In my quest to drown out the drone of the mindless Republican obstinacy-for-its-own-sake that is currently taking up so much of our media bandwidth, I have been reading the work of Dr. Mary F. Daly, someone I’ve known about for many years, but never actually sat down and read.
You may have heard about Mary Daly too—she was a professor of philosophy and theology at Jesuit-run Boston College, whose first three books, Beyond God the Father, The Church and the Second Sex, and Gyn/Ecology, were runaway bestsellers among women readers, but so infuriated the powers that be at her institution that they mounted campaigns to discredit her, first trying to deny her tenure and then harassing her to step down from her tenured position.
Who was this oh-so-threatening gadfly on the flanks of the Church and Academia?
Daly called herself by many names—one of her projects was to take back the English language from the patriarchy that she saw used language as yet another misogynist weapon against women and the natural world. She was a self-proclaimed “Radical Lesbian Feminist Philosopher,” a “Wild, Wicked Woman,” a “Postively Revolting Hag” who “proclaimed that Laughing Out Loud is the Virtue of Crackpot Crones who know we have Nothing to lose.”
“As an Offensive, Tasteless, Haggard Pirate,” Daly wrote in her 1992 memoir Outercourse, “I was inspired to acquire the Courage to Leave the doldrums of Stag-nation, Sailing off with as much loot as my Craft could carry. I tried to foster in myself and in Others the Courage to Live Wildly, that is, to refuse inclusion in the State of the Living Dead, to break out from the molds of archetypal deadtime (a.d.), to take leap after leap of Living Faith, becoming Fiercely Biophilic” (198).
Biophilic as opposed necrophilic, which is how she described Western society—a society built on and organized around sucking the lifeblood from the planet.
Although the dominant feminist movement has resisted the eco-feminist tendency to link women and nature “essentially,” Mary Daly saw women as having a special role to play as bearers and defenders of life—not in terms of the conventional “right to life” type of discourse, but in terms of the right and indeed the responsibility to protect and nurture the planet and other life forms on it from the predations of patriarchal society.
“By being the originator of my own Green Philosophy,” she wrote, “which is the tabooed woman-identified/nature-identified philosophy, I have uttered a Great Refusal of the patriarchal prescription of Self-lobotomy for and by women” (326).
The truth is that most people I know automatically turn off and turn away when a woman dares to utter the word “patriarchy.”
It’s a word-bomb wielded by feminist terrorists, and “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” do we?
Maybe it’s time to remember that one man’s “terrorist” is another’s “freedom fighter.”
Maybe it’s time to be honest about the fact that the rape and pillage of our planet has in fact been a male-dominated project.
To criticize the patriarchy as a system of knowledge and action is not to condemn any individual man. All individual humans are free to choose how they will act in the world, and many individual men have acted honorably and with loving care towards women, animals and the planet as a whole.
But in general, I have to agree with Mary Daly that since the advent of patriarchal human civilization–say, around the time when Gilgamesh defied the gods and cut down an entire cedar forest to build his city—humanity has lived by extractive, exploitative, often cruel and extremely destructive frameworks of ideology, policy and praxis.
Women in power, or women close to men in power, have often gone along for the ride and enjoyed their entitlements. For example, in education: education for centuries was the exclusive prerogative of men, and when women were finally admitted to the august halls of higher learning, they tended to conform to whatever it was the authorities expected of them.
A woman like Mary Daly, who was able to think for herself outside the box of patriarchal philosophy, and who dared to criticize the masters, would be undercut by whatever means possible—dismissed as a lunatic, ignored and disdained, exiled and excommunicated.
Mary Daly was gutsy enough to survive all the attacks that were lobbed at her, and come back swinging. Each of her books is more radical and free-thinking than the last, and she never wavers from her central insight, which she credits to her interchange with a clover blossom at age 14, that every form of life on the planet has intrinsic value, meaning, and a purpose on the planet.
“There was the Moment…when one particular clover blossom Announced its be-ing to me. It Said starkly, clearly, with utmost simplicity, ‘I am.’…The encounter with that clover blossom had a great deal with my becoming a Radical Feminist Philosopher. If a clover blossom could say ‘I am’ then why couldn’t I?” (23).
Daly takes a great leap here away from the artificial structures of the kind of “post-structuralist” philosophy that I, for example, spent countless hours studying during my years in graduate school in the 1980s.
Like Derrida, Daly is interested in words and language and how the “binary oppositions” of Western philosophy, starting with the mother of them all, Good and Evil, have played out in socio-political frameworks that conspire to maintain the patriarchal status quo.
But she is not interested in staying in the labyrinthine worlds of textuality; she is very much engaged with how these linguistic issues affect real, flesh-and-blood women and other beings. She not only dares to call out the patriarchy, she also dares to discourse with other species in her writing—not just clovers, but also cats, cows, and trees—and to raise what she calls “Fore-Sisters” of earlier times to engage in philosophical dialogue.
Daly was not afraid to call herself a Witch, and to reclaim the demonized power of magic to confront the necrophilia of dominant society.
For instance, in Boston in 1989, she worked with friends and students to create a multimedia performance called “The Witches Return,” which would “expose the gynocidal/biocidal atrocities [of patriarchy] and the connections among them.”
On Mother’s Day, 1989, the group acted out with intense emotion a Witches’ Trial that culminated in the symbolic beheading of those who were accused of “the massacre of women’s minds, bodies and spirits.” Daly wrote, “Our dramatic indictment was created with utterly Fiercely Focused Rage and Elemental, Creative Power” (398).
The performance was a rejection of what she called the “foreground,” ordinary day-to-day life so totally saturated in atrocity that people became numb to it—and a reaching into the “background,” the deeper truths that, if accessed, could light the way to real change.
Daly’s description of the difference between the foreground and the background makes so much sense to me, now in 2013 even more than in 1989.
In our media-saturated lives, it is so easy to spend most of our waking hours tuned in to someone else’s vision, listening to someone else’s insights, digesting information packaged for us by someone else. And most often, that someone else is—let’s face it—a white man, or someone who is reacting to the dominant white-male patriarchal vision.
How often do we allow ourselves to simply sit down in a field and commune with a clover? How often to we allow ourselves to listen to ideas that seem radical or weird or crazy?
Isn’t it interesting that radical ideas coming from white males get plenty of press time and are entertained with great seriousness by the entire world (I’m referring to the crazy, weird, radical ideas of the Republican Tea Partiers) while when a woman dares to utter the taboo word “patriarchy” she is immediately not only dismissed, but completely ignored and excommunicated?
In the last book she wrote before her death in 2010, Amazon Grace, Mary Daly called on women who understand the connections between gynocide and ecocide to come together and dare to, as she phrased it, “Sin Big”—dare to call out the patriarchy and insist that, as Arundhati Roy memorably put it, “Another world is possible. On a clear day, I can hear her breathing.”