All illusions are potential ways of ordering reality. The goal of criticism should therefore be not to destroy illusions but to make us more sensitive to their workings and their complexity.
Mary Daly (1928-2010) was a groundbreaking, radical feminist theologian and philosopher, one of the first in the modern era to question the relationship between oppression of women and male depictions of God. After earning a PhD in religious studies in 1953 from Notre Dame’s St. Mary’s College, she left the U.S. for Switzerland because at the time, no American universities would accept a woman into a graduate theology program. In 1966, after earning doctorates in theology and philosophy, Daly joined the faculty of Boston College, where she would teach until being forced to retire in 2001.
Daly’s tenure at BC was tumultuous, mostly because the Jesuit institution often objected to Daly’s critique of patriarchy that linked Christian theology to real world negative consequences for women. Her first two books, The Church and the Second Sex (1968) and Beyond God the Father (1974) called out misogyny in the Catholic Church. Her next, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978) linked patriarchal religious doctrines to sexual and physical violence against women. It also invited women to free themselves from links to men entirely.
Daly’s revolutionary ideas were presented with humor, wit, and especially word play. She understood that language shapes one’s sense of self and believed that words could be a powerful tool in the fight against injustice. When colleagues rejected her feminist challenges, she said they suffered from "academentia" and she agreed (with double-entendre glee) that her work was “positively revolting.” She was especially famous for creating new meaning with well placed hyphens or slashes, as when she called people who treated women resistors as maladjusted rather than oppressed, not “therapists,” but “the/rapists” and questioned whether their urging women to “re-cover” was no more than asking them to sweep their justifiable outrage back under the proverbial rug. At every turn, Daly used words to stop readers in their tracks and make them re-think cultural constructions masquerading as unassailable fact.
Media Literacy Education Maven
I never met feminist thealogian Mary Daly, but her famous word play with hyphens is why, when I teach, I illustrate the concept of media representation with a slide that says: “re-presentation.” In the 1970s, Daly’s groundbreaking scholarship was a clarion call to women that it was life-or-death important to question even the most sacred and entrenched aspects of doctrine and culture.
Like the journalist Betty Friedan, who (arguably) sparked second wave feminism by observing that the disconnect between what women wanted and what society expected of them was “the problem that had no name” (The Feminine Mystique, 1963), Daly recognized the power of naming women’s experience. We rarely notice things for which we have no language, and we can’t analyze or act on what we don’t notice. It’s the reason that media literacy educators teach students the unique vocabulary of media production or labels for the rhetorical devices used by propagandists and sales pitches.
Daly artfully used language to force readers to notice injustices that were hidden in plain sight, much like media literacy educators teach people to pay close attention to aspects of media that are commonly overlooked but are, nevertheless, influential. She was the first cultural critic I read who modelled the practice of thinking critically about what we accept as truth as well as the things with which we disagree. She wrote the word research as “re-search,” as in: Look again at what’s around you. See it in a different way. And from her woman-centric perspective she affirmed that women like me (intellectual, independent, lesbian) weren’t insane for insisting that the reality of our lives was worthy of attention, even if it was missing, misrepresented, or masked in mainstream media.
Daly’s critique of institutionalized patriarchy (pointing out what was “malfunctioning / male-functioning”) was intentionally confrontational and jarring in the very best way –breaking up old ideas so that new ones could find room to root. The critique was based on a deep understanding of the power of image; Daly dared to ask about the societal ramifications of envisioning the Divine as exclusively male. Her question was an existential version of the familiar media literacy query, “What’s omitted that might be important to know?” Her answer attributed real-world misogyny, gender-based violence, sexist and heterosexist discrimination to the hierarchy that flowed from male depictions of God.
Daly ultimately concluded that the only chance for women to be free was to abandon patriarchal religions, a conclusion I did not share. As a Jew, I found the work of theologians like Judith Plaskow more compelling. Where Daly saw only harms, Plaskow and others like her (e.g., Nelle Morton, Carter Heyward, Rosemary Radford Reuther), saw both harms and also benefits. They chose to grapple with gender inequality and insisted that their faith-based communities welcome the resulting changes. These scholars began to fashion new feminist understandings of spirituality in a love/hate relationship with their religious traditions that, for me, foreshadowed the love/hate relationship many media literacy educators have with mainstream media.
To be fair, Mary Daly didn’t develop her ideas in isolation and I wouldn’t have been so drawn to them had they not been part of a broader movement. In many ways I see her as stand-in for a diverse array of radical feminist theorists and activists who challenged the status quo by showing the myriad ways that constructions of gender were inaccurate and damaging. Like civil rights activists before them who challenged concepts of race, these women insisted that prevailing ideas about gender and womanhood persisted not because they were natural, but because they served to reinforce the power of very particular segments of society (or as Simone de Beauvoir wondered, if woman’s position as subservient Other was so natural, why did women need to learn how to be women?!).
In many cases, these were the women who taught the first women’s studies courses and founded publishing companies and journals to introduce and re-introduce neglected writing by women. Many changed the discourse in their fields by producing scholarship that validated women’s perspectives and connected academic work to lived experience. And they linked these new ways of knowing to social justice and political action. As a college student during the heyday of second wave feminism, I experienced the work of these women as electrifying and transformative. It is this group that are my collective intellectual grandmothers.
In film studies, it was feminist critic Laura Mulvey who, in her 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" coined the phrase “male gaze” to describe how heterosexual men behind the cameras, on screen, and as viewers constructed a world that reflected their own perspective and erased women’s (and many men’s) perspectives. In media constrained by the male gaze, women were little more than objects for male pleasure. Mulvey’s work made it clear that meaning was created by both maker and viewer, and that both were influenced by the dominant culture. The entire exchange was constructed, not automatic.
Mulvey’s assertions were not far from anthropologist Margaret Mead’s observation decades earlier that looking at other cultures through women’s eyes, rather than men’s eyes, produces a different picture. Later, scholars like Barbara Smith, Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks, would add that looking through the eyes of black and brown women wasn’t the same as looking through white women’s eyes, expanding the discourse even further.
When I began working with children’s educational television broadcasters and producers, feminist insights about the ways that gender influences what we notice – and how we interpret what we notice – led me to question basic claims about media effects. Typically, concerns about TV’s impact were filled with sweeping generalizations about negative consequences of viewing, as if the audience played no role in making meaning. But feminist scholarship proved that audience mattered. If kids’ TV viewing was affected by gender, then it stood to reason that it was also affected by skill level, peer pressure (or sibling pressure), prior knowledge, parents’ beliefs, and more. And if that was true, then being media literate also influenced the viewing experience. That realization prompted me to shift my focus from effective ways to use media to teach to methods for teaching media literacy.
Another realization taken from Daly and others, was the need for media literacy education to create space for authentic student voice, including student-driven action. As media literacy educators, we rightfully worry that when students begin to recognize media manipulation or misrepresentation they will be overwhelmed, cynical, or complacent.
Daly knew that revealing truth wasn’t enough. She wanted women to see and understand the societal constructions that led to oppression, but she also wanted women to become change agents. So she showed women that the sources of their power were in the very task of dis-covering truth. Exposing injustice weakened the structures that perpetuated it. And those who recognized the structures had the power to construct something different. This was perhaps best summarized by radical French feminist, Monique Wittig, when she wrote:
“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”
Mary Daly simply asked women to “re-member” – literally, repopulate the culture by sharing your truth. Don’t merely discover what’s been omitted from the history books, but make it a present-day task to make history. And if your past or your present is constructed on inequity, know that you have the power, the right, and the responsibility to craft a different reality. When we can see where the shackles are, we have a better chance of removing them. And once we’re free, the possibilities are limitless.
Looking back, I think what I gained most from Mary Daly and other radical feminists was the confidence to question dominant value systems and know that I could be strong enough to withstand the inevitable backlash. It is often the most uncomfortable inquiry that does the most to move our work forward. That includes questioning things that have become dogmatic in our field. If I can do that with half the courage and wisdom that radical feminists brought to the much more complex task of questioning thousands of years of women’s oppression, then I’ll consider myself as having honored my intellectual grandmothers.