Mary Daly


January 7, 2010
Mary Daly, a Leader in Feminist Theology, Dies at 81

Mary Daly, a prominent feminist theologian who made worldwide headlines a decade ago after she retired from Boston College rather than admit men to some of her classes, died on Sunday in Gardner, Mass. She was 81 and had lived for many years in Newton Centre, Mass.

A friend, Linda Barufaldi, confirmed the death, saying Professor Daly had been in declining health recently.

A self-described “radical lesbian feminist,” Professor Daly maintained a long, often uneasy relationship with Boston College, the Jesuit institution where she had taught theology since the 1960s.

In 1999, Professor Daly left the college after a male student threatened suit when he was denied a place in her class on feminist ethics. She had long limited enrollment in some advanced women’s studies classes to women only, maintaining that the presence of men there would inhibit frank discussion.

Professor Daly did let men enroll in her introductory feminism courses and offered to tutor them privately in the advanced subjects.

Among the first American women to train as a Roman Catholic theologian, Professor Daly challenged orthodoxies from the start. She came to wide attention in 1968 with the publication of “The Church and the Second Sex” (Harper & Row), in which she argued that the Catholic Church had systematically oppressed women for centuries.

Her next book, “Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation” (Beacon, 1973), explored misogyny in religion in general.

“She is a central figure in 20th-century feminism,” Robin Morgan, the feminist writer and former editor of Ms. magazine, said in a telephone interview on Monday.

Professor Daly’s work was the subject of a critical anthology, “Feminist Interpretations of Mary Daly” (Pennsylvania State University, 2000), edited by Sarah Lucia Hoagland and Marilyn Frye.

If Professor Daly’s ideology placed her outside mainstream academic and religious life, then that, by her own account, was where she was glad to be. Formerly a practicing Catholic, she came to regard organized religion as irreparably patriarchal, in later years calling herself “post-Christian.” Where her scholarly concerns had once been largely theological, she gradually came to regard them as spiritual in the broadest sense of the word.

Mary Daly was born in Schenectady, N.Y., on Oct. 16, 1928. By the time she was an adolescent, the natural world seemed to resonate for her in a way it did for few others.

“Especially important was a startling communication from a clover blossom one summer day when I was about 14,” she wrote in an essay in The New Yorker in 1996. “It said, with utmost simplicity, ‘I am.’ ”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in English and Latin from the College of Saint Rose in Albany in 1950, she earned a master’s in English from the Catholic University of America and a Ph.D. in theology from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. She later earned two more doctorates, in philosophy and theology, from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

Professor Daly joined the Boston College faculty in 1966. In 1969, in a widely reported case, she was denied tenure, a development interpreted by many as a response to “The Church and the Second Sex.” After more than 1,500 students signed a petition supporting her — most were men, for the college did not admit women to its liberal arts division until 1970 — she was reinstated with tenure.

In 1999, when Professor Daly and Boston College parted company, a spokesman for the college said she had agreed to retire. She maintained she was forced to retire.

Critics alternately praised and condemned Professor Daly for her pyrotechnic, bitingly witty, eccentrically capitalized and punctuated style.

Most were enchanted by “Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language” (Beacon, 1987; with Jane Caputi). A lexicon of new, nonsexist English, the book contains original coinages, like “Mister-ectomy” (“a guaranteed solution to The Contraception Problem”), plus familiar pejoratives like “crone” and “hag,” rehabilitated as emblems of pride.

But some reviewers seemed discomforted by Professor Daly’s later prose, which appeared to dovetail ever more snugly with New Age rhetoric:

“Although I was not in a ‘trance’ when writing ‘Gyn/Ecology,’ I was in a special mode of creative consciousness, which stemmed, in part, from a will to overcome all phallocratically imposed fears and Move on the Journey of Gynocentric Creation,” she wrote in the 1990 edition of “Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism” (Beacon), originally published in 1978.

Professor Daly leaves no immediate survivors.

Her other books include “Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy” (Beacon, 1984) and “Outercourse: The Be-Dazzling Voyage: Containing Recollections From My Logbook of a Radical Feminist Philosopher (Be-ing an Account of My Time/Space Travels and Ideas — Then, Again, Now, and How)” (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).

Reviewing “Pure Lust” in The New York Times Book Review in 1984, the religious-studies scholar Demaris Wehr wrote: “Mary Daly is an extraordinary woman and this is an extraordinary work, demanding unusual spiritual and intellectual effort from its readers. The effort is worth it.”

Ms. Wehr added, “Her powerful mind, her creative genius and her uncanny ability to put her finger on deep emotional, psychological and spiritual problems are ignored at our peril.”