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Mary Daly & Feminist Philosophy

Jennifer Benson urges you to add some sin to your bookshelf.

Mary Daly, noted feminist theologian and philosopher, died on January 3rd of this year. Her fans and intellectual descendants range across disciplines, professions and continents. The feminist blogosphere offers tributes to her imagination and wildly witty tongue, and plenty of folks are still complaining about her brand of feminism. Although it’s difficult to sum up an entire career and a stack of books in one word, for Daly, ‘sin’ does a pretty good job. Sin is a feminist goal. If you haven’t heard that, you’ve been missing out. So rather than a conventional obituary, let me offer some advice for those who would like to add some sin to their bookshelves.

We typically think of sin as something to avoid. A good person avoids sin because it inflicts suffering, also likely injuring one’s own being and one’s relationship with the divine. For Daly this way of thinking is a mistake. The world we live in, Daly argued, is a comprehensive and global system of patriarchal values and institutions. This pattern becomes visible when one considers major religions which honor male deities while reviling powerful female figures; the everyday social respect accorded to the successful practice of masculinity and the comparatively limited value accorded to the successful practice of femininity; and the systematic and casual violence inflicted on women, the environment, and living things in general. Over millennia these systems have consolidated power in the hands of men. What power is left to women typically serves the interests of men, in spite of the goals women may have. Though a contemporary mother may wish to empower her daughter, her daughter’s ability to succeed and survive requires being educated and disciplined to fit within the larger patriarchal culture. Women become tools – vessels that channel oppression. This must change.

How shall we bring about change? Women must sin big. Daly noted that the Indo-European root of ‘sin’ is ‘es-’, meaning ‘to be’. Women are metaphysically blocked, their ontology stunted. Patriarchy is oppressive in that it limits women’s options, not just in small ways but in their very being. To overcome oppression, women must move from being tools and empty vessels to actively being, existing on their own terms. Faced with global patriarchy, the activity of distinctive being is the principal means of resistance and revolution. This is the sin Daly called for. Instead of calling for reforms to promote gender fairness, Daly recommended the sin of feminist revolution.

To be clear, Daly’s work doesn’t aim to swap women and men around so that women occupy all the positions of power and lead nations into battle. She found that vision of feminism to be boring and thoroughly inadequate. Rather, Daly’s work argues for a complete overhaul of our values, language, political structures, modes of production and consumption, our habits of interaction in personal relationships, our artistic expression, and certainly our relationship to the environment. To sin is to invent new values and institutions that foster women’s existence. The call to sin big involves not just the end of male supremacy, but the end of domination per se. This is the sin which Daly advocated.

Daly’s work focuses unapologetically on women. Decentering male experience and placing women’s experiences and ontology at the center reverses the traditionally masculine polarity of philosophy. However, it is imprudent to think this type of feminist work offers nothing to male readers. For men who are open to the challenge of subjecting their fundamental assumptions to critique, Daly’s analysis and use of language (often humorous) cultivates exactly the sort of self-examination which is the hallmark of philosophy. Her methods for inventing new ways of thinking and her new words encourage all who seek to create forms of living that do not rely on the ill-gotten rewards of patriarchy. Like the scientific theories which completely reorganize our possibilities, Daly’s revolutionary work is incomplete in the sense that it offers plenty of room for elaboration and further contribution. It offers room for sin and yet more sin.

Top Five Reasons Your Bookshelf Should Sin Big

1) Not enough books manage to successfully criticize the evils of oppression, antagonize conservatives, make liberals nervous, and poke fun at contemporary power-holders simultaneously. Daly’s work manages all this and more.

2) Regardless of whether you agree with her methods, style, or targets of criticism, Daly can cultivate one’s imagination and jar one’s thinking in productive ways. We all need this.

3) Bookshelves tell a story about their owners. Good stories come with unexpected twists and turns. Daly can help you cultivate feminist twists and turns; or at least suggest that your story is twisted in some interesting ways.

4) Where many philosophers resort to dry jargon to express their newly-invented concepts, Daly makes a point of using wit and bite in her terms; for example ‘the thrusting throng’.

5) Seriously folks; although her writing, professional decisions, and personality have generated controversy, Mary Daly will remain part of the intellectual canon because her work to envision a feminist reality has made space in the otherwise closed patriarchal domain of traditional philosophy. Feminism of Daly’s sort is our Copernican Revolution.

If Daly’s project sounds appealing, consider the following reading suggestions:

• For autobiographical accounts of Daly’s life and writing, see ‘Sin Big’ in The New Yorker, February 26, 1996, and Outercourse: The Bedazzling Voyage (1993).

• For analyses of patriarchy, the history of Catholic Christianity and resistant feminist theology, try The Church and the Second Sex (1968) or Beyond God the Father (1973).

• For descriptions of global patriarchy and women’s resistance, try Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978).

• For an exploration of key concepts and a new language for a feminist revolution, see Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (1984) and the ever-witty Websters’ Intergalactic Wikedary of the English Language (1987).

• For an imaginative journey into feminist futures, try Quintessence: Realizing the Archaic Future (1998).

• For sinning in our contemporary political climate, see Amazon Grace: Re-Calling the Courage to Sin Big (2006).

© Dr Jennifer Benson 2010

Jennifer Benson is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Washington College, in Maryland.

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