval, and modern theologians, philosophers, and social scientists. She evaluates their ideas by showing that their thinking would have been more fruitful had they taken decisive issue with the universal oppression of women.
Although theologians have feared woman as the antichrist (a fear manifested in witch hunts and the burning of Joan of Arc), Daly believes woman's realization of her authentic self will constitute the Second Coming, as women will create new dimensions of concern for all humanity. Daly sees the tolerance for diversity and many forms of becoming as part of the Mary archetype stripped of patriarchal values. She believes Mary to be the last remnant of the Mother goddess who was human and fallible and hence could have love also for the irregular and the imperfect. She rejects Christ as an exclusively masculine symbol for incarnation.
Daly is attacked by some critics for not defining precisely what the feminine element will be in her androgynous vision of the future, but her point is that women cannot yet know who they will be. Nevertheless, she does discuss several positive aspects that the "Cosmic Sisterhood" will bring and warns that women will have to be aroused to their plight before they will be able to assert these new dimensions of becoming.
Although Daly's writing is at times so complex it borders on scholasticism, her sardonic wit and vivid imagery help carry the reader along. As Betty Graf, her most appreciative reviewer, says, although Daly uses language that may shock uninformed laity and clergy and may outrage the uncritical, orthodox religious adherent, the book is "good news" for modern woman and man.
As a radical feminist theorist, Daly, who holds doctoral degrees in philosophy (1965) and theology (1963) from the University of Fribourg, and a doctorate in theology from St. Mary's College, Indiana (1954), has taught for years as an associate professor in the Department of Theology at Boston College. The corpus of her writing is central in shaping the questions and debates of feminist theology/religious studies and theory. The Church and the Second Sex was reissued in 1975 with a "Feminist Postchristian Introduction." including a chapter-by-chapter review from Daly's transformed post-Christian vantage point. Her "New Archaic Afterwords" to a 1985 reissue, greatly influenced by her later development of "New Words" to describe women's experience, offers a further reflection on her departure from Christianity. Here, Daly views "the earlier Daly as a foresister whose work is an essential source."
In her 1985 "Original Reintroduction" to Beyond God the Father Daly maintains most of the views expressed in her second book, but rejects traditional theological vocabulary. In her later work, language becomes paramount. While always passionate, her words become increasingly lyrical, alliterative, and specialized. Irregular capitalization in her works are used to delineate words she has revitalized and reclaimed.
Daly's 1975 article, "The Qualitative Leap beyond Patriarchal Religion," provides the trajectory of a new constructive phase. In the "New Intergalactic Introduction (1990)" of Gyn/Ecology Daly reiterates a plan for a three-volume work based on the identification of eight Deadly Sins of the Fathers. Gyn/Ecology (1978) deals with "Processions," "Professions," and "Possessions" (deception, pride, and avarice). Pure Lust (1984) deals with "Aggression" and "Obsession" (anger and lust). The third volume, Outer-Course: The Be-Dazzling Voyage (1993) addresses "Assimilation," "Elimination,"and "Fragmentation" (gluttony, envy, and sloth), also tacitly dealt with in the 1987 Wickedary of the English Language.
In Gyn/Ecology Daly crisscrosses cultures and continents painstakingly exposing Indian suttee, Chinese foot binding, African genital mutilation, European witch burning, and the development of American gynecology to show that gynocidal practices are universal. She begins here her journey of creating women-identified Time/Space. Daly differentiates between Background, "the divine depth within the Self," and Foreground, "surface consciousness," analytical distinctions upon which she draws in her later work.
In Pure Lust, Daly journeys into the Background through three realms: (1) archespheres, uncovering "the Archimage—the Original Witch—within our Selves," (2) pyrospheres, the space of Elemental E-motions and ontological Passions, and (3) metamorphospheres, the center of Belonging and Be-friending. The discussion of each realm ensues with the exposure of the foreground that patriarchy has created to mask the spheres: sadospirituality, potted passions and plastic virtues, and patriarchal, inauthentic belonging and befriending. Daly retrieves "lust" from a phallocentric lechery and renews it with its other meanings of eagerness, craving, and intense longing.
Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language brings together a collection of Daly's New Words and their various meanings. The volume has preliminary articles on spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and guides that mirror the image of a dictionary but are actually theoretical pieces. The presentation of words and meanings, woven "in cahoots with Jane Caputi," appears in the second phase of the book. Readers unfamiliar with Daly's work will be impeded from using Wickedary as a reference tool because the words are divided into three different word-webs that depend upon a basic understanding of her thought. A third phase, "Appendicular Webs," contains four further essays by Daly
In Outer-Course: The Be-Dazzling Voyage (1992) Daly intertwines both autobiographical and philosophical material to portray her intellectual voyage in four interconnected spiral galaxies. These spirals roughly correspond to the writing of each of her books, although the first spiral includes many memories from preexistence through the writing of The Church and the Second Sex. The volume focuses on the power that recollections of a woman who has journeyed through the spirals and understands their interrelatedness can have to energize women and Daly herself for further voyaging.
In 1979 Audre Lorde penned the most well-known criticism of Daly, citing Daly's failure to include the writings and experiences of women of color except as victims. Daly publicly acknowledged the criticism in Gyn/Ecology's second edition and in Outer-Course. In Pure Lust and Wickedary Daly does try to address diversity. The 1990 edition of Gyn/Ecology also includes an afterword by Bonnie Mann portraying the usefulness of Daly's analysis in Mann's work with battered women, an effort to show the accessibility of the work to different classes. Writers of feminist criticism and texts on theory generally label Daly as cultural feminist, an appellation Daly does not espouse in her own self-descriptions. She prefers Positively Revolting Hag, i.e., "a stunning, beauteous Crone, one who inspires positive revulsion from phallic institutions and morality, inciting Others to Act of Pure Lust."
In 1999, while still teaching at Boston College, Daly made the news when the administration, apparently responding to a threatened affirmative action suit, insisted she allow men in her "Introduction to Feminist Ethics" course. Her policy had always been to teach separate classes to men and to women. Professor Daly responded by taking a semester's leave while considering her retirement. Ironically, the all-male student body of 1969 successfully demonstrated for her reinstatement and tenure when the administration did not renew her contract. Student support in the recent controversy was represented in a letter signed by 14 women and printed in the campus newspaper: "Throughout her 33-year career at Boston College, Professor Daly has provided insight, inspiration and mentoring…the administration is silencing Mary Daly and negating the very ideals that it proclaims invaluable." During her sabbatical, however, Daly wasn't idle—she continued work on a sequel to her 1998 book, Quintessence…Realizing the Archaic Future: A Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto.
The value and power of language led Daly to writing, as she indicates in her autobiographical essay, "Sin Big" (1996), where she describes her early experiences and decisions about her education. "Ever since childhood, I have been honing my skills for living the life of a Radical Feminist Pirate and cultivating the Courage to Sin."
Her eighth book, a futuristic, millennial journey, Quintessence, completes the quest begun in Gyn/Ecology and Pure Lust by imagining a world beyond the patriarchal history. As she recounts the situation, the oppression of women, the exhaustion of natural resources, and the dominance of fundamentalist thought characterize life at the end of the 20th century. The title page of Quintessence includes the additional inscription that explains the circumstances of the text: "2048 B.E. (Biophilic Era) Edition: Containing Cosmic Comments and Conversations with the Author, Published on Lost Found Continent by Anonyma Network (An Intergalactic Enterprise of Anonyma Network) In Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Work."
Daly structures a fictive context in which Annie (Anonyma), the future editor, writes a preface and records her "transtemporal" dialogues with the author, Mary Daly. Daly's chapters enumerate women's experiences of Diaspora in the patriarchal, postmodernist world. Following each chapter are Annie's commentary and conversations with the author that describe this world inhabited by women and a few enlightened men who live out Daly's feminist dreams, unencumbered by the patriarchal world they left behind in 2012 B.E.
Lorde, A., "An Open Letter to Mary Daly," in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, C. Moraga and G. Azaldúa, eds. (1981). Spencer, M. L., M. Kehoe, and K. Speece, eds., Handbook for Women Scholars: Strategies for Success (1982).
CANR (1990). FC (1990). MTCW (1991).
America (Jan. 1974). Boston Globe (25 Feb. 1999, 28 Feb. 1999, 23 Mar. 1999). Christian Century (Jan. 1974). CW (Feb. 1974). Critic (Jan.-Feb. 1974). LJ (1 Oct. 1998). National Catholic Reporter (5 Feb. 1999, 5 Mar. 1999). Off Our Backs (1998). On The Issues (1998). PW (17 Aug. 1998). WRB 16:6.
UPDATED BY BARBARA ANNE RADTKE