Feminist Theologian Mary Daly Remembered

The feminist theologian Mary Daly, one of the most influential feminist thinkers of the 20th century, died Monday in Massachusetts. She was 81. Her first book, The Church and the Second Sex, got her fired from Boston College, but student and public outcry led the Jesuit college to rehire her. She taught there for 33 years.

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A founder of modern feminism has died. Mary Daly was a radical theologian. She died on Sunday at the age of 81.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Ten years ago, in the twilight of her life, Mary Daly described herself this way.

Ms. MARY DALY (Theologian): I am a radical lesbian feminist and it scares them.

HAGERTY: Them is the Catholic Church, Boston College, where she taught for three decades, and what Daly regarded as a male dominated society. But for many women, such as Sister Joan Chittister, a prominent nun, Daly was an icon.

Sister JOAN CHITTISTER (Nun): She shocked us into seeing old things in a new way. She made us understand that we were blind to have our world.

HAGERTY: The female half. She says Daly shook up Catholic theology, asserting that the Trinity, for example, was derived from triple goddesses in ancient culture. Daly also condemned male dominance in church, business, government and society. Here she is on KDVS Radio in 2006.

Ms. DALY: Almost everything has been stolen from us by the patriarchy. Our creativity has been stolen, our creative energies, our religion. I want it back.

HAGERTY: Daly defied expectations from the start. Born in Schenectady, New York of working-class Catholic parents she earned three PhDs before joining Boston College's theology department in the mid 1960s. Her first book called "The Church and the Second Sex" got her fired in 1969 until the then all-male student body protested and demanded the school hire her back.

Nevertheless, Daly avoided speaking to men and generally refused to attend department meetings. And after the college went co-ed, she almost always refused to let men into her classes. This decision ran her afoul of school policy in federal law. And in 1999, a male student sued the school. Daly said the student had not taken the prerequisite course. But she told NPR she found men disruptive.

Ms. DALY: I saw women that were repressed. When they're in classes with young men, they shut up all the time. They're laughed at if they have unusual ideas. They have to be sexy, then they can't really think.

HAGERTY: Lawrence Cunningham, who teaches at Notre Dame, believes Daly went too far. And in the end will be only a footnote in Catholic theological history. But he says she was a huge voice in one of the most influential movements of the 20th century.

Professor LAWRENCE CUNNINGHAM (Theologian, University of Notre Dame): You could kind of describe her as the gold standard for absolute feminism. I mean, everybody, at least in Christian circles or feminist circles would kind of measure their feminism against the standard that Mary Daly set.

HAGERTY: And Cunningham says the female students he teaches today are the prime beneficiaries of Daly's radical life.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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