In Memoriam: Mary Daly

Cambridge, MA. Many readers will know that Professor Mary Daly, pioneering, brilliant, and controversial feminist theologian, died last week at age 81.  See Jim Martin's note on this too. Professor Daly taught for some 30 years at Boston College, and so she was my colleague there from 1984, when I joined the faculty, until her retirement (forced or free) about a decade ago. Her years at BC were in general not happy ones, at least in a contextual sense. Long before I arrived, the relationship between Professor Daly and her colleagues had gone sour, at times contentious, angry, demonstrative (including student strikes), distant, absent, silent. By 1984, she was no longer participating in departmental meetings and committees, and was largely not present at all in the Department — except in the way a very famous, monumental intellectual and spiritual force made her presence felt. We would nod to one another in the hallway, occasionally say hello, but that was the limit of our contact. It was sad.
     Mary Daly was by all accounts a radical thinker. I am not a scholar of her work, and cannot summarize it with any precision, but my sense that when she assessed the condition of women in the modern world, in religions, and in the Catholic Church, all taken in light of her own experience trying to make her way as a pioneering woman theologian – with multiple doctorates — in a 1960s Church not quite ready for women theologians, she came to the stark conclusion that there was no simple remedy to the bias, as if small changes would right the wrongs and make women equal to men. Rather, the biases and distortions so harmful to women permeated the entirety of human experience, and traditional religions were infected with pervasive bias, in ideas, language, practices, and social structures. Accordingly, women had to be radical in their critiques, taking apart of the whole structures and not just adjusting details. For this, women were better off outside the religions, Catholicism included, and for a time at least, better off nurturing their own conversations and ways of living, without the presence, help or hindrance of men, even well-meaning men. So Mary Daly was a Catholic intellectual who decided for theological reasons, and by personal imperative, that she could no longer be a Christian. 
     I heard Professor Daly speak once on campus at BC, and was impressed with the force of her ideas and her totally brilliant play with the English language. I remember most vividly how, in keeping with her classroom practice (such as led to her departure from the faculty), after the lecture she did not take questions from men. When finally one of the women in the audience asked her why, she replied that it was important for men to have the experience of being ignored, overlooked, not allowed to speak. I didn’t have a question for her that evening, but appreciated her point: unless we ourselves experience marginalization, the brute force of power imposed on us, we really won’t be able to get what it is like to be a perennially demeaned and oppressed person.
     Only once did I actually sit down and talk with her, about 20 years ago, when she and I and another colleague met off campus for tea. As I recall now, it was a bit uncomfortable, since such moments were so rare. I cannot recall much of what we talked about — her academic work and ours, I suppose, not wanting to ruin a moment of peace — but I am glad that I had the opportunity to meet her in a more humane and open setting, at least once.
     Did she affect my work? Not directly, though her presence at BC kept reminding us all that safe ideas safely expressed within safe structures are rather useless in the long run, and harmful. No one who lives by ideas, and gets paid for it as a living (as do professors), should be satisfied with just saying things that sound good but never actually change things. I agree, even if my writing has headed in a different direction. Indeed, I remain resolutely Roman Catholic, in and of the Church, and I would not step away from a commitment to Christ. My entire career’s work has been based on the confidence that conversations are possible, that we need people like and unlike ourselves, that radical resistance is nonviolent even in word, and that God is always helping us to overcome even what may seem at some level irreconcilable differences. I also disagree with her on particular issues, even if one must be careful to keep even her radical ideas — about sexuality, abortion, and so forth — in the larger and vastly intelligent context of her overall vision and word. She did not simply think like the rest of us and differ on one or another point of ethics; rather, she recast the entire discussion in light of women's experience, as it is and ideally should be. But despite divergences, Mary Daly still reminded me that unless we are radical, we are not really thinking.
     I would guess that if she ever read or thought about any of my writings, she mostly likely would have seen me as still part of, caught in, structures she thought had to be overturned. The situation in which we found ourselves in at BC was one in which we could not easily talk to one another. But she, unlike me, probably felt that distance and non-communication were necessary visible signs of an extreme and extremely unjust situation, while I felt that there is no situation in which we cannot do better by finding ways to talk to one another, vulnerable even to one another’s hard words.
     But I also know that Professor Daly was a mentor and inspiration to a generation and more of feminist theologians. Some parted company with her, because they found her too radical, or too old-fashioned absolutist or too separatist, or after a while no longer imaginative enough about the hybridity of human experience, gendered and otherwise. But even then, a vast multitude of women thinkers, and men too, owe so very much to her, this angry, relentless, clear-sighted magician and priestess of theological and sacred words. Even if I have not much quoted from her books (I did that only once, I think), the way I think about Hinduism and Christianity, and about the nature of the Church today, is inevitably, implicitly indebted to Mary Daly, who changed the context in which we think about humans and God.
     I close on a different note: It is a tribute to her person and presence, I have learned, that even in her long last illness, unprotected by family, she was surrounded and supported by women who loved her dearly and made it possible that she not be alone in those last days. To get a feel for her work, to inspire you and/or rile you, try for instance this site that lists some quotations from her work. I close with just several of the quotations given there: “If God is male, then male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination;” “Courage is like -- it's a habitus, a habit, a virtue: you get it by courageous acts. It's like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging;” “Why indeed must 'God' be a noun? Why not a verb - the most active and dynamic of all.”
     Mary Daly, rest in peace.

7 years 6 months ago
Padre: "I also disagree with her on particular issues, though one must be careful to keep even her radical ideas — about sexuality, abortion, and so forth — in the larger and vastly intelligent context of her overall vision and word". What does this mean?
Vince Killoran
7 years 6 months ago
This is the most thoughtful reflection I have read on Mary Daly since her death.  I understand why AMERICA editors had to shut down the earlier posting so, thanks for running this.
 
I especially benefited from the way Fr. Clooney discussed her important contribution to the way we think about God and pose the "big questions" (even while disagreeing with her conclusions).
 
7 years 6 months ago
"If anyone," Paul wrote to the Galatians, "preach to you a gospel besides what you have received, let him be anathema” (Galatians l:9).
Marc Monmouth
7 years 6 months ago
Maria, An excellent question (#1)!  I, too, would like an explanation of what it means. 
Jeff Bagnell
7 years 6 months ago
It is unlikely that a male theologian who sought to exclude females from class at BC, and otherwise argued for the belittlement and marginaliazation of females, would receive such a tribute.
 
 
Vince Killoran
7 years 6 months ago
I didn't think Fr. Clonney was providing a "tribute."  His assessment of Professor Daly's significance was nuanced:he was clear that he disagreed with her separatism and many of her specific positions.  The most compelling section in his post was this:"[W]e need people like and unlike ourselves, that radical resistance is nonviolent even in word, and that God is always helping us to overcome even what may seem at some level irreconcilable differences."
 
Our Catholic colleges and universities must be places where students and scholars can be challenged; we can even draw on some of the ideas and approaches of those with whom we have fundamental disagreements. Otherwise, we are simply hosting "training centers" where we dispense with pre-packaged ideas and hope our "clients" secure their "skill sets." What a bleak place that would be.
David Nickol
7 years 6 months ago
JSB,
You say: ''It is unlikely that a male theologian who sought to exclude females from class at BC, and otherwise argued for the belittlement and marginaliazation of females, would receive such a tribute.''
According to it's own web site: ''Boston College was founded by the Society of Jesus in 1863 and, with 3 teachers and 22 students, opened its doors on September 5, 1864. . . . In 1927 Boston College conferred one earned bachelor's degree and 15 master's degrees on women through its Extension Division. By 1970 all undergraduate programs had become coeducational, and today women comprise more than half of the University's enrollment.'' So women were totally excluded for the first 63 years and not fully included for over a century.
I can't say I approve of what Mary Daly did, but excluding what I assume were a very few males who wanted to study feminist theology pales in comparison to the historic and continuing exclusion of women from many positions in the Catholic Church.
Jeff Bagnell
7 years 6 months ago
A slightly different take on her legacy is over at Ignatius Insight.  www.ignatiusinsight.com.  Her obsession with gender and sexuality was unfortunate, though I'm sure she was a good person in her private life. 
Gender and sexuality are only aspects of our existence as human beings, they do not define the whole of it. 
 
 
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 6 months ago
Thank you for this sensitive and insightful reflection on Mary Daly.
 
As a pro-life liberal Catholic, I loved reading about Mary's thoughts and life, who I didn't know until she died.  In my mind, she opened the way for a truly Catholic feminism, which will never happen until underlying patriarchal structures are radically challenged and dismantled.
 
Because of her, one of these days Catholic women will come to know their true dignity and place.  They will know a Blessed Mother who said YES to God, but who also said NO to submission, injustice and blind obedience.  They will absolutely refuse the artificial contraceptives and hormones that poison their bodies and keep them in a state of being ''used''.  And they will know, absolutely, the blessed holiness that is the fruit of their wombs.
 
Mary Daly couraged her way to a unique brand of sanctity.
Jeff Bagnell
7 years 6 months ago
It's a shock but I actually find myself agreeing with Beth on the contraceptives point.  They do allow women to be objectified and used as a means for sexual pleasure, instead of ends in themselves.   Of course, the teaching against contraception did not come from Mary Daly, but our "patriarchal" magisterium...
7 years 6 months ago
Milbo: Thank you; however, I do not think we are going to get an answer, do you?

Beth: I am not surprised that I agree w/ you re contraception, in lieu of our long conversation re the Dodd piece. I disagree with regard to your conceptualization of Mary. I think in her submission and blind obedinece was the glory of her fiat. Why do women search for more? Mary, the Mother of God: what on earth is more radical?

BTW Beth, your comments, on the Shillebxx piece, with reagrd to your priest friend and the red shoes, was absolutely hysterical.
Jeff Bagnell
7 years 6 months ago
further to Beth's point, contraceptives also allow women to use men for sexual pleasure. it is a two way street in using people. 
7 years 6 months ago
JSB: Yes. Opportunity for sin abounds.
Carolyn: sub·mis·sion
Pronunciation: s?b-?mi-sh?n
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin submission-, submissio act of lowering, from submittere.
Act of lowering. Intersting. As she is exalted.
7 years 6 months ago
"Mary was, and is, the epitome of human obedience to the will of God, and this total submission to the will of God is the "secret of the whole spiritual life"-John Hardon SJ
Vince Killoran
7 years 6 months ago
Why is Mary only being considered a role model for women?
7 years 6 months ago
Becasuse she is the only perfect model. She was the Mother of God.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 6 months ago
The oppression of women in our culture is so ingrained that not only do men not get it, most women do not get it or understand the depths of it.  Mary Daly did not allow men in her classes because she said that men would "start whining, what about me, I'm oppressed too..."
 
Fr. Clooney includes in his remembrance of Mary Daly the way she would not take questions from men after her lectures because they needed the experience of being ignored, overlooked, and not allowed to speak.
 
Following the comments in this thread, I begin to understand better what Mary Daly was seeking to address. 
 
I appreciate your asking why Mary is only considered as a model for women, Vince.  I bet you might qualify as one of the men that Mary Daly took as a student privately (but not in class) :-) .
Vince Killoran
7 years 6 months ago
"Because she is the only perfect model." Exactly!
But I don't understand Maria's argument-must our role models now be of the same gender?!
Jeff Bagnell
7 years 6 months ago
I'm sure Beth doesn't pretend to speak for all women, and while she may not partake in that behavior, there is more than anecdotal evidence that both genders take advantage of the pill and other artificial means of contraception to separate the unitive and pleasurable function of sexual intercourse from its procreative potential. 
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 6 months ago
JSB, I hate to be blunt, but women do not need for semen to be deposited in their vaginas for sexual satisfaction.  Women do not use contraceptives in order to "use" men for sexual pleasure.

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