Mary Daly: My Springboard Into Critical Feminist Thought By Katie Driscoll


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.

Katie Driscoll is pursuing an MA in the Applied Women’s Studies Program at Claremont Graduate University and is participating in the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project.

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.



Categories: Feminist Awakenings, Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue, Foremothers, Gender and Power, General, Mary Daly

Tags: , , , , , ,

14 replies

  1. Katie, Like you I have been greatly impacted by the work of Mary Daly. Her contributions to the field of feminist theology and feminist ethics are impossible to quantify. Certainly, we must pay homage to our foremothers, where would we be without them?

    I found your comment about your personal experience particularly interesting. You said you found Daly to be “quite cold and demanding.” I think that we generally do not judge men in this way; however women who are strong are often characterized negatively. I never had the pleasure to meet Daly, although I have had interactions with other women who have been characterized negatively because of their strength. I wonder, why the differences between expectations of men and women in behavior? What can we expect of interaction with those we do not have relationships with?

    I appreciate what you have shared here and I think your observations have offered the opportunity for dialogue about this important issue.

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    • Daly was certainly strong, and while she was a formidable woman, she was not friendly. I was standing beside her once at a protest rally. She slowly turned from her podium, and once she caught me with her stare she spoke to me with such a tone of condescension, demanding that I get her water. I felt as though I was being scolded by my grandmother. Her voice and facial expressions were so unmistakably disapproving. It was interesting to enjoy her as a speaker, an author, a feminist teacher, all the while being unable to like her as a person.

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  2. What a beautiful reflection on your life, the evolution of your feminist consciousness, and the important role that Mary Daly played in all of that. I also appreciated your setting the record straight (for seldom do headlines really match the truth) and your adoption of Daly’s style (in capitilizing certain words, etc.) I am so looking forward to our discussion next class when we turn to Daly formally!

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  3. Mary Daly did respond to Audre Lorde, Alexis de Veaux found the letter with Lorde’s own mark on it in the archives Lorde left to Spellman college. De Veaux was shocked to discover Lorde’s “revision” of history. Unfortunately the myth that Daly did not respond is more well-known than the truth of the matter. Mary sent me a copy of the letter which de Veaux sent to her.

    http://www.amazon.com/Warrior-Poet-Biography-Audre-Lorde/dp/0393329356/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1317496088&sr=1-1

    Daly certainly had a critical demeanor in public, which masked an innate shyness.

    I am so glad her work is still having an effect on young women, as it did on me when I was young.

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    • Carol: I appreciate your setting the record straight. The students next Wed (10/5) will be reading sizable selections from Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, Audre Lorde’s letter, and then an article by Amber Katherine that contextualizes the discussion. What the students won’t be reading (but what I will present to them in class–I’d rather them spend more time reading Daly than every twist and turn in this controversy) is the ways in which Daly DID respond to Lorde; thus allowing for the critique to go both ways (to Daly and to Lorde). But thanks for catching this and for doing your part to “set the record straight” as well.

      For all readers out there (and students who are following this blog); here is a short & excellent article that discusses the exchange b/t Daly and Lorde, cites the relevant bibliogrpahical sources, and raises important questions about the whole exchange: http://www.saidit.org/archives/jun06/Remembrance.html

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  4. The great mystery of the Lorde/Daly letters is why Audre Lorde denied ever hearing from Mary Daly. And why this story persists is also a mystery, since Lorde’s own biographer discovered Mary Daly’s response to Lorde’s “An Open Letter to Mary Daly.”

    I think Daly took the high ground, by refusing to say anything at all about her private response to Lorde. Daly believed in the unity of all feminists, and her ultimate challenge always was to focus 100% of our attention on

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  5. women. Daly knew that males in classes derailed advanced feminism, and that women deserved the very best education available. The irony is that conservative groups caused Boston College to cave to their threats, and also title IX was meant to be for the advancement of women and non-white people. It wasn’t about giving white men legal recourse against women. The male attacks on Daly were reversing the reversals.

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  6. Daly never compromised in the cause of women, and she never sold out.
    She wanted to find out what women’s full powers were, and to create philosophical space for women students to converse free of male disruption or monitoring. She wanted to correct over 1000 years of women being excluded from educational institutions, and knew that women wouldn’t have full power as long as males disrupted the spinning. She was and still remains far ahead of her time. While many feminists compromise, and think it is ok for men to even teach women’s studies courses, Daly knew better.

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  7. Katie,
    To those men that “refused” to take one-on-one classes with Daly, I say: “Boy, did you miss a mind-blowing experience.”

    However, we all know that they would never (ever) have sat down with Daly and listened to what she had to say. They were the men, like in Daly’s books, that she discusses. They were the men that set forth the revolution that soon eclipsed Daly’s life because she, at a strictly Jesuit College full of men and patriarchal values, said no. Daly refused to comprise her values but she never sacrificed her passion for teaching.

    Who knows what her position would have been if these men would have shown up at her office door at 9:00a.m for one-on-one classes? Who knows if Daly herself would have shown up? The point of the matter is that Daly was a passionate teacher who devoted her life to empowering women (and girls) and maybe in the case two (stupid) men who refused one-on-one attention from the Goddess that Daly has become in not only Second-Wave feminism but also feminism as a whole.

    Daly has changed the lives of women for the better and never compromised on her passion to change the world.

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  8. Katie, thank you for your blog and your reflections. How exciting was it attending BC where Daly taught for so long?! (Yeah, I’m jealous.) I often find myself wondering how I really feel about “radical” feminism and separatism. I think that feminism should be inclusive. However, as a woman, I have experienced feeling out of place and that my voice wasn’t heard nor accepted in predominantly male classrooms and where the professor was also male. I really wonder what it would be like in a classroom with no male bodies or voices? Would the conversations really shift in a unique way and is there a greater potential for learning and creativity? I’m not sure. I still think that creating safe spaces for dialogue and collaborative work among genders is a better approach. But I still wonder . . .

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  9. http://www.care2.com/causes/the-cruelest-cut-kenya-bans-female-genital-mutilation.html

    Kenyan women recently persuaded the Kenyan parliament to ban genital mutilation. Mary Daly wrote about this in Gyn/ecology. The fact that she did probably helped to open the space for Kenyan women to question their “traditional culture.” This should be remembered when we are thinking about whether or not or to what degree Gyn/ecology was racist.

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  10. Hi Katie,

    I am very proud of you since you had a special privileged to attend BC where the radical feminist Mary Daly taught for many years, and you even met her twice before she died. You are very lucky! Mary Daly, one of the pioneers of feminist theologies, was also one of my heroes and icons particularly in the filed of feminist theological studies.

    I can imagine the feeling of those men who were refused by Mary Daly to study in her class. Can we say that it is a kind of discrimination against male students in some point? From the side of Mary Daly, it was right to prevent for the sake of her female students in her class. Not just that she was, according to her experiences of bitter sufferings under the males, also “anti-male or male-hater.” However, in the other hand, Mary Daly should have accepted male students in her class. Strictly speaking, there is no rule or law that feminist theology is only for women. For my understanding, feminist theology is for both men and women. Theologically speaking, throughout the history, most feminist theologians and philosophers have been fighting for the influences of dualism. Since feminist theology is non-dualism, there is no way to reject males. It is not only women, in a practical sense, but both men and women are being dominated by the patriarchal and hierarchical systems.

    Nevertheless, Mary Daly opened my blind-minded and woke me up to see the real situations of past, present, and future of feminist theologies. She was/is/will be a SPECIAL for me.

    (I am very grateful that Professor Kao did not refuse the very few male students including me in her Feminist Ethics class. Thank God for that!)

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  11. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a corporate conference. All the speakers were white men, all but four of the audience members were women … this is what goes on all the time. In the Daly tradition, I am a pirate in the heart of conservative white male domination… every day I deal with this reality, and take the knowledge to share with women. No I won’t let men have complete control over powerful woman affirming information, and like Daly in the 1960s in her all male theology classes, times really haven’t changed all that much.

    Women are afraid of saying front and center that we want to study with each other, we want to formulate a sophisticated woman centered world free of male disruption. What mystifies me, is if men are so interersted in feminism, why they don’t study with each other, and help change each other? Why take up valuable space where women so need to learn and spin from each other? And why are women so afraid of this position? Why do women always want to say, “hey men are welcome?” What about women like me who don’t want to be in rooms with men in my free time at all? Doesn’t women’s desire come first? Or do women have to cave to male pleasing all the time?

    There is a huge difference when you are in a group of all women. And the truth is, we need all our energy to reach all the women of the world with Mary Daly’s message. She cared about unfettered power of women, what it is women create together. She wasn’t interested in men, or what they were doing, she cared deeply 100% about women.

    Men rule everywhere. They take up space everywhere, they don’t give a damn about women, and the conference I attended recently is a perfect example of male behavior in 2011. I didn’t see one man speak up against this, or confront management about this. NOT ONE! When males rule an industry, they rule it. After dealing with this reality as part of my mission to steal back that which they have stolen from women, I don’t want to be in places where men are, in all their hypocracy.

    5000 years of male dominance and destruction is enough I think. Maybe it’s just easier to see this as a radical lesbian who longs continually for more and more separatist space, for more and more women only sacred spaces, for streets I walk down free, for parks free of rapists and dominators.

    Men have no place in radical feminism, but they do have a place educating each other. Just once, I’d like to see male outrage over the attrocity of white males only talking on the podium ALL DAY LONG at a corporate conference, just once!

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  12. Katie, I’m with you on this one. When I first discovered Daly, I was blossoming as a public Feminist and an open Atheist. In her work, she took me on a Journey and I grew aware of new thought processes and interpretations of traditional theism that spoke to my desire to move beyond patriarchal heterosexism which I saw, and still see, as embodied in gendered images of god. Her work was foundational for me as a Feminist scholar of Religion, and I think we owe her a great deal for examining religious scholarship through the lens of her own brand of Radical Feminism.

    While, as a student of history, I cannot accept some of her claims regarding Prehistoric Universal Matriarchy, she most likely viewed her creation of a Feminist Past as a means of actualizing a Feminist Future. I respect the spirit of this endeavor despite being unable to incorporate her historical methodology of comparative religion into my own scholarship. And this has been my attitude towards Daly’s work: a sort of “YES!… but…” with which I can’t help but engage the text. Like you, I count Daly as a springboard, the opening to a conversation that has yet to conclude. I might not always agree with “Gyn/Ecology,” but, nonetheless, I can’t help but admire the tremendous first step it signified.

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