Mother church's dissenting daughter

June 7, 1996

Lesbian theologian Mary Daly tells Lucy Hodges how she ended up in a fractious relationship with a mother church she believes has few maternal instincts

Mary Daly's books are full of capital letters and made-up words. In fact she has produced her own dictionary which she calls Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, containing her favourite words "crone" (great hag of history, survivor of the perpetual witch craze of patriarchy), "blob" (windowless, airless, lifeless) and "blobular" (having the characteristics of a blob, example, Blob Hope).

It is amazing to discover that this lesbian, feminist philosopher, who is no longer a Catholic, no longer even a Christian, is an associate professor of theology at Jesuit-run Boston College. She will never achieve full professorship, she says, even though she is in her late sixties, has seven degrees, three of them doctorates, enthusiastic student support and has written five major books. The official reason? She is not considered scholarly enough.

Daly's reputation has, however, spread far and wide as a radical feminist thinker. She may be persona non grata in the Catholic Church but she is a heroine to feminists, a self-confessed "revolting hag", a "spinster" who "weaves cosmic tapestries in her own time/space".

To the Catholic theologians in Boston, however, she is a thorn in the flesh. "They don't want a woman like me," she says. Boston College tried to get rid of her in 1968, the year in which her first book, The Church and the Second Sex came out. The treatise was pretty tame by the standards of her later work, but it laid into the Catholic Church, and that was inflammatory stuff for the period. "Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular, has not yet faced its responsibility to exorcise the devil of sexual prejudice," she wrote. "In fact, it has lagged behind the rest of the world on this issue." The theologians decided against renewing Daly's contract, but they reckoned without the students. There were months of demonstrations, and Boston College had to back down.

Mary Daly has been a fixture - albeit an unwelcome one - on Boston's academic scene ever since. She seems to enjoy her abrasive relationship with "academentia", as she rudely describes her fellow academics. In the early 1970s, as she was becoming more and more of a radical feminist, she decided to teach the men separately from the women. "I saw that the boys were an obstruction in the class because young women were influenced by their presence," she explains. Daly has kept the sexes apart ever since. In 1971, which she describes as "a Sparkling year, a Stunning year", she began to teach her first feminist classes. She was also invited to give a sermon at Harvard University's church, the first woman to do so in the church's 336-year history. "To simply accept would be to agree to being used as a token," she writes in her autobiography, Outercourse. "To refuse would seem like forfeiting an opportunity. I tried to think of a creative solution."

Her answer was to accept, but to engineer a dramatic walk-out from patriarchal religion. From the pulpit she invited the congregation to leave. As she describes it, hundreds of men and women stampeded out of the church.

The following year she broke another taboo when she came out as a lesbian. At that time she also began work on her second book, Beyond God the Father, which carries the subtitle Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation. In it she asserts that the women's revolution is a spiritual revolution. It is the search for ultimate meaning, she says, which some would call God. By the autumn of 1974, this book was being used as a required text in universities and seminaries across America.

When she wasn't writing Mary Daly was chatting with friends, people she calls "Cronies" or "Tigers". They provided her with support. "I wrote my heart out," she explains. "I wrote like a house afire. I knew that I was on the right Spiral."

All this New Age stuff is a bit bewildering to the uninitiated, but Mary Daly is serious about it. She divides her life into four spiral galaxies. The first she calls "Be-speaking, that is foretelling, speaking of what will be," which goes from birth to 1971. Be-speaking brings about psychic and/or material change by means of words, she says. The second galaxy, "Be-falling," involves "breakthrough" and "re-calling," ie giving words new names. She puts the Harvard Memorial Church exodus into the second galaxy as well as her writing of Beyond God the Father. Around 1975 she says she was hurled in the direction of the third spiral galaxy which she calls "Be-witching: Moments of Spinning."

In that period she moved beyond reacting to "patriachally defined methods of thinking" to creating her own ideas in the book for which she is best known: Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. It describes what she calls an "Otherworld Journey" because it is a discovery and a creation of a world other than patriarchy. To get to the Otherworld, you have to go through three passages - discovery, exorcism and ecstasy. The "First Passage" tells of the exuberance of discovery as the voyager breaks through the barriers of obsolete myths and confronts Daly's nightmares, male mystification and deception, what she calls "patriarchal myths." In the "Second Passage" the voyager is introduced to the global dimensions of Goddess-murder, in Daly's words, "the killing of the divine spark of female be-ing." Daly looks at the rituals of Indian suttee or widow-burning, Chinese footbinding, African genital mutilation, the massacre of witches in Renaissance Europe and modern American gynaecology and psychotherapy. The happy process of women's own unfolding forms the "Third Passage" as the Voyager moves into the Otherworld.

After the book appeared, however, Daly found she was being monitored in the classroom at Boston College. Three "visitors," one of them a Catholic priest, sat in on her feminist ethics class. Daly asked them to leave. They filed complaints saying they had been verbally assaulted and threatened with physical assault. The dean of the graduate school formally reprimanded Daly and ordered her to send letters of apology. There were more visits from some of the original visitors as well as the chairman of the theology department. And more complaints. Monitors began to appear in all of her classes.

Daly retaliated by instructing her students to sit in a circle. This meant that the monitor of that class, who turned out to be Father Robert Daly, the theology department chairman, found himself sandwiched between two large feminists. Meanwhile she lectured the group on the witchcraze in Western Europe during the Renaissance, alluding to the role of Jesuits in such atrocities and reading from letters written by the aforementioned Father Daly and his colleagues as examples of a continuing witchcraft. The wretched Father Daly was then asked to respond. He could not comment on "substantive matters", he said, and was only doing his duty, having been sent as a monitor by the university administration. All of which was faithfully recorded by two student newspaper reporters present.

The upshot was that the monitoring stopped and Mary Daly was left alone to teach. Why not move to a place which appreciated her more? "No," she says. "One of the things you come to realise as you become more of a radical feminist is that very few women have the courage, the guts and the integrity to pursue that direction, and they are constantly willing to be tokenised... I am just kind of gutsy. I will not kneel for them. But there are very few colleagues who really can do that."

The end of the 1970s, the period after Gyn/Ecology came out, was electrifying, says Daly. The women's movement was at its peak and Daly travelled the country talking about her book. By contrast, the 1980s were depressing, a time of backlash against women and Republican ascendancy.

Outercourse, her autobiography, is dedicated to her mother, Anna, "who launched my Craft and refuels it constantly in the Expanding Now, and to Other Foresisters and Cronies across Time who have stayed on Course in their own unique ways and who know who they Are." Daly's mother was important to her. "She wanted me to have everything that she had not had," says Daly, who came from a poor Irish-American background, growing up in Schenectady, in upper New York state. Her father was a travelling salesman who sold ice cream freezers.

Daly's first degree was in English. There followed an MA in English at Catholic University in Washington DC and a PhD in theology at St Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana. During this time her greatest dream had been to study philosophy, and she found she was able to do this at St Mary's because she was introduced to Thomas Aquinas. "I badly wanted to go on in philosophy," she explains. "I tried to get into the PhD programme at the University of Notre Dame in philosophy, but the priests wouldn't let me in because I was a woman."

Daly moved east to a job teaching theology and philosophy at a small Catholic college in Massachusetts. In a burst of ambition, she applied to the school of sacred theology at Catholic University so that she might acquire the highest of higher degrees. "They wouldn't even answer my letters,'' she says. "They bounced my letters back and forth ... and finally they said they couldn't admit me because I was a woman."

So she went to one of only two countries in Europe in which Catholic women were allowed to study theology with Catholic men - Switzerland - and enrolled at the University of Fribourg. Everything was taught in Latin by Dominican priests from all over the world, all speaking with differing accents. Daly understood nothing at first, but gradually the fog lifted.

Altogether Daly spent seven years in Fribourg. She got her doctorate in theology and decided, in her late thirties, to accumulate a third Phd, in philosophy. "So I was launched on what might have seemed to be my career as the world's oldest child prodigy," she says. It was while she was writing her dissertation that she got a letter from a British publisher inviting her to write a book on women and the church. In 1965 the contract for The Church and the Second Sex was signed, and she began work. Eventually she was kicked out of Switzerland for having the wrong visa. Which was how she came to be at Boston College. Daly hated leaving Europe and returned to America with what she calls "distaste and dismay".

The struggles she has encountered appear to have inspired her creative work. Certainly, her applications for full professorships in 1975 and 1989, and the subsequent rejections seem to have spurred her on to greater acts of rebellion. She resents being kept in poverty on her associate professorship salary (less than $40,000 a year) but says she no longer covets the status.

Today she is almost a grand old dame of feminist philosophy. As virtually the first leading figure in feminist theology in the 1970s she blazed the trail against patriarchy in religion, educating people in the theology of protest and analysing religious symbols from a radical woman's perspective. She is still a prominent figure on the American lecture circuit. But as she has become more interested in language and spiral galaxies, she has rather left mainstream America behind.

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