Painting Mary Daly By Angela Yarber

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

She shouted

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:

21 thoughts on “Painting Mary Daly By Angela Yarber”

  1. Thank you Dr. Yarber, you speak, dream, imagine and image the outpouring of gratitude to Mary Daly from many women now and to come. And I join you in honoring Her as holy woman. Yours in Goddess, Vrinda


  2. Loved what you wrote Angela, our foresisters and our ancestors do not have to be perfect to be acknowledged and honored. There are plenty of things Mary Daly wrote that I did not agree with and even vehemently disagreed with, but the truth is she changed my life! I think so many women are trying to be so perfect, good, and always right, that we are afraid to acknowledge anyone who is as imperfect as we feel ourselves to be deep down. We need to reach beyond what the fathers have told us about our sisters, ourselves and as your painting illustrates: SHOUT from our hearts! Bravo to you!!!


  3. I like your article, “Painting Mary Daly,” Rev. Angela, and I resonate with your practice of signifying women, like Mary Daly, who make a difference in other women’s lives as Holy. Those women who model Feminist (my dictionary definition is, “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men”) ideals are Holy. “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,” you write. I agree that these women, and all women, need not be what others might consider as perfect to be holy. We all have our conditioning and our faults on which we can improve and/or eliminate. I think that if we wait to be perfect, we will never act. What is perfect anyway? Everything we think and do is perfect in the moment. Our thoughts, our actions, our moments change. For me, all is holy and sacred. Thank you for your wonderful works, Rev. Angela. You, too, are Holy.


  4. Hooray for Mary! Hooray for Angela, too. On my shelves, I have two Bibles, which I bought when I was writing Quicksilver Moon so when I quoted from the Authorized Version, I’d get it right. Sitting on top of the Bibles is a stuffed Cheshire Cat. On the shelf directly below the Bibles are five books by Mary Daly, including the Wickedary, which is my favorite of her books.


  5. Angela, Thank you for this dose of Mary today, my birthday, I wouldn’t want to spend it any other way, but reading about art and icons and women’s voices as pure as the sun streaming in my window this morning!! Well done. I came to Mary late, but what Beyond God the Father says is what Elizabeth Johnson now evolves and expands on in Quest for the Living God!! Break the paradigm and what we reap are riches beyond our wildest imaginations at the expansiveness of that God that has no gender and is the exclusive right of no one!!


  6. I was blessed to read Beyond the Father as part of a Liberation Theology class at DePauw University in 1982. Her work, along with that of the late Merlin Stone, who matched Daly’s theological thought with the archaeological and anthropological records in When God Was a Woman. Then the Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries showed me women’s spirituality. Body, mind and spirit, the transformation was complete to a Goddess-centered being.

    We are all made perfect and whole and holy. Our experiences make us seem different and we often disagree. Mary Daly wrote from her heart and I’m grateful for her work. Take what you can use and leave the rest. Thanks to all the teachers.


  7. I really loved this post and this painting. The idea that you can be holy while still having holes is so beautiful and empowering, and I think real. Thank you for your words. They also serve as a reminder that we can find good and true things sometimes when we wouldn’t expect it, and that that does not necessarily make the whole thing bad. A recent post on Mormonism ( talked about the same idea, and started off with the apt (but inaccurate) metaphor of a string of Christmas lights, which CAN be ruined by one bad light. Mary Daly is not a string of Christmas lights.


  8. “heart and mind”: Primitive Hebrew had no word for mind so it said heart instead: If western culture were founded on Egyptian religion it’d say liver instead: The English said mood of which boldness is the proper referend here, but after Semitic literature got to them writers located it in the breast. In any case the heart has nothing to do with feelings or beliefs; the brain does. Enlarged hearts are a deadly risk to the owner, and enlarged moods to others.

    Where exactly do your portraits come from? This doesn’t look like Mary Daly at all, who should look like Velma. You never define holy or god either, as if they mean everything and nothing.


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