Radical hag Mary Daly stands up to Boston College for forcing coed classes.
Mary Daly sits in her one bedroom apartment, surrounded by bookish clutter. A trash can decorated with a map of the globe lies sideways on the floor and a candle drips on the mantle. These are the marks of a hag who doesn’t give a rat’s ass for convention or appearance.
Two of Daly’s students sit on the couch in a sea of mail. “I’m really disgusted,” says senior Kate Heekin after reading an unsigned
letter, postmarked Nashville, Tenn. An excerpt: “Phony cunts such as yourself
hyped feminist laws in the past to make a name for yourself, and sell a few
books, but now see that those laws are a double-edged sword and have come
back to bite you in the ass … Get lost, you old senile cunt! You’re just a
fuckin’ man-hater because some guy banged your brains out years ago and
then dumped you.”
“Wait, here’s a nice older male who wrote to the [Boston] Globe,”
Daly offers, reading aloud from the newspaper. “Thank you. How can I help support your cause?”
Heekin and her roommate, Megan Niziol, are wearing navy blue T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Where’s Mary Daly?!” in white type.
“When we picked them up,” says Heekin, referring to the shirts, “the guy
working behind the desk said, ‘Oh, just so you know, the dean of student
development called us about these shirts to see if you guys are going to
protest or something, so you might get a call. It’s just a warning.’”
The T-shirts are a problem?
“Everything’s a problem. You know, feminism. Period.”
At the cusp of the millennium, Boston College theology professor Mary Daly,
a world-renowned feminist academic, finds herself at the age of 70 in a
’90s style fight: trying to preserve female-only classes in the face of opposition from a right-wing group and her own college.
In early December, on the last day of class for the fall semester, Daly
received a telephone call from Boston College Theology Department Chairman
Donald Dietrich. He told Daly that senior Duane Naquin was registered for
one of her spring courses, “Introduction to Feminist Ethics,” even though
Naquin had never taken a women’s studies course, a prerequisite for the
Daly didn’t flinch. She had told Naquin in September what she’s been
telling male students for the last 30 years: that she would teach him
separately. Daly had been through similar flare-ups before, most recently
in 1989, when she opted for a semester’s leave rather than teach two male
students. The flames eventually died down.
But this time Daly wasn’t merely engaged in a tête-à-tête with her employer,
Boston College. Dietrich informed Daly that this time she had no choice but to accept the male student. Daly also says it was during this call that she first learned that this student was being represented by the Center for Individual Rights, a public interest law firm in Washington. In an Oct. 16 letter sent to Boston College President William P. Leahy, the center threatened to sue the Jesuit college for violating Title IX, the federal
statute banning discrimination in higher education on the basis of sex. Boston College ordered Daly to accept Naquin into her class.
“You can’t just see Boston College here in isolation. It’s what’s motivating
them,” says Daly, who has since taken a leave of absence. “It’s the CIR which
is against radical feminism and particularly against women. Boston College
is getting rid of the CIR by getting rid of me.”
In the month following Dietrich’s telephone call, Daly sought the advice of some of her colleagues and decided to take a leave of absence to think things over, effective in January. After fruitless meetings with Boston College, she learned that the school had offered her a retirement package — a nice way of easing her out of a job. She rejected the offer and in February hired attorney Gretchen Van Ness.
“Professor Daly is deserving of respect and support by this university and
they have failed to provide that,” Van Ness says, noting that her client
has overlapping rights to fair treatment under state and federal statutes,
anti-discrimination laws and university policy. “She is unique and a
treasure and she has not received the treatment that her stature deserves.”
A prolific writer, Daly holds three doctorates and has authored seven
books, most recently “Quintessence … Realizing the Archaic Future: A
Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto.” She’s been called the first modern
feminist philosopher and counts among her friends anti-pornography
“spinster” Andrea Dworkin and actress Roseanne. She has also indulged in a brand of academic wordplay that has made her notorious even among less radical feminist circles, coining such phrases as “stag/nation” and “the/rapist,” not to mention the title of her cross-cultural survey of brutality against women’s bodies: “Gyn/ecology.”
As a stalwart icon of more fiery feminist days, Daly is an ideal target for the Center for Individual Rights, a group that has made eradicating what CIR calls “the feminist worldview” part of its mission.
In a Nov. 24 fund-raising letter, Michael S. Greve, the center’s
executive director, set out the goals for 1999. Under a section titled
“Against Radical Feminism,” Greve explains that the center’s “most important cases
are attacks on two of feminism’s sacred cows — the Violence Against Women
Act of 1994 and Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments.”
“We are attacking extreme views of what the law requires that are being
promoted by feminist groups,” offers CIR senior counsel Terry Pell. “We are
attacking what we believe is an overextension of Congress’ power.”
Yet when asked about the Boston College case, Pell does an about-face. “We support Title IX,” he says. “We are arguing that it ought to be enforced. If there was a case that was attacking Title IX, this wouldn’t be it.”
In fact, CIR is fighting such a case: Neal vs. Cal State Bakersfield. In August 1997, Cal State’s wrestling team was dropped after the National Organization for Women sued the school for illegally favoring male students, which NOW said was a violation of Title IX’s proportionality rule.
In the suit, CIR, which represents wrestler Stephen Neal, argues that the
provision conflicts with Title IX’s broader aim of banning sex
discrimination in higher education because it excludes male wrestlers on the basis
of sex. Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Coyle barred Cal
State from capping the number of males allowed to participate on its
Boston College maintains that CIR’s agenda is irrelevant.
“It’s an issue to Mary Daly but it’s not an issue to us. They haven’t sued
us,” said Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn, adding that Daly is on the
wrong side of the law. “We insist that she stop discriminating against
students, that she abide by federal policy and by the same rules as
For a woman who begrudges the “monoculture” of the patriarchy and laments the “horrible deadening of spirit” sweeping through American universities, abiding by “federal policy” and “the same rules as everyone else” is not easy.
“I hear words like ‘separate’ and ‘equal.’ I don’t care about those words,”
she says. “I want there to be women’s space, where there can be explosions
“That’s what Mary Daly’s classes offer. A place and a time to make
the connections with each other, to generate the strength and the
willingness to go out and reach out to other people,” says senior Christine
Safriet. “We don’t have a lot of places to do that for women.”
Yet not all feminists agree with Daly’s pedagogical approach. Radcliffe’s Wendy Kaminer doesn’t see the logic in setting aside all-woman classes at a coed college.
“When I went to law school in 1972, it was common for the men to tell the
women that having us there was too much of a distraction. It’s hypocritical
for women to be making those arguments,” she said.
Kaminer continues: “A classroom is not group therapy. There’s nothing wrong
with having your own community but don’t expect a college classroom to do
that for you. It’s governed by public policy on discrimination.” Kaminer
adds that while “B.C. may have a lot of work to do to make itself an
egalitarian place for men and women,” the remedy isn’t to set up an
Indeed, Boston College isn’t known for being particularly woman-friendly. Aside from a couple of sports clubs, the cheerleaders and the Academy for Women in Management, there’s only one women’s group on B.C.’s list of 174 student clubs and organizations: the Women’s Resource Center. The masthead of the Heights, Boston College’s student newspaper, is top-heavy with names like Tim, Nicholas and Michael.
“In our last student government elections, there were 12 candidates in
the initial running and they were all men. It’s sort of an indication of
who’s supported here,” says Safriet, a geophysics major.
There was a time during Daly’s early days at Boston College when she taught
male-only classes. That was in 1969, the year before the College of Arts
and Sciences admitted women. In fact, it was a group of men, 1,500 of them,
who fought for Daly, convincing the university to grant her tenure.
Daly says that soon after she started teaching gender-mixed classes, she
saw her female students falling behind, losing luster and being wiped out
“Very frankly, we’re held back in our discussion,” Daly told Emily Rooney,
the host of “Greater Boston,” a local public television news program. “Some
women will always try to please the men and they don’t even mean to do it
This is what led to Daly’s decision to conduct female-only classes. It
didn’t cross her mind that a federal law designed to ensure better
educational opportunities for women would haunt her nearly 30 years
Passed as part of the 1972 Education Amendments, Title IX says, “No
person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from
participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to
discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal
According to the American Association of University Women, in 1972, many
universities were not yet coed. Medical and law schools often limited the
number of women admitted to 15. Women applicants were often required to
have higher test scores and better grades than their male counterparts.
“It’s worse than some of the things in ’1984.’ It’s an example of
doublethink,” Daly says about being accused of violating Title IX. “What’s
most disturbing is that many people don’t use their brains and don’t see
that it’s bizarre. It’s frightening.”
Harvey Silverglate, a partner with the Boston law firm Silverglate &
Good and author of “The Shadow University: The Portrayal of Liberty on
America’s Campuses,” says that using Title IX to prevent Daly from
conducting female-only classes is overkill.
“At a private school I think it’s OK if the faculty member can convince
the school that there’s a practical pedagogical purpose, especially in Mary
Daly’s case because she has been willing to teach men separately,” says
Silverglate. “This is an example of Title IX gone crazy.”
According to National Woman’s Law Center Co-president Marcia Greenberger,
Title IX is not a knee-jerk statute.
“B.C. can’t stand behind Title IX if there’s a compelling reason for keeping
the classes the way they’ve been,” she says. “But they have to have a compelling reason for those classes to continue also.”
With the Center for Individual Rights looming in the foreground, it’s not surprising that Boston College would have chosen to avoid a court battle on behalf of Mary Daly. Instead, it seems, it opted for a court battle against her.
Back at Daly’s apartment, Megan Niziol continues reading Daly’s mail, a
letter of support here, a profane diatribe there.
“When you talk about deadening, you really see how it works, how it
functions, [how people are] focused on nothing; consumed every day with
petty little things. No one really gets the big picture,” says Niziol.
Adds Heekin: “Where do you go for this inspiration, for this spark?”
At Boston College, if you’re a woman, you once could enroll in a class with Mary Daly. But all that may be herstory.
Jill Priluck is a writer who lives in New York. More Jill Priluck.
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