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Mary Daly, 1928 to 2010

The leading feminist philosopher and theorist died January 3. Here, her friend and former student explains the extraordinary reach of Mary Daly’s fierce intelligence and strong will.

In the seventies some of Mary Daly’s graduate students began calling her Doctors Daly because she had three doctorates, one from Notre Dame, and two, in theology and in philosophy, from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. At the uber-catholic and overwhelmingly male Fribourg, she was treated like a pariah. In the library she would put her things down on a table, and the male seminarians sitting there would move en masse to another table. No one sat next to her in the classroom. But she stayed, standing up to that misogynist treatment to get the training she wanted. Those who loved her knew the steel in Daly that enabled her to withstand anything in order to hone her towering intelligence to a fine edge, which would soon dissect the patriarchal infrastructure that had blighted women’s (and children’s, men’s and the biosphere’s) lives for millennia.

Coming to Boston College in 1966, Daly began a teaching, speaking and writing career that would literally help to change the world. She produced ten books, among them The Church and the Second Sex, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, Gyn/Ecology: the Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy, Websters’ New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (in cahoots with Jane Caputi), Outercourse, Quintessence, and Amazon Grace. Her work changed religious, spiritual and philosophical thought and language. Her activism, fueled by what she called “the courage to see” beyond patriarchal assumptions and institutional constructs, shook the foundations sufficiently to require two separate fights to keep her job. (Academic freedom is not so championed when one is saying that the emperor has no clothes).

In Beyond God the Father, she wrote that a male god functions to support male domination, but she did not simply revert to a goddess model because she held that dualisms support structures of oppression. Rather, she created a philosophical approach, seeing the divine as an active, intransitive verb, Be-ing. In Gyn/Ecology Daly documented world-wide, past and present atrocities against women, calling them “sado-ritual syndromes,” and exposing deep ethical structures that support domination and oppression. These ideas were expanded in Pure Lust and Quintessence. The Wickedary was written in response to requests for a unified location for the new language Daly was creating to describe her ground-breaking insights, since they could not be expressed in traditional philosophical language. The book shows her deep playfulness and Irish wit. Outercourse is a philosophical autobiography.

Her former students say they have a freedom of thought and imagination that began with her ideas, books and lectures. She taught us not only to think outside the box but then to ask, who put this box here and why? A great many became lifelong feminist activists in the fields they work in. Most began their careers in conditions little better than those Daly faced, but the new-found freedom of their lives and imaginations challenged stereotypes and traditions.

Equally important is the power of her fiery call to freedom in the lives of women she reached in her worldwide readership. After Beyond God the Father came out, thousands of women wrote Daly to say they saw more clearly now and had found the courage, as Daly loved to say, to “take their lives and throw them as far as they would go.” Roseanne Barr said Gyn/Ecology helped her find her voice as a comedian.

Mary Daly was a real person in addition to a fierce feminist. She loved a good laugh. She wrote, “There is nothing like the sound of women really laughing.” She was a voracious reader, loved her cat, swam in the lake behind her apartment, and made great fudge. She loved the beach, often sitting there reading a book she simply could not put down. She loved a good film, good Italian food, a good joke. Always up for a lively debate of ideas, she was sometimes hurt by personal attacks from people who disagreed with or misunderstood her work. But she never let attacks or ridicule shake her absolute belief that she was on her path, doing her work and that no one could stop her. She was not easy or uncomplicated. But she was fall down on the ground brilliant, an honest to goddess genius. It must have been difficult to channel the power of that much intelligence. She was always impatient to think more, to write more, to create more.

A group of her old grad students and friends collaborated to help her manage things in the last few years. Another group of women, current grad students in the Boston area who had read Daly’s work, met to learn from her after her retirement in an informal group modeled on the hedge schools of Ireland, illegal schools created to preserve the Irish language and culture during the British occupation.

When Daly’s health began to fail, all these women worked tirelessly to help her. In Daly’s last weeks she had visitors from many generations of feminists and constant companionship from devoted friends and colleagues. When she passed away, one such friend, Nancy O’Mealey, was reading aloud to her from the Wickedary. These women will tell you they were there for Mary for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was gratitude for her life and work.

It was Mary Daly’s request that people who wish to remember her gather in their home communities to read and discuss her work. The author wrote this commentary in cahoots with Emily Culpepper.

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