You don’t have to be perfect to be a saint. The saints who comprise my Holy Women Icons are far from perfect, but each one has made a difference in the lives of countless women. By giving iconography a folk feminist twist—by painting these women and calling them holy—it is my hope that their lives can embolden us to stand for justice, equality, and peace in the ways they did. Last month, the Shulamite was our focus as her undulating lines and sensuous curves reminded us to love our bodies regardless.
Given the recent censoring of Sister Margaret Farley’s book, Just Love, by the Vatican due to its “radical feminist themes,” I thought it would be most fitting this month to feature a holy woman who irked the Vatican. Since I haven’t yet had the opportunity to create an icon for Margaret Farley, I’d like to dedicate this month’s article to another radical feminist who subverted traditional Catholic doctrine: Mary Daly.
Mary Daly (1928-2010) described herself as a “radical lesbian feminist.” She was a philosopher, theologian, and writer who taught at Boston College, a Jesuit-run institution, for 33 years. Controversy erupted in1999 when Daly either retired or was forced to leave (there is debate about which is most accurate) after violating university policy by refusing to allow male students in her advanced women’s studies courses. But Daly was no stranger to controversy as she dedicated her life to women’s rights, over-turning patriarchy, subverting oppressive religious traditions, and writing eight books along the way.
For many women, reading Mary Daly’s pivotal The Church and the Second Sex or Beyond God the Father were their first forays into feminist theology. As in my icon, Daly stands left of center. Some would say she stands so far left that she dangles off the spectrum altogether. But we cannot forget Daly’s time and context: teaching and receiving tenure when there were no other women in her department, writing and researching about feminist theology, a field that many academics didn’t even think existed.
Daly has been critiqued for being an essentialist, for ignoring the voices of women of color, and even for being transphobic. These critiques—often justified—weighed heavy on my mind and heart as I contemplated canonizing her as a Holy Woman Icon. By painting her icon, would I be condoning all that she did in her lifetime? By calling her holy, was I excusing everything she ever said that was unfair or unjust? These questions plagued me as I considered painting an icon of Mary Daly.
When she passed away on January 3, 2010 I was surprised at my emotional response. There were still elements of her work that troubled me. I continued to feel that many of the critiques raised against her by other feminist, womanist, mujerista, and queer theologians were valid. But with her death I also felt a loss. The feminist community had lost a forerunner. Feminist theologians—whether we agree with all that she said and did during her lifetime—are indebted to the groundwork Mary Daly laid. When I was a young woman in college grappling with my calling as a minister, scholar, and artist, I remember reading Mary Daly’s work. I remember feeling as though Beyond God the Father was written like she was shouting, angry, outraged at the way the church, patriarchy, and religion have treated women. I, too, was angry. I was angry that the only God I’d ever learned about was a father, a male. Reading Daly’s writing was my first step toward moving beyond that kind of God. Her work helped teach me that sometimes there is a need to shout.
These formative feminist memories combined with my memories of my first personal encounter with Mary Daly as I spread my canvas to paint her icon. I remembered attending the American Academy of Religion in Philadelphia in 2005. I went to a session on feminism and religion and Mary Daly was on the program. I was there early, studious with a pen in hand, eager to learn. Daly walked in wearing green sweatpants and what looked like house slippers; she took one look at the table for panelists and the rows of chairs and scoffed. She announced that she and the panel wouldn’t use the table and we would put all the chairs in a circle for a more egalitarian discussion. It was both hilarious and meaningful at the same time.
So, there was no doubt that Daly’s icon would be wearing green, her arms outstretched because her body was worth the space it occupied in the world. Most of my icons include a heart as the entire torso of the holy women; the heart speaks a series of words on the canvas. As I painted and remembered Mary Daly’s life, it was clear what her heart would say:
Reaching beyond God the Father
For women who have always been told to keep quiet, Mary Daly raised her voice. Because of that, we are empowered to do the same. For this, Mary Daly becomes holy. Not perfect. Not without fault. But holy.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University. She has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, along with numerous articles about the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality. She has been a clergy woman and professional dancer and artist since 1999 and she teaches a course as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com