In Honor of the Extraordinary, Courageous, and Obstreperous Mary Daly
I’ve been very remiss in not noting Mary Daly’s passing on January 6, 2009. The New York Times did a very respectful obituary, noting the significance of her contribution to feminist and religious thought. Daly, in case you don’t know her, was a powerful theologian. One of the first women to study theology and, from the inside of a Roman Catholic institution, to take apart the dominant idea of God as male. Her 1973 classic, “Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation,” blew the Church doors off and sent a fresh wind through the old sacraments. I was actually surprised at the respect that the Times showed to her–because Daly, a radical lesbian feminist, pushed her points so far that she made it easy to be dismissed by the status quo. But that would be a mistake–anyone interested in spirituality, gender, and culture should know her work.
Some years ago, What Is Enlightenment? magazine interviewed Daly for an issue on gender liberation. (It’s a totally wild issue–much underappreciated because the cover is such a turn-off.) Susan Bridle, who conducted the interview, did not score points with Daly. Bridle wanted Daly to lay out some of the key points of her earlier, groundbreaking work, but Daly had moved on, and didn’t want to rehash her old ideas. They had a rather contentious dialogue, unfortunately. While Bridle’s introduction makes Daly seem to be a man-hating crazy woman, Daly wasn’t merely some misanthrope. There was definitely a method to her madness.
Imagine if you were to try to rid your mind and speech of every possible assumption that gives priority to men, masculinity, and male dominance. Gone would be references to, say, a “penetrating analysis” (for obvious reasons!). Or to anything that gave males and the male experience hegemony. Such a project (is that another male word?) would require that we try to undo several thousands of years in which slowly, over time, deep shared assumptions were built into our language and values.
This was Daly’s task. She produced wild and difficult and brilliant books. Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language. Or: Outercourse: The Be-Dazzling Voyage: Containing Recollections From My Logbook of a Radical Feminist Philosopher (Be-ing an Account of My Time/Space Travels and Ideas — Then, Again, Now, and How).
And I’m not sure that she didn’t lose her mind, or certainly loosen it, in the process. To dig up and throw out the fundamental structures of thought that we share is not a light task. And it may just not be possible. (The French feminists, like Luce Irigaray, also tried something similar.) I would suggest that it’s impossible, particularly if you have no other ground to stand on but the conceptual mind. Daly was, no doubt, a spiritual woman–her spirituality was mostly rooted in a deep communion with nature. But I don’t think she had ever discovered the indestructible within her, the no-time depth that has no name that is the ground of who we are. Sometimes, when I have read passages of hers, I wondered about this–that depth gives a confidence, allows one to relax, to let go in a way that I don’t think she was familiar with. Perhaps she never thought to explore that route because in her mind such transcendent paths had been trodden by men. That is a pity. Trying to dismantle the mind without any ground other than the mind is a set up for insanity and insecurity.
And simultaneously, doing so takes tremendous courage and passionate conviction. Daly had both. She is a shero to all of us. While she had a great deal to tell us, we owe it to this obstreperous genius to take to heart her message that, if we take the future in our hands, we can and must make the world a profoundly different place for women…and for men.