Mary Daly

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Mary Daly

Mary Daly (born 1928) was considered the foremost feminist theoretician and philosopher in the United States.

Mary Daly was born in Schenectady, New York, on October 16, 1928. Educated in Catholic schools, she received her first Ph.D. from St. Mary's College/Notre Dame University in 1954. Between 1959 and 1966 she taught philosophy in Junior Year Abroad programs in Fribourg, Switzerland. She also received doctorates in theology and philosophy from the University of Fribourg in 1963 and 1965. After 1966 she was a member of the theology department of Boston College.

Daly was in the forefront of American feminist thinking, both in terms of her early appearance as a feminist writer and in terms of the depth, originality, and power of her work. Her first feminist book, The Church and the Second Sex (1968), was published at the very beginning of the women's liberation movement that emerged in the late 1960s. In that work Daly both documented the history of misogynism in the Catholic Church from the time of the early Fathers through the reign of Pope Pius XII and explored the limitations placed on women's development by the Church's perpetuation of the myth of the "Eternal Feminine." This was the belief that the true nature of women is to be self-sacrificing, passive, and docile, and that women are fulfilled only in physical or spiritual motherhood. Daly called for creative and independent women to exorcise the stifling image of the Eternal Feminine by "raising up their own image" and fulfilling their potential. She also urged the Church to contribute to the exorcism of antifeminism by ending discrimination against women in the ministry, eliminating the barriers that isolate nuns from the world, and examining the conceptual inadequacies that underlie and perpetuate androcentric theology. For example, the attribution of male gender to a transcendent God and the identification of women with sexuality, matter, and evil.

Book Threatens Job

Considerable furor followed the publication of The Church and the Second Sex. Daly was threatened with the loss of her job at Boston College and was finally granted tenure only after some months of student protests and widespread media publicity. The experience radicalized her view of the oppressiveness of patriarchal structures and was the catalyst of her transformation from a reformist Catholic to a post-Christian radical feminist.

In her next book, Beyond God the Father (1973), Daly challenged the whole edifice of patriarchal religion. She argued that its myths and theological constructs, by legitimating male superiority and displacing evil onto the female as the prototypical Other, not only oppress half the human race but foster social structures and ways of thinking that produce racism, genocide, and war. She rejected not only the gender identification of God but the concept of God as a static noun (supreme being) rather than active verb (Be-ing). To "'hypostatize transcendence,' to objectify God as a 'being,"' she wrote, is to "envisage transcendent reality as finite. 'God' then functions to legitimate the existing … status quo."

She saw in the women's movement an authentic challenge to patriarchal religion, a challenge that confronted the fathers' "demonic distortion of Be-ing" with an "ontological, spiritual revolution … pointing beyond the idolatries of sexist society and sparking creative action in and toward transcendence." She attempted to salvage some traditional Christian images by radically transforming their content; she argued that redemption from the evils of the sexist order can be brought about only by women, that the New Be-ing (theologian Paul Tillich's term for Christ) will be manifested in women, and that the prophecy of the Second Coming points to the re-emergence of a strong female presence capable of altering "the seemingly doomed course of human evolution."

Departs Christian Symbolism

In the years following the publication of Beyond God the Father Daly left behind all Christian symbolism and rooted her theology completely in women's experience. Gyn/Ecology (1978) was concerned with the process of women's "becoming" (which Daly described in mythic terms as a journey to the Otherworld) and with the demonic obstacles to that process, the deceptive myths and sadistic practices of patriarchal culture. Subtitled The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Gyn/Ecology was an attempt to see through the deceptive and confusing maze of patriarchal thinking about good and evil and to go beyond it into what Daly called the deep background of language and myth.

Daly explored the deadly "foreground" myths that shackle women's minds and recounted the psychological and physical destruction of women by such practices as Indian suttee, Chinese footbinding, African genital mutilation, European witchburning, and American gynecology.

Having named and described the male-created demons that block the passage to female Selfhood in the last section of the book, Daly then charted the deeper passages through which women spin and spiral into women-identified and woman-honoring consciousness. In the process of making this journey Daly reclaimed language—the "power of naming"—and forged it into an instrument for the liberation of women's minds from oppressive patriarchal myths and for the expression of deeper levels of women's psychological and spiritual experience. Though not always easy reading, this transformed language—incandescent, metaphoric, alliterative, playful, inventive, punning, charged with sheer energy, anger, and humor—is a brilliant manifestation of the emergence of a "metapatriarchal" women's consciousness.

Language Key to Self

Pure Lust (1984), subtitled Elemental Feminist Philosophy, was concerned with First Philosophy, traditionally defined as ontology or the philosophy of being. Daly reiterated her earlier rejection of the objectified noun being as an inadequate expression of the constantly creating and unfolding Powers of Be-ing, and she defined the ultimate concern of feminist philosophy as "biophilic participation in Be-ing." Be-ing was not separated from nature in Daly's thinking; it was to be found in the elemental nature of the Self, the earth, and the cosmos; Daly saw matter and spirit as unified and the cosmos as enspirited and ensouled.

In Pure Lust, as in Gyn/Ecology, her method of discovering and connecting with the sources of Be-ing was through language: she explored the etymological roots of words and their multiple, double-edged, obscure, and obsolete meanings in order to discover and open up the deep meanings of words and make them suitable for women's journey toward fuller participation in Elemental Be-ing. Though that journey is both outward and inward—outward with the evolutionary unfolding of the cosmos—in Pure Lust, as in Gyn/Ecology, Daly focused primarily on the journey inward and back, through the mazes of patriarchal barriers, to women's Archaic origins and original Selves, to the rediscovery of their primordial life-affirming power, connectedness, and creativity.

Daly's Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language Conjured in Cahoots with Jane Caputi was published in 1987. The book is an indictment of patriarchy and male dominated institutions in which Daly harnesses the power of naming to make her point. In the book, she defines "positively revolting hag," a term she uses to describe herself. For Daly it means, "a stunning, beauteous Crone; one who inspires positive revulsion from phallic institutions and morality. …." In Daly's lexicon, cockalorum means "a self-important little cock. Examples: Napoleon, Andy Warhol, Fiorello La Guardia, Mickey Mouse," and a crone is "a Great Hag of History, long-lasting one; Survivor of the perpetual witchcraze or patriarchy." Daly's dictionary was followed by Outercourse: The Be-Dazzling Voyage, based on her unpublished Logbook of a Radical Feminist Philosopher. This effort was followed by work for Daly's next book, to be called Quintessence. "This work is in some respects a successor to my philosophical autobiography, Outercourse, and in other ways it is a logical/ontological successor to my earlier works, Beyond God the Father, Gyn/Ecology, and Pure Lust," wrote Daly.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Daly continued to lecture to audiences around the world. She was an outspoken critic of popular phenomena such as the Christian men's movement as personified by an organization called the Promise Keepers. Answering a reporter who asked, "who has hurt women?" Daly responded, "These creeps, the Promise Keepers, rightwing Christians. It's not just the ancient fathers of the church and it's not just the church. It's all the major religions."

Writing in The New Yorker in 1996, Daly articulated her thoughts on the empowerment of women. "Women who are Pirates in a phallocratic society are involved in a complex operation. First, it is necessary to Plunder—that is, righteously rip off—gems of knowledge that the patriarchs have stolen from us. Second, we must Smuggle back to other women our Plundered treasures. In order to invent strategies that will be big and bold enough for the next millennium, it is crucial that women share our experiences: the chances we have taken and the choices that have kept us alive. They are my Pirate's battle cry and wake-up call for women who I want to hear."

Further Reading

There is no biography of Mary Daly. For biographical information, see Contemporary Authors (1st revision) and the autobiographical preface to the Harper Colophon edition of The Church and the Second Sex (1975).

Additional Sources

Ratcliffe, Krista, Anglo-American Feminist Challenges to the Rhetorical Traditions: Virginia Woolf, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. □

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Mary Daly

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