The legacy of Mary Daly

Monday marked the passing of self-described “radical feminist” theologian and social theorist Mary Daly. Yesterday, Feministing gave her a rosy sendoff with links to eulogies which, with one exception, were overwhelmingly positive. Even the linked Catholic Reporter obituary comes off with a certain warmth. The author, Thomas C. Fox, writes that Daly’s contributions to theology that it were “many, unique, and if I may say so, world-changing.” Fox goes on, saying, 

She created intellectual space; she set the bar high.Even those who disagreed with her are in her debt for the challenges she offered.

Fearlessness in interrogating the assumptions of the masses, orthodoxies and extant paradigms is the first step to intellectual greatness. It is the distinguishing virtue of the character of both Socrates and Jesus of Nazareth, the respective inspirations of the two primary strains of Western thought: skeptical rationalism and Christian theologizing.

However, fearlessness–the primary quality most of Daly’s eulogists are celebrating–is not itself a sign of greatness. Total disregard for recieved wisdom and the feedback of peers can innoculate one from old errors, but leave one open to new ones. The fearless Daly herself fell into into deep methodological errors which occassionally lead her into lapses of rigor unbecoming of any scholar; and ultimately became cut off from the sentiments of the greater mass of thinking and feeling persons, leading her to unsupportable moral prescriptions.

Firstoff, Daly seemed prone to admitting questionable facts so long as they supported her narrative of a genocidally manevolent patriarchy–itself a questionable premise. She claimed nine million women were killed in the Early Modern European witch-hunts, while most historians estimate between 60,000-100,000 persons were killed, one-quarter of them men. Without shame, Daly claimed “romanticize” prehistoric societies over the modern world, pointing to Kosovo and declaring “this is hell,” and claiming pre-state societies did not practice genocide, pointing to . In reality, ethic cleansing and wholesale population devastation were (and are) exponentially more common in them than in even 20th century Europe. Steven Pinker (2007) wrotes,

At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.

From this sometimes-spurious data, Daly painted an exposition of the patriarchy which was, let’s say, unique. She described the overall trend of art, politics, and religion in male-dominated societies “necrophiliac,” in the sense that it allegedly worships death. And also in the more literal sense of wanting to “actually fuck corpses.” There were, for Daly also problems that were striclty “male problems.” One of them “problems” was transsexualism, which she took to be a “fetish.” Daly called trans people “Frankensteinian,” and in her book Gyn/ecology, she wrote (p. 238)

The perpetual need of the castrated males known as transsexuals for hormonal “fixes” to maintain the appearance of femaleness is a sign of their contrived and artificial condition.

Her solution to necrophilic culture and male problems? In a 1999 interview with the magazine What is Enlightenment?, Daly spoke of a need to “decontaminate” Earth, a process necessitating “a drastic reduction of the population of males.” 

[What is Enlightenment? interviewer Susan Bridal]Which brings us to another question I wanted to ask you. Sally Miller Gearhart, in her article “The Future—If There Is One—Is Female” writes: “At least three further requirements supplement the strategies of environmentalists if we were to create and preserve a less violent world. 1) Every culture must begin to affirm the female future. 2) Species responsibility must be returned to women in every culture. 3) The proportion of men must be reduced to and maintained at approximately ten percent of the human race.” What do you think about this statement?MD: I think it’s not a bad idea at all. 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. People are afraid to say that kind of stuff anymore.

WIE: Yes. I find myself now thinking that’s a bit shocking.MD: Well, it’s shocking that it would be shocking.

Is this call for male depopulation one of those “challanges” which we are supposed to be endebted to Daly for? Or a proposition so radical as to be outrageous and dismissable out of hand?

This is not a plea for equality of the sexes. It is an advocacy of the phasing-out of the population undesirable biological elements. At its most generous, we can call it “eugenics.” If we are not generous, we could call it an advocacy of pogrom. Nothing could be more illiberal and worthy of liberals’ censure.

That feminists themselves are not taking the opportunity of Daly’s demise to say this belies a disturbing double standard. So long as it comes packaged with a critique of patriarchy, matriarchy is tolerated. However, it oughtn’t be. It is itself a privileging of one traditionalist, quasi-essentialist conception of one gender over another, defeating most of the goals and schemas of contemporary feminist theory. However, this is all glossed over because Daly said some original things about the use of pronouns in theology in the 1970’s.

This silence to the illiberal things in Daly’s writing is endemic of a wider double-standard in contemporary academia, viz. an intolerance of right-wing illiberality and authoritarian impulses while ignoring or offering apologetics for theoretical and practical left-wing tyrannies. Any academic who quoted Goebbels to argue for the supreme value of Volk und Raum and called upon us to “repeat Mussolini” would be run off any campus before they could breath the word “tenure.” But when Zizek calls Soviet ideology “socialism with a human face” and argues for the necessity to “repeat Lennin,” he is forgiven if not celebrated within the academy, and he is allowed to ascend to the top of his field.

I am not saying that fascist sympathies or Leninism should necessarily be barriers to any academic post. Also, I do not say a tyrannical theorist has nothing to say. I imagine most people who quote Zizek do not subscribe to his politics, but glean from him other insights (though these too are likely suspect in their own right, drawn from Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis and dialectical materialism as they are, paradigms which have been given to thorough empirical refutation in their respective fields of psychology and economics). Most of Daly’s enthusiasts likewise believe her opening of feminine spaces in theology can be reconciled with a liberal masculinity.

Merely, I mean to say that if one is to be taken seriously as a champion of human liberty, they must be consistent in pointing out tyranny and decrying it. Mary Daly was an advocate of tyranny. Any true account of her whole legacy is incomplete without giving exposition to those dark and illiberal aspects of her thought.


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