Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1634
Mary Daly 1928-
American critic, nonfiction writer, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Daly's career through 2001.
Among the most radical feminist scholars of the late twentieth century, Daly is known for basing her critical arguments on the academic traditions of theology and philosophy, rather than those of politics or economics. In works such as The Church and the Second Sex (1968) and Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation (1973), Daly not only criticized the Catholic Church for demonizing women and relegating them to secondary roles but also denounced organized religion itself as the cornerstone of all oppressive patriarchal social institutions. In later works, such as Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978) and Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (1984), she shifted her focus to dissections of male-biased linguistic structures that perpetuate patriarchy, thus laying the foundation for a new feminist-oriented usage with the hope of fostering a women's revolution.
Daly was born on October 16, 1928, in Schenectady, New York, the only child of Frank and Anna Catherine Daly. Her parents were working-class Catholics, and Daly grew up as a devout member of the church. She enrolled at the College of St. Rose, where she earned a B.A. in English in 1950. Daly had been interested in philosophy and theology, but no degrees in either of those disciplines were offered at St. Rose at the time. Two years later, she earned her M.A. in English at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Daly then entered the School of Sacred Theology at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, where she earned her Ph.D. in religion in 1954. Daly wanted to pursue a doctorate in Catholic theology, but such a degree was not then available to women anywhere in the United States. Daly learned that she could pursue the degree at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, since the school was state-run and could not legally bar women from any course of study. For the next eleven years, Daly studied at Fribourg, earning a basic degree in sacred theology in 1960, a licentiate in sacred theology in 1961, a doctorate in sacred theology in 1963, and a doctorate in philosophy in 1965. In 1966 Daly took a job as an assistant professor of theology at Boston College. That same year, she published her first book, Natural Knowledge of God in the Philosophy of Jacques Maritain (1966), an academic analysis of the French philosopher. However, it was the publication of The Church and the Second Sex that first brought Daly widespread critical and popular attention. The book's strong criticism of the Catholic Church's attitudes toward women proved controversial, and Daly made several television appearances to further defend and expound her views. Her outspokenness angered some of the administrators at the Jesuit-run Boston College and, as a result, the following year she was denied both tenure and a promotion to associate professor. This action outraged many Boston College students and their demonstrations on Daly's behalf forced the administration to alter its position and eventually award tenure to Daly. Nevertheless, her future at Boston College remained unclear as the administration denied her promotion to full professorship in 1975 and 1989. In 1999 a male student at Boston College, with the backing of a conservative public-interest law firm, threatened to sue the college unless men were allowed to attend Daly's women's studies classes, which Daly had traditionally limited to women only. Before Boston College could officially respond, Daly requested that her next semester's classes be canceled and took a leave of absence. The college suspended Daly in 2000, prompting Daly to sue for violation of her tenure rights and breach of contract. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2001.
An exhaustively researched and comprehensive history of the Catholic Church's alleged suppression of women, The Church and the Second Sex is a searing indictment of the Church as a fundamentally sexist and patriarchal institution. The book offers little in the way of suggested ecclesiastical reforms; instead, Daly argues that the Church's bias against women is an inherent result of its history and structure. However, in Beyond God the Father, Daly began to outline a feminist spiritual program that she believes could take the place of the current patriarchal religions, creating a foundation for a feminist theology. Beyond God the Father asserts that Christianity is based on a conception of God as a static, authoritarian, and—most importantly—male figure. Daly argues that this father figure has become the backbone of a system of symbols that men use to subjugate women. Furthermore, Daly claims that this religious subjugation legitimates all other forms of social, racial, economic, and political oppression. Beyond God the Father calls for a feminist spiritual revolution—one that will replace the traditional concept of a male God with the existentialist-influenced conception of the divine as something readily available through the fullness of one's own being. Daly moved her focus outside the religious sphere with Gyn/Ecology, turning her critical attention to the issue of societal gender roles. The work's thesis states that women, after millennia of male domination, have unconsciously accepted a patriarchal ideal of femininity—an ideal that must be stripped away if women are to realize their full potential. In Gyn/Ecology's central section, Daly delineates the results of this false ideal with a list of socially sanctioned abuses of women, including Chinese foot-binding, witch-burning, the Hindu suttee, and female circumcision. Daly points out that each of these imposed forms of mutilation is based on a male-created ideal of womanhood. In the book's final section, Daly demonstrates how women can use language to create a new definition of womanhood, giving once pejorative terms like “hag” and “crone” positive connotations while exposing the hidden patriarchal meanings of seemingly innocent or neutral terms. Daly further pursued this lexicographical project in Pure Lust, guiding the reader through three “realms.” In the first realm, the ancient culture of the “Goddess” is examined; in the second, existing phallocentric conceptions are dismissed; and in the third, women are left free to create their own society. In each section, Daly discusses the patriarchal linguistic obstacles that she feels block women from fully realizing themselves as individuals. Daly's next work, Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1987), is an expanded version of the linguistically oriented sections of her previous two works. Written with Jane Caputi and presented in dictionary form, the book reconstructs and redefines women's language through etymological investigation, alliterative wordplay, linguistic invention, and mythological association. In the autobiographical work Outercourse: The Be-Dazzling Voyage: Containing Recollections from My Logbook of a Radical Feminist Philosopher (1992), Daly recounts her youth, her education, her struggles with the Boston College faculty, and other personal matters, most notably the development of her critical ideals and the circumstances surrounding the writing of her previous works. Structured as a quasi-magical dialogue between Daly and a young radical feminist living in the year 2048, Quintessence … Realizing the Archaic Future: A Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto (1998) offers a survey of social problems facing women in the 1990s, including the break-up of the second wave of the women's movement, the growing development of genetic engineering, society's over-reliance on technology, and the grip of postmodern theory on academia. Quintessence then presents a fictional history of the world from the 1990s to the year 2048, proposing that the women's movement will evolve into strong communities of like-minded women who, through intense devotion to each other and the ideals of radical feminism, will eventually cause the world's patriarchal institutions to crumble. In 2001 Daly published The Gender Division of Welfare: The Impact of the British and German Welfare States, a critical analysis of the modern institution of welfare, citing specific case studies and examples from the United Kingdom and Germany.
Daly has acted as an important force in modern radical feminism, inspiring considerable critical debate, most of which has fallen along cultural and political lines. Certain aspects of her work, notably charges of essentialism and her historical ambivalence, have been hotly contested in feminist circles. One of Daly's most controversial positions has been her assertion that men are inherently inferior to women and should generally be excluded from the society of women. Many feminists have openly rejected this ideal, with some calling Daly blatantly sexist while others argue that it is within the power of individual men to reject patriarchal systems. Daly has also been criticized for her belief that the oppression of women by men is now, and has been throughout human history, the primary form of oppression, and that all other instances of oppression pale in comparison. This belief—and its corollary, that radical feminism is the single most important form of liberation ideology—has angered a number of activists and scholars who have charged Daly with both self-aggrandizement and shortsightedness. However, some of Daly's supporters have defended her by claiming that Daly is speaking metaphorically when comparing the oppression of women to other instances of oppression. They have also argued that Daly does not intend to denigrate other forms of oppression or liberation ideologies, and is simply speaking from within an admittedly outdated framework of 1960s-era radical politics. Many critics have agreed that Daly's analysis of language as a tool of oppression and liberation constitutes her greatest achievement, particularly in works such as Pure Lust. Nevertheless, some scholars have asserted that, by focusing entirely on the English language, Daly has framed feminism as an Anglocentric phenomenon. Others have criticized Daly's focus on redefining words as too limiting, arguing that she should focus instead on larger linguistic units of discourse. Daly's supporters have countered that Daly always defines words in the context of larger ideas, and that her focus on words—the basic units of meaning—rather than posing a limitation, allows her great analytical flexibility, since words are used in many different contexts.