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  • On Mary Daly
  • Mary E. Hunt (bio)

Mary Daly left an indelible mark on feminist studies in religion. Her death, on January 3, 2010, occasioned a tremendous outpouring of appreciation, as well as some soul-searching in the field. I take this opportunity to share glimpses of both.

Countless people expressed their intellectual and spiritual debt to Mary Daly. Her ideas mattered, something to which all scholars aspire. Her reach was far and wide, well beyond her modest apartment in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, or the classrooms of Boston College. With books translated into many languages, she had a global audience. But what really mattered was that she inspired women in many regions to do their own work.

People recall her lectures on college campuses and with women's groups worldwide where she engaged in a kind of performance art that challenged their thinking and invited them to move beyond old paradigms. She was an enviably successful teacher. Even those who disagreed with her respected the fact that Mary Daly was unafraid to raise hard questions and offer unpopular answers. To follow her lead is not to agree with her but to bring critical questions to bear.

In our circles, her name is synonymous with early efforts to show how male names and images of the divine correlate with patriarchal power in the world. While by no means unique to her, this was a fresh insight in the 1970s. Now, it is axiomatic. Moreover, that work opened the door for similar suggestions raised from different starting points, for example, a Black God, a disabled God, and so on.

Mary Daly insisted on the primacy of women's voices and the need for women's spaces as nonnegotiable elements of her methodology. Again, she was not alone in her view, but she was the person who took the idea to its logical, if to some minds illegal, conclusion. She decided to teach men separately since she believed women learned best with one another. Subsequent studies have shown single-sex education to be conducive of women's leadership. Our experience in women's programs like the Seminary Quarter at Grailville and the [End Page 7] Summer Forum (sponsored by JFSR, Inc., and Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual [WATER] in 2008) reinforce this view.

Mary Daly studied theology when most women were barred from the field. She took her first doctorate, the so-called ladies' degree, at St. Mary's College (Indiana), since the University of Notre Dame did not admit women to their program. How far we have come. Now, women are a significant presence in most graduate programs in religion. She studied in Switzerland (where she earned two more doctorates, taking a lot of her classes in Latin) because women could, and because she wanted a thorough grounding in continental and classical approaches. The European influence shows in her linguistic creativity and her wholesale excavation of Thomistic thought. While feminist work is innovative by default in a traditionally patriarchal field, Mary Daly showed the enduring value of knowing one's history.

Mary Daly eventually tired of theology, considering it hopelessly mired in patriarchal religion. She turned to feminist philosophy. That field was also nascent, but at least she did not have to contend with the parochial limits of Catholicism or what she considered the boring Bible. She read little of what the rest of us wrote in feminist studies in religion, preferring to delve into the social and physical sciences as her interests turned to ecology, war, and the well-being of animals. She never returned to the multireligious landscape of contemporary feminist studies in religion. Such was her choice, but it meant she was sometimes tilting after windmills that had long ceased operation.

That the feminist pioneers of Mary Daly's generation would be accused of essentialism in their efforts to establish women's experiences and gender in general as categories of analysis was perhaps inevitable. There was something essentialist about it, but that was tough to avoid in early conversations on the gendered nature of religion as it was gender as a category that was at issue. The many particularities of race, class, sexuality, and the like...


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