I don’t really read a lot of feminist blogs anymore, so I found out about Mary Daly’s death only yesterday. And honestly, some of the commentary on it is reminding me of why I don’t really read feminist blogs anymore.

As far as my own personal feelings on Daly’s death, I have a hard time feeling particularly sad. I powered through as much of Gyn/Ecology as I could stand (Daly’s writing style, involving lots of bad puns, excessive hyphens and Random Capitalization, is eye-clawingly obnoxious to me) and was spectacularly unimpressed. Gender essentialism, positing gender as the most important locus of power, writing about women of color exclusively as victims while allowing a much broader role for white women (the famous criticism delivered by Audre Lorde in her open letter to Daly) – it’s all there, baby! Yeccch. Maybe there were a few kernels of insight hidden in that particular sea of verbal diarrhea, but I wasn’t particularly motivated to dig for them.

Some of Daly’s failings were not exclusive to her, but were repeated by many of her second-wave radical feminist cohorts. For example, her issues with race. Lorde’s letter addresses some of this, and Indian feminist Uma Narayan does a great takedown in her excellent book Contesting Cultures, where she criticizes Daly’s approach to writing about widow immolation (sati). While Daly historicizes Western events like European witch-burning, she treats sati like an ongoing, widespread phenomenon, although it was only practiced in certain regions, by certain castes of Hindus (and only Hindus), and had generally fallen out of favor by (I think) the beginning of the 20th century. Past? Present? Future? All are one in Yog-Sothoth the Exotic Other. Depicting folks in the global South as existing in a perpetually stagnant mire of tradition, without taking a closer look at how those traditions have evolved and the social forces driving them, is a lazy and colonialist tactic and one not exclusive to Daly – I’m thinking of how folks often wring their hands over Muslim women wearing veils. Feminist anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod wrote a great piece on veiling, and how what is often painted as simple oppression of women in the name of religion can actually take on a wide variety of social roles with differing political implications depending on the context. But apparently if you’re Daly, context is for patriarchs.

Narayan goes on to note that one of Daly’s main sources for her sati piece is Katherine Mayo’s book Mother India, which Daly celebrates as a proto-feminist work, despite Mayo’s racist descriptions of Indians being of “morally bankrupt stock.” She scoffs at anyone who would bring up these issues, dismissing their concerns as a sneaky attempt to discredit feminists: “…the feminist is open to accusations of imperialism, nationalism, racism, or any other -ism that can pose as broader and more important than gynocidal patriarchy.” (Gyn/Ecology, 129). While it’s true that some nationalists do dismiss any and all feminist concerns as Western cultural imperialism (an issue Narayan addresses in another chapter of her book, with a much more thoughtful approach than Daly), Katherine Mayo was, in fact, using racist rhetoric. To say so is not saying that racism is “more important” than sexism, but that it deserves equal consideration. As many, many feminists have said before me, there is no such thing as a single overriding locus of power. Women such as the Combahee River Collective (a group of black feminists from the Boston area) were addressing this as early as 1974 – look at their statement, which repeatedly disavows gender separatism of the sort advocated by Daly, noting that they need to have solidarity with black men in the face of racial oppression. And because I’m because I’m cynical, I cannot help but note that positing gender as the most important oppression ever is a dandy way of ignoring one’s own complicity in other systems of oppression – “I may be white, but I’m a lady, therefore I am off the hook because I am also part of an oppressed group! Yay!” Chandra Mohanty, bell hooks, and many, many others have pointed out the flaws in this kind of thinking.

And, as other people have noted: wow, she fucking hated trans women. Here is a good roundup of all the transphobic bullshit in Daly’s work, and here is a good explanation of the legacy of that bullshit.

I am also ready to spew burrito chunks over the defenses of Daly currently being mustered. Like this one, which basically accuses anyone who brings up the issues with Daly that I have mentioned of being a big whiny meanie. Sorry, I’m not ready to ignore the massive issues in Daly’s work in the name of sisterhood or respect for the dead or whateverthefuck. Is it good to acknowledge that she was not alone in her transphobia or racial blind spots, and that those were systemic problems in that particular era of American feminism? Absolutely. Is it good to pretend that whatever contributions to feminism she may have made magically erase those failings? HELL TO THE NO.

Per usual, I would like to counteract the grouchiness of this post with a song. This band, Ludicra, is from the Bay Area and are one of those metal bands all my punk friends like, like Agalloch and Wolves in the Throne Room. I put off listening to them for a while out of cranky defensiveness – “you guys made fun of me for liking metal, and now all of the sudden you’re shitting yourself over a metal band just because they’re ex-punks and/or on a punk rock label? Come on.” But damn, this band is fucking great. One of their guitarists, John Cobbett, is also in progressive-metal outfit Hammers of Misfortune, who are completely different from Ludicra but also amazing. Anyway, two words: En joy!

~ by Smellen on January 9, 2010.

One Response to “and/now/she’s/dead.”

  1. Helen, so glad you wrote this. I still read all those feminist blogs and have had a similar frustration reading all of this lauding about how wonderful Mary Daly was. Thanks for addressing the transphobia and especially the folks defending her legacy and making excuses, I’m so fed up with it. I’m really enjoying reading your writing!

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