Mary Daly: Her Death and Her Impact on Feminist Theology

Mary Daly, feminist theologian, died Sunday in Gardner, MA at the age of 81.

Possibly the most radical feminist in the United States–worldwide, second perhaps only to Luce Irigaray–Daly set a standard for rigorous feminist theological inquiry.  She stepped on more than just toes with her books such as The Church and the Second Sex, Beyond God the Father, and Gyn/Ecology. 

You can read her obituary to find out what else she did.  I want to briefly judge her impact on feminist culture.  A classic Second Wave feminist, Daly falls into the category of “anger.”  Many second wavers were angry at the masculinity of the culture.  In my MA thesis, I use Daly’s writings as an example of the second wave in comparison with Kali, the Indian goddess.  Kali stomps around the battlefield in her destructive dance, drinking the blood of her enemie, tongue lolling in representation of her angry passion.  Second wave feminism capitalized on its anger and made the noise of Kali.  And yet midway through its movement, it found a different kind of hope.  Daly reflects in her preface to Beyond God the Father the changes in the five years since she had written The Church and the Second Sex, “[Beyond God the Father] [encasulates] essentially the same anger and the same hope…[as] the wellsprings of this book, but that the focus has shifted…”  (Daly xxxiii).  The focus moves away from the anger of being denied a place in religion and towards a reconstructionist theology productively allowing women’s religious participation. 

What kind of an impact has Daly had on the feminist movement within religion? I like to think that her overall theological influence has been positive, despite her radical methods and writing.  I think that she changed not only the feminist outlook, but by making enough Kali-esque noise she influenced the shape of mainstream Christian theology.  Her efforts to talk about a “post-Christian” ideology resonate with the post-modern/colonial/etc trend of rejecting traditional modes. 

I cannot blame Mary Daly for this alone, but her anger at patriarchal society contributed to a newer trend in young women: distrust of the second wave and therefore of feminism in general.  Two years ago, as a first year grad student at Boston Univeristy, I took a class with Donna Freitas on women and spirituality.  There were three grad students, myself, my best friend Erin, and our friend Kat.  All three of us are very liberal politically and socially, and all three of us are ardent feminists because that’s how our mothers raised us.  The rest of the class was mostly senior girls–all either Communications or College of Arts and Sciences majors–very intelligent, but who couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept of feminism.  “So what’s a feminist?” asked one girl nearly every day.  Others kept saying, “Yeah, I believe in womens’ rights, but i’m not a feminist.  I don’t hate men.” (Or “I’m not a lesbian. How could I be feminist?”)  These questions baffled us grad students and our professor.  Our question was, “How could this have happened?”  Even then, I think we pointed fingers to the radical second wave women, and Mary Daly, for all her brilliance, was as I said, the most radical.  Her reputation for not letting men take her classes is imfamous, and ultimately forced her to retire from Boston College.  And these classmates of mine were perhaps a little shallow, judging second wave feminists by their appearance as butch and not put-together, giving them less credibility. 

We couldn’t have gotten to where we are today without women like Mary Daly.  Anger and disappointment, but also hope, drove the second wave and helped to form the third wave, where we are now.   Daly merely theologized what other women were already thinking, talking, and acting out.  And she did so with the ferocity, strength and yet the underlying poise of Kali.

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