As one who has long followed the career of the late radical feminist theologian Mary Daly, I was disappointed by her obituary in the New York Times a couple weeks ago. As a summation of Daly’s outsize life and work, it was inexplicably drab.
A pioneering figure of “eco-feminism” and a major draw on the campus lecture circuit in the 1980s and ’90s, Daly was probably best known in the secular world for her long-standing refusal to admit men to some of her undergrad courses at Boston College. This unilateral deviation from coeducational policy made national headlines in the late 90s, when a libertarian-conservative “public interest law firm” threatened to sue the college on behalf of an undergrad who felt his Title IX rights were being violated. In what Daly termed an instance of “rapism,” the college administration used the threat of litigation to maneuver her into retirement in 1999.
Though Times obituarist Margalit Fox acknowledged that “Daly’s ideology placed her outside mainstream academic and religious life,” her profile definitely knocked a lot of bark off of its proudly gnarly subject. Fox cited Daly’s academic attainments (two PhDs in theology and one in philosophy, all from top-flight institutions) but not the categorical contempt she later expressed for scholarly credentials and canons. Fox summarized Daly’s first book, The Church and the Second Sex (1968), a historical analysis of the Catholic Church’s role in the oppression of women, without mentioning that Daly later apologized for its embarrassingly “liberal” character in relation to her subsequent work, most of which concerned her imagined travels to future times and distant galaxies. Fox referred to the support Daly received from the still all-male student body of Boston College during her landmark 1970 antidiscrimination campaign to wrest tenure from that Jesuit-run institution, but not to Daly’s later espousal of “a drastic reduction in the population of males” as an efficient way to effect a “decontamination of the Earth.”
“People are afraid to say that kind of stuff anymore,” said Daly in 1999 to an interviewer uneasy about her proposed planetary “Mister-ectomy.” But Daly exhibited no such qualms, which is why I think she would agree that Fox’s obit was kind of a whitewash. Daly, however, would have surely found a way to blame its shortcomings on “the patriarchy,” whereas I construe them as the consequence of Fox trying to register Daly’s stature as (in the words of former Ms. editor Robin Morgan) “a central figure in 20th-century feminism” without giving the average lay reader the impression that she was a flaming moonbat.
This, I reckon, is why Fox shied away from discussing later Daly works like Quintessence . . . Realizing the Archaic Future (1998) and Amazon Grace: Re-Calling the Courage to Sin Big (2006), both of which concern the author’s imagined voyages to the year of 2048 B.E. (it stands for “Biophilic Era”), where she communes with a like-minded tribe of unfettered lesbian “Wild Women” in an all-female paradise called the Lost and Found Continent.
Daly’s admirers could protest that she never meant readers to take her tales of time travel literally, and they’d be right: She wasn’t a straightforward mercenary bullshitter like Carlos Castaneda or all of those professional UFO abductees. But her stories are too vulgar, puerile, and repetitive to be justified as metaphors or allegories. What they are is crude wish-fulfillment fantasies, and exterminatory ones at that.
Daly’s Lost and Found Continent is one of the meagerest visions of utopia ever conceived. It is a place, we are told, without pollution or exploitation, but attentive readers will notice that it also lacks an economy, politics, sex, and all the rest of those complicating human details that your more thoughtful futurists try to harmonize in their own imaginary systems.
On the other hand, there is absolutely no social conflict on the Lost and Found Continent. That’s because everyone there thinks and talks exactly like Mary Daly.
And how, you may want to know, did Daly foresee the world attaining this state of harmony? The answer, revealed in Quintessence, relates to morphic resonance, a term coined by biologist-turned-new age guru Rupert Sheldrake to express his belief in “mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species.” Daly, borrowing from Sheldrake, imagined that the spread of her philosophy would induce changes in the earth’s “morphogenic” energy field that would ultimately euthanize everybody who disagreed with her. She elaborated this scenario in a dialogue between her time-traveling self and a first-person alter ego called Annie, her primary guide to the wonders of the Lost and Found Continent:
“Are you saying that men who insisted on clinging to patriarchal beliefs and behaviors became obsolete and ‘died off’?” asked Mary.
“Yes, they rapidly became extinct,” I said.
“And what became of the patriarchally assimilated women who identified with the roles and rules of patriarchy?” asked Mary.
I answered, “Those women who refused to release themselves from the phallocratic dependencies and habits that had been embedded in them . . . were in effect refusing to evolve. So they also could not survive in the New energy field.”
As apocalypses go, this is arguably pretty classy: give Daly credit for not gloating over the particulars of how her enemies will snuff it, instead glossing over the Jack Chick money shots with tasteful use of the passive voice. What can’t reasonably be denied is that it distills the Manichean (Womanichean?) essence of the last five of Daly’s nine books, beginning with 1984’s Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy. It was this febrile material that made her a women’s studies superstar, so it’s presumably what Gloria Steinem had in mind when she said: “In the way that painters and artists become more valuable after they’re gone, I hope Mary will be kept alive by people going to her work.”
Personally I don’t think there’s much chance of this. Most crackpot literature has a short shelf life: Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures (1875) became a tough sell in the Atomic Age; L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950) is showing signs of wear and tear in our time of rapidly advancing neural mechanics. And Daly’s books—with their annoying alliterations, onerous puns, block-capital outbursts, labored neologisms, and patchouli-scented line drawings of moon-dancing Amazons—will likely date even faster. But for the time being, let’s honor Mary Daly by remembering her teachings in their full glory. v
Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com/media.