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Ann Braude: Remembering Mary Daly

Mary Daly, a world-renowned radical feminist philosopher, died on January 3rd. Today's post honoring Daly is from Ann Braude, Senior Lecturer on American Religious History and Director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School.

DALY_MARYx390 What color flowers do you choose for a memorial for Mary Daly? Deep red roses for radicalism and women's blood? The lighter roses seemed more calming and reflective, closer to my own mood. But would Mary have blanched at the prettiness, the conventional feminine associations of the pastels? Or would she have relished the playfulness of pink with baby’s breath? Or would she have hated the idea of roses altogether, decrying working conditions on Brazilian flower farms? I settled on deep coral roses with purple asters. The unconventional contrast seemed right, and, sadly, Mary would not be there to argue with the choice.

But she would still be arguing in my mind. Mary Daly made us think about everything: every choice, every action, every word. Because of her, generations of women and men questioned what had never been questioned before. Two dozen of us whose lives were changed by Mary Daly's work gathered on Tuesday at Harvard Divinity School to remember one of the most courageous and outrageous thinkers of the 20th century. Sitting in a circle, we recounted memories, crystalline in detail, of the extraordinary interventions of Mary and her work in our lives. Several brought missives from those who could not be present. While Mary's books are her legacy -- and all agreed that their importance has yet to be realized -- the change she wrought in so many souls is a powerful legacy as well.

Several women recounted participation in the walk-out from patriarchal religion that Daly led in 1972, when she was the first woman in Harvard's history to preach from the pulpit of Memorial Church. The language of that day came easily; they spoke of joining an exodus community as they walked out of the church to take their place in the sun. Liz Rice-Smith, who served as the liturgist on that day, spoke of the power of Daly encouraging her to participate while she was preparing for ordination in the UCC Church, to experience contradictory realities, and move forward transformed. Diana Eck described walking out of the church with Daly, and then coming back in for coffee. "I'm a liminal person, not in and not out. I wanted to talk with the people who were still inside. The coffee was important," Eck recalled.

"Mary Daly saved my life," said Susannah Heschel. Struggling when other Jews rebuffed her efforts to say Kaddish for the father of whom she was the only child, Heschel found an explanation of her experience in Beyond God the Father. Now she had a framework for understanding the hurtful behavior of her coreligionists and she could begin to heal.

Jane Smith recalled walking by a packed lecture hall at Harvard Divinity School and looking in to see tears streaming down people’s faces. "I wondered what beloved person had died," she said, only to learn that the audience had just heard Mary Daly read the proofs of Beyond God the Father.

We recalled the ribald hilarity of the Intergalactic Wickedary, where humor transformed language which transformed consciousness. The words meant one thing when they began to come out of Mary's mouth and something else altogether by the time she rolled them around in her guts and something else again by the time she finished re-enunciating them so that we would never hear those words in the same way again.

A Loretto sister spoke with pride of how her order had taught Mary in high school. Swiss theologian Tania Oldenhage spoke of the connection Swiss feminists feel with Daly because of her doctoral work at Friborg. A student read a poem, inspired by Daly in a way she was not by more recent feminist thought. Some felt that all subsequent work in religious feminism is just a pale attempt to recapture the intensity of Daly's original critique. We were all pleased that Jimmy Carter and Nicholas Kristof have discovered how destructive sexist religion is to human rights. But have they read Mary Daly? Do they have any idea what they are suggesting when they ask religious leaders to root out practices that discriminate against women? Thanks to Mary, we have known for forty years just what a tall order this is, and how far from simple solutions.

Several spoke with sadness about being transformed by Daly's work only to become disillusioned by her treatment of race. All agreed that Mary Daly created a commodious intellectual and cultural space for women that did not exist before, a space where all manner of women and men could struggle and blossom, a space of limitless creativity, a space that pushed the rejection of sexism further than most dared explore, a space of unbounded humanity, where feline familiars mingled with existentialists, where the confrontation with nothingness was fruitful beyond our wildest dreams.

Thank you, Mary, for upsetting us so badly and for inspiring us so wildly and so boldly. Your voice is stilled but your words live on.

The Estate of Mary Daly has established a website with further tributes, news and information: