Beyond Radical: Mary Daly, Feminist Theologian, Changed Worlds

“I urge you to Sin… But not against these itty-bitty religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism—or their secular derivatives, Marxism, Maoism, Freudianism and Jungianism—which are all derivatives of the big religion of patriarchy. Sin against the infrastructure itself!”

Never anything but controversial, Mary Daly, author of works from 1968’s The Church and the Second Sex through the recent Amazon Grace, changed the worldviews of women and men for decades, challenging readers and listeners (and institutions) to imagine what she called an “ontological revolution” rooted in women experiencing (and becoming) themSelves.

Denied tenure (eventually overturned) and promotion to full professor, and forced into retirement, the longtime Boston College professor’s career spanned world transformations of Roman Catholicism, higher education, and American culture’s treatment of women. Beginning with her degrees from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where she was the first woman to receive a theological degree, through her witnessing of the debate of Vatican II, her authorship of transformational philosophical reflection, her “Exodus” of the Harvard chapel (and of Catholicism) in the name of women, and her involvement in the formation of key areas of scholarly inquiry (including the Women and Religion section of the American Academy of Religion), Mary Daly was an agent of change. Self-identified as a revolutionary and a radical, branded a conservative essentialist or racist by others, her works of philosophical, theological, and genre-bending scholarship affected generations of women.

For Daly, women, (W)omen—that’s what she was all about. And, even more radically, she was about women loving women, lesbians with a capital L, meaning not those of a certain sexual orientation embedded within patriarchy, but those who truly loved themSelves. For Daly, as she eventually came to see it, debates between Jungianism and Freudianism, between Marxism and Nazism, Christianity and Judaism or Buddhism, were all what Freud (whose work she also drew on) would have called “the narcissism of small differences.” All were, for her, sects within the grand (and tragic) religion of patriarchy.

To move beyond patriarchy—spiraling out and sparking real connection between and among (W)omen, was ontological (or what she called a radical elemental) feminism. Sometimes construed as linguistic tomfoolery (as in her famous feminist re-visioning of the dictionary, her Wickedary), with tales of backgrounds and foregrounds, of worlds and wonders beyond the moon, Daly’s work sought to demystify patriarchal worldviews and structures, indeed, patriarchal makings of selves—and to identify and reach anOther option. Whether rendered through the metaphor of another place, or of another time, Daly’s imaginative and philosophical work pushed beyond.

Others will memorialize her much better than I. For me, it is enough to recall the sight of her plaid flannel shirt as she read (in a much more humorous tone than I had anticipated) from her works across the years. Or, to think of the respondents who berated Daly in responding to an essay I wrote on her (entitled “Rejected, Reclaimed, Renamed: Mary Daly on Religion and Psychology”). Their very venom—accompanied by the flinging around of words like necrophiliac, insane, and paranoid in what was ostensibly a scholarly journal—taught me a crucial lesson about the narrowness engendered by fear.

While I did not know it when I exited the church in which I was raised (I had never heard of Daly’s already famous exodus from the Harvard chapel), the symbolic power of that exit carried weight and remains a not uncomplicated reminder of hope emerging from refusal. Like her, I find the phrase Christian feminist oxymoronic; and like her, I rest in the paradoxical awareness that many others also intent on building an ontological revolution do not agree. Perhaps most paradoxically, when I think of her power, I think not of her own refusal to teach men (and her emphasis that she simply was not interested in men; she cared about women) but of a seminar of three women and three men I taught some years ago about her work. I can hear their voices as they struggled with those ideas, and the hope they each expressed in doing so.

Citing important foremothers like Valerie Saiving in her own early work, Daly’s own intellectual power drew upon a complex array of thinkers from Tillich and de Beauvoir to Freud and Thomas Szasz. Her creativity lay in resisting, transforming, and imagining/inventing/discovering a new world and new way of being. Her work reminds us of the central place of intellectual dissent, and anger, in any envisioning or enacting of a more equitable world for women.

Her work reminds us, too, that misogyny is real (and not merely carried by men), and that the hope of a world beyond patriarchy remains our responsibility. Thus, her passing reminds us all that we must not let the radical potential of feminism—or of Lesbianism—die.