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Acts of Contrition: Feminism, Privilege, and the Legacy of Mary Daly

So, Mary Daly died.


Now, if you know about me, even a little, you will know I have a complicated relationship with the works of Mary Daly. At first, they were everything I embraced about feminism; then, they were everything I tried to reject. It seems selfish, when talking about a dead woman, to talk exclusively about what she meant to you; it’s laying a claim on the woman that you do not actually have. I wasn’t in her life; I didn’t know her. But we are selfish, about the dead – particularly when their work is all we really have of them. It’s hard to keep from injecting yourself into the conversation.

So: I was raised Catholic. Strictly Catholic, in point of fact; my mother converted, and she went at the religion with the zeal that only newcomers have, before they get that complex ambivalent family relationship to the faith. My father was Catholic because he was Catholic; it was a cultural identity, not necessarily a religious one. My mom, on the other hand, was Catholic because she believed in Catholicism. And she’s the one who raised me.

The Church was the most important thing in my young life, the center of moral  and ontological authority, the thing that made the rules that made the world. So, when I started asking Questions – you know, the sort that girls ask, if they are of a certain bent – it was the Church I asked about. Did Mary ever get to have any other babies with her husband? Why not? How come Jesus was a boy, and all the Apostles were boys? How come all the priests were boys? How come God was a boy? What was this stuff about how women shouldn’t teach, and how they should submit to their husbands? Did God just basically like boys better? Why? Did God like boys better because God was a boy? Was that it? If so, why was God good? These were the questions. Not insignificant ones. And note that I did not go to “is God real,” or even “is God appropriately represented by the Church,” for quite some time; it was “is God good” that worried me. My path was blasphemy, not rejection; when a metaphysical or cultural framework is that powerful, you rebel against it instead of just walking away, because escaping the framework is more or less inconceivable. It permeates your entire understanding of the world; there’s no doing without it. Yelling at or about it, on the other hand, is pretty easy.

So, at about twelve or thirteen years old, I found out about feminism, and started to research it at the library. Unsurprisingly, many of the books I found were seminal second-wave books. And I tried to care, but they somehow didn’t reach me as deeply as I needed them to. They were about work, money, motherhood, sex – none of which I had access to. The Beauty Myth started to get at certain things, for me, but I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup or provocative clothing or sexualize myself anyway, so I just ended up feeling superior to all those stupid slutty girls who did – a deeply misogynist reaction in the name of feminism, which it took me a good long while to get over.

And then there was Mary Daly. Beyond God the Father. BLAM. Right there, in the title, was the very particular revolution I needed. Daly argues, in that book, that to envision God as a man – and particularly a father – is to make men, and fathers, Gods on earth. I’d had some nasty experiences with fathers who thought they were Gods, and Gods of the wrathful, Old Testament variety at that, so I was deeply sympathetic to Daly’s argument. I kept the book secret, for a while, so that my mother wouldn’t take it away; then, I started carrying it around, daring her to try it, because wasn’t defiance what this was all about? She never did try; she’s a smart woman, and she knew better than to enable my particular need for martyrdom. And so, I read as much Daly as I could find.

Have you ever read Daly? I wouldn’t blame you if you hadn’t; even back then, her work was difficult to find. And it’s not an easy read, either. The quotes that are going around, in most of the remembrances, are some of her more conventionally phrased. A lot of her work actually looks like this:

Reflecting upon my travels in the First Spiral Galaxy I Re-Call the experience of being pushed/directed by a Great Wind. Traveling in that early Time involved sailing the surface of the Subliminal Sea, Sensing its depths, while not being overtly conscious of the contents of those depths, at least not to a sustained degree. Occasionally I had conscious glimpses, and these were enough to keep me on Course. I could feel through my Craft the swishings and swirlings that rocked the boat, so to speak. Some of these, I think, were the result of E-motions and psychic sensations that smolder in Undersea Volcanoes, just under the threshold of conscious awareness. These eruptions were my Moments of Prophecy and Promise.

If you have any idea what the fuck she is talking about, on the first reading, congratulations. Granted, this is from an introduction to Gyn/Ecology, written in her later style, after she had gone full William Blake on us, but the rest of the book isn’t any easier. Daly essentially invented her own language, re-purposing words based on often dubious etymology, anthropology, and her own whims. By the end of her career, she often didn’t even bother to explain what her new words meant; you had to have been around for the first explanation in order to get it. (Also? If you have Ever Wondered where I picked up my habit of Misusing Capitalization in the name of Emphasis, or Just for Fun, this might be Your Answer.) Look at the above passage: if it weren’t for the “so to speak,” you wouldn’t even know that she was using metaphor. And maybe she wasn’t. Daly answered her more practical sisters in the movement with an entirely new approach: feminism as visionary spiritual experience. She sounds like a saint describing her visions, like St. John with his Revelations, like a mystic detailing journeys in the Otherworld. She also sounds completely loopy. But all of this was, in fact, deeply intentional. Compare, for example, this other passage, from the same introduction, which I will quote at length:

One of the responses to Gyn/Ecology was a personal letter from Audre Lorde, which was sent to me in May 1979. For deep and complex personal reasons I was unable to respond to this lengthy letter immediately. However, when Lorde came to Boston to give a poetry reading that summer, I made a point of attending it and spoke to her briefly. I told her that I would like to discuss her letter in person… Our meeting did in fact take place at the Simone de Beauvoir conference in New York on September 29, 1979… I explained my positions clearly, or so I thought. I pointed out, for example, in answer to Audre Lorde’s objection that I failed to name Black goddesses, that Gyn/Ecology is not a compendium of goddesses. Rather, it focuses primarily on myths and symbols which were direct sources of christian myth. Apparently Lorde was not satisfied, although she did not indicate this at the time. She later published and republished slightly altered versions of her original personal letter to me.

Well! Nothing vague or mystical there! Dates, names, locations: it’s all there. Well, all of it except for Mary Daly’s accountability, or any admission that she might have been wrong. Audre Lorde’s letter to Mary Daly, which you can find in Sister Outsider, continues to be a powerful and relevant critique of white privilege in radical feminism, which Daly misrepresents here so profoundly that one wonders if she even understood it in the first place. For starters, Lorde never asked for a compendium of goddesses: she mentioned them as part of an argument that Daly included African and black female suffering, but not African or black female experiences of mutual care and resistance. If Daly had anything to say to this, other than “it was so mean to publish that about me,” we don’t know: she maintained that “public response in kind would not be a fruitful direction.” Other than the public response that casts Lorde in the most unfavorable light and misrepresents the nature of their dispute, apparently.

It wasn’t the end of the problems with Daly. For starters: Daly hated on trans people something fierce. This has been sort of lightly mentioned and hinted at elsewhere, but I have to tell you this in plain language: MARY. DALY. HATED. TRANS. PEOPLE. Particularly trans women. She intimated, at times, that they were part of a plot to eliminate “real” women, and to assign “men” all “authentic” female functions. She also said that they were like whites putting on blackface (yeah: Lorde might have been right, about the whole appropriating-other-people’s-oppression thing?) and implied that they should have bodily violence done to them, or at least should be physically intimidated, by “real” feminists, so that they could not enter the feminist movement or feminist space. Let’s not be coy, here: no matter whether she believed this for her entire life, no matter whether she privately got over it later, she published it, without apparently ever publishing a retraction, as far as I can tell. This is hate. This is privilege. This, right here, is the face of the oppressor.

And I’m not saying this to defile Mary Daly’s grave. I’m not saying it because I get a dirty little thrill out of tarnishing the legacy of a fallen feminist. I’m not saying it because I want to start a fight. I’m saying it because, for much of my young life, Mary Daly was my favorite feminist author, meaning that I believed this shit, too. There are still women who believe this, and these women often call themselves “radical feminists.” Because queer-bashing and misogyny are just so fucking threatening to the Patriarchy, apparently. I believed it, because Mary Daly published it, and I believed in her. And, let me tell you, I have worked like Hell Itself to get over that, and to get over the privilege that allowed me to place such emphasis on my own oppression that I could go around blithely oppressing other folks because clearly I had won the Whose Suffering Is Most Important game, and to be an actual functioning ally. Some encouragement from Mary Daly – some retraction, some statement of accountability – would have helped. It would have slapped me out of this unbelievably gross way of thinking with one blow, rather than making me go through life hurting people and being an asshole and having to receive many, many less powerful slaps until I got my shit straight.

Daly and I were both Catholics, at one point, so I know both of us understand the power of Confession – not the version handed out by the church, where you say it and apologize for it and have all your guilt magically wiped away by the hand of God, but the version that actually works in the real live world, where you admit to being wrong and you take your consequences like a grown woman and you do your acts of contrition and your assigned penance, for the rest of your life, by living with those consequences and not repeating the actions that caused them in the first place. People might forgive you; they might not. The point is to value doing the right thing, for the sake of the right thing, more than you value your own personal comfort. If you’re only apologizing so that people will forgive you, it’s not an apology; it’s an act of selfishness, an attempt to evade accountability. And if you never make Confession, and volunteer to be held accountable, you ultimately deprive yourself of any chance that you will be absolved.

And, unless a published retraction of her transphobia and other acts of privilege manages to surface, absolution will not come to the legacy of Mary Daly. None of this means that she was not important, or that she didn’t have anything to say: she was, she did, and it is a damn shame that her work is currently so obscure. She was important to me: I probably wouldn’t be a feminist without her influence. But I probably wouldn’t have been such a bad feminist without her influence, either. Like many people before her, she’s left the world as a human being, and remains with us now only as a legacy. It’s an important legacy – because of its accomplishment, because of its uniqueness, because of its tremendous potential to harm – that we cannot, and should not, ignore.


  1. belledame222 wrote:

    I don’t *worry* about her eliminationist language toward (cis) men in the same way I do her language toward trans women, sex workers, and everyone else who’s marginalized and vulnerable to elimination campaigns already. That said, it doesn’t exactly make me really eager to have her run the world any time soon.

    and cynically, I sometimes think that’s exactly the appeal: sure, we can be as fancifully horrible as we want to be because (tacitly) not only do we not have the power to carry it out, *we never will.* Screw nuance and responsibility, full speed ahead! REVOLUTION AHOY!!


    I mean, I enjoy Hothead Paisan, but that’s because she’s a) funny b) *supposed* to be a cartoon who is also deeply fucked up even by cartoon standards

    Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 2:18 am | Permalink
  2. Sady wrote:

    @belledame22: Oh, yeah. I don’t think there’s any argument that Daly WON’T warp you and make you a deeply ineffectual, or countereffectual, feminist: SHE WILL, as I can readily attest. I think her cartoonish extremes and fire-the-torpedos rhetoric are part of what makes her so powerful for young folk (like Valerie Solanas, in a way) who already feel powerless and drawn to fantasies of ultimate power. (It’s like X-Men comics! But, you know, for politics!) But if you don’t grow out of it and start actually thinking about how you CAN use whatever power you actually DO have to make things better, you end up acting like an idiot. And once she got onto the New-Age “ecofeminist” trip… hoo boy.

    I sometimes think that’s exactly the appeal: sure, we can be as fancifully horrible as we want to be because (tacitly) not only do we not have the power to carry it out, *we never will.* Screw nuance and responsibility, full speed ahead!

    Yes. Exactly. Not to make this a forum for my disgruntled whines, but I think there’s this tendency, in certain radfem circles, to actually assume your own complete powerlessness and victimhood as a badge of honor, and play that card whenever people point out that you’re being hurtful or gross or just plain wrong. Like, “but how could MY WORDS have ANY EFFECT on YOU OR THE WORLD! I am but an oppressed woman! The cards of the patriarchy, they are stacked against me!” It’s the tack that let Daly not notice how monstrous her genocidal fantasy world was – she was THE VICTIM, how could she have ANY RESPONSIBILITY in a world where she had zero power? – but it also comes up in debates with radfems, where they’ll all suddenly start paraphrasing a writer that I actually like, and will refer to for the sake of disgruntled-whining only as Fwisty of Fi Flame fe Fatriarchy, going, “well! I did not know that I, a FEMINIST, had ANY POWER here in PATRIARCHY! I SO APOLOGIZE for [shaming, offending, making incorrect assertions, etc.] since CLEARLY my actions have SO MUCH EFFECT on the world around me and I should TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEM.” Like, saying this as sarcasm. It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever encountered, and it happens a lot, and I think it’s this specific radfem construction of Woman (no matter how straight, white, class-privileged or cisgender she be) as The Most Oppressed Person In The World, and Patriarchy as something so powerful and all-pervasive that any effective action against it is framed as literally impossible. I mean, enjoy your self-defined doomed rebellion against the Evil Empire, but I’m going to go with the assumption that I’m actually a person and my actions can matter, for better or worse.

    Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  3. belledame222 wrote:

    also, it now appears Daly is more or less directly responsible for some of the loopier shit I have run across in online wadfemism, from “yer raping the moon with yer space rockets ZOMG let us all pray for our wounded Mother” to “no, really, human partheogenesis is totes real and men will become an evolutionary relic any day now because Mama Gaia is coming and *is she pissed*”

    Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 2:20 am | Permalink
  4. belledame222 wrote:

    there is also the charming woman running around one of the more obscure corners of Internet Wadfem who posits that widespread male infanticide is an idea that really hasn’t been credited enough, and even widespread female infanticide would be preferable to the current situation. Not that she’s going to DO anything about it, sheesh, she’s *just saying.*

    and of course virulently transphobic to boot etc etc

    Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 2:25 am | Permalink
  5. Sarah Brown wrote:

    “Will trans people of the future condemn all the focus on transitioning when the drugs run out”

    I’m a trans woman, I take daily HRT. In some post-apocolyptic scenario when HRT is no-longer available I will spend the rest of my life as a menopausal woman.

    Of course, that might not be a very long life because I also have asthma, for which I also take daily medication. I wonder, will the asthmatics of the future condemn the focus on steroid treatment and bronchodilator drugs when they too run out?

    No? Thought not.

    Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  6. Lisa Harney wrote:

    As an even more specific example of that, Sady, I have several times had anti-trans radical feminists say that transphobia and trans misogyny from cis women doesn’t count because it’s cis men who are committing violence, not cis women.

    And yet, and yet, the virulent transphobia and transmisogyny – the blatant hatred is part of the larger culture’s embrace of this trans hatred, it’s the same stuff dressed up in feminist theory that Peter LaBarbera and Focus on the Family says about trans people. And how does promoting an environment of trans hatred, of exclusion of trans women from DV and rape shelters, from other women-directed services, not contribute to the cultural violence directed at trans people?

    I find it rather comparable to the way rape jokes and misogyny contribute to rape culture. Being on the receiving end of both, I don’t see much of a difference.

    Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  7. Ika wrote:

    Thanks for this – it was the first I heard that Mary Daly had died, and actually it’s exactly the way I would have liked to hear about it.

    Sunday, January 10, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  8. falguni wrote:

    yup, it’s true that mary daly held – and wrote about – beliefs that many of us today find abhorrent. in 1980, i questioned daly’s exclusionism in a discussion with my lesbian nun women’s studies professor (who studied with daly as an undergraduate and was a big fan). my professor said to me: “you don’t have to agree with everything she says. your task is to become a critical thinker. read, question, think, and develop your own opinions.”

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  9. Ginsu Shark wrote:

    @Everyone, about the exterminating/excluding/positing essential difference from men thing: Honestly, that stuff just doesn’t register for me as offensive on the same level as providing a justification for excluding or committing violence and discrimination against an actually marginalized population
    In this particular case, her hatred of men is extremely relevant to her transphobia, because the latter seemed to be directly derived from the former. Far as I can tell, she hated trans wome because she considered them to be men (more specifically, some sort of elite male strike force trying to infiltrate Woman and destroy it from the inside… so yeah)…

    Monday, January 18, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  10. Like many people, apparently, I’d never heard of Mary Daly till the obituaries started appearing on the internet; I was intrigued so I bought one of her books. I’ve never wanted to throw a book across the room so hard in my whole life, only because the writing is so shockingly bad. If it was a deliberate attempt to throw off the chains of Patriarchal English, to show how Patriarchy pervades everything and shapes convention–well, fine. I’d rather have those five hours of my life back.
    As for the other issues brought up in this post, there’s still an awful lot of anger that needs to be processed, worked through before we can all settle down to reasoned discourse. Catharsis is never pretty, or tidy.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 12:15 am | Permalink
  11. Goodday
    awesome post – i’m creating video about it and i will post it to youtube !
    if you wana to help or just need a link send me email !

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 1:52 am | Permalink

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  3. The Wild Hunt » Goddess Religion and Misandry? on Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 11:44 am

    […] anti-goddess hate-fest is married to a pseudo-obituary of Mary Daly. I realize that Daly had said and advocated many problematic (even hateful) things during her life, but spitting on the dead is usually frowned on in civil society. You can expect that Kay’s […]