You’ve probably heard or read by now that radical feminist theologian Mary Daly died this past week at the age of eighty-one.
Reflections on her life and work abound on my RSS feeds. See Feministe, Feministing, Feminist Law Professors, figleaf, Hippyish, Questioning Transphobia, Shakesville, and Women’s Space for a sample of the range of responses that are being generated out there on the interwebs.
I first came across Daly in a class on Christian feminism in which we were assigned part of her seminal (pun intended) work, Beyond God the Father, one of the first texts in modern feminist theology to systematically condemn the patriarchal underpinnings of Christian thought and practice. About ten years ago (my how time flies!) I drew on some of her later writing for undergraduate paper on the important work of feminists who assert different starting points, different roots (hence the term “radical”) than those provided by mainstream culture. Whether we agree or disagree with Daly’s conclusions, I believe her impulse to jettison that which she found harmful to women’s health and well-being is a useful example. Particularly for feminists who come from a religious background (which I sort of did and didn’t — my family wasn’t religious, but the community and college I lived and learned in was, so my experience of anti-feminism often came through the lens of religious belief), Daly’s early work can really resonate. Sady @ Tiger Beatdown (via Questioning Transphobia) has written a beautiful and astute analysis of Daly’s effect in her life from this perspective — one that also wrestles with the perennial issue of how to come to terms with the unsavory opinions of a person who, at one time, inspired you to positive, transformative action.
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.
I never read — let alone made sense of — enough of Daly’s later work to reflect meaningfully here on the racism and transphobia expressed in her writing that justifiably angers so many folks. What is will say is that Daly’s writing (even I remember this) was incredibly solipsistic: she seems to have become increasingly enamored with the world of her own imagination, in which she alone battled the powers of patriarchal darkness beset on all sides by enemies. For people who struggle all their life as outsiders of one sort of another, injured deeply by their fellow human-beings, I feel that this is an all-too-common human failing, however inexcusable it may be in the final analysis. While Daly herself bore responsibility in the end for her own actions, we also, collectively, bear some measure responsibility for sustaining a world in which a tenured professor felt so threatened that she stopped listening to her critics — even when they had important perspectives to offer.
I thus have fond memories of her work and what it meant to me, even as I stand critically wary of her later myopia, self-aggrandizement and posturing. Jill @ Feministe comes closest to giving voice to my own response to Daly’s life and work when she writes “She was a foremother, but one who eventually revealed herself unprepared to embrace all of her children (especially the ones who failed to look or think like her). . . May she rest easy, and may the rest of us learn from her good works and leave her bad ones to dust.”