Mary Daly vs. Boston College

Michael Bronski

message in all of the news and editorial coverage of Mary Daly’s newest
battle in her ongoing war with Boston College (BC) to teach all-women classes
is clear: The woman may be well intentioned, but wrong. The smug,
self-congratulatory tone of this reporting masks a deeply ahistorical attitude
toward social change, feminism, and politics as well as a hypocritical
analysis of Boston College’s continual mistreatment of Mary Daly. It betrays
a corrupt misuse of the notion of "fairness." At heart most of the media
coverage is little more than a right-wing backlash that uses Daly’s feminism
and teaching methods as a symbol of extreme, lunatic political correctness.

The ongoing
story of radical feminist Mary Daly vs. Jesuit-run Boston College is now three
decades old and remains as hot as ever. In June 1969 Daly, an assistant
professor of religion and theology at BC, was informed that her contract was
not being renewed: i.e., she was fired. It was no great surprise. While Daly
was a popular teacher and possessed Doctorates in Religion, Philosophy, and
Theology she was also the author of the highly acclaimed The Church and the
Second Sex
—a critical examination of the Roman Catholic Church’s
misogyny. It was a book that did not make the highly conservative BC
administration happy.

But this was in
the wake of Vatican II and the heyday of students demanding a voice in how
their universities were run. In a stirring show of support, 1,500 students
staged a protest in support of Daly. The Administration was then presented
with a petition signed by 2,500 students who demanded academic freedom at BC
and tenure for Daly. Nothing happened that summer, but in September Daly was
promoted to associate professor and given tenure. Because BC was, at this
point in time single-sex, Daly’s support came from male students who
passionately felt that if Boston College was to be taken seriously as a
university it was imperative that it value freedom of thought over church
doctrine and free inquiry over church politics. Even more important for Daly
was the national media coverage that, in the spirit of the times, portrayed
sympathetically and with intelligence both her feminism and her rebellion
against church and academic hierarchy.

Since that time
relations between Daly and her male, Jesuit bosses have only gotten worse.
Daly’s tenure secured her job, but BC officials maintained a steady stream
of harassment. Among many incidents, she was told in 1975, after being turned
down for a promotion to full professor, that she had "made no significant
contribution to the field," even though her book Beyond God the Father
was a required text in universities and seminaries across the country. In 1982
Daly was informed that comments she made in a public speech while on an unpaid
leave of absence from BC "amply fulfill the definition of blasphemy" and
may "constitute a violation of contractual obligations she still retains
toward this University." The Administration sent numerous, un-enrolled
monitors to her classes and questioned her on her lectures. Even though she
lectured around the world, was one of the founding figures of feminist studies
in religion, conceptualized and implemented new language to think about
feminism and theology, and published six more books, Daly was never promoted.
Over the past three decades she has received only the most token
cost-of-living raises. After more than 30 years of teaching at Boston College,
Daly makes $43,275. According to the American Association of University
Professors the average salary at BC for a full professor is $98,900; an
associate professor $68,400, an assistant professor $58,600, and an instructor

The bottom line
for BC is that Daly was a trouble-maker, a feminist, a lesbian, and a heretic.
When BC went co-ed in 1972 Daly refused to allow male students—against
university regulations—to attend her feminist theory and ethics classes,
although she was happy to teach them in tutorials. Her reason was that the
presence of men disrupted the class. While the Administration attempted
several times to force her either follow the rules or retire they entered into
an uneasy truce in which she did neither.

The most recent
crisis was precipitated by a complaint lodged by Duane Naquin in September
1998 after he was denied entrance to a Daly class. Naquin also complained of
discrimination to the arch-conservative Center for Individual Rights (CIR) in
Washington DC—a non-profit, public interest law firm whose "mission is to
reimpose constitutional limits on a meddlesome,
interest-group-infested-government." CIR threatened a lawsuit against BC.

CIR a year and
a half ago had spearheaded a highly successful attack on affirmative action at
the University of Texas. The CIR November 24, 1998 newsletter noted under the
headline "Against Radical Feminism" that "CIR has for sometime fought
the radical feminist project of subordinating individual rights and
constitutional norms (such as due process and freedom of speech) to
ideological dictates. In 1999 and beyond, CIR will devote increased energy and
resources to this fight."

Without ever
speaking to Daly, Boston College and CIR went into negotiation and the latter
threatened a lawsuit—under Title IV—if Naquin (who had fulfilled none of
the requirements for Daly’s advanced section) was not allowed to take
Daly’s class in Feminist Ethics. The BC Administration informed Daly on
January 18, 1999 that she would have to allow him in her class or sign a
prepared resignation form. She refused and said she would think about taking a
leave of absence. On February 6, she received, and immediately signed, her
yearly letter of employment (an amendment to her tenure contract) giving her a
$600 raise and ostensibly the right to teach for the 1999 fall semester.

Now the
Administration is declaring that her "oral agreement" of January
18—which she denies ever having given—supercedes her signed contract of
February 6. She has filed a breach of tenure suit against BC—the court date
is next August—but another court decided that BC could fire her if she
refused to obey their rule against single-sex classes.

BC claims that
Daly "retired" and she claims that she was dismissed and locked out of her
office. By sticking to their "voluntary retirement" story BC avoids all
questions of due process or breach of contract.

So for the time
being Daly is out of BC and out of a job. There are several reasons for
Daly’s—possibly temporary—fall from academic grace. While these are all
reflected in the press coverage of the incident, it is perhaps the hostility
and unfairness of the media reporting—so important in her winning her 1970
tenure fight—that has turned the tide against her now.

The most
obvious example of this is the media’s insistent portrayal of Daly’s
writing and pedagogy as being not so much extreme as crackpot. Most news
outlets noted, with barely suppressed glee, that Daly was noted for coining
new words (or as a local paper stated it snidely "to speak in her own
tongue") and gave examples such as "gynecology," "academentia," and
"phallocracy." The implication was that such activity was laughable or
rendered her ideas unintelligible. Yet the reality is that almost all
philosophers, theologians, scientists and psychologists who articulate new
ways to view the world originate new language. Marx, Freud, Hannah Arendt,
Bertrand Russell, Paul Tillich, Ayn Rand all challenged prevailing modes of
thought with new words and language yet Daly’s use of such a tactic is
simply ridiculed. The reporting and editorializing about Daly’s desire for
"women’s only" classroom space was as biased. Almost universally, the
idea of same-sex classes is considered drastic and outlandish (if not
dangerous) yet there is a large body of educational research that shows that
women do learn better in single-sex classes. Two major studies published in
the last three years demonstrated that college women did better in single-sex
classes and a new book Taking Women Seriously: Lessons and Legacies for
Educating the Majority,
edited by Elizabeth Tidball, draws on these
studies and others to prove the same point. None of these studies were ever
mentioned in the news reporting on Daly’s pedagogy or battle with BC.
Single-sex classes may not be proper, or feasible, at Boston College, but the
media reporting on Daly presented only a highly biased context of her ideas on
the topic.

irresponsible and biased reporting is deeply injurious to Daly’s career and
ideas, but more important it is indicative of how the mainstream media has
swung so rightward that the standards of "fairness" are completely
off-balance. No matter how one feels about Daly’s "women only" classroom
space it is important to see her fight with Boston College in the much broader
context of attacks on feminism, gay liberation, gay rights, affirmative
action, and civil rights that is now occurring.

It is obvious
that popular notions of feminism have changed drastically over the past three
decades. In the late 1960s and early 1970s writers such as Kate Millett and
Robin Morgan were taken seriously by the media. Their radical critiques, often
criticized, were still aired and discussed. Now it is mostly neo-con feminists
like Camille Paglia, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Katie Rophie— more likely
to defend patriarchy than try to overthrow it—who are media darlings.

But these are
not the only social changes that affect Daly. The very notion of academic
freedom—so central to the social change of the 1960s—has changed. This is
particularly true of Catholic institutions. A New York Times article
earlier this year (February 5,1999) detailed how a committee of American
Bishops last November, responding to a Vatican mandate, issued norms and rules
to make Catholic Universities and Colleges more answerable to the Church. This
is a major change from the post-war period when Catholic educational
institutions chaffed under the charge that they were narrow and closed-minded.
Three of the stipulations the Bishops proposed were that all university
presidents be "faithful Catholics" and take an "oath of fidelity" to
the Church; that the majority of faculty positions be filled with "faithful
Catholics;" and that all theology professors be approved by Church

The Vatican’s
insistence on orthodoxy dovetails perfectly with CIR’s attack on Daly’s
feminism, and both are in line with a broader range of conservative trends.
For the most part the press has capitulated to the reigning conservative
Zeitgeist. There was little attempt to place Daly and her predicament in a
critical, broader historical context of changing attitudes about feminism,
academic freedom, or the Vatican crackdown on Catholic universities. Most of
the media parroted Boston College’s line that Daly had to go because her
desire to teach all-women classes was "unfair."

Jack Dunn,
Boston College’s spokesperson, grabbed the high moral ground in the media
coverage with an air of exasperated hauteur, "We just fear it is dangerous
to condone intolerance. You can’t just make an exception for discrimination
or intolerance. It’s a slippery slope, it’s dangerous ground and we refuse
to do it. If this were a white professor saying ‘I don’t want black
students in my classroom,’ obviously we’d take the same position. This
[is]…the same issue. It’s fairness. It’s accessibility."

This discourse
of "fairness" is fake and corrupt, isolating Daly from a broader framework
of "fairness" simply to penalize her. This skewed logic is most evident in
the constant replay of BC’s proffering of the racial analogy of a white
teacher and black students. The correct analogy—whether you agree with Daly
or not—is a black teacher excluding white students from the classroom. That,
of course, is a more complicated example, given the current spirited debate
about the usefulness (and existence) of all black grammar and high schools in
New York City. Framing the question this way might actually encourage debate
and thinking.

But aside from
this, the media’s seeming insistence on the moral question of "fairness"
is effectively undercut when you look at what they don’t discuss. While
endorsing Boston College’s portrayal of itself as a champion of
"fairness" and "tolerance," the media never mentions that Boston
College has, for 29 years, refused to acknowledge, fund, or grant a gay and
lesbian student group official status or space. Nor have they put into place
any institutional emotional, psychological, or medical support for queer
students. Fair? Tolerant? Dangerous?

The media also
never mentions that Boston College health services will not dispense birth
control information, condoms, or supply safe-sex information other than
endorsing abstinence.

Nor do you find
in the media coverage of Mary Daly’s situation that the Jesuits who run
Boston College have many other schools—called seminaries—that are
predicated on excluding women. Of course, this is because the Catholic Church
consistently and with full intentions treat women as second class citizens.
This—obviously—is where Mary Daly’s trouble began in the first place,
and why she wrote The Church and the Second Sex.

Boston College,
being a private institution can make whatever rules and regulations they
choose. Being a religious institution they are exempt from anti-discrimination
laws by which public institutions have to abide. But this does not mean that
they are fair or tolerant or not dangerous to women, queers, or heretics. The
lessons of the media reporting on Mary Daly is that the standards by which
she—and other political issues—are judged have swung far to the right. The
Center For Individual Rights and the Vatican now set the standards for
"fairness," and complicated histories get erased in the rush to attack,
without thoughtful discussion or nuance, any idea that is seen as
"politically correct" or outside of the right-as-middle mainstream.