What Does It Mean to Say that All White Feminists Are Racist? (Questions Posed to White Women/Myself about Our Part in the Dialogue with Women of Color) By Carol P. Christ

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.  Continue reading “What Does It Mean to Say that All White Feminists Are Racist? (Questions Posed to White Women/Myself about Our Part in the Dialogue with Women of Color) By Carol P. Christ”

Mary Daly’s Letter to Audre Lorde

Note: This is an old conversation, in so many ways (including, historical). The more important elements of this exchange is the content, experience, and work that Audre Lorde was communicating in the writing of her original letter to Mary Daly. It is the plea we continue to hear today from those whose voices are systematically marginalized, brutalized, and erased. To that point, this post fails to take heed, and reflects the personal relationship many had to Daly, and not to Lorde, and is therefore another example of the wrongheaded emphasis so many of us continue to fall into. We must and will do better. And the post remains here as another negative example and a case study, the lesson of which is a call to renew one’s commitments to be willing to hear, see, and feel the cries of those bearing the brunt of injustice, and respond in justice-making actions. Here is Audre Lorde’s letter, which, as Ellen in the comments below rightly states, is a “deep, heart-felt, informed, impassioned, desperately empathic response,” written of her great beneficence. Spend time with Lorde’s powerful words:  https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/lordeopenlettertomarydaly.html.
– Xochitl, 2/22/23  

In May of 1979, Audre Lorde shared her critique of Gyn/Ecology with Mary Daly via a letter.  Lorde claimed she had received no response from Daly and subsequently published her assessment of Daly’s work as an open letter, first in This Bridge Called My Back in 1981 and then in Sister Outsider in 1984. Lorde had commented on this issue over the years and in 1982 claimed in an interview that if she had received a response from Daly, she would not have published her critique as an open letter. Lorde’s letter was widely republished and has been used as a paradigmatic teaching tool for the study of “white feminist racism” in Women’s Studies courses.

However, in 2003 as Alexis De Veaux was completing research for her forthcoming biography about Lorde, Warrior Poet, she  found Daly’s letter of response in Lorde’s papers.  On the letter Daly’s last name was written in the bottom corner in Lorde’s handwriting.  On June 9, 2003 De Veaux contacted Daly explaining her discovery and asked permission to quote from Daly’s letter that was dated September 22, 1979.  DeVeaux wrote about the existence of the letter and what must have been an unsatisfactory encounter between the two women at a conference in late September 1979; she also speculated on the reasons Lorde chose not to disclose receiving the letter.

In Amazon Grace Daly tells her version of the story and explains that it was gratifying that De Veaux thought it was crucial to publish the letter and correct the widespread misbelief that Daly had not responded to Lorde (26).  Shortly after Daly received a copy of her letter from DeVeaux, she called friends and colleagues asking them to help make this information more widely known.  Carol P. Christ gave me access to the copy of Mary’s letter she received at that time.  Because parts of the letter itself may be difficult to read, I am also posting a transcription.

September 22, 1979

Dear Audre,

First, I want to thank you for sending me The Black Unicorn.  I have read all of the poems, some of them several times.  Many of them moved me very deeply – others seemed farther from my own experience.  You have helped me to be aware of different dimensions of existence, and I thank you for this.  

My long delay in responding to your letter by no means indicated that I have not been thinking about it – quite the contrary.  I did think that by putting it aside for awhile I would get a better perspective than at first reaction.  I wrote you a note to that effect which didn’t get mailed since I didn’t have your address.  Then there was a hope of trying to get to Vermont in August, but the summer was overwhelmingly eventful.

Clearly there is no simple response possible to the matters you raise in your letter.  I wrote Gyn/Ecology out of the insights and materials most accessible to me at the time.  When I dealt with myth I used commonly available sources to find what were the controlling symbols behind judeo-christian myth in order to trace a direct line to the myths which legitimate the technological horror show.  But of course to point out this restriction in the first passage is not really to answer your letter.  You have made your point very strongly and you most definitely do have a point.  I could speculate on how Gyn/Ecology would have been affected had we corresponded about this before the manuscript went to press, but it doesn’t seem creativity-conducing to look backward.  There is only now and the hope of breaking the barriers between us – of constantly expanding the vision.

I wonder if you will have any time available when I come to New York for the Simone de Beauvoir conference?  Since I have a lot to do here, I had thought of just flying down Friday morning and returning that night.  Are you free Friday afternoon or evening?  Or will you be in Boston any time soon?  I called and left a message on your machine.  My number is …. Hope to see you and talk with you soon.

[Handwritten] I hope you are feeling well, Audre.  May the strength of all the Goddesses be with you – Mary

Click the link below to view a copy of the actual letter from Daly.

Mary Daly’s letter to Audre Lorde

Also see:

Mary Daly speaking about discovering that she responded to Audre Lorde in writing and that Audre Lorde kept the letter and deposited it at Spellman College

Mary Daly’s recollection of the events in Amazon Grace, p. 22-26

Warrior Poet, p. 233-238, 246-248, 251-253

Adrienne Sere’s In remembrance of Mary Daly: Lessons for the Movement

Carol P. Christ’s response to the publication of Daly’s letter on this blog: What Does It Mean to Say that All White Feminists Are Racist? (Questions Posed to White Women/Myself about Our Part in the Dialogue with Women of Color)

(This blog was revised on October 8, 2011)

%d bloggers like this: