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Mary Daly is a world-renowned Radical Feminist philosopher, theologian and author.
Professor Daly, what is Radical Feminism?
Well, I actually define that in my Wickedary, which is a ‘dictionary for wicked women’. There are several definitions but I’ll give you the core of it. First of all the word ‘radical’ means ‘going to the roots’. It is derived from the Latin radix, meaning root. Radical Feminism goes to the root of oppression and the way out. And I define it as “way of be–ing characterised by (a) an Awesome and Ecstatic sense of Otherness from patriarchal norms and values (b) conscious awareness of the sadosociety’s sanctions against Radical Feminists (c) moral outrage on behalf of women as women (d) commitment to the cause of women that persists, even against the current, when feminism is no longer ‘popular’; in other words, constancy.”
The definition as I wrote it is still the one I would maintain, but in the current crisis of life on earth and the danger to all animals, plants, rocks, minerals, as well as women from the phallocrats who are destroying the planet, I now say ‘radical ecological feminism’. There is a desperate commitment in my writing to ecology and feminism.
There are women who use ‘ecofeminism’ and that’s okay but I think it doesn’t express the profundity and urgency strongly enough.
So far you’ve written seven books on Radical Feminism. Would you tell us a little about them?
I think it’s best to have the chronology. The first book, The Church and the Second Sex, was in a sense the least radical, although for its time it was very radical. It was published in the US in 1968, and later around the world. That one was specifically about oppression by the Catholic Church and, in a broader sense, Christianity. It could be seen as merely a reformist book, but it was my great breakthrough. It caused me to be fired from Boston College back in 1969, and then it brought about my re-hiring because suddenly I was famous so they couldn’t just exterminate me. So that was a milestone work.
My next book was Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation and that was published in 1973 in America and shortly after that in England. The third one was Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism‚ and this is perhaps the best known, although Beyond God the Father is widely read in universities and divinity schools. Gyn/Ecology takes on the atrocities against women worldwide and in all eras of patriarchy, and shows that they are interconnected; it detects patterns of atrocities. That was followed by my fourth Radical Feminist book which is Pure Lust: The Elemental Feminist Philosophy, a sequel to Gyn/Ecology. It is very much concerned with the elements on every level. Then the fifth, in 1987, was my Wickedary, conjured with Jane Caputi. Its complete title is Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language which is a compendium of all my New Words. There’s a lot of new thought in it, because the words are defined very precisely. Then we move on to Outercourse, which is my philosophical autobiography, published in 1992. In 1998 I published my most recent book which is Quintessence … Realizing the Archaic Future; the subtitle is A Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto. [Editor’s note: see our review on p.48!]
Could you explain why you decided to call it Quintessence? What does that mean?
In Pythagorean mysticism Quintessence is the spirit that fills the universe and gives it life and vitality. In ancient and medieval philosophy Quintessence names the fifth and last or highest essence, above air, fire,water and earth, that permeates all nature. When I use this word ‘Quintessence’ it Names the unifying living presence which is at the core of the integrity and elemental connectedness of the universe, and that is the source of our power to bring into being a true future – an Archaic Future.
Can you tell us what you mean by ‘Archaic Future’?
Yes, I chose those words very carefully, because I think that the future that is offered to us by patriarchy, especially by current technology – and by the politics represented for example by President Bush – makes it very obvious that the patriarchal future has no future – it’s dead. The patriarchal future is repetition of the same, always. What I look forward to is a Future that is rooted in a deep sense behind patriarchy, earlier than patriarchy. The ‘Archaic Future’ is the possible future that is rooted in that which existed before patriarchy. I’m not talking about a matriarchy, I’m talking about a woman-centred, life-centred society in which you don’t have the horrible oppressiveness and hierarchies that characterise patriarchy. You know, there is a definition of patriarchy in the Wickedary.
Would you read it?
OK, I define patriarchy as a “society manufactured and controlled by males. Fatherland. A society in which every legitimated institution is entirely in the hands of males, and a few selected henchwomen. A society which is characterised by oppression, repression, depression, narcissism, cruelty, racism, classism, ageism, speciesism, objectification, sadomasochism, necrophilia, joyless society ruled by Godfather, Son and Company; society fixated on proliferation, propagation, procreation, and bent on the destruction of all life.” The second definition is “the prevailing religion of the entire planet, whose essential message is necrophilia.”
So much for the future. But what is it to be a woman today?
What is it to be a woman today? All life is in great, great danger, particularly from bio-engineering and cloning, not to mention all the missile systems; they are bent on destroying the planet. So to be a woman today who is conscious, as opposed to being an unconscious robot or fembot, is in the best sense realising ourselves as not part of that necrophillic or death-loving society and challenging it all the time and living as fully as you can in a life-loving way. To care about others, to care about the earth, to risk our lives for them if necessary – that’s what it should be to be a woman.
In your books you’re constantly coining new words or redefining old ones to undermine patriarchal attitudes or help us see things in new ways. How successful have you found this tactic?
The language of the question betrays a lack of understanding of what I’m doing. I would prefer not to say ‘coining’ the words‚ because it sounds as if I’m saying “Ah! Let’s cook up some new words.” It isn’t like that. They come to me because there are no words in ‘normal language’ that will say what I’m trying to say. For example, the title Gyn/Ecology, for my third feminist book, came when I thought about gynecology, the science of medicine that supposedly helps women but often really harms them. So I slashed the word ‘gynecology’ as ‘Gyn/Ecology’ because it includes the word ‘ecology’. It includes the idea of women bonding with the earth – ecology – and attacks gynecology. So these words are new thought-patterns in action. What this is about is generating different energy. I need constant different energy from different sources so that when I write I’m in a different zone, so to speak. Think of shopping malls, Disneyworld, the horrors of Americanised global society. It’s not a place where you can breathe. Literally we can’t breathe, can’t drink the water without danger, and soon there won’t be any water. You can’t eat, you can’t think, the ether is being invaded. So of course it’s a desperate situation and we have to remove the blinders and the thick walls of denial that are being reinforced all prolifthe time by the media, and I attempt to do that. So how successful have I been? I only do my best and it’s not me alone. Many women have gone underground who call themselves Radical Feminists. It’s been suggested we’re a dying breed. We are not. We’re a very living breed and changing to adapt to the changing conditions. That’s why I say ‘radical ecological feminism’. So I am absolutely desperate to act against what the phallocrats are doing, what the human species is doing to the earth, and to women. So it’s not merely a tactic. When these words come to me they come from the depths of my soul.
So they’re not merely a means to an end – they matter in themselves? They are an expression of truth in themselves?
Right! They may sound like old words but for example, think of the word ‘hag’, which means an ugly old woman, but if you trace its history it’s another name for a witch so when I say “I’m a positively revolting hag,” it’s funny and it breaks taboos, and at the same time it’s enabling people to hear an old word in a new way. Think of ‘spinster’. There’s a tendency to look down on spinsters as unmarried women. Well I think it’s wonderful to be an unmarried woman. It’s freedom. A ‘spinster’ is a woman who spins, who creates, who goes off on her own – I spin books.
Quite coincidentally we’ve got an article in this issue about Jezebel, saying Jezebel wasn’t as bad as she was made out, saying she was a woman of faith, strong and intelligent and she did some rather dubious things but basically just had a bad press and that’s how that word ‘jezebel’ got started.
But you see, radical women always have ‘bad press’. Why wouldn’t you have bad press if you’re attacking, undermining the prevailing order? This brings up a very important subject which is the idea of reversals. We live in a reversal society. For example, the idea that Eve came from Adam is a reversal. It’s ridiculous. Who could believe that? It’s contrary to all biology. But with that myth in mind, people can justify somehow the idea that God is male. And therefore that male is God. And that he’s the origin. But he’s not the origin. The Bible is full of reversals. There are reversals everywhere. Orwell thought that when he wrote in 1984 about Doublethink. You know, the Ministry of Truth was where they made up lies, the Ministry of Love was where they tortured people. Everywhere you go there is Doublethink. There’s ‘natural’ make-up that of course is unnatural. Or think of ‘pro-life’. When they say ‘life’ they mean ‘death’.
You place great emphasis on the solidarity between women. How do you view the nature of the relationships between women and where is the potential for such relationships to be found in that?
The solidarity between women? The earlier word which we used in the 70s and 80s was sisterhood. I like that word. It’s not popular to say sisterhood now, but what does that mean? Sisterhood is deep. And the relationships between women? I don’t just view them, I experience them. I experience very, very deep connections with women; with some men; with nature; with animals – I have an incredible relationship with my cat! And you ask where is the potential for such relationships to be found in that? In women ourselves. Patriarchy targets our souls; they try to destroy women’s bonding because that power is great. When women can bond, we can change the world.
Do you want to say anything about the connections between women and men?
Men and women can relate to each other with respect. But given the different positions of women and men under patriarchy, there are obviously some problems here and it’s very important that men listen to the voices of feminists to try to figure out what’s going on. So it’s very much an individual matter in choosing friends but on an institutional level of course I always have to battle the power of patriarchy. I fight for my rights and so do other women and the worst part is that as with all oppressed groups some women are selected to be tokens. And many of those don’t realise what’s happening, that they’re turning against themselves and failing in their loyalty to other women. It’s a sexual caste system, as I explained in Beyond God the Father. It’s very difficult to change, so it needs constant and sometimes very draining efforts to reeducate women about the danger of tokenism and to encourage them to refuse that role.
But does this mean that women shouldn’t attempt to capture positions of authority? What about New Zealand, where the Prime Minister is a woman and the Governor General and so on, so women now occupy the top five positions in the political hierarchy of the country. Is that a bad thing?
It’s a problematic thing. The positions of power are arranged in a patriarchal society in such a way and are defined in such a way that almost always it seduces women into selling out other women.
You are a theologian as well as a philosopher. You argue that Christianity is a symbolic core of patriarchal structures in Western civilisation. Is there any version of Christianity that you would find acceptable and if so what role should it play?
Well, I do have doctorates in both theology and philosophy from the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland. I was and am particularly interested in medieval thought and in Thomas Aquinas, which may seem strange. I have always thought that I belong either in the 13th Century or the 21st Century. So here I am in the 21st Century still taking medieval thought, 13th Century thought, reversing its reversals and coming up with original ideas this way. My point about the 13th Century is that the distinction between theologian and philosopher was not so extreme. All were concerned with the purpose of life and deep reality, they were ‘realist’ philosophers so I didn’t have a problem studying Thomas Aquinas, for example, who was both theologian and philosopher and I felt very much at home. Even though I had discarded the dogma of the Church I am still grateful for the mental exercise and the intuitive insights and the development of my reasoning powers. So I take from both theology and philosophy what I want. I consider myself a pirate. What I do is righteously rip off what belongs to women. So I sail around on what I call the ‘subliminal sea’ and just take whatever I want because most of the ideas that I find have in fact been stolen from women who have been silenced. For centuries women have not been allowed to read and write. Now all of a sudden we have an ‘education’, but the education is essentially male-centred. So, given these circumstances I just plunder what I can and then give interpretations to other women. I smuggle away from patriarchal philosophers and theologians and give it back to women – so I’m kind of Robin Hood, right?
Christianity “as the symbolic core of the patriarchal structures of Western civilization?” You know, I’m really no longer interested in Christianity or anything patriarchal – it bores me. I went through all that. I left the Catholic Church back in about 1971 and then although I was stuck teaching in a theology department, I was really teaching my own philosophy. It was irritating to the administrators but there wasn’t much they could do about it because I was very popular. So there is no ‘version’ of Christianity that I would find acceptable. There are ideas there that are certainly in tune with my own thinking but I don’t accept the context of Christianity. I’m a heretic and, worst than that I’m an apostate, and proud of it. And a pagan. So what role should it play? I would like to see it get rid of itself, because it’s really so oppressive. The context simply boxes in the ideas that could be freely found if we didn’t have to bother with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. What role should it play? Well, I’m tempted to say “suicide”.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a new book that will probably come out in a couple of years, called Amazon Grace. It springs from my experiences at Boston College, where I taught, and other experiences. It’s a continuation of the work I did in Quintessence. It very much deals with applying quantum physics to the possibilities for feminists and others to escape the impending doom that’s coming at us from genetic engineering, robotics, nanotechnology and the other horrors of contemporary so-called science and technology. There are many ideas I find useful in the thought of the quantum physicist David Bohm. Amazon Grace is about making quantum leaps out of patriarchy and out of this deadly oppression and that means fighting off phallocratic backlash. When we jump out, for example, from the university where we are teaching or the job we are holding or the views that we think are acceptable then something very wonderful happens in discovering our own creativity again.
We have a lot of very well established professors over here at universities who are deadly because they’re trying to say that the future doesn’t need us and that we will be replaced by self-replicating machines. They want that. They want to have their brains downloaded into computers and other thinking machines, robots. There is, for example, Dr Lee Silver, Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, who’s an advocate of human genetic engineering. He argues that in a future society, we will be divided into genetic classes: the generich 10% of the population and the other 90%, the naturals, who have not been genetically improved. And these genetic changes would become part of the hereditary germline, that means fixed forever. The top 10% with their super genes, will be brilliant in their sense, and the rest, the normals like us, will be slaves. They don’t see anything alien about this. Francis Fukuyama, Professor of Public Policy at George Washington University, states that within the next couple of generations we will have definitively finished human history because we will have abolished human beings as such. Then new post-human history will begin. Dr Richard Smalley of Rice University explains the role of nanotechnology and he and others “foresee a time when self-replicating nanomachines will take over the world”. Dr Hans Moravic, Director of the mobile robot lab in Carnegie Mellon University, has a book called Mind Children. He maintains there that “humans will be able to download the contents of our brains into mobile autonomous self-replicating robots.” They aren’t kidding. Whether they will be able to do all that or not is another question, but the fact is they are trying; the intent is there. You may be familiar with the film AI ?
I haven’t seen it yet.
It’s very necrophillic. Artificial intelligence; robots. It’s not intelligent or anything like that, it’s depressing. But it is popularising these ideas and there were a lot of ideas in science fiction for decades about clones before Ian Wilmut finally cloned Dolly the Sheep, in Scotland. Popular movies do have an influence in softening us up to accept these technologies. What they never revealed and the scientists didn’t even know was that the cloned animals turn out to be defective after a few years and their organs aren’t right. But they have this great hallucination that it will all be successful and they’ll just take over the world – a new Eden. As an alternative to that I’m suggesting quantum leaping of imagination, what I call the X factor. We have to be awakened to the X factor because unless we are desperate enough we are not going to be able to save our lives. What we have to do is go beyond dull normality and adaptation. It’s extreme and I am extreme. So I talk about ‘Realising Hope’; I must be a little crazy because how could I know these things and still have hope? I think we can realise, meaning actualise, hope, by our actions and our creativity. I think about the wild women and also about the wild men who are around and hope that we can find elemental participation in powers of being, which implies realising in the present, our past and future selves. The kind of hope that I have, the desperate, frantic and also glorious hope. One of the writers in modern science who’s been helpful to me is Rupert Sheldrake with his theory of morphogenetic fields which are built up through accumulated behaviour of the species members. For example, if one member of the human species adopts a behaviour like bicycle-riding, others will find it easier to learn that skill. So it seems to me that if one woman becomes more courageous then others will find it easier to be courageous because if the individual unites with the form in the morphogenetic field she gets the power of that form. It makes sense to me. It means that courage is contagious. A certain kind of intuitive knowing is contagious and being attuned to synchronicity is contagious. We can reach critical mass. I am motivated by that hope. I simply cannot become a drone even though they want me to.
How does being a Radical Feminist affect the way you live your life from day to day?
To be a Radical Feminist now is to do quantum leaping. That means to act with fantastic courage because you see real hope now, not lovely little lah-didah hope (a very contained hope), but really great Hope for participation in Quintessence, which is the harmony of the universe. Hope for expanding our full powers. When everything is saying “you can’t, don’t try, close your mind, be comfortable”, then if you do that leaping you begin to feel really alive. Not only that but you don’t feel alone. It’s then that you begin to find the real companions, the good company that you need for the journey of really living. So this connects with Sheldrake’s idea of morphic resonance, which he defines as “the influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent similar structures of activity organised by morphic fields” The idea here is that what really matters are the ‘fields’ like the morphic field. These are not visible, not tangible, but they’re very real. So the power of the invisible becomes obvious. What is most visible is not necessarily the most real, and what is most tangible is not necessarily what is most real. So it’s interesting to see how contemporary physics dovetails with 13th century philosophy. Both trace back to the Greek classics, and they share in common an idea of being in which we participate and a realisation that not everything is visible, tangible or audible. Our experience expands and then we experience strange coincidences known as synchronicities and hopes that would have seemed outlandish. So my Radical Feminism is way out. I know whom I know and what I know and I’m not afraid.
Would you like to comment on your recent departure from Boston College?
‘Departure’ is a nice word! I was ‘disappeared’ from Boston College. As you know, this is an expression for what often happens in Third World countries. They broke their own rules and got rid of me by simply announcing that I had resigned. But I had not resigned. It was Boston College in collaboration with a right-wing law firm (the Center for Individual Rights) and under the influence of the Vatican that removed me. I was an extremely popular teacher. This case was just settled several months ago. I sued them for breach of tenure and breach of academic freedom, breach of due process. I didn’t win but they settled. They’re a big powerful institution. On their level, of course, ‘powerful’. It’s happening all over the United States that academics who have creative ideas or hope for diversity are squashed. People being squashed are women, lesbians, gays, other minorities, blacks, Asians, Native Americans and those with deviant ideas. The University is very uni-versity and I think that we should have diversity. I was required to leave but I didn’t leave without a fight and I announced it all over the US whenever I spoke, and I was speaking publicly for two and a half years about it I have tried to make it obvious that this is a microcosm of what is happening to those who disagree with the establishment, which is becoming increasingly oppressive. So yes, I’ve lost my classroom and that’s very sad for me and for my students, and it’s not the first time that I’ve been oppressed at that institution. But it has also freed me to speak more frequently elsewhere and to write steadily, so I’m moving on. Being a philosopher at large! But I think it is important to look at this, as universities in this country are being stripped of originality, the teaching is becoming very boring, very controlling, and the students are becoming mainly nice little businessmen but not great thinkers.