It often happens like this. A big name that you had not thought of for years flashes into the headlines because the bearer was mortal after all. So it was last week with feminist theologian Mary Daly, who died on January 3rd at the age of 81. May she rest in peace.

Mary Daly: is there a name more sweetly, quintessentially Irish-Catholic? One can imagine her as a seven-year-old in her first communion dress in the parish church at Schenectady, New York, piously clutching a shiny new prayer book and in awe of the mysteries of her faith.

What turned her into the self-styled “radical lesbian feminist” who, despite hanging onto her job in the theology faculty at Boston College for 33 years, talked herself right out of believing in God — certainly the God of Christianity? She was it seems, beset by two great temptations: a big brain and a new wave of feminism that needed intellectual credentials. What personal experiences gave rise to her relentless anti-masculinism, God knows.

I never read her books. One did not have to. It was enough in the 1970s to know that religions were patriarchal, patriarchy was misogynistic, and that the Catholic Church was the most patriarchical and misogynist of them all. (No-one was paying much attention to Muslims then.) That was the message that filtered down to the pews from Daly’s most famous books: The Church and the Second Sex, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, and Gyn/Ecology: The Meta Ethics of Radical Feminism.

Starting in the late 1970s I flirted with this brand of feminism myself, inducted into the mysteries of the inner goddess through an ecumenical group (women only, of course) convened by an upperclass Englishwoman with time on her hands during an enforced stay in the Antipodes.

There was a memorable (and excruciating) weekend at a camp in the bush when we did a lot of sitting in circles sharing our stories, learning to love the inner hag and crone, and doing spiral dancing to release the feminine energy pent up under the strictures of patriarchy. Being rather shy I was a reluctant spiral dancer and spiller of beans, but I did my best to enter into the spirit of the thing and went on to squander a good bit of intellectual and emotional energy over the next ten years on being a dutiful feminist.

How useless it all was, and how utterly irrelevant to the mainstream of women who just went on getting an education, making their way in the workforce and advancing in the skills of that contemporary women’s specialty, “juggling work and family life”. Any day now, enthused The Economist recently, “women will cross the 50% threshold and become the majority of the American workforce.”

You can put some of this down to feminism, but I believe most of it would have happened anyway; it is what economists and population alarmists wanted. And definitely, apart from the feminists who whined about patriarchal oppression to get jobs in the church, it had nothing to do with getting rid of God the Father.

While her disciples settled down to that project, Mary Daly spun off into the ether, producing books with the titles Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy and Outercourse; The Bedazzling 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). She was was an amazing wordsmith and should have stuck to poetry.

In 1999 — the year she finally left Boston College rather than open her restricted classes to men — she gave an interview with a magazine called What Is Enlightenment in which she said: “If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth. I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males.” 

There were things wrong with the church and society of Daly’s time — as there always are — and some of it was to do with the dominance of the masculine principle (power over nature) in industrial and post-industrial society, as she perceived. But Daly, clever as she was, made the mistake of thinking that masculine=male. As a result, her work did not diminish masculine domination but only encouraged women to grab their share of it.

At the same time the war on patriarchy which she championed helped to create societies where fathers are considered dispensable — if not an outright threat — to their children, so many of whom now grow up both fatherless and, since their lone mothers are either out at work or not coping with life, effectively motherless as well. To say nothing of generations deprived of a sense of the fatherhood of God.

As for Daly, she seems to have departed this life as a kind of orphan herself. The New York Times obituary notes that she “leaves no immediate survivors”. No family on earth? No Father in heaven? I hope it really was not like that for Mary Daly at the end.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet, based in Auckland, New Zealand.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet