Mary Daly: R.I.P.

MaryDalyMary Daly, who died Sunday Jan. 3 at age 81, was “a Positively Revolting Hag.” At least that’s what she called herself on the back cover of her 1987 book, Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, which defined “hag” as: “a Witch, Fury, Harpy who haunts the Hedges/Boundaries of patriarchy, frightening fools and summoning Weird Wandering Women into the Wild.”

Daly, who earned three doctorates in theology and philosophy, also referred to herself as a “radical lesbian feminist,” and her radicalism was revealed in both her ideas and her actions, as we can see in the contrasting openings of obituaries that appeared in The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

The Globe began with Daly’s ideas:

Fiercely and playfully — often at the same time — Mary Daly used words to challenge the basic precepts of the Catholic Church and Boston College, where she was on the faculty for more than 30 years.

Dr. Daly emerged as a major voice in the burgeoning women’s movement with her first book, “The Church and the Second Sex,” published in 1968, and “Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation,” which appeared five years later. That accomplishment was viewed, then and now, as all the more significant because she wrote and taught at a Jesuit college.

“She was a great trained philosopher, theologian, and poet, and she used all of those tools to demolish patriarchy — or any idea that domination is natural — in its most defended place, which is religion,” said Gloria Steinem.

The Times began with one of her most controversial actions:

Mary Daly, a prominent feminist theologian who made worldwide headlines a decade ago after she retired from Boston College rather than admit men to some of her classes, died on Sunday in Gardner, Mass.

Both obits did a good job of placing Daly’s writing in the context of contemporary feminism (both quoted Robin Morgan, a former editor of Ms. Magazine). And both praised her unique approach to language.

Only The Globe quoted theologians, but these experts don’t really help readers grasp Daly’s theology, which evolved throughout her life. The theologians’ comments have that vague, eulogistic quality that obscures as they summarize.

Daly’s journey took her from being a practicing Catholic to describing herself as “postchristian” (she didn’t capitalize the “C”) to embracing a more non-doctrinal spirituality that, to some, sounded increasingly New Age.

She clearly rejected anything that might be labeled the “faith of our fathers” (all fathers were assumed to be fixtures of the “Cockocratic State”). And she boldly embodied the “Courage to Leave” (“virtue enabling women to depart from all patriarchal religions and other hopeless institutions”).

But readers of these obituaries don’t know precisely what she believed at the end?

In life Daly was a restless thinker and agitator. Now, may she rest in peace as she seeks to journey to the “Otherworld” (“Realms of Metamorphosis, true Homeland of all Hags, Crones, Furies, Furries, and their Friends…the Real World.”)

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  • Stephen A.

    a prominent feminist theologian who made worldwide headlines a decade ago after she retired from Boston College rather than admit men to some of her classes,

    All of this is fine and thorough news coverage of the death of an anti-male bigot.

  • Matt

    Glad to see the judicious and fair-minded commentators here are keeping their focus on the journalism issues…

  • tmatt

    Steve does not read emails on the weekend, very often.

    I’ll see if I can get him to work on this thread.

  • Dan Crawford

    Mary Daly was no more a theologian than Barack Obama is a bowler, and though the Times obituary was particularly obsequious, one wonders about her legacy. The Times makes her out as a kind of Feminist Legend, completely and totally embraced and endorsed by any one calling herself a feminist. In point of fact, one wonders what she did for those for whom she was a mentor. What is the intellectual legacy she left behind? What kind of lives did those she influenced live? She ended up a rather sad, very angry and pathetic woman. From her actions and writings, one wonders indeed what the “Otherworld” was to her. Or whether she even believed there to be one.

  • Hanzo

    Mary Daly has gone to the “Otherworld”….uhh, hell?

  • tmatt

    Folks, please, no comments on Daly herself.

    Try to focus on the articles Steve has referenced related to her work.

  • Chris

    These are obituaries, so one wouldn’t expect a far-reaching critical analysis of Dr. Daly’s work. I was struck, however, by the following quote in the Globe piece: “She basically fairly clearly defined the outer limits of radical feminist theology,” said Robert Daly, who chaired the theology department during much of Dr. Daly’s tenure and was not related to her. “People around the world are generally grateful for her having done that.”
    I think that could be construed as “praising with faint damns”.

  • tmatt

    Let me comment on my earlier comment.

    If you think these news articles are unbalanced and should have included more commentary from her critics, or should have contained specific examples of her thought that offended many (provide URLs), then that would be a comment on the journalism. Calling her names is not constructive.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Gloria Steinam, James Carroll, Sister Joan Chittister, Robin Morgan—all give their “objective” far radical, left beyond left, ecstatically favorable view of Mary Daly’s bizarre theology in the Globe’s obituary (with nary a critical voice heard from). Thus, it wasn’t an obituary–it was a piece of modern media hagiography.A pathetic, addled woman’s life exploited for leftist propaganda.

  • Hanzo

    ok……..”radical feminist theology”, an oxymoron if I ever heard one. I hope “Ms.” Daly was enlightened before her passing. May God rest her soul.

  • Jerry

    I suppose I should counter Deacon Bresnahan’s attacking posture on her life “pathetic, addled” with an equal and opposite praise in the interests of balance, but instead I went to see if I could find some interesting news stories. Instead, I’ll let one news story do it for me:

    Professor LAWRENCE CUNNINGHAM (Theologian, University of Notre Dame): You could kind of describe her as the gold standard for absolute feminism. I mean, everybody, at least in Christian circles or feminist circles would kind of measure their feminism against the standard that Mary Daly set.

    HAGERTY: And Cunningham says the female students he teaches today are the prime beneficiaries of Daly’s radical life.

    I think the extreme radicals like her do indeed set an outer boundary for some stream of thought. And, as John Brown’s life history shows, sometimes radicals have an outsized effect on history.

    Certainly her prejudice against men is the equal and opposite reflection of the prejudice against women that was the norm not so long ago.

  • Hanzo

    Jerry, you commented that “Certainly her prejudice against men is the equal and opposite reflection of the prejudice held against women not so long ago”.Come now, are you serious? Do you really believe that Ms.Daly’s life was molded by the Suffragette Movement? The Suffragette Movement was over long before Ms.Daly was born, her rights against “prejudice” secured by women who were NOT “radical feminists”, they simply insisted to be treated as equals with men.If anyhing, this obit proved to us that Ms.Daly rode on the backs of these aforementioned women to promote her own ideaology of anti-religion. Ms.Daly referred to herself, per this article, as a “positively revolting hag”, hardly a role model who should be teaching theology or philosophy on the college level.

    I can’t help if my comments offend the frail sensibilities of anyone here, I’m only going on information actually in the obit itself. To me it’s quite apparent that Ms.Daly bent the true teachings of God and Christ to advance her own “New Age” religion.May God rest her soul.

  • Chris

    Again–these are obituaries–but it is noteworthy that there is little actual discussion of what exactly her academic (much less her personal) theology was, perhaps because it was so extreme that it bordered on the incoherent. Her actions as a teacher and mentor may have been more significant than her academic work. More emphasis is placed on her puns and coinages, than on a summation of her theories. The former are more understandable, and reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce (another extremist)!

  • Jerry

    Jerry, you commented that “Certainly her prejudice against men is the equal and opposite reflection of the prejudice held against women not so long ago”

    Yes, I’m totally serious. Women were thought of as inferior in the US. To ignore that fact is to ignore history.

  • Hanzo

    True Chris, but I believe that her puns and coinages seem to be a direct reflection of her theories.You’re also correct, I believe, in stating that her theology was perhaps so extreme(from reading the article)that it bordered on the incoherant.Labeling yourself to be a “positively revolting hag”,”a harpy”, etc., while at the same time holding the position of professor of theology and philosophy is,it seems, bizarre and contradictory,at least. Perhaps I’m too Orthodox in my views on religion, or perhaps she was too “revolutionary” in her critical thinking for me to grasp her theories( ;-)), I don’t know. An interesting article, nonetheless.

  • tmatt

    I met her once. If I remember correctly, she called herself a Catholic theologian who no longer was a Christian in any historic sense of the word. She was PURE Universalist and her Christology was as low as one could go, if she thought Jesus actually existed.

  • Hanzo

    Hi Jerry, I don’t believe that I stated in my comments that women weren’t prejudiced against. By the time Ms.Daly came along, women in the U.S. had made great strides in gaining equal rights, moreso than any other country, or civilisation, ever or since.

  • Hanzo

    Thanks for the info, tmatt.I don’t understand how someone can claim to be a Catholic theologian and not believe in Jesus, seems strange.Ms.Daly and Deborah Howell,2 excellent articles on 2 very different women who may have been on the same side of the fence, metaphorically.

  • dalea

    What I find interesting in the articles is that they do not connect her theology with NeoPaganism, which is probably the closest fit. From the obituaries I have encountered at NeoPagan sites, she appears to have been a major influence on Dianic Wicca without ever having been involved with it.

    Even her language is NeoPagan. The title hag, like crone, is a term of honor given to women who have ceased menstruating. There is a ceremony called Croneing that honors this life passage. As a comment on sexism and language, the comparable male term is sage.

  • Jeff

    An angle not caught in most of the coverage/obituary writing i’ve seen is how remarkably strongly Daly impacted mainline seminaries in the 80s and 90s. Her books were assigned, and her approach to inclusive language and language “play” were not only mainstreamed, they were the new norm, right down to faculty members wearing whistles/kazoos around their necks, in emulation of an essay Daly wrote about how it was the only way she could get her colleagues to notice non-inclusive language use.

    If you went to a mainline Protestant seminary between 1980 and 1999, i don’t have to explain it; what i’m not as clear on is how/why she suddenly vanished from syllabi and such, although her legal battles with the academy over restricting her classroom makeup, gender-wise, is my best guess — if it makes ATS unhappy, we’re all unhappy in your average US seminary.

  • Art Deco

    “Jeff” gives an indication of what her obituaries do not capture: the general addlement and unseriousness of Boston College and the seminaries who assigned her work. Mary Daly was a canary in the coalmine.

  • Hanzo

    “Art Deco”, she refers to herself, according to this article, as a “positively revolting hag”, one would intone, from the fact also revealed in said article,she was a hypocritical bigot, by not allowing men in her classroom. How could anyone with integrity take her seriously?Are we saying that 2 wrongs make a right, by letting her enforce her own brand of discrimination? I felt the article was very well written and very informing as well as revealing!

  • Art Deco

    I have to adhere to the moderators’ rubrics and comment on her only through commenting on the story, so here goes:

    The story here was of what Mary Daly’s career was indicative. The fact of her continued employment and the fact that her work was assigned in seminaries can mean but one thing: that neither Boston College (a Jesuit institution) nor the seminaries in question took their supposed institutional missions seriously.

    How ’bout a nice Village Voice style opening:

    “Dr. Mary Daly died last Wednesday. Someone please pray for the repose of her soul. For more than three decades, she was a pustule demonstrating how administrators at Boston College betrayed the institution that they governed….”

  • Hanzo

    Art Deco: Thank you for the clarification!….;-) Hanzo

  • Julia

    I wonder if any reporter has connected Mary Daly’s influence on Catholic women’s religious orders and the current visitation inquiring into the “postchristian” stance of some of these orders and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.


    Here’s some snippets from an address to the LCWR annual assembly in 2007:

    The dynamic option for Religious Life, which I am calling, Sojourning, is much more difficult to discuss, since it involves moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus. A sojourning congregation is no longer ecclesiastical. . . . Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian.
    The emergence of the women’s movement with [its] concomitant critique of religion invited women everywhere to use a hermeneutical lens of suspicion when reading the androcentric Scriptures and the texts of the Tradition.
    As one sister described it, “I was rooted in the story of Jesus, and it remains at my core, but I’ve also moved beyond Jesus.”


  • Peggy

    Why don’t the media call some one vulgar and crass when they are–when their words are? Ms. Daly sounds rather vulgar and crass, by this article. Why do the media seem to find that vulgarity is something great and attractive in certain public figures. Does that crassness somehow legitimize a radical or make her/him more acceptable? Why are such (crass) radicals not considered less acceptable or legitimate? Of course the same Qs have to be asked, in this case, of the Catholic institution that employed her. [Alinsky would love Ms Daly]