This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium, Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.
Mary Daly, a professor of theology at Boston College, is known as a radical feminist, one who is widely understood to have epitomized the stereotypical “man-hating femi-nazi.” Daly earned the latter title as the result of a dispute with Boston College concerning her supposed refusal to grant male students admittance into her classes. This dispute ultimately resulted in Daly’s retirement from Boston College in 1999. Somehow, Daly remained a presence on campus, attending panels and other events for years to follow. I had the privilege of meeting her twice while attending BC between 2002 and 2006. I cannot claim that she was particularly warm or personable. She was actually quite cold and demanding. While I was never close to Mary Daly, I feel that I owe her my deepest gratitude for her role in my Self-discovery. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect upon her influence in my life and, utilizing the insights of some of Daly’s former colleagues and students, to set the record straight regarding her alleged refusal to allow men into her classes.
I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition in a small suburb of Massachusetts. My father teases me to this day, claiming that my first word was not “dad,” but “why?” As a result of my curious nature, I required explanations for everything. Following the inevitable demise of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, I began to ask questions about God (having never actually seen him either). I immediately recognized that my questions were met with the disapproving stares of other children in my CCD classes (aka: Sunday school that is typically held on Saturdays) and unsatisfying answers from my teachers. In response to my questions concerning what I now understand to be ‘the problem of evil,’ my parents always relied on the classic “God works in mysterious ways,” while my sister would unleash her arrogance in her pithy reply, “Duh!”
For some time, I decided to go along with everything as though nothing had changed. It was obvious to me that my questions were perceived as menacing. I was cautious of making waves. To some extent, I was aware that doing so would result in a proliferation of negative judgments against my character. So I did as I was told, went to Church as regularly as most Catholics in my small town did (Christmas and Easter), and willingly suspended my disbelief. It was self-preservation.
This stage of self-denial did not last long. By high school, I simply stopped attending CCD until my parents signed me up for Confirmation classes (without my knowledge or consent). I had accepted that I was not a believer and that I would never make sense of the socially conservative views held by the Catholic Church. My parents expected that I would comply with their expectations, that I would follow through with my Confirmation out of respect for familial traditions. Much to my surprise, and to their dismay, I refused. I felt guilty for disappointing my family. I felt ashamed for causing them to feel embarrassed in their community. I was acutely aware and terrified of the potential isolation I stood to face. But above all else, I felt relieved.
While, at the time, I was aware that something about the entire process was unsettling, it was a long time before I was able to name it. The only thing I knew was that if I had gone through with my Confirmation, I would have been acting disingenuously, and I was not willing to sacrifice my integrity by doing so. Ironically, a year later I opted to attend Boston College, a conservative Jesuit school. I hardly expected that it would be here, in an environment with such a visible Catholic presence, that I would finally discover the root of my frustrations. Thanks to the legacy Mary Daly left behind, I was able to do just that.
I took a course called Introduction to Feminisms to fulfill a cultural diversity requirement. The class consisted of 80 students, both male and female, with ten TAs running discussion groups in pairs. Professor Ellen Friedman assigned some chapters from Daly’s Gyn/Ecology. I began reading the introduction, and then there it was: “Rage is not a stage. It is transformative focusing Force that awakens transcendent E-motion. It is my broom, my Fire-breathing, winged mare. It is my spiraling staircase, leading me where I can find my own Kind, unbind my mind,” (Daly. Gyn/Ecology, 1990. xxxi). In that moment, I knew I was a feminist. I knew I had just found what I had no idea I had been looking for all along.
Never before had I felt entitled to my anger, my rage, with no residual guilt for feeling it. Anger, or rage, was a gift. It should be investigated and utilized, not dwelled upon or suppressed. Professor Friedman emphasized the importance of utilizing discussion groups for such investigations. After reading Daly, many members of my discussion group began to identify oppressive forces in their lives and we worked together to determine the role that gender played in each of these. I openly identified my experiences with Catholicism and the social expectations imposed upon me by my family and the larger community. The Church’s position on abortion, contraception, sex outside of marriage, and homosexuality ceased to be representative of my moral imperfections. Instead, I saw the Church as faulty.
Mary Daly helped me find my feminist lens. While I find it difficult to agree with some of her positions (especially considering her exchange—or lack thereof–with Audre Lorde), I find it impossible not to classify her as one of my favorite feminist authors. As a result, I feel obliged to pass on some of the inside information that Professor Friedman and a group of panelists shared with the Introduction to Feminisms course in 2010. As my classmates and I prepare to read Daly for our Feminist Ethics course, I hope that these details may help to give a more accurate depiction of Daly’s intentions.
As the story goes, Daly violated Title IX when she refused to allow male students into her classes. She was reprimanded by the administration and opted to retire rather than to give in. More accurately, Daly was approached by two male students, one known to be a member of the conservative student newspaper at BC, The Observer. The students requested that Daly allow them to take her advanced course in feminist ethics. Daly suggested that the students enroll in her introductory courses, but the students declined.
In an effort to protect her students from what Daly perceived as a threat to their uninhibited expressions of thought, Daly offered to provide these male students with private one-on-one sessions that would be given course credit as independent research projects. According to several of Daly’s former students present at the memorial panel discussion, this offer was the opportunity of a lifetime. Her classes were overflowing with women, several having to sit on the floor as a result of limited seating. Many of them would have loved the opportunity to have Daly all to themselves. The male students refused and one threatened to sue her. At this point, the administration stepped in and ultimately forced Daly to retire. Daly, recognizing the importance of creating an open space for women’s voices on a campus that only began allowing women to enroll in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1970, refused to compromise her students’ safe discussion environment.
That is Daly’s legacy: her dedication to fostering an environment where women’s voices are encouraged, heard and valued. Her condemnation of moral codes based on the oppression, objectification, and marginalization of women certainly resonated with me. Furthermore, Daly’s emphasis on Spooking, Sparking and Spinning have encouraged me to determine my own moral code, to define my own feminism. She was my springboard.