Mary Daly’s Letter to Audre Lorde

In May of 1979, Audre Lorde shared her critique of Gyn/Ecology with Mary Daly via a letter.  Lorde claimed she had received no response from Daly and published her assessment of Daly’s work as an open letterLorde had commented on this issue over the years and in 1982 claimed in an interview that if she had received a response from Daly, she would not have published her critique as an open letter. This letter was widely republished and has been used as a paradigmatic teaching tool for the study of “white feminist racism” in Women’s Studies courses. However, in 2003 as Alexis De Veaux was completing research for her forthcoming biography about Lorde, Warrior Poet, she  found Daly’s letter of response in Lorde’s papers.  On the letter Daly’s last name was written in the bottom corner in Lorde’s handwriting.  On June 9, 2003 De Veaux contacted Daly explaining her discovery and asked permission to quote from  Daly’s letter that was dated September 22, 1979.  DeVeaux wrote about the existence of the letter and an unsatisfactory encounter between the two women that occurred in September 1979; she also speculated on the reasons Lorde chose not to disclose receiving the letter.  In Amazon Grace Daly tells her version of the story and explains that it was gratifying that De Veaux thought it was crucial to publish the letter and correct the widespread misbelief that Daly had not responded to Lorde (26).  Shortly after Daly received a copy of her letter from DeVeaux, she called friends and colleagues asking them to help make this information more widely known.  Carol P. Christ gave me access to the copy of Mary’s letter she received at that time.  Because parts of the letter itself may be difficult to read, I am also posting a transcription.

September 22, 1979

Dear Audre,

First, I want to thank you for sending me The Black Unicorn.  I have read all of the poems, some of them several times.  Many of them moved me very deeply – others seemed farther from my own experience.  You have helped me to be aware of different dimensions of existence, and I thank you for this.  

My long delay in responding to your letter by no means indicated that I have not been thinking about it – quite the contrary.  I did think that by putting it aside for awhile I would get a better perspective than at first reaction.  I wrote you a note to that effect which didn’t get mailed since I didn’t have your address.  Then there was a hope of trying to get to Vermont in August, but the summer was overwhelmingly eventful.

Clearly there is no simple response possible to the matters you raise in your letter.  I wrote Gyn/Ecology out of the insights and materials most accessible to me at the time.  When I dealt with myth I used commonly available sources to find what were the controlling symbols behind judeo-christian myth in order to trace a direct line to the myths which legitimate the technological horror show.  But of course to point out this restriction in the first passage is not really to answer your letter.  You have made your point very strongly and you most definitely do have a point.  I could speculate on how Gyn/Ecology would have been affected had we corresponded about this before the manuscript went to press, but it doesn’t seem creativity-conducing to look backward.  There is only now and the hope of breaking the barriers between us – of constantly expanding the vision.

I wonder if you will have any time available when I come to New York for the Simone de Beauvoir conference?  Since I have a lot to do here, I had thought of just flying down Friday morning and returning that night.  Are you free Friday afternoon or evening?  Or will you be in Boston any time soon?  I called and left a message on your machine.  My number is …. Hope to see you and talk with you soon.

[Handwritten] I hope you are feeling well, Audre.  May the strength of all the Goddesses be with you – Mary

Click the link below to view a copy of the actual letter from Daly.

Mary Daly’s letter to Audre Lorde

Also see:

Mary Daly’s recollection of the events in Amazon Grace, p. 22-26

Warrior Poet, p. 233-238, 246-248, 251-253

Adrienne Sere’s In remembrance of Mary Daly: Lessons for the Movement

Carol P. Christ’s response to the publication of Daly’s letter on this blog: What Does It Mean to Say that All White Feminists Are Racist? (Questions Posed to White Women/Myself about Our Part in the Dialogue with Women of Color)

(This blog was revised on October 8, 2011)

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Categories: Feminism, Foremothers, Herstory, Mary Daly

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20 replies

  1. Thanks Gina for this post! I am grateful that you took the time to offer this – it’s frustrating that this very important exchange between Lorde and Daly is still usually presented without the full (and new) information when taught in the classroom. I think it’s my personal connection with Mary Daly that keeps me from being able to response myself – it’s still too close to home and too emotional for me to response in a public setting. So I appreciate that you did – Gracias :)

    • Thanks so much for your comments Xochitl. I had been thinking about you this weekend as the discussion on Daly carried on. I know you had a close relationship with Daly and can appreciate that your personal connection with her made commenting difficult. Thanks for your encouragement and support!

  2. Thank you, Gina, for taking the time to correct this widely-held misperception. We will be discussing some more twists and turns in their exchange in class today (Wed, 10/5), but I wanted to add the following points:

    (1) Upon Daly’s invitation to do so (and Adrienne Rich’s encouragement to Lorde to accept the invitation), Daly and Lorde met privately at a conference that weekend (following Lorde’s receipt of Daly’s letter) honoring the work of Simone de Beauvoir (Sep 27-29, 1979).

    (a) According to Adrienne Rich (whom Lorde’s biographer Alexis de Veaux interviewed), Lorde found their exchange “disappointing” because she hadn’t expected Daly “to be so out of emotional touch with herself.”

    (b) This is Mary Daly’s version of what transpired according to her Outercourse (1998), “I explained my positions clearly, or so I thought. I pointed out, for example, that Gyn/Ecology is not a compendium of goddesses. Rather, it focuses primarily on those goddess myths and symbols which were direct sources of Christian myth. Apparently Lorde was not satisfied, although she did not indicate this at the time. She later published and republished slightly altered versions of her originally personal letter to me in anthologies….It continues to be my judgment that public response in kind would not be a fruitful direction. In my view, Gyn/Ecology is itself an ‘Open Book.’ I regret any pain that unintended omissions may have caused others, particularly women of color, as well as myself. The writing of Gyn/Ecology was for me an act of Biophilic Bonding with women of all races and classes, under all the varying oppressions of patriarchy. Clearly, women who have a sincere interest in understanding and discussing this book have an obligation to read not only the statements of critics but also the book itself, and to think about it.”

    (2) In that 1982 interview, you were right to point out that Lorde stated “If I had had a response, I don’t think I would have made the letter open.” According to Lorde’s biographer, she also previously said in that same interview “I had no response that had any satisfaction to it” though she did admit “we talked.”

    (3) Feminists are left trying to figure out why Lorde never revised her published claim that she never received a reply from Daly. Adriene Sere has wondered why Lorde’s letter has not yet been subject to critique (the way Daly’s Gyn/Ecology has). Lorde’s biographer has suggested that “there was an element of ‘sibling rivalry’ in her view of the sisterhood between Rich and Daly that Lorde found herself outside–insecure and intensely jealous,” that Lorde’s “love-hate-competitive relationships with white women informed an unresolved anger toward them” and thus “she felt no desire to protect Daly, as she believed Rich did.”

    (4) A lot for me is at stake not so much in the exchange between these two (or three, if you count Rich) women, but whether and how the breakdown affects the ability of feminists today to work across racial-ethnic lines. These are themes we’ll be discussing in class, and I continue to be grateful to this blog for allowing our class discussions to spill over into cyberspace.

    • Grace, thanks so much for sharing this additional info. As I put this piece together my goal was to let Daly speak for herself and not offer too much commentary – but in doing so, clearly I left out important details. So thanks for addressing these. Also, I’m working on uploading the letter in another format so you can see it without clicking the link – as well as scanning the pages from Amazon Grace so one can easily access Daly’s own words on this subject.

      • Gina – in case you misunderstood, my additions were in no way meant as a critique – it was wise of you to streamline the information (I just wanted to provide more for readers hungry for more details). I’m totally grateful for these recent posts on Daly; let’s all keep up the good work!

      • No misunderstanding, Grace. Thanks so much for the additional info – and I agree, what a terrific week of discussion!

  3. Thanks so much for posting this Gina and for your explanation above, Grace. I feel like I’ve heard so little of this story, despite being someone who studies feminism actively. The way that feminists work with diversity and across borders of all kinds is so important. Working on my dissertation, I thought a lot about the idea or possibility of feminist community(ies), “agonistic” groupings and the loving that is goddess in my vision of a process universe…
    This is such an important issue to me and brings to mind my own personal successes and failures to make connections in tense spaces tempered by so much abuse and ‘abusive residue,’ so to speak.
    Thank you again for bringing up these issues.

  4. Hi, young feminist here. (3rd wave) Just wanted to weigh in on how much I appreciate the blog and all the insightful commentary, but I also wanted to say that I feel a little left out when it comes to discussions like these. Anything from the ’70s sort of feels like it comes from another planet and everyone is speaking another language entirely. I’m not trying to be difficult or petulant here, but sometimes it just seems a little parochial that’s all.

    • Hi Maat, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate that you are approaching the topic from a different perspective – but please know that although your own feminism is different from those of past generations, it is those past generations that have allowed feminism to grow and continue. Without our founding mothers, where would we be? Just food for thought. So grateful that you appreciate the blog and are sharing your thoughts. Carry on!

  5. If the issue were dead, there would be no reason to beat a dead horse (so to speak). But I frequntly hear young feminists say that earlier white feminists were racists, sometimes mentioning Mary Daly as an example. I will be commenting this in my blog on Friday.

    • Carol, I am so looking forward to reading your post this Friday! And as I mention above, I don’t know where I would be today if it were not for the work of Daly, Ruether, or your work. You each have been so influential in the shaping of my feminist views. Thank you for paving the way.

  6. I think we have to remember that there may have been a lot competition between all the major feminists of that day. The expectations were very high that they’d be the great feminists we all wanted them to be. However, we had people we knew very little about. Daly and Lorde were very different people. I’ve read all of their works, and Daly came from the more openly threatening lesbian feminist separatist school of thought. Lorde did not.

    And Maat, this can seem like ancient herstory… kind of like the way I felt about Alger Hiss and the pumpkin papers when I was a kid, but everything has a context. Mary Daly said that women had their culture and herstory stolen from them…erased. She helped find the foresisters of her era (she wouldn’t use the term foremother)… The intersection of race/sex/class has been problematic within feminism for almost 200 years now. The Daly/Lorde confrontation just was a part of that.

    I think Daly was probably rather a shy scholarly type, and Lorde the outgoing type. Lorde probably did feel excluded among the white women “elite” of feminism. I’ve heard women complain that Daly took way too long to respond to the Lorde letter etc. Or one women’s studies professor who knew Lorde said she was annoyed that Daly violated copyright in publishing Lorde’s poems in Gyn/Ecology. I double checked this, and it appeared that Beacon Press did have permission to publish quotes from Lorde’s work.

    Time past can be mysterious. The fanatic red scare of the 50s was a big mystery to me in high school. Why would people be so afraid of the Soviet Union? How could people throw Japanese Americans into internment camps? Why didn’t German neighbors save their Jewish friends?

    The past is another country, they do things differently there, to paraphrase E.M. Forester.

  7. P.S. We all like to be perplexed at the previous generation rehashing boring old stuff Maat. But I think what makes this a little bit different is we as lesbian feminists struggle with patriarchal erasure.
    We have more to loose in not talking about the past, or documenting what really happened.

    Mary Daly even commented that “Open Letter to Mary Daly” was read in full in women’s studies programs, but not her entire “Gyn/Ecology.” Daly would want all of us to read all the great feminist works in full, and to bring new energy to feminism.

    Maat, you can bring new and powerful energy to feminism. And I look forward to reading what you have to say in detail. Did we get somewhere? Is radical lesbian feminism going to be buried by patriarchal erasure? How can we remain true to our heroines and mentors, and yet not be boring and dead to the present day?

    Can patriarchy, a 5000 year old system, actually be overturned? Why does it win all the time? How do women learn to discount each other?

    • Thanks Turtle Woman! Goddess knows I don’t think it’s boring, it’s just that for those born later, we have to play some catch up to know what’s going on. And I’m sincerely grateful for what came before.

      That’s a lot of good questions, and I’ll answer the ones I think I can. (The others we’ll have to discover together). Things are definitely better today, not perfect to be sure, but that is the nature of reform. To change and change again. Myself not being lesbian, I can’t speak from personal experience on this one, but gay rights in general (something my generation is very sympathetic to) are only poised to grow and continue to offer living, eloquent critique of gender roles and power differences, which has been good for straight pairings too. When our elders listen to us, take our concerns seriously, and remind us where we came from, we are stronger for it. I believe everytime men and women work together for the common good, patriarchy is overturned. And I look forward to more thinking and seeking after Justice in this wonderful space. ;)

  8. It is important to have this letter available widely. When Mary realized that a copy existed, she was reluctant to publish it initially for fear of being labeled racist all over again. But when she put it in AMAZON GRACE I think she signaled her intention to set the record straight. I hope that future focus will be not so much on Mary Daly, Audre Lorde and the past but on our own efforts to eradicate racism.

    • Thanks so much for your comments Mary! From my conversations with Carol Christ, it seems that it was important to Daly to “set the record straight” – as also indicated by its publication in Amazon Grace. Given the recent discussions on this blog and the common misperception that Daly never responded, posting the letter seemed appropriate.

      This being said, you are correct that attention should be focused on the future and how to eradicate racism and all injustice. We must always look ahead and work towards justice! Again, thanks so much for sharing you thoughts here. :)

  9. May I ask: where might I find scholarly sources on these subjects? Where would I look to, say, study the original copies? Very interesting and insightful post and responses. I would like to use this historic conversation in a class I teach (or in my thesis, somehow), but would need to know where to look to find them in an academically-citable source. Thanks!

  10. Love, Love this post and string of comments. Thank you. May you all be well, thank you for your wisdom and efforts. That is all.

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