Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
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Mary Daly Passes, Spinning

January 05, 2010

Word reached me yesterday that Mary Daly had died on Sunday. She was 81. She'd been ill for a long time. Leave it to her to re/claim "the Lord's day" one last time, and the first one of the new/not-so-new year at that.

Where to start, where to start?

My copy of Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism is open on my lap. It's inscribed:

(If the image isn't clear, it says: "March 24, 1979. For Susanna -- a courageous Spinster and Spider -- Keep moving! Mary.")

Mary signed it shortly before or shortly after an SRO lecture she gave in D.C. I instigated the event, which was organized by an ad hoc group calling ourselves the D.C. Hags. Within the month a friend and I took the overnight train to Boston to attend a rally supporting Mary during one of her frequent skirmishes with Boston College. It was probably the groupie-est thing I've ever done. I still have the T-shirt: a black labyris encircled by the rally theme, "We have done with your education," and the date, all on a striking red background.

I reviewed Gyn/Ecology for off our backs. The review took me almost six months to write, or so I recall. My memory may be playing tricks, the way memories tend to do with mountains one once climbed or races one once ran. I don't know why oob entrusted me, an untested newbie, with such an important book, but I'm glad they did. It marked my fledging as a writer, a feminist writer, a lesbian feminist writer, and a reviewer.

I came out to my mother while we were discussing Mary Daly. I came out to my mother because we were discussing Mary Daly. Even in the late 1970s it wasn't all that common for lesbians to discuss Mary Daly with their mothers, but my mother worked for Beacon Press, Mary's publisher.

Gyn/Ecology blew the top of my head off. It introduced me to mythologies and histories I hadn't known. It rearranged my perceptions and expectations of the mythologies and histories I thought I already knew. Probably most important, it changed my relationship to my native tongue. It encouraged me to look more closely, delve more deeply, and play with the wildest abandon I could (or maybe couldn't) manage.

But I didn't become a Daly groupie. As a reader, a writer, and a thinker, I've always been a pick-and-choose synthesizer. Everybody's got part of the truth, but not even the people I admire most have all of it. Something about the Daly group made me uneasy from the beginning. Mary's searchings were wild, exhilarating, infuriating, inspiring. A few of her protégées, Jan Raymond among them, took her insights and tools and created powerful work with them. The groupies, who were far more numerous, used those insights and tools to perform parlor tricks that were sometimes entertaining, at least at first, but after a while grew tiresome.

No radical ideas are immune to this; on the contrary, ossification is the rule, and if there are any exceptions, I can't think of them offhand. And pace Virginia "You've come a long way, baby" Slims, the key perpetrators aren't big nasty corporations. Most ideas are tamed, co-opted, and/or betrayed by their most devoted adherents. Mary Daly was the first feminist thinker I heard address with consternation the transformation of the women's liberation movement into the women's community. I had come into the movement/community when the transformation was already well under way. Not only had I not noticed the shift, it took me a long time to understand what it portended, and why Mary didn't like it. "Keep moving!" she wrote in my book. I did. I moved away.

Even the most creative and inspiring synthesis becomes a thesis if it survives long enough. Then it inspires antitheses. In the firefight that was feminism in the early and mid 1980s, it's impossible to tell which were the theses and which the antitheses. I don't think it matters. What matters is that the synthesizing, the movement, all the active verbs that Mary Daly's work celebrated, ground to a near halt. All/nothing and us/them dichotomies ruled. You couldn't both love Gyn/Ecology and say out loud that Audre Lorde's "Open Letter to Mary Daly" was right on. You couldn't believe both that separatism was important and that censorship was a bad idea, and if you opposed censorship you were expected to be uncritical of sadomasochistic sex practices.

Mary aided and abetted this, but she sure wasn't alone. As the women's liberation movement evolved into the women's community, academics and lawyers became ever more prominent. They brought with them a tendency toward win/lose, take-no-prisoners disputation that didn't encourage synthesizing the best of various theories into something stronger and more resilient than its sources. Mary was academic to the bone, and she practiced her profession in a milieu that was implacably hostile to her and her ideas. Of course these things affected her ideas, and her politics, and her public demeanor. Follow her trajectory from The Church and the Second Sex through Amazon Grace. She broke several sound barriers. The sound waves haven't caught up with her yet.

There isn't much out on the Web yet about Mary's death, and what little bloggish commentary I've found so far at best shallow and at worst infuriatingly ill-informed and small-minded. As word gets around, that should improve -- somewhat, at least. I believe that Mary's greatest sin/crime in the view of her critics and trashers, including the feminists among them, is that she uncompromisingly put women in the foreground. This is as risky now as it was 30 years ago, and as necessary. Mary Daly is going to be challenging feminists and other critics of the status quo for a long, long time.


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