Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 947
Mary Daly was one of the most important and influential voices of the radical feminist movement in the United States. The only child of working-class, Irish-Catholic parents, Daly grew up with a strong sense of her ethnic and religious heritage. As a young woman, she developed a passionate desire to become a philosopher and a theologian. Encouraged by her parents, and especially by her mother, Daly pursued her intellectual dream, receiving her Ph.D. in religion at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, in 1953, at the age of twenty-five. Still yearning for a doctorate in philosophy, Daly applied to the University of Notre Dame but was denied entrance because she was a woman.
Undaunted, she traveled overseas to Switzerland in 1959. By 1963 she had completed a doctorate of sacred theology at the University of Fribourg; two years later, in 1965, she completed a third doctorate in philosophy. Armed with enviable academic credentials deserving of respect from even her most skeptical male peers, Daly returned to the United States in 1966 to begin her career as a writer, teacher, and scholar.
Daly began her teaching career in the Department of Theology at Boston College, a Jesuit institution. Following the publication of The Church and the Second Sex, which contained a harsh analysis of the Catholic Church’s treatment of women, Daly was terminated from her position at Boston College. She became a cause célèbre as students protested her firing, and in 1969 she was reinstated with promotion and tenure. Occurring at a time of social unrest in the United States—protests against the war in Vietnam were common, and the feminist movement was gaining momentum—this experience transformed Daly, and she began to embrace feminist principles. For her, the situation at Boston College was emblematic of women’s oppression under a patriarchal, male-dominated society in which women were continually devalued.
During the early 1970’s Daly began to formulate more clearly her philosophical and theological positions. Using her extensive training, she attempted to reconcile her feminist beliefs and experiences with her knowledge of Christian theology and philosophy. In Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, a work heavily influenced by the work of theologian Paul Tillich, Daly used traditional theological principles to suggest the ways in which women could recover meaning from the Christian tradition. Responses to the publication of Beyond God the Father were positive and inspiring to Daly, who received encouragement from hundreds of women who wrote to tell her of their own struggles to be Christian and feminist. She traveled and lectured extensively, speaking against the male supremacy of the Catholic Church. Although she had now published two well-received books, she was denied promotion to full professor, an event that fueled her feminist sensibility and spurred her to even more radical work.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s Daly embraced her lesbian identity and began to move beyond traditional philosophical and theological thought. Although she continued her pointed criticisms of patriarchy, Daly now combined these analyses with a unique approach to language. For her, the roots of sexism lie in language, for language creates and maintains one’s perception of reality. Subverting and destroying patriarchy necessitates the creation of a new language. In Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Daly researched the treatment of women around the world and argued that practices as diverse as Indian widow-burning (suttee), Chinese footbinding, and American gynecological procedures are all reflective of a universal patriarchal abuse of women. Having recognized this phenomenon, Daly worked to disrupt standard patterns of thinking about the world by challenging her readers’ linguistic sensibilities: By transforming the word “chronology” to “crone-ology,” for example, Daly put the creation of history into the hands of women. “Stagnation” was seen to occur precisely because it reflects the “stag-nation.” By playing with language, Daly opens up the possibility that her readers will break free of the bondage of patriarchy through a creativity that is suppressed through male domination. Daly continued this practice with the publication of Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy and Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, works that challenge traditional philosophical ideas and develop a unique approach to thinking at the boundaries of patriarchal culture.
Daly’s playful work with language and her radical feminist thought made her a sought-after speaker and writer. She also continued to incur the disfavor of her colleagues at Boston College; in the late 1980’s, she was again denied promotion to full professor, ostensibly because her work was not “scholarly” enough. The publication of Outercourse: The Bedazzling Voyage confirmed her continuing departure from traditional academic scholarship with its unique blend of philosophy, theology, and autobiography. Quintessence posits a fifth essence beyond the four she had presented in Pure Lust (words, substances, the cosmos, and spirits). This quintessence binds the other four together and provides the impetus for the creation of a “true Future,” that is, a feminist future that has overcome the bounds of patriarchy. Daly presented her book in the form of its own fiftieth anniversary edition, framed by an interview between a mid-twenty-first century woman and Daly’s own conjured spirit. Daly died at age 81 in 2010.
Daly’s solid traditional philosophical and theological roots, combined with her original and creative style, made her one of the most significant feminist philosophers and theologians of the twentieth century. Though respected by those who appreciate her groundbreaking work, her work makes many who value traditional ways of thinking uncomfortable. As she herself said, “There are and will be those who think I have gone overboard. Let them rest assured that this assessment is correct, probably beyond their wildest imagination, and that I will continue to do so.”