The Death of a Radical

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The death of feminist philosopher, theologian and former Boston College professor Mary Daly earlier this month at the age of 81 received fairly little notice in the media. What attention Daly did receive, however, was almost entirely of the positive kind. Time magazine ran a short obituary by fellow radical feminist Robin Morgan, who eulogized Daly as “a fierce intellectual, an intrepid scholar, a wicked wit and an uncompromising radical” as well as “a central figure in contemporary feminist thought.” A Boston Globe editorial called Daly “a fighter” as well as “a vital figure in feminism and in the recent history of Catholicism in America,” while acknowledging that her radicalism was at times excessive.

Trained as a Roman Catholic theologian, Daly eventually became a self-proclaimed ‘post-Christian’ whose vitriolic anti-Catholicism went far beyond liberal demands for reform. She wrote, notably, that ‘a woman’s asking for equality in the church would be comparable to a black person’s demanding equality in the Ku Klux Klan.’ She continued, nonetheless, to teach at Catholic Boston College for more than 30 years, despite openly deriding that school as ‘a laboratory for patriarchal tricks.’

Daly’s most notorious moment came in 1999, when she became embroiled in a controversy about her policy of barring men from her “Introduction to Feminist Ethics” course. A Boston College senior, Duane Naquin, complained. Since Daly’s practices were a clear violation of one of the feminists’ favorite laws, Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments – which forbids educational institutions that benefit from any federal funds to discriminate on the basis of gender, except for single-sex schools – the college ordered her to admit Naquin into the class. Daly discontinued the class instead. After a prolonged squabble, she either she either resigned (according to the college) or was kicked out (according to her).

Daly’s explanation of her no-boys-allowed policy was that “the dynamic is totally interrupted” with men in the classroom. (She claimed that she was willing to tutor men privately, though there did not seem to be a single actual instance of such tutoring.) One need not ask what the reaction have been if a male professor had made such an argument for keeping his class all-male – or if a Catholic professor at Boston College had used similar reasoning to exclude non-Catholics from a course.

Yet in Daly’s case, feminists from Gloria Steinem to Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation (former president of the National Organization for Women) rallied to her cause. So did left-of-center punditry. The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eileen McNamara, who is also a journalism professor at Brandeis, sneeringly urged the “boys” upset by Daly’s policies to “settle down”: “You’re accustomed to making the rules and then along comes Mary to say that everything is not about you, you, you.” An editorial in The Nation, “Feminist Detenured,” depicted Daly’s plight as part of a “backlash” against feminist academics.

Ironically, in 1969, it was male students at the then-all male Boston College who saved Daly’s job. When the college tried to fire her due to her outspoken broadsides against the Catholic Church, more than 1,500 students turned out to protest the decision. The administration eventually reversed its stance.

The admiring obituaries today depict Daly’s determination to exclude men from her classes as a minor quirk. Morgan stresses her supposed willingness to teach men in private, while the Globe editorial grudgingly acknowledges that her position was “unproductive.” Yet Daly’s stance was a logical outgrowth of her virulently anti-male views.

A look at Daly’s writings, such as the 1978 book Gyn/Ecology, reveals a ranting preacher of hate. Daly excoriated men as “lethal organs” of the patriarchy, earth-rapists who invent evil technologies to compensate for their inability to bear children, misogynists who drain female energy and whose love for women is akin to necrophilia since it is “love for those victimized into a state of living death.” Men who oppose abortion, Daly claimed, identify with fetuses because “they sense as their own condition the role of controller, possessor, inhabitor of women.” However, she also denounced the birth control pill as “the poisoning of women” – a medical plot to end the female advantage in life expectancy – and asserted that the only contraception women needed was a “mister-ectomy.” (“Wicked wit,” indeed.)

The Boston Globe obituary asserts that while Daly’s approach undoubtedly “alienated some allies,” radicals like her can “create room in which more moderate figures can operate.” But in fact, it is far more likely that academics like Daly have helped make feminism an “f-word” to the majority of female college students. Any intellectual movement in which someone like Mary Daly can be a “vital presence” is doomed to irrelevancy.

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