If you are trying to place Mary Daly and the significance of her life and work, you might only take a glance at the front cover of her book Gyn/Ecology for an instant epithet of her unparalleled brand of spiritual-intellectual lesbianism:
There you have it, my sisters: A giant labyrs, a clever play on words, and a focus on cultural feminism as a set of practicable daily ethics — all wrapped up with a quote from fellow lesbian icon Adrienne Rich.
Like Mary Daly herself, Gyn/Ecology maintains a mythic status in lesbian/feminist circles: we have a vague, if powerful, sense of familiarity or identification with it, but haven’t ever really given it much attention. We passively accept Daly and her work as foundational and use it to understand our origins (like myth), but for many of us, Daly’s work may also seem inaccessible, incomprehensible, or even irrelevant.
Because of the odd positioning between the mostly invisible lesbian feminism of today and the radicalesbians of (what we erroneously think of as) “the past,” the passing of lesbian feminist Mary Daly raises some important questions about our relation to second wave lesbian/feminism. Daly’s death, like that of Audre Lorde back in 1992 or Del Martin in 2008, confronts us again with a sort of cultural specter of “dead lesbians.”
Whether you know it or not, you’ve been witnessing the “historicization” of feminism for some time now, the process through which feminism and feminist activism become “history.” A pivotal point in this process might be the founding of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in the Brooklyn Museum, for instance (also known as “How The Dinner Party found a home”). Ironically, along with this institutional recognition comes the literal death of an earlier feminist generation—something we haven’t seen since the deaths of first wave feminists: Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, Sojourner Truth in 1883, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1902.
Yet, while feminism manages to slowly stake its claim in our cultural institutions, we should also think about what gets left out. What remains of Mary Daly? The swell in our chests when we see a dyke in a plaid shirt featured in some newspapers upon her death. A return to and reconsideration of her books. A realization that the stylization of lesbianism granted to us in The L Word or urban lesbian party culture pales in comparison to the glamorous ethical concerns and lived philosophies that used to define lesbian existence. Many of the lesbians of this era are still alive, but despite being accomplished women, they live in relative obscurity: the aforementioned Rich, Barbara Smith, Judy Grahn, to name a few.
Where Is Mary Daly?
Currently, dead lesbians don’t have somewhere to go when they die. We need to take more initiative to make sure our most outspoken and honorable lesbians know their work is valued and will be cared for after they’re gone. We need to conceive of a way to capture their thoughts and honor them before the twenty-paragraph obituary written by a straight person runs in the local papers. We need to confront the unresolved controversies surrounding the accusations and realities of white privilege when it comes to early feminist thought, and re-examine the nearly unilateral dismissal of some of these early thinkers that occurred just as the notion of “separatism” seemed to buckle under its own impossible weight.
That said, I do observe an increasing awareness and embrace of lesbian feminist principles (not to mention, styles) in some queer factions: the sense that old-school lesbianism is cool again. We need to extend this awareness further and recognize that we stand at a crucial moment for remembering the first generation of lesbian feminism. We need to put the eye-rolling in check, and brainstorm ways to “herstorize” this generation on our own. In the meantime, go out and buy foundational lesbian feminist texts, read them critically and in celebration, and lobby to bring these living icons to speak at your school, local bookstore, or community event. Because, like Moon affirmed in her earlier post on the subject, Daly is, after all, “survived by the entire lesbian sisterhood.”