Mary Daly and Simone de Beauvoir: Sister Diagnosticians by Xochitl Alvizo


Xochitl Alvizo; Photo by http://www.chrispinkham.com/

Mary Daly still causes me awe. I think about the way she was so keenly able to diagnose the Catholic Church’s collusion in creating, sustaining, the oppressive structures that directly impact women (and men, as she always affirmed). Mary Daly knew that the situation of women’s second-class status, outlined at the time most powerfully by Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex,[1] was in great part made possible by the Catholic Church. The church used Christianity to justify the creation of gender hierarchies (for it can be used otherwise), and regarded a category of humans as having greater value and worth than others by default. So much so that it comes to be understood as “god ordained” or “natural” – the right order of things.

At the time of her early writing, Mary Daly still identified as part of the Catholic Church – but she did not hesitate to call out her church. Building on the work of existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, Daly made a powerful case against the church. She described the antagonism between the Catholic Church and women as based on the fact that the Church’s teachings perpetuated a “traditional view of woman” that both “pretends to put woman on a pedestal but which in reality prevents her from genuine self-fulfillment and from active, adult-size participation in society.”[2] She drew on insights from de Beauvoir to make her case and wrote her book The Church and the Second Sex with the conviction that there were “harmful distortions of doctrine and practice” in the Catholic Church.

Mary Daly

Daly raised at least three charges against the Church. First, Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular implicitly convey that women are naturally inferior to men. Christianity does this by identifying women with the image of Mary the Mother of God who was identified as having the “lesser” role of “merely supplying the matter” in procreation and in God’s incarnation in Jesus. She saw this as a reversal which, “For the first time in human history,” required the mother to “kneel before her son,” effectively glorifying Mary—and by extension women—only inasmuch as she accepts “the subordinate role assigned to her” in relation to her son.[3]

Also, Mary Daly asserted that Christianity perpetuated women’s oppression through the psychological impact of an exclusively male divinity that was reinforced by women’s exclusion from its hierarchy as well as “the fact that God is called Father, that Christ is male, and that the angels, though they are pure spirit, have masculine names,” creating an “inextricable confusion between man and God.”[4] As Mary was famous for stating, if God is male, then male is God.

She maintained that the exclusion of women from the hierarchy created a physical, material, and visual manifestation of male superiority that places men in roles not permitted (or practically available) to women. Further, Daly (along with de Beauvoir) asserted that this gender exclusion has specific psychological effects on women that are qualitatively different from other instances they may experience because “it is linked with an idea of divinity as male.”[5]

I would say that sexist conceptualizations, images, and attitudes concerning God, spawned in a patriarchal society, tend to breed more sexist ideas and attitudes, and together these function to legitimate and perpetuate sexist institutions and behavior. Briefly, if God is male, then male is God.[6]

Simone de Beauvoir

In addition, the Church asserts that feminine inferiority is inherent to the structure of their metaphysical reality. Daly showed how both the Hebrew tradition and Greek philosophy lay foundations for the view of human’s fixed natures according to sex and the idea of women as the weaker or lesser sex.[7] Daly (and de Beauvoir) saw philosophy and theology as key in laying “the misogynistic caste” of the Christian tradition. In the cases of both Eve and Pandora, women are the ones through whom sin or evil find its way into the world. Put simply, women are divinely established as being unequal to men due to their corruptibility and their subordination is thought to be “inscribed in the heavens.”[8] This idea of women’s inherent inferiority was built upon and continued by highly esteemed church fathers such as Ambrose, Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, and Augustine.[9]

Essentially, Daly powerfully explicated a single, significant, and core concern: Christianity’s collusion with broader society in perpetuating women’s second-class citizenship status, a firm conclusion she exposed in a systematic and damnatory way.

This she built on the work of her contemporary, Simone de Beauvoir. The same patterns of prejudice, chauvinism, and hierarchical power structures based on notions of sexual difference that plagued society generally—beliefs that are materially detrimental to women and other marginalized persons—Daly revealed to be embedded in the church, and, worse, shown to be theologically justified and perpetuated. She used de Beauvoir’s work to cast a bright light on the sins of the church; took de Beauvoir’s critical lens and directed it at religion…

All this I offer to you as a way to introduce you to the recently relaunched peer-reviewed journal Simone de Beauvoir Studies (SdBS), which is especially interested in featuring articles that discuss Beauvoir, feminism, and religion (thus the Mary Daly focus in today’s post). Following are several related announcements, shared with us by Jennifer McWeeny, editor-in-chief Simone de Beauvoir Studies:

Announcing the relaunch of Simone de Beauvoir Studies!

Simone de Beauvoir Studies (SdBS) is currently accepting submissions. Please find more information including the call for papers for the first special issue, “Beauvoir in Conversation,” a call for guest editors and Editorial Team members, and subscription information at www.brill.com/sdbsSdBS is a peer-reviewed multidisciplinary journal dedicated to advancing scholarship relevant to the writings, thinking, and legacy of Simone de Beauvoir. SdBS places particular emphasis on recognizing diverse social, cultural, and disciplinary receptions of Beauvoir’s thought and on featuring cutting-edge approaches to the investigation of her oeuvre. In addition to articles that discuss Beauvoir’s writings directly, the journal publishes pieces that connect to central themes in Beauvoir’s oeuvre such as gender, race, sexuality, literary theory, and global politics. Articles are published in English and French.

Seeking Candidates for Open Positions on the Editorial Team at Simone de Beauvoir Studies!

Are you interested in helping to publish high quality and cutting-edge scholarship in fields like gender, critical race, and sexuality studies in a peer-reviewed, multidisciplinary, and international journal? Consider joining the Editorial Team atSimone de Beauvoir Studies (SdBS). Due to the recent relaunch of SdBS and the current renaissance in Beauvoir studies that has led to an increased demand for a prominent publication venue in the field, we are seeking an Assistant Editor, Managing Editor, and Book Review Editor to join the SdBS Editorial Team. Candidates will ideally already hold a Ph.D. or an equivalent level of professional experience, although all applications will be considered. Please read the full call for open positions available in English and French on the journal’s website www.brill.com/sdbs under the About/Downloads tab before submitting a letter of interest. Candidates should send a CV and a statement of interest and qualifications (1 page in English or French) to the Editor in Chief, Jennifer McWeeny, SdBS@wpi.edu, by December 15, 2018.

Call for Papers – Special Issue of SdBS

“Beauvoir in Conversation”

Simone de Beauvoir Studies is currently accepting submissions for its Fall Issue 2019 (Vol. 30, Issue 2), which will be oriented around the theme “Beauvoir in Conversation.” There are at least three relevant senses of conversation at play in the essays featured in this special issue. First, it implicates engagement with those thinkers who were Beauvoir’s interlocutors in life or on the page, as well as those conversations that are waiting to happen with thinkers whose ideas and writings speak to Beauvoir’s in some regard. Second, the word invites new disciplinary and interdisciplinary engagements with Beauvoir’s oeuvre, including those that place her ideas in relation to fields such as anthropology, geography, religion, critical race theory, and transgender studies. Third, “Beauvoir in Conversation” explores how Beauvoir is talked about¾how her texts and ideas have been received historically, how her sex has influenced how she is heard, and the extent to which her influence extends into popular culture, art, and the spirit of people today. Articles are published in English or French. Submissions are accepted on a rolling basis, but to guarantee consideration for publication in this special issue (Vol. 30, Issue 2) submissions must be received by March 1, 2019. To submit an article, please refer to Instructions for Authors and additional information found on the journal’s website: www.brill.com/sdbs.

Subscribe to Simone de Beauvoir Studies!

An institutional subscription to Simone de Beauvoir Studies (SdBS) will give students and faculty on your campus electronic access not only to the current volume of the journal (Vol. 30, Spring and Fall 2019), but also to all 29 previously published volumes of SdBS (1983-2013), which includes more than 300 articles on Beauvoir and related themes. To order, ask your librarian to contact brillna@turpin-distribution.com 844-232-3707 (toll free) or 860-350-0041 (for orders in North and South America) or brill@turpin-distribution.com +44 (0) 1767 604-954 (for orders in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia).

** Part of this post is adapted from my most recent publication, “Emerging Out of Patriarchy? The Emerging Church Movement from a Feminist Practical Theological Perspective,” a chapter co-authored with Gerardo Martí published in a volume titled The Emerging Church, Millennials, and Religion: Volume 1, edited by Randall Reed and G. Michael Zbaraschuk.  

Xochitl Alvizo, loves all things feminist, womanist, and mujerista. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters; it makes a difference for good or for ill. She teaches in the area of Women and Religion, and the Philosophy of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, at California State University, Northridge.

[1] De Beauvoir, The Second Sex.
[2] Daly, The Church and the Second Sex, 53.
[3] Daly, quoting de Beauvoir, Church and the Second Sex, 61.
[4] Daly, Church and the Second Sex, 65–66.
[5] Daly, Church and the Second Sex, 66.
[6] Daly, Church and Second Sex, 38.
[7] Daly, Church and the Second Sex, 62–63.
[8] In reference to the work of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas, see Daly, Church and the Second Sex, 62–63.
[9] Daly, Church and the Second Sex, 63–64, 85–90.

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Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, God-talk, Patriarchy, Women and Scholarship, Women's Power, Women's Voices

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12 replies

  1. I’m only just becoming aware of Mary Daly, and will seek out her works; for now, I’d be interested to know how her view/experience of the divine developed after leaving behind the Catholic Church and institutional religion. I’d also be interested to hear other women’s experience of moving on from institutional religion and how they form communities. I’m currently in a desert setting with regard to finding community – no landmarks or signposts.

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    • I was a long time in a desert, “musings”, both when considered part of the institutional church and as I drifted away to have a freedom to search into my experience of the Divine Mystery. There is a long history in the RCC of the valuable place of the desert in our searching.

      I searched for a community of “like minded people”. Tried a few and they worked for awhile. Don’t give up searching or be discouraged if a group doesn’t work for you. Trust in your journey. You are not alone.

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  2. Thank you for this article. When I was 26 years old, and a very unhappy, near suicidal immigrant, Mary Daly literally saved my life. Over a summer I read Gyn/Ecology and had the “light-bulb moment” of my life. Daly’s work articulated my spiritual, psychological and physical misery, which in turn led me to The Goddess and into the (moon)light. Daly’s work affirmed my life and my work (Ending All Forms of Violence Against Women. That was 33 years ago.

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  3. Thanks for writing this essay, Xochitl. “Essentially, Daly powerfully explicated a single, significant, and core concern: Christianity’s collusion with broader society in perpetuating women’s second-class citizenship status….” I do believe that religious doctrine and society/culture work in tandem one with the other. A society absorbs the thinking of powerful theologians who, in the context you write about, are products of an institution–the Roman Catholic Church. Which comes first, the thinking sanctioned by religious institutions or the broader society’s just as misogynistic (at times) assertions? They probably are not separate, but am always astounded how much influence religion has in so-called secular cultures. Interestingly enough, most Muslims have absorbed the “truth” of the secondary status of women and often refer to that as God’s will (or design) even though the Qur’an itself has no “rib story” (woman was created after man and from his rib), nor does it have a Fall story (woman was responsible for casting the whole human race into that vortex of sin). However, most Muslims accept the “rib and Fall” stories since those stories did, early on, wend their way into hadith literature. Thanks again for writing this excellent piece.

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  4. Brava! I read both de Beauvoir and Daly when I was first discovering the Goddess. The logic and good sense of their work is (or should be) indisputable.

    Because I’m an editor and sometimes need to correct biblical citations in what I’m editing, I own an Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible and the George Lamsa translation from the Aramaic. Sitting on top of these two Bibles are a stuffed Cheshire Cat, a 2″-tall book titled Witches, and an inch-tall witch. On the shelf directly below the Bibles are five books by Mary Daly, including the Wickedary, which I still find hilarious and highly accurate. Down with the Phallocracy! Up with the FAR community and wise women like Xochitl, Carol, and all the rest (and the sympathetic guys, too)!

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  5. Powerful and exciting post. Like Esther, it seems obvious to me that religions and culture work in tandem to keep women oppressed…Mary Daly was/is a Light that penetrates this darkness. i remember so well how excited I was to discover her. She saw through delusion – unfortunately a delusion we are still living through. The moment a man puts a woman on a pedestal BEWARE. Here is patriarchy in disguise and you can be sure that inequality and an ability to dismiss womens ideas and reality will follow,

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  6. Mary Daly changed my life and Gyn/Ecology changed so many of my students’ lives. I so hate the way she has been demonized. Not one of us knows everything, not even me and thee, hee hee.

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  7. I am delighted to see this essay honoring Mary Daly from a young feminist because it, most unfortunately, has become a trend in many young feminist circles to attack not only Daly, but many Foremothers, for various so-called flaws in their works. Feminist Elders and I have been discussing this for several years and the anti-EuroAmerican Foremothers movement appears to be growing.This is an alarming trend that is quite myopic, in my opinion, and to me sounds very much like broad-stroke attacks in patriarchal cultures on women who are not perfect mothers/ women, i.e., any shortcomings mean total failure and rejection! Recognizing that if it had not been for women like Mary Daly, younger women faculty would not have an institutional platform (or a graduate degree) from which to complain about her, and, sadly, encourage students to do the same, is a comment that gets me raised eyebrows! Are the works/lives/perspectives of Matilda Joslyn Gage, Mary Daly, and Alice Walker absolutely inclusive, unbiased, complete and flawless (whatever that means)…gee, I hope not!! Unrealistic expectations placed on the key shapers of feminist thought only perpetuates the diminishing work of the Mind-Numbing, Patriarchal Foreground, i.e. “yeah, Daly’s work was great, BUT what about XX?!!–off with her head!! don’t read her work!! she’s passe!!”–young faculty demand in breathless outrage! Ironically, so often I hear open contempt and disrespect for some Foremothers from educated individuals in communities who are agonizing that they have to endure a world where….they just don’t get any respect!! Long Live Grandmother Daly’s works!!

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  8. It has been decades since I read Daly, though I’ve always remembered that she rocked my world back in the late 80’s. I have often repeated “if God is male, the male is God” idea but forgot this came from Daly. Thank you for reminding me!

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