Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Mary Daly (1928- )

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Throughout this article, many "Daly-isms" will appear, such as, "A.F./B.E." meaning "Anno Feminarum/Biophilic Era." The intent behind their use is to give the reader a taste of Daly’s writing style, for truly the medium is intimately bound up with the message. Though some terms will appear as neologisms, the wordplay is generally straightforward in its symbolic portent. The import of the novel use of language will become apparent.

Hag-iographical/Crone-ological Sketch

Little information is available concerning Mary Daly's early life. In some sense, such data would prove helpful for the reconstruction of the conditions and contexts which influenced the development of this singular feminist post-christian philosopher-Crone. Daly was born in 1928, however, the figure with whom we are principally concerned was born in the tumult of the sixties and early seventies. The Mary Daly which preceded her appears to be a somewhat distant, though sympathetic, relative of the present Spinster, a view supported by the latter Daly's own autobiographical commentaries upon her development and work. Therefore, this hag-iography focuses on those events singled out by Daly as transformative.

The early Sixties brought Daly to Europe, a move spurred by both the early rumblings of feminist furor and academic ambition.

My passion had been to study philosophy and theology. To a person who had grown up in the Catholic ghetto, theology meant "Catholic" theology. There was no place in the United States where a female was allowed to study for the "highest degree" in this field, the "canonical" Doctorate in Sacred Theology. Since I would settle for nothing less than the "highest degrees," I applied to study in Fribourg, where the theological faculty was state-controlled and therefore could not legally exclude women (Daly 1985[1968], 8).

Daly describes her time at Fribourg as both fruitful and frustrating. There she acquired doctoral degrees in both philosophy and (Catholic) theology, and underwent great personal and intellectual growth. On the one hand, Fribourg was isolating. Daly was one of a few women at the university, and felt distinctly out of place among her male seminary classmates, many of whom shunned her as a potential source of temptation. Further, she had begun to question the very merits of her chosen field of study; the bonds of her Catholic faith began to chafe. On the other hand, she revelled in the freedom that Fribourg and the Continent provided. She cherished the intensity of the academic environment as well as the free exchange of ideas among friends beyond the stricture of the classroom (cf. Daly 1985[1968], 7-9).

While at Fribourg, Daly had the opportunity to visit Rome during the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II played a decisive role in Daly's intellectual and spiritual development. Initially, the Council was a chief inspiration for her first book, The Church and the Second Sex (1968), in which Daly undertakes a historical and philosophical critique of the patriarchal and gynocidal structures of destruction which inhere in the Church. Though harsh in her criticism of the Church for its historical and contemporary violence against women's minds, bodies and spirits, Daly still held some (slim) hope for a radical transformation and a realization of an egalitarian ecclesia.

This hope was not to last long. Vatican II also sowed seeds of deep discontent and anger, seeds which were to bear radical fruit in the coming years. In her "Autobiographical Preface to the 1975 Edition" of The Church and the Second Sex, Daly describes the peculiarity and perversion of the Council's spectacle.

The contrast between the arrogant bearing and colorful attire of the "princes of the church" and the humble, self-deprecating manner and somber clothing of the very few women was appalling. Watching the veiled nuns shuffle to the altar rail to receive Holy Communion from the hands of a priest was like observing a string of lowly ants at some bizarre picnic. (In retrospect it seems to have been an ant-poisonous picnic) (Daly 1985[1968], 10).

These images of pompous priests, parading in their ceremonial drag of colorful dresses to justify their robbery of women's spiritual energy, and the dour subjugated women would prove emblematic in Daly's thought. It revealed the reversal and perversion present in the church, and its inherently vampiric and enslaving tendencies, which drain the life and spirit from women while mutilating their bodies and psyches.

In 1966 Daly returned to the United States and took a teaching position at Boston College (B.C.) where she completed The Church and The Second Sex. As she states, soon after finishing the book, the book nearly finished her (Daly 1985 [1968], 11). Boston College gave Daly a terminal contract shortly after the book's publication. Her termination became a cause celebre and prompted a number of protests at the college and across the country. Amid the uproar, Daly expected that her academic career would soon come to an end. In a surprising reversal, however, during the summer of 1969 she was informed that she had been granted tenure and would return to B.C. in the fall. The tenure dispute and the attendant trials marked a second watershed in Daly's development as a "post-christian feminist." Ironically, just as The Church and the Second Sex was receiving widespread attention, its author, in a sense, had already passed away. In reflecting upon her early work, Daly sees it as the vain struggle of a well intentioned but still naive "foresister." The author of that book was a member of the (oxymoronic and hopefully soon extinct) species called "Catholic (or Christian) Feminist." Confrontation with both sacred and secular authorities confirmed for Daly that women could not remain part of the Church, nor full members in the broader patriarchal society. To do so would be to subject oneself to ongoing degradation and vampirism. It meant giving up one's own vital and intellectual energies to the service of a necrophilic and androcentric master/monster.

The confrontation of the late sixties would prove paradigmatic of Daly's tenure at B.C., and indeed of her relationship with academia (or, in her phrase, "academentia") at large. In the years since, there have been frequent confrontations between Daly and the administrative powers and principalities of both B.C. and larger academic organizations such as the American Academy of Religions. In 1975, Daly was initially denied promotion to full professor, on the grounds her two books to date had been unscholarly and her academic work less than brilliant. Again, there were national protests, and B.C. eventually granted her promotion (cf. Daly 1978[1990], xiii ff.). Often, conflict has revolved around Daly's insistence upon a biophilic and gynocentric atmosphere and audience. To this end, she has earnestly sought to exclude men from both her classrooms and "public" lectures. Most recently, B.C.'s refusal to accept this exclusionary policy has led Daly to take an indefinite leave of absence from formal teaching.

We may therefore suggest, in keeping with Daly's own autobiographical comments, that this first public confrontation with patriarchal authority marked the birth of a new consciousness, a new Mary Daly. She gave up the futile project of criticizing and seeking reform of a fundamentally corrupt and corrosive institution. Her attention turned instead to the Spinning of new tales, new ideas. This act of New Being began in earnest with the 1973 publication of Beyond God the Father. The book marks the first major step in the revelation and the dis-covery of a philosophy of women's liberation. It rejects outright Christian and other patriarchal modes of apprehension and reasoning, and begins to set forward a gynocentric vision of life and the world. This Spinning of new words/new worlds continues in evolution/revolution in later works, including the republished version of The Church and the Second Sex (1975), Gyn/Ecology (1978), Pure Lust (1984), Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (with Jane Caputi, 1987), Outercourse (1992),  Quintessence (1998), and the recent Amazon Grace: Re-Calling the Courage to Sin Big (2006).

These works comprise not a feminist canon, but rather represent interrelated and inter-penetrating points in a process of meaning- and life-building carried on at the margins of patriarchal society. They are the many turnings of an intellectual and spiritual loom which spins out on the margins of patriarchal and necrophilic society the vision of a new biophilic reality. It is both a critical and constructive process. On the one hand, Daly seeks to analyze the gynocidal currents which are inherent to patriarchy, to cast light on the systematic murder and rape of women in all reaches of society, whether this degradation be physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. This is the ongoing process of Naming, wherein patriarchal structures are called what they are, their corrosive forces revealed. On the other hand, Daly seeks to set forth a vision of an alternate reality in which the inherent wholeness, dignity and power of women is realized, in which women's history is spoken and made, in which women may at last engage in true being. This is the process of Spinning, the creation of not only texts, but a new fabric of reality.

2. Works (Selected List)

The Church and the Second Sex (1968, 1975, 1985), Beyond God the Father: toward a philosophy of women's liberation (1973, 1985); Gyn/ecology : the metaethics of radical feminism (1978, 1990); Pure lust: elemental feminist philosophy (1984);  Outercourse: the be-dazzling voyage: containing recollections from my Logbook of a radical feminist philosopher (be-ing an account of my time/space travels and ideas--then, again, now, and how) (1992);  Websters' first new intergalactic wickedary of the English language, conjured by Mary Daly in cahoots with Jane Caputi (1987, 1993); Quintessence--realizing the archaic future: a radical elemental feminist manifesto (1998); Amazon Grace: Re-Calling the Courage to Sin Big (2006).

3. Themes

Naming the Sins of the Fathers

A principal agenda of Daly's philosophical project is to reveal the structures and myths within patriarchy which degrade all, but especially women's, humanity. This critical work began in The Church and the Second Sex, where Daly reviews the historical record of Christian theory and practice to show its inherent misogyny. Drawing on the work of Simone be Beauvoir, Daly notes that Christianity, since its inception, has sought to oppress and deceive women. It holds up unattainable visions of the Virgin Mary as the exemplar of the good Christian woman, while also affirming that Mary was made pure only through the act of a male god and only for the sake of a male savior. The paradigmatic woman is passive, asexual, and, in a striking reversal of the normal order, kneels in submission before her son. The model of Christian piety is essentially one of submission and of patient suffering in light of oppression. Women achieve some merit only by accepting and internalizing their role as the patient sufferer who will be rewarded in the life to come, or by somehow "rising above" the handicap of their sex and embodying more fully the masculine norm of spiritual rigor, as was the case with Teresa of Avila (cf. Daly 1985[1968], 66-69).

Christianity is not alone in its degradation of women. In Gyn/Ecology, Daly surveys the world’s cultures and religions and demonstrates all participate in perpetuating patriarchal myths, ethics and aesthetics which form a vampiric network. Where Christianity associates women with sin through the myth of the Fall and offers the unattainable exemplar of the virgin mother, the Indian culture and religion promotes the "ultimate consummation of marriage" in the suttee, the Chinese have practiced footbinding and the exclusion of women from ancestral rites, and the genital mutilation of women continues presently in Africa. Even the so-called secular sciences habitually dismember women, both physically through so-called "gynecology" and psychically through the fundamentally misogynistic practices of psychology and psychotherapy.

Women are not the only victims of patriarchy. Daly sees racism, militarism, nationalism and environmental degradation as manifestations of the processes of rape and vivisection which characterize the phallic culture. Devoid of any life of its own, patriarch feeds off those at hand, leaving a broken and degraded world and a broken and degraded humanity. Men themselves are reduced to a subhuman condition by their acceptance of and participation in such a system. Yet it is women who bear the brunt of the rapist society's attack.

Patriarchy successfully continues to perpetuate its crimes by cloaking its true intents and ends. It deceives its victims into accepting its false claims of reality. "Patriarchy perpetuates its deception through myth," and religions are often the most potent vehicles for the creation and promulgation of such dehumanizing and necrophilic visions of reality. The victims are mystified through myth, myths which they internalize and to which they adhere. Women come to believe and even speak the fathers' lies, about themselves and the world. They buy into the god-fathers' myths of salvation and success. The god-fathers throw some crumbs of "power" and "success" to a few tokens, be they blacks or other minorities, or especially women, to demonstrate that their system is indeed "equitable," or at least capable of reformation.

The truth of the matter is, however, that intra ecclesia non salus est. There is no possibility of redemption within or for a system which is founded upon the degradation of the human species and its environment. Through denial, tokenism, obfuscation and reversal, patriarchy hides this fact. A chief organ in its propaganda campaign is a religion which posits that God is male (and hence male must be God) and that only through suffering in this life may one find true happiness in some world beyond. This is the myth patriarchy projects onto the foreground of reality. It is the myth which is internalized and is thereby self-perpetuating. Patriarchy traps its victims in the semantic web of lies which constitutes the reality of the Foreground, and obscures ultimate reality, which is the Background.

Women are therefore stuck in a seemingly untenable position. Either they may seek suicidal security within the virtual reality of the god-fathers, thereby defining their lives by degrading lies. This perverse universe of meaning is all that they know, and therefore seemingly all they could imagine. To leave it would be to confront no sense of self as defined by patriarchy. This appears to women as the threat of Non-Being, of living in the extra-patriarchal anomie. Or they may remain within the system, and thereby retain a degraded sense of self. But to do so is to remain in a charnel house which denies one full humanity. Again, one is confronted with the threat of Non-Being, of a death of a thousand cuts. Trapped between this parasitic Scylla and the anomic Charybdis, what's a girl to do?

The Fall and New Being

Daly's response to this question is drawn from Tillich. Women must find the courage to be. This entails a new fall, a true fall, one not into sin, but rather out of the degrading patriarchal system and into the background. Only by doing so may they encounter New Being, which is their true Being and their Old Being, obscured by patriarchal myths. It is a free-fall into both an outer and an innerspace which is not defined by the god-fathers' lies. Women themselves must become the bearers of New Being; they themselves must become the incarnation of God.

Seen in this way, the awakening of women to our human potentiality through creative action would be envisaged as having the potentiality to bring about a manifestation of God which would be the second appearance of God incarnate, fulfilling the latent promise in the original revelation that male and female are made to the image of God (Daly 1985[1973], 73).

Only by taking a leap of faith into the seemingly anomic void may women dis-cover their human potentiality. To do so is to reclaim their primordial power, their gynergy, and to begin the process of re-membering and of spinning new, gynocentric and biophilic realities. New Being is the dynamic and creative power women discover in themselves, in their true humanity unveiled of patriarchal myth. It is the healing power which re-members the self divided against itself. It is manifest wheresoever women dare to speak, to reclaim their human dignity and right to name, which is, to give meaning. It is a denial of the myths that meaning-making is the Adamic task and that tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge is a sin. New Being is present when women curse the sins of the fathers and laugh at their absurdity.

In affirming the centrality of the concepts of New Being and the courage to be, Daly is clearly affirming the partial revelation of Tillich's theological system. Yet Tillich himself was firmly entrenched in the patriarchal system, a fact clearly attested by his penchant for sadist pornography (Daly 1990[1978], 94-95). Tillich's vision of the savior must be castrated for it to be truly salvific. Only by going beyond a conception of "God the Father" may women find true wholeness and salvation in this life. Only by realizing in their lives God the Verb will women participate in Be-ing. God is the intransitive Verb, the creative and meaning-full force presently incarnate in women's struggle for liberation. As intransitive Verb, God is not objectifying, but rather dynamic. God summons women not to patient suffering in expectation of riches to come, but empowers women in their humanity to make this world rich. It is both a summons and power unto creation, celebration and cerebration.


The creative, celebratory and critical process is Spinning. The term aptly captures the spiralling motion, the dizziness one might feel engaged in such a process. It is a process which occurs on the boundaries of patriarchal society, for Daly affirms that it is impossible to fully separate oneself from that society. Yet Spinning issues forth into the void beyond, creating new spaces, new galaxies and new times. Often, Daly's phrasing sounds much like science fiction. She speaks of intergalactic and time travels, of leaping from world to world, and of the menaces of necro-technology. In a sense, this description is appropriate. From within the patriarchal system, these tales are mere flights of fancy. But from the margins, looking out, it is the creation and dis-covery/un-covering of new landscapes of being and meaning. It is the existential and semantic construction of a reality beyond and below patriarchy, the outward manifestation of gynergy, the fundamental power of women to be and to construct meaning.

The creation of meaning occurs on the boundaries and margins of patriarchal society, Unable to fully divest themselves of the old boys' semantic network, Sisters and Spinsters are free to laugh out loud at their ridiculous lies. Daly and her fellow Cronies re-member archaic meanings of words and unlock their creative potential. They affirm themselves as Crones, the Wild Women burned as Witches for their Wisdom. They proudly claim the title Spinster as they weave new texts and a new fabric of reality from what threads they may salvage from the torn tunic of phallic fallacy. Free to Be and to Name, they place emphasis where they will, not respecting the capitalizations and pomposity of androcentric verse.

Through the liberation of the powers of meaning present in language, Daly and other Wild Women outwardly Spin a new space and time in which to inhabit. In Spinning, they sew up the bonds of Sisterhood and support one another in their ongoing Be-ing, thereby creating a sense of Be-Longing, both with one another and with the universe. This Sisterhood is the vehicle of women's' salvation, and indeed of cosmic renewal, for it extends to not only human Sisters, but Mother Earth Herself. Together, they spin a complex web of interconnected meaning which respects the wholeness and integrity of all within that network. This spinning is also an internal process, for it binds up the fragments of the divided self which has been shattered by patriarchy. It is both the internal impetus to move forward into new galaxies of thought and life, as well as the gyroscope which provides a sense of balance.

Daly's vision is therefore one of cosmic creation. It is the rather Nietzschean construction of a world of meaning in light of limitless possibility. Daly's is a realized eschatology, which sees in the women's movement the collapse of patriarchal structures of destruction foretold. It sees in this movement also the issuing forth of a restored humanity and cosmos, in which God truly is present as the driving force of aesthetic creativity. It is not only time now for the righteous anger of women scorned and scorched by the god-fathers, but a time of true celebration, of reverie in the limitless life now felt and made unfolding.

Epilogue/A Parthian Shot: Boys on the Side?

One key tension remains unresolved in Daly's analysis of patriarchal oppression. Specifically, it is the function of men within patriarchy. On the one hand, it is quite apparent that males enjoy the power advantage within the system. Theirs is the place of pride, and theirs is the image which hangs upon the cross deified. In Daly's classic catchphrase, "As long as God is male, male is God." Yet, at the same time, Daly affirms that patriarchy is destructive even for men. It imposes its own conceptions upon them, and locks them into servitude of an oppressive system. They are robbed of their essential vitality and humanity, and transformed into gynocidal robots.

The question arises as to whether men can be part of the revolutionary movement of which Daly speaks. Philosophically, she affirms the possibility. At various times she has held out hope for aspects of the so-called "Men's Movement" which sought to erode traditional patriarchal roles. Yet in practice, Daly excludes men from her classes and, where possible, her public speaking engagements. Their presence is seen as detrimental, or at the very least, unproductive. Thus, her appeal for an androgynous vision of renewed humanity stands in polar tension with her own gynocentric emphasis. We must ask, therefore, whither men?

4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Works Cited

Daly, Mary. 1984. Pure lust: elemental feminist philosophy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Daly, Mary. 1985. Beyond God the Father: toward a philosophy of women's liberation. London: Women's Press, 1973, 1986. Republished with an original reintroduction by the author, Boston: Beacon Press.

Daly, Mary. 1985. The church and the second sex, with the feminist postChristian introduction and new archaic afterwords by the author. [G. Chapman, 1968.] Boston: Beacon Press.

Daly, Mary. 1990. Gyn/ecology : the metaethics of radical feminism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978. Republished with a new intergalactic introduction by the author. Boston: Beacon Press.

Daly, Mary. 1992. Outercourse: the be-dazzling voyage: containing recollections from my Logbook of a radical feminist philosopher (be-ing an account of my time/space travels and ideas--then, again, now, and how). San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Daly, Mary. 1994. Websters' first new intergalactic wickedary of the English language / conjured by Mary Daly in cahoots with Jane Caputi. Illustrations by Sudie Rakusin. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Daly, Mary. 1998. Quintessence--realizing the archaic future: a radical elemental feminist manifesto. Illustrations by Sudie Rakusin. 2048 BE (Biophilic era) edition, containing cosmic comments and conversations with the author. Boston: Beacon Press.

7. Internet Resources

Mary Daly: Radical Elemental Feminist (Daly’s personal website)

Mary Daly in Wikipedia

Link to streaming audio of a reading from Amazon Grace by Mary Daly

8. Related Topics

Feminist Theology

Sallie McFague 

Rosemary Radford Ruether

Paul Tillich


Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Mark Mann (1997) and David McMahon (1999).


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