Essay / Theology

Mary Daly (1928-2010): Radical Feminist Theologian

The term “radical feminism” gets tossed around pretty loosely in theological circles, and usually means “feminism that goes farther than I’m comfortable with.” But there are such things as radical feminist theologians. Probably the most influential of them all, Mary Daly, died this week. This post (rather long, probably only of interest to theologians after the first few hundred words) is an account of her theological project.

It’s tempting to treat Daly’s work as representative of feminist theology, but that would be wrong for two reasons: First, there are many varieties of feminist theology, some having little in common with Daly’s work. Secondly, by Daly’s own confession, she was the consummate idiosyncratic individual thinker; her work is representative of nothing but Mary Daly.

The early career of Mary Daly traced a fairly short arc from “Christian feminism,” that is, feminism inside the church and criticizing the Christian tradition from within, to “radical feminism,” which rejects Christianity as irredeemably anti-feminist and sets out to find or make a more appropriate spirituality. This is not the only possible definition for “radical feminism” in theology, but it is a way of using the term that was embraced by Daly and her peers in that generation of feminist theology.

This trajectory, first seen in Daly (who also described it as the transition from reformist feminism to postchristian feminism), has remained an abiding lure to Christian feminists, forcing many women to ask over and over, “Can one be both Christian and feminist at the same time?” –the opening question of Pamela Dickey Young’s Feminist Theology/Christian Theology: In Search of a Method (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1990). Daly’s 1973 book, Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon Press) could be described as a sort of First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Patriarchy (playing on John Knox’s infamous work about women), an attempt to bring women out of their phallocratic captivity.

In this book Daly intended nothing less than an ontology of feminism, and she delivered it with remarkable consistency and thoroughness. Beyond God the Father is the first major work that Daly would claim ownership of. She had previously published only two books, first a study of Jacques Maritain on the knowledge of God (in which an alert reader can hear the author herself yawning), and then 1968’s first draft of a feminist theology, The Church and the Second Sex. She later described the Daly who wrote that book as a “foresister” to whom she is indebted but with whom she largely disagrees. By the time of Beyond God the Father, it is clear that Daly intends to leave no stone on top of another in her destruction of the patriarchal temple. Against scholars like Phyllis Trible, whose strategy is to reinterpret the Bible along woman-friendly lines, Daly jokes, “It might be interesting to speculate upon the probable length of a ‘depatriarchalized Bible.’ Perhaps there would be enough salvageable material to comprise an interesting pamphlet.” (BGF p. 206)

Daly’s later works make their intentions and attitudes increasingly clear right on the covers. She had a knack for the outrageous title:

Pure Lust
Webster’s Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, Conjured in Cahoots with Jane Caputi
Outercourse: The Bedazzling Voyage, Containing Recollections from My Logbook of a Radical Feminist Philosopher
Quintessence… Realizing the Archaic Future: A Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto
Amazon Grace: Re-Calling the Courage to Sin Big

These books move in the direction of a fully-realized feminist religion, an elemental paganism based on sisterhood, spinsters, crones, covens, and witchcraft. They are characterized by an amazing display of verbal contortions and distensions, as Daly carries through her struggle to re-Name what Adam had mis-labelled (an agenda announced in BGF p. 8). In a new introduction (or, as she puts it, perplexingly, an “Original Reintroduction,”) to the 1985 republication of Beyond God the Father, Daly explains how she will use language in the service of her liberation movement:

We do not use words; we Muse words. Rhymes, alliterations, alteration of senses–all aid in the breaking of fatherland’s fences. Liberation is the work of Wicked Grammar, which is a basic instrument, our Witches’ Hammer. Websters denounce the patriarchal usage of women and nature and of words. We denounce both good usage and bad usage, proclaiming the termination of usage. In this process, words and women guide each other. Our guiding is reciprocal, requited. United, our movements are directed by sagacious Sin-Tactics. Together we work to expel the bore-ocratic chairmen of the bored. We strive to make the world Weirder.

More perfect and intentional ranting is rarely seen in academia. There was no insulting this Daly; call her weird and she will thank you, tell her she is out of control and she will exult in being so, tell her she is just plain whacked and she will seize on your word and lickety-split spin it into something else: whack-ed, wick-ed, wiccan wild woman weaving weirdness. Truly incantatory power.

Wherever her books had to be shelved, by Daly’s admission they certainly weren’t Christian theology. In fact, it’s worth asking how they are theology at all, given the doctrine of a merely immanent goddess that she elaborated. I don’t just mean that they might be thealogy (building on thea, feminine, rather than theo, masculine), but that they might not refer to transcendence at all. To display what Daly was up to, here is a brief outline of her thought, drawn from the landmark book, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), which was already decidedly post-Christian, but was still loosely structured in the categories of traditional systematic theology. Since her later, increasingly radical feminist writings do not even attempt to keep up a critical dialogue with Christianity, they can’t be pressed into the standard theological categories.


Daly hates method. She calls for the end of “methodolatry, in which a preconceived system dictates the choices of problems to be dealt with. The sexual caste system is disguised, spiritualized, and otherwise mystified to such an extent that it takes a great effort to render it visible. The problems a person faces should dictate her method. Method (“one of the false gods of theologians, philosophers, and other academics,” who is in fact always a subordinate deity serving the higher power of an ideology) has “wiped out women’s questions so totally that…women have been unable even to experience our own experiences.” (12)

Daly admits that her work may not even be properly considered theological, because the name “theology” implies that patriarchal religion’s hidden agenda is still dictating the problems to be discussed (“Let’s apply doctrine to women’s liberation”). Daly’s task is rather “to study the potential of the women’s revolution to transform human consciousness and its externalizations, that is, to generate human becoming.” (6) Though Daly is greatly indebted to Tillich, even the “method of correlation” does not do justice to her intentions, because she does not draw on any set of “eternal truths” to bring experience into dialogue with them. Instead she uses the method of liberation, liberating language by reclaiming the power of naming for women. (8) This work proceeds by way of castrating the language which would perpetuate patriarchal structures (example: the phrase “sisterhood of man” exposes and emasculates the psuedo-generic term “man,” transferring generic power to the female word) and exorcising the ethos of machismo.

Other notes on Daly’s method include her penchant for quoting and footnoting personal conversations, because women’s culture is still largely underground and oral. (xxxiii) Also remarkable is her singleness of purpose: “For the person who has learned to see sexism, nothing can ever be the same again.” (50) True to this insight, Daly relates absolutely everything in her thought to her central theme, the liberation of women. In that sense, though she rails against method, she is indeed systematic.


God the Father is dead, long live God the Verb.

As the book’s title suggests, the doctrine of God is its central concern. You might expect the first generation of radical feminist theology to replace God with Goddess, but Daly is already beyond that move. She is not interested in simply transgendering God into Goddess; what must be done away with is the whole idea of a Supreme Being distinct from and in control of the world, keeping humans in infantile subjection. (18) God the Father, in fact, can be called the GodFather; His worshipers experience something much like a relationship with movie gangster Vito Corleone because of the odd union of tenderness and violence experienced by those who are under a patriarch in an isolated community allied against outsiders (16). Instead of just replacing GodFather with GodMother, Daly calls for an alternative concept of transcendence.

What would an alternative concept of transcendence be? Daly surveys the three main mythological structures which express transcendence: 1. The mythology of separation and return (the journey of Ulysses, the neoplatonic exitus-reditus scheme) emphasizes the holiness of what is, and tends toward a personal, nonhistorical mysticism. 2.The myth of conflict and vindication (as in black theology), which is shortsighted because it focuses on the enemy, emphasizes the holiness of what ought to be, and is often profoundly historical and revolutionary. 3. The myth of integrity and trans-formation is about spiritual rebirth and becoming a psychic unity which no longer needs another for complementarity’s sake (Daly calls this state of integrity “psychological androgyny,” see below). (25-6) The feminist consciousness is developing this latter myth, transformation toward transcendence. Investing in it, Daly hoped it would be able to keep what was best in the other two myths, uniting the individual-ontological power of return with the revolutionary-historical force of conflict. (27)

Paul Tillich had declared his basic spiritual position in the best-selling The Courage to Be. Out-Tilliching Tillich, Daly claims that “courage to be is the key to the revelatory power of the feminist revolution.” (24) As the consummate ousiders, women who object to patriarchy are thrown into confrontation with nonbeing (the anxieties of fate, guilt, and meaninglessness attendant on stepping out of the present order) in an unprecedented way. But women, shocked by the threat of nonbeing, and in the surge of ontological self-affirmation against it, can now perceive transcendence not as some noun, but as the Verb, the Verb of Verbs, which is Be-ing, in whom we live, move, and have our being. The Verb of Verbs is intransitive, objectless. It has no “other” to stand against as complement or opponent; it opposes nonbeing alone. Sisterhood is thus not “us versus them” but “us versus nonbeing.” (34)

Seen this way, the emergence of the communal vocational self-awareness of women is a creative political ontophany. (34) Feminists can agree with marxist atheism, that “God” cannot mean a presence or reality, but only an expression of the human need for totality and absoluteness…but they can go further and say that beyond that absence is presence; not a super-reified Something, but a power of being in which they participate by their ontological self-affirmation, by saying “I AM” in the face of the nonbeing which threatens them after they turn their backs on the pseudo-reality of patriarchy. According to Daly, the anger of oppressed women is divine judgment in a very direct sense: The feminist rage is in fact the wrath of God speaking Godself forth in a surge of being! The unfolding of God is thus an event in which women participate by participating in their own revolution. We are the change we have been waiting for.

Daly is well aware that this description of God appears vulnerable to critique by the projection theories of Feuerbach and company, but she hastens to point out that since God the Verb is not a Being over against the world, projection cannot apply. It is in fact only patriarchal consciousness that dichotomizes (between cosmic and personal, necessitating anthropomorphizing of the cosmic), reifies, and projects, fashioning an “other” to be the repository of the contents of the lost or fragmented self. “It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God.” If it is true that we project God in our own image, it is also true that the victims of these projections can expose them and bring the creative process to a new phase. (29) Bringing the creative process to a new phase seems to mean fashioning (perhaps Daly would say participating in) the new god, God the Verb. The shock of ontological (anti-nonbeing) affirmation gives women a liberating critical distance from existing symbol systems, so they are uniquely qualified to be iconoclasts. They may still call the power of being “God” in certain contexts. It helps to do so, to remind us that ultimate transcendence is not under our power, but that our power is from participation in ultimate transcendence. (29)

The reconstruction of the doctrine of God is the whole ball game for Daly. Feminism should not be satisfied with token victories, but should cultivate the full cosmic and religious vision which the word “God” signals. The false gods who must be destroyed are the God of the Gaps (who explains inequalities and unjust social situations as well), the God of Otherworldly rewards (since women have been the main consumers of this product, they can take it off the market by living full lives now. This is not secularism, Daly argues, but “a deeper ‘otherworldliness’–an awareness that the process of creating a counterworld to the counterfeit ‘this world’ presented to consciousness by the societal structures that oppress us is participation in eternal life.”), and the God who Judges what the present unjust system calls sin. (29)

At work throughout this discussion is a clear pragmatic criterion of truth: For Daly the truth question should be phrased, “Does this god-language encourage human becoming toward psychological and social fulfillment, toward an androgynous mode of living, toward transcendence?” (21) So for Daly, the ontological affirmation of self contains a dynamism that reaches out toward God: “In hearing and naming ourselves out of the depths, woman are naming toward God, which is what theology always should have been about” (33) This feminist naming toward God has affinities with the medieval threefold way, the triplex via: 1. the neo-negative way (declaring what God is not) is revealed by the surprise of women finding their being where it was thought not to exist; this demonstrates the possibility of transcendence over against nonbeing. 2. The neo-affirmative way (declaring how God is connected to that which is) is a living analogia entis (analogy of being), a similarity between active self-affirmation and the Be-ing in and toward which we are participating. 3. The new way of eminence (combining the other two, God has our qualities “in a more excellent and higher way”) is the female self-affirmation which makes I-Thou relationships possible without objectification. This opens technical reason up to ontological reason, in a redemptive encounter between subjects who do not struggle to reduce the other to an object. Thus we perceive the Eternal Thou which always has more to say to us (this “more” is the “eminence” of the via eminentiae). (40) Women leaving patriarchy step into new space, whose center is the boundary of present systems, and they find God speaking Godself forth in their new identity there. They work in new time, qualitative, organic time that can’t be clocked; they are alive now, participating in the unfolding of God.


What, for Daly, is the nature of humanity? The main point for Daly is that women must no longer be seen (or see themselves) as the complementary “other” which completes men. Such sex-role stereotyping shatters humanity into two deformed halves, needing each other for wholeness rather than for real communion between equals. The feminist consciousness makes possible the restoration of real humanity by asserting equality between selves. In this book, Daly describes the goal as “a psychically androgynous humanity,” by which she means a humanity made up of fully-integrated people, who do not artificially polarize their human qualities into traditional sexual stereotypes. In later works she regrets the term androgyny, and pokes fun at her former self by saying that “androgyny” conjures the regrettable image of John Travolta scotch-taped to Farrah Fawcett (original reintroduction to BGF, xxiv).


The motto for Daly’s doctrine of Christ could be: The New Being versus Christolatry.

Although she does not use this exact term, what Daly develops is in fact an Antichristology. While it may be true that Jesus was a feminist, this fact is irrelevant if we continue to be fixated on Jesus and identify him with God, and especially if we use him as a model for our imitation. Even if imitatio christi is conceived as being as female-affirming as he was, the entire structure of imitating a model is essentially patriarchal. It is built on the patriarchal mindset of slavish imitation of a master or father, followed by the necessity for rejection of that figure in order to establish the self. We do not need models: modulus means small measure; you must shrink yourself to mimic another. Further, this super-scapegoat who teaches us to live sacrificially has been administered hypocritically by putatively “humble” rulers who demand obeisance from inferiors. The very idea of a unique incarnation in a single (male) being is bound to be replaced by increased awareness of the power of Being in all people. (71) The hypostatic union of God and Male is being unmasked as a cosmic joke. (72) Always in Christianity, “Salvation comes only through the male.” (77)

As a sub-topic under Christology, Daly explores the role of Mary. The recurrent popularity of mariological devotion has been a subconscious bestowal of compensatory glory to women by the church (even by Pius XII), but of course it has always been subjected to christolatrous impulses and thus has never attained real independence. As Jung pointed out, what lies behind Mariology (especially the immaculate conception and assumption) is the admittance of the feminine principle into the godhead, and along with this the affirmation of matter, sex, and evil. This signals that the collective psyche is trying to overcome a shallow and rigid dichotomizing of good and evil. (89) What Daly finds in Mary is the Great Goddess reborn, a harbinger of the Second Coming of Women. The Second Coming of Women is synonymous with Antichrist: it will not be a return of Jesus, but a new arrival of the female presence buried by patriarchy. (96)


Salvation is a complex issue for Daly, who goes to great lengths to tear down the standard notion of sin by showing that it is simply an expression of patriarchalism and phallocentric ethics. In spelling out this great reversal, Daly shows that the phallocentric ethos is authentically expressed in the most unholy trinity of rape, genocide and war. To this she opposes the most holy and whole trinity of power, justice, and love. Obviously, for Daly salvation is the liberation of women, ontologically conceived.


The church is the enemy, and cannot be salvaged. Sisterhood will take the form of Anti-Church, constructing a counter-patriarchal Antiworld of religious proportions. If feminists must remain on the boundary of church life, it will be as the Exodus Church staging walkouts and mediatating on their meaning.


Sisterhood is also a Cosmic Covenant, the cosmic significance of which will liberate even men. Matriarchy was not and will not be “patriarchy spelled with an ‘m.'” (94) Daly speaks in a manner difficult to follow about the second coming of women as the Final Cause, the Cause of Causes. The good presents itself as attractive, and draws us to it, not as an all-determining magnetic omega-point, but as beauty. Daly identifies this so closely with her vision of the liberation of women that she can say “the women’s movement is movement itself.” This assertion is grounded in her her notion of creative eschatology, which she says must come by way of the disenfranchised sex (a basic thesis of this book). (34)

This rough sketch gives some idea of Daly’s thought in its early maturity. She kept writing and presenting at conferences until very recently, and the halls of academic theology are full of stories about her outrageous behavior. Most famously, she intentionally discriminated against men in her classes at the Jesuit-run Boston College, refusing to allow them into her classroom. Of course that’s not legal, and Daly seemed to be inviting the inevitable disciplinary actions taken against her, and reveling in the irony of various court proceedings charging her with sexism.

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