Carol P. Christ, a founding mother in the study of Women and Religion and Feminist Theo/a/logy, has been active in anti-racist, anti-poverty, anti-war, feminist, pro-gay and lesbian, anti-nuclear, and environmental causes (in that order) for many years. All of these issues have informed her teaching, her scholarship, and her politics.
The recent posting of Mary Daly’s letter to Audre Lorde on the Feminism and Religion blog is a correction of a piece of feminist history that is important in its own right and because of the way Lorde’s letter has shaped feminist discourse and politics up to the present day. Knowledge of the existence of Daly’s letter and the facts surrounding Lorde’s distortion of history has been in the public domain since the 2004 publication of Alexis DeVeaux’s Warrior Poet, but when I searched the internet for a copy of “Mary Daly’s letter to Audre Lorde” a few days ago, what came up was Lorde’s letter to Daly — not Daly’s letter to Lorde.
I often hear younger feminists say that “all white feminists” of the older generations “were racist.” Sometimes Mary Daly is mentioned. Setting the record straight about Mary Daly is one step in retelling the history of feminism in a more complex way.
There is no doubt that Mary Daly was working in a racist society and that we all still live in one. Yet I often hear that white feminists only cared about “their own white middle class issues.” Whatever you think of Gyn/Ecology, it is simply wrong to say that Mary Daly (often cited as a paradigm for “white feminists”) only cared about white middle class women’s issues. She wrote about genital mutilation not to “help herself” but because she hoped that her writing would help women in Africa. Genital mutilation was just outlawed in Kenya, so perhaps it did.
In my class on Feminist Theory at San Jose State, we read Gyn/Ecology just after it was published . Reading Gyn/Ecology with other women opened the door for a Chinese American woman in my class to speak about her own involuntary sterilization for the first time. I know from that experience that Daly’s book did not speak only to a narrow group of white middle class women. Yet the story that Daly did not speak to women of color and that she did not even bother to respond to Lorde’s letter continues to be told.
After Mary Daly received a copy of the letter she had written to Lorde from black feminist scholar Alexis DeVeaux , she called me one night out of the blue (we were not close friends) and asked if I could help her to set the record straight. I was the one who gave a copy of Daly’s letter to Gina Messina-Dysert to post . Reading Daly’s letter for the first time, one of my feminist friends wrote me, “Wow! I don’t think I ever did see the original. It’s horrible how Mary was used and abused around this.”
Musing on what happened to Mary Daly prompts me to ask two further questions:
- What function does the story that “all white feminists were (or are) racist” play in our movement?
- And why have white feminists allowed it to stand?
Racism exists. There is no doubt in my mind about that. Everyone in a racist culture is affected by racism and it lives in our collective unconscious in many and insidious ways. The structures of racism shape all of our lives and white people benefit from “white privilege.” White women as a group did not speak out against slavery and the racism that followed emancipation and this is one of the reasons many black feminists do not feel comfortable in gatherings where white women dominate. All of this is true. At the same time, most of the white feminists I know are consciously anti-racist, have marched and voted against racism, have stuck their own academic necks out in meetings to speak against perceived racism from their colleagues and superiors, and have almost never included only white middle class women’s issues in their classes. Judith Plaskow was there when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Rosemary Radford Ruether went South in the 1960s to work in the Civil Rights movement. I was raised in a conservative family and my awakening came later, but before I turned twenty-two, my commitment to ending racism and poverty was clear, and I have held onto it even though it created a huge and continuing rift between me and my family. Starhawk has helped to bring social justice issues to the forefront of the Reclaiming movement. These examples from the field of religion are mirrored in the lives of many other white feminists of our generations.
Yes, we are all living in a racist society and our work and the lives of all women are affected by that. And yes, the actions that white feminists have taken against racism have not dismantled racism. And surely white feminists including Mary Daly could and can learn a great deal about the limitations of our perspectives through open and honest dialogue with women of color. Still I ask: Why did white anti-racist feminists not come sooner to Mary Daly’s defense? And why have we not insisted that though white women are affected by and do benefit from racist structures we did not create, many in our generations of feminists were and are consciously and actively anti-racist? The history of race in America cannot be told without evoking complex feelings of pain, anger, shame, guilt, and humiliation. Could it be that we tell a simple story when a more nuanced one would be more truthful because we want to distance ourselves from all of those feelings?
*See: Mary Daly’s letter to Audre Lorde, Audre Lorde’s “An Open Letter to Mary Daly”, Audre Lorde’s biographer’s piecing together of the story in Warrior Poet, 233-238, 246-248, 251-253; Mary Daly’s recollection of the events in Amazon Grace, p. 22-26; Adrienne Sere’s remembrance of Mary Daly and reflection on white feminist racism; and Gina Messina-Dysert’s blog posting Daly’s letter .