Painting Mary Daly: Lesbian Feminist Pioneer

You don’t have to be perfect to be a saint. The saints who comprise my Holy Women Icons are far from perfect, but each one has made a difference in the lives of countless queer women. By giving iconography a folk feminist twist—by painting these women and calling them holy—it is my hope that their lives can embolden us to stand for justice, equality, and peace in the ways they did.

One of these imperfect saints is a lesbian who subverted traditional Catholic doctrine: Mary Daly.

Mary Daly (1928-2010) described herself as a “radical lesbian feminist.” She was a philosopher, theologian, and writer who taught at Boston College, a Jesuit-run institution, for 33 years. Controversy erupted in 1999 when Daly either retired or was forced to leave (there is debate about which is most accurate) after violating university policy by refusing to allow male students in her advanced women’s studies courses.

But Daly was no stranger to controversy as she dedicated her life to women’s rights, the right of gays and lesbians, over-turning patriarchy, subverting oppressive religious traditions, and writing eight books along the way.

For many women, reading Mary Daly’s pivotal The Church and the Second Sex or Beyond God the Father were their first forays into feminist theology. As in my icon, Daly stands left of center. Some would say she stands so far left that she dangles off the spectrum altogether.

But we cannot forget Daly’s time and context: teaching and receiving tenure when there were no other women in her department, living as an out lesbian when “homosexuality” was dubbed a mental disorder at best and criminal at worst, writing and researching about feminist theology, a field that many academics didn’t even think existed. And she did all of this at a Catholic institution. Talk about a revolutionary.

Daly has been critiqued for being an essentialist, for ignoring the voices of women of color, and even for being transphobic.

These critiques—often justified—weighed heavy on my mind and heart as I contemplated canonizing her as a Holy Woman Icon. By painting her icon, would I be condoning all that she did in her lifetime? By calling her holy, was I excusing everything she ever said that was unfair or unjust? These questions plagued me as I considered painting an icon of Daly.

When she passed away on January 3, 2010 I was surprised at my emotional response. There were still elements of her work that troubled me. I continued to feel that many of the critiques raised against her by contemporary feminist, womanist, mujerista, and queer theologians were valid.

But with her death I also felt a loss. The queer feminist community had lost a forerunner. Feminist theologians—whether we agree with all that she said and did during her lifetime—are indebted to the groundwork Mary Daly laid. When I was a young woman in college grappling with my calling as a minister, scholar, and artist, I remember reading Mary Daly’s work. I remember feeling as though Beyond God the Father was written like she was shouting, angry, outraged at the way the church, patriarchy, and religion have treated women and gays and lesbians.

I, too, was angry.

I was angry that the only God I’d ever learned about was a father, a male. I was angry that the so-called welcome table of most churches didn’t actually welcome people like me. Reading Daly’s writing was my first step toward moving beyond that kind of God and beyond that kind of church. Her work helped teach me that sometimes there is a need to shout.

These formative feminist memories combined with my memories of my first personal encounter with Mary Daly as I spread my canvas to paint her icon. I remembered attending the American Academy of Religion in Philadelphia in 2005. I went to a session on feminism and religion and Mary Daly was on the program. I was there early, ever the studious student with a pen in hand, eager to learn. Daly walked in wearing green sweatpants and what looked like house slippers; she took one look at the table for panelists and the rows of chairs and scoffed. She announced that she and the panel wouldn’t use the table and we would put all the chairs in a circle for a more egalitarian discussion. It was both hilarious and meaningful at the same time. 

So, there was no doubt that Daly’s icon would be wearing green, her arms outstretched because her body was worth the space it occupied in the world. Most of my icons include a heart encompassing almost the entire torso of the holy women; the heart speaks a series of words on the canvas, the cry of the woman’s heart. As I painted and remembered Mary Daly’s life, it was clear what her heart would say: 

Reaching beyond God the FatherShe shouted

For queer women who have always been told to keep quiet, Mary Daly raised her voice. Because of that, we are empowered to do the same.

For this, Mary Daly becomes holy.

Not perfect. Not without fault. But holy. So, too, are you.

Artwork created by Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber

Comments (2)

"For queer women who have always been told to keep quiet, Mary Daly raised her voice. Because of that, we are empowered to do the same." Actually, ONLY for queer cisgender women. NOT for queer transgender women. Dr Yarber almost gets the caveat, but still makes inaccurate generalizations that erase transgender women. Or is your point that queer transgender women aren't really women? Because that's the line you are walking with this disclaimer game. You explicitly acknowledge that she was awful to SOME women, so you're not speaking from ignorance. But still standing by Daly's side to erase trans folk. Please stop dancing on our graves. Stop erasing queer transgender women. Daly was no friend, nor icon.

Chris, I am tremendously grateful for your honesty, your rage, and for your calling me into a place where I must confront my cis privilege and make changes to be a better ally. You're right. I should know better. I'm a Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, an author of a book on microaggressions, and a regular speaker at Transgender Support Groups. Yet I have still managed to be clouded by my cis privilege, microaggressing against my trans sisters--who are, indeed, women--and doing violence with my words and art. For this, I am truly and sincerely sorry.
Thank you for the graceful corrective, though it should not have to be your responsibility to educate me. I apologize for interrupting what should be a safe space at Believe Out Loud and acknowledge that publishing this article and lifting up voices like Daly's was wrongfully harmful, even though that was not my intent.
Your words have called me to action and I am now working on a painting and an article that are my first step in making amends and endeavoring to be a better ally to my trans sisters. It is not right that only one of my nearly 50 Holy Women Icons identifies as trans and I now plan to work on a series focusing specifically on trans women to help lift up the voices of trans women that have been ignored, regulated, and oppressed for far too long. I hope you will accept my apology, but I understand if you do not.

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