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Remembering Mary Daly

by Alena Amato Ruggerio 

A Biblical Feminist Muses on the Late Controversial Theologian

Feminist philosopher Mary Daly’s last wish upon her death on January 3, 2010, was for small groups of women across the world to come together to tell stories in her memory. I offer mine.

I met Mary Daly in 2002 at the Religion and the Feminist Movement Conference at Harvard Divinity School. Before she began reading passages from her new book, Amazon Grace, to the audience full of feminist leaders from a variety of faith traditions, she announced that the women who stayed within patriarchal religious institutions were deader than dead. Was there anybody in the audience who was really alive? A few people responded with enthusiasm, but the rest of us sat in mortified silence. That was Mary Daly: controversial, outspoken, fearless, pissy, fierce, steadfast.

I had just finished teaching a chapter on Daly in my course, Women Transforming Language, at Southern Oregon University. I had introduced the students to Daly’s conceptualization of the snool, a person who is a toady to the patriarchy, a person who is blinded by hegemony. At the conference, there was a moment as I walked up the stairs of the Harvard auditorium that I drew face to face with Dr. Daly. I was struck silent. What words could I, a reformist biblical feminist still allied with institutional Christianity, say that would not sound to her ears snoolish and dead? Instead of speaking, I held her eye, bowed, and continued on my way.

My personal story points to the internal conflict many biblical feminists might have felt upon the passing of Mary Daly, the blazingly brilliant woman who moved further and further away from our theological territory with each book she published. That day at the conference, I chose to bow in respect to her path-breaking courage and her intellectual significance. You can find an entire list of obituaries and official remembrances on a special website that places Daly in religious and historical context, especially Mary Hunt’s piece for Ms magazine and Robin Morgan’s Time article. Most of the articles give eloquent honor to her life and work, but left me wondering, how might a biblical feminist respond to the legacy of Mary Daly?

We can embrace her commitment to the way women matter. Her memory must not be reduced just to her battle with Boston College over protecting a space for women to learn, but I stand in awe of her willingness to stay within an oppressive institution that sought to destroy her. She could have fled to so many other universities that would have welcomed her, but she remained in her place as a professor at the Jesuit school in part out of devotion to the change she was making in the lives of the people there, especially the female students of the next generation she loved to teach. Now there’s something a biblical feminist who chooses to reform Christianity from within can identify with.

We can embrace her commitment to the way words matter. Her creativity and playfulness with language provide a rhetorical foundation for our theological work. I imagine her as a dolphin swimming joyfully in a sea of written words, making great splashes and flips between the sentences of stodgy church texts. When we demand inclusive language in our worship and our Bible translations, we invoke Mary Daly. When we reclaim words from which women have been historically excluded by the church, such as deacon, or words distorted for religiously-sanctioned sexism, such as helpmeet, we honor the legacy of Mary Daly. Even when we have debates and discussions about the name of our own organization we are in a sense honoring Mary Daly’s emphasis on words and naming.

We can embrace her commitment to the way confrontation matters. In a grad school course I took on Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., we explored the hypothesis that part of the reason why Dr. King’s reformist message of Civil Rights was ultimately embraced by the dominant culture was because the alternative provided by Malcolm X was viewed by most Whites as angry, radical, and scary. Although I’m aware of the irony given the racial critique of Daly’s work, and although of course she never advocated violence, perhaps Mary Daly can be viewed as a sort of Malcolm X of the church, the audacious menace on the fringe who makes a more moderate push for inclusion and justice seem more palatable by comparison.

Dr. Mary Hunt put it another way. In March, I had the privilege of participating in a teleconference organized in remembrance of Mary Daly sponsored by WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual. During the conversation, Hunt, the co-director of WATER and one of the six women who cared for Daly in the physical decline of her last years, provided an instructive image: Imagine a wooden desk. On that desk sits a huge, heavy, immovable stack of books. That’s the Christian church. Now imagine a single book jumping off the stack. That’s Mary Daly. The lone book pushes against the big stack but cannot shake it. So instead it begins to creep further and further away from the stack, until finally it falls off the edge of the desk. Many people felt that Mary Daly went off the edge. But it is the space between her book and the stubborn stack that she bequeathed to us.

Alena Amato RuggerioAlena Amato Ruggerio is an associate professor of communication at Southern Oregon University. She serves as a Northwest representative to the EEWC-CFT Council, and was a plenary speaker and workshop presenter at the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today 2010 gathering in Indianapolis, Indiana. An audio of her plenary speech at the 2008 EEWC Conference may be heard here. Alena believes that Mary Daly, an ardent animal lover who dedicated some of her books to her cats, would be pleased with Alena and her husband Bradley’s adoption of Yuffie, their third feline family member in Medford, Oregon.