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Mary Daly changed my life

I am not sorry that I used to be ‘one of those angry women.’
By Meg Barnhouse
2.15.10

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Mary Daly (Gail Bryan/Courtesy of Beacon Press)

Radical feminist philosopher Mary Daly, 1928–2010. (Gail Bryan/Courtesy of Beacon Press)

When I heard that Mary Daly had died in early January, I wrote on my Facebook page that she had changed my life. The ferocious theologian was among those writers responsible for the unraveling of my Presbyterian Christianity. I find myself hesitating to write about her, knowing that it means approaching the thick tangle of culture, gender, anger, and God. In that place, scorpions patrol and guard, tails lifted and ready to strike at a misstep in thought, feeling, or choice of words. As the witches say, “Where there’s fear there’s power,” so here I go.

I was at Princeton Seminary when The Church and the Second Sex and Beyond God the Father first tugged with playful fingers on one or two threads of the theology I had wrapped around me like a lumpy and uncomfortable sweater. The two threads were the way women were treated and the language that was used for speaking about God. Daly was a professor at Boston College with one doctorate in Theology and one in English, and the school had attempted to fire her after her first book was published. The all-male student body rose in support of her and she’d been given tenure. Her thinking was clear, and I would read her insights and her questions and marvel that I’d never seen things that way, obvious as they now were. “Hmm,” it made me think. “Look at this: If we speak of God as Father and King, it’s as if we are saying God is male. If our religion speaks of God as male, then maleness is closer to God-ness than femaleness is.”

I began thinking that’s why men were in charge of so much of the world. Maybe that’s why, when I want to look up a married woman friend in the phone book, I have to know her husband’s name. Maybe that’s why I can pass a house with toys in the yard and two cars in the driveway, but can only see the name “Steven Bobo” on the mailbox. Maybe that’s why the Senate was mostly men, there wasn’t a national holiday named after a woman, and there hadn’t ever been a U.S. president who was a woman.

I got mad. My mother worried. “Oh, Meggie, don’t become one of those angry women,” she said. Too late, Ma. I had enough warrior in my personality to want to take it all on, point it out, make it right. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Daly’s 1978 book, showed me the war against women and children that has been waged for centuries using the threat of violence to control every situation. Women become afraid of men’s violence, so they need a protector and they do what that protector says. Much later, in the mid-’90s, it happened twice that, when my husband and I would mention that I was taking karate, a man would instantly say, “Guess you won’t be able to tell her what to do anymore.”

Daly’s books were a-mazing, in that she helped me see the maze that was patriarchy, and helped me attempt to step out of it. She played with the language that way, and wrote about deviant/defiant women doing metaphoric/metamorphic work. After seminary, with the two threads of my uncomfortable sweater dangling, the following years’ experiences tugged and tugged, until little by little my Presbyterian Christianity came completely apart and lay in an awkward pile at my feet.

Then came another kind of turning point. In my late twenties I was at a party with my then-husband where the women all congregated in the kitchen and talked about children and diets and the men congregated in the living room to watch the game. Not fitting in either place, even though I was friends with all of the people, I drifted back and forth between the two groups. Leaning against the opening to the living room, I called out, teasing, to the guy holding the remote, “There’s the man, in control of the whole world.” I’ll never forget the look on his face as he turned toward me. It was open, puzzled, bewildered, and a little sad. It was clear that he didn’t feel in control of much.

As a couples counselor for many years, I heard countless women say they felt controlled by their partners. Countless men told me they felt controlled by their partners. As more same-sex couples came to me, many of them felt controlled by their partner. “If everyone is feeling controlled,” I thought, “who is doing all the controlling?” Maybe the culture controls everybody who doesn’t struggle to wake up. Maybe it’s patriarchy, maybe it’s the archetypes. Maybe it’s what people name the devil. My anger dissipated. The culprit had become more complicated.


In those years, Mary Daly was spiraling into a place where I couldn’t follow her. She was making up her own language, banning males from her classes, spewing venom that shocked me with its acid bite. I couldn’t go there with her. She scared me, making me wonder if her anger had run so hot that she’d become isolated in her own reality. Maybe she’d been on the front lines of the fight so long that she was like a traumatized soldier, lashing out with maximum force at times where it didn’t feel to me to be warranted. Who can say? I withdrew from her just as I avoided the angry-looking man who was walking down the street in New York yelling, “Face the facts! Face. The. Facts!” over and over.

I raised two sons, and began to be a warrior on their behalf as well. Why do men die ten years earlier than women? Why is it okay to send young men to war? Why do men have to wear neckties? Listen to the word. Neck. Ties. Daly would have had a hey-day with that, if she’d turned her mind in that direction. We would say about high heels, “They just want women not to be able to run away,” but you could say about neckties, “They just want to have a way to hang men quickly if they don’t do right.” Why was it okay for the girls in my sons’ classes to male-bash hurtfully, often with the participation of the teacher? Why are so many husbands on TV commercials portrayed as being so stupid? If women were portrayed that way we would get mad.

I worried for my sons that having male God-language is as bad for men as war. Maybe because the culture speaks of God as male, men feel they have to be omnipotent, omniscient, never needing to ask for directions or say, “Gee, I don’t know.” Maybe they feel like they should be able to control everything and they feel like failures when they can’t do it.

Daly was right. The way things are isn’t good for anyone, and it’s not good for the planet. I don’t think men win here. I don’t know who to blame for this situation. I believe most of us are blind to it. Most of us participate in perpetuating it. I’m not sure how to stop. I do what I can. I am not sorry that I used to be “one of those angry women.” There were good reasons to be angry.

There are still good reasons to be angry. I just don’t know where to point my anger. Can anger help fuel a change or do we have to let go of anger and fuel change with compassion and love instead? I don’t know. I’m pretty good at both. In every movement for cultural change there are internal disagreements about those who might be “making us look bad,” those who are “setting us back,” or “going too far.” Daly was the one who stalked the edge, who held that territory so the rest of us could be sweetly reasonable, or at least less terrifyingly demanding. I’m grateful to her for that. And for making me look at my faith and start to face the facts.


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