This is an exploration of Mary Daly’s transphobic legacy that I wrote when a controversy about her ideas on trans people erupted just after she died in January 2011. She doesn’t represent all of feminism, obviously, but neither has feminism wholly transcended these prejudices (pardon the bad pun). See, for instance, this post at the blog femonade, or pretty much every post at the blog Sex Not Gender. If I were to revise my thoughts on Daly today, I’d end on a less charitable note, based on the comments I received on the original post, in which trans people strongly questioned her having a late-in-life change of heart.
Historiann is wondering if there’s solid evidence that Mary Daly actually was transphobic. After a food-fight erupted in comments on Shakesville’s post, “RIP Mary Daly,” Historiann asks:
Did any of the very opinionated commenters [at Shakesville] who were so very concerned about Daly’s transphobia offer quotations, or, you know, any actual evidence of her grave sins against humanity? (I mean, aside from citing Wikipedia?) Did anyone do what Mary Daly herself did her whole life–commit scholarship by citing evidence, chapter and verse?
Now, I wasn’t involved in that pile-on because I’m generally uncomfortable with how the laudable idea of safe space sometimes becomes a silencing mechanism at Shakesville, and so I never comment there. I fully agree with Historiann: the snap judgments in that comment thread epitomize a real problem in feminist blogdonia – a tendency to assume bad faith and judge quickly and harshly.
But yeah, Daly did write some nasty things in Gyn/Ecology. I spent some time today digging through it (the relevant passages can all be found online, though you have to cobble them together from Amazon and Google Books). I didn’t find the term “Frankensteinian” applied verbatim to transsexuals, so technically Wikipedia may be incorrect in imputing it to her (or maybe I just didn’t find it). But only technically. I’ll get to the Frankenstein thing in a moment.
First, some context. Saying that radical feminists/hags must find their own selves, Daly cautions against being “swallowed up in male-centered (Dionysian) confusion. Hags find our own boundaries, our own definitions.” So far, so good. What’s not to like about defining one’s own boundaries? It’s smart and healthy, both personally and politically. But then Daly starts crossing my boundaries:
The Dionysian solution for women, which is violation of our own Hag-ocratic boundaries, is The Final Solution. To succumb to this seductive invitation is to become incorporated into the Mystical Body of Maledom, that is, to become ‘living’ dead women, forever pumping our own blood into the Heavenly Head, giving head to the Holy Host, losing our heads.
This is an example of Daly’s language-play leading her into incoherence. Meaning disintegrates: what does it mean to give head to the Holy Host? Last I knew, you chew on the host, which is sort of the opposite of what men appear to enjoy in fellatio – or have I been missing out on something important? There’s no substance in that metaphor, only a drive-by condemnation of blow jobs.
But that’s a frivolous point. What made me flinch here – and we haven’t gotten to the transphobia yet – was her appropriation of the Holocaust. It’s legitimate to look at genocide in comparative history. It’s not okay to use it as a metaphor for women identifying with men.
This notion of a Dionysian Final Solution forms the launching pad for Daly’s attack on trans people:
Dionysus sometimes assumed a girl-like form. The phenomenon of the drag queen dramatically demonstrates such boundary violation. Like whites playing “black face,” he incorporates the oppressed role without being incorporated in it. In the phenomenon of transsexualism, the incorporation/confusion is deeper. As ethicist Janice Raymond has pointed out, the majority of transsexuals are “male to female,” while transsexed females basically function as tokens, and are used by the rulers of the transsexual empire to hide the real nature of the game. In transsexualism, males put on “female” bodies (which are in fact pseudofemale).
(This and previous quotations are from Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, 67-8)
Here, Daly uncritically appropriates Raymond’s notion of a transsexual empire – a sort of conspiracy by men to invade and colonize women’s bodies and the feminist movement. She expresses no skepticism, only approval. I don’t see any way to redeem this. It’s transphobic through and through.
Two pages later, the next section is titled “Boundary Violation and the Frankenstein Phenomenon.” Daly positions Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as “prophetic,” claiming it foretold “the technological fathers’ fusion of male mother-miming and necrophilia in a boundary violation that ultimately points toward the total elimination of women.” (70)
So Daly’s appropriation of the “Final Solution” is no accident. She literally warns against a genocide that would wipe out all women.
How would this occur?
Today the Frankenstein phenomenon is omnipresent not only in religious myth, but in its offspring, phallocratic technology. The insane desire for power, the madness of boundary violation, is the mark of necrophiliacs who sense the lack of soul/spirit/life-loving principle with themselves and therefore try to invade and kill off all spirit, substituting conglomerates of corpses. This necrophilic invasion/elimination takes a variety of forms. Transsexualism is an example of male surgical siring which invades the female world with substitutes.”
Other “manifestations of phallotechnic boundary violations” include “male-created genetic engineering” and cyborgs along with behavioral psychology and “other Master Mothers, such as physicians and surgeons (especially in gynecology/obstetrics and in neurosurgery), psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors of all kinds.” (71)
Not to make any excuses for the history of gynecology, which is absolutely rife with human rights abuses, but “transphobic” almost seems like too weak a word. The most charitable reading of this passage positions MTF (male-to-female) transsexuals as the unwitting dupes of evil surgeons. Alternatively, MTF transsexuals are themselves agents intent on destroying the female world.
So no, I didn’t catch the word “Frankensteinian” in the midst of all this, but that doesn’t make it any prettier. Transsexuals are at least associated – and possibly identified – with necrophiliacs and power-mad men. They are described as modern-day, real-world Frankensteins. This is defamatory. This is hate speech.
Daly returns to transsexuals in her flights of fantasy at the end of Gyn/Ecology. While describing an “Amazonian Dissembly,” she imagines a group she calls “the Obsessors” who are purveyors of women’s sexualization, bearing such items as cosmetics, Penthouse, and the Pill:
It is also noted that among this faction there are some who appear to be eunuchs. One is carrying a placard which reads: “I am a lesbian-feminist male-to-female transsexual. Take me in.” As they begin to file off the platform two Harpies swoop down into their midst, causing them to stumble and stagger in all directions.” (420)
It’s clear that Daly denies trans people the basic respect of acknowledging their own identity. Even more, she calls them “eunuchs,” implying they are sexless. And in the end, she gleefully imagines them being driven off from the gathering of women.
Except, of course, this scene didn’t only occur in Daly’s imagination. Self-identified radical feminists have often excluded trans women in real life. They just haven’t had the aid of flying Harpies.
But that’s only the end of Gyn/Ecology, which was published in 1978; it’s not the end of Daly’s career. (In my head, I’m channelling Paul Harvey: “And now you know … the rest of the story.) In comments to my previous post, Xochitl – a young woman who worked personally with Daly – states that Daly renounced such transphobic views later in life:
I got to know Mary in the last few years of her life – and of course I had to speak up for my trans friends – I’ll gladly report that Mary no longer held the same trans-phobic views that Jan Raymond expressed in her dissertation decades ago. I cannot report changes about Raymond’s thoughts only because I have not followed up on how her ideas developed. But I can attest that Mary’s own thoughts and perspective on this definitely changed – which only makes sense considering that for her to live is to change and move and grow with the movement of Ultimate Intimate Reality – Goddess is Verb for Mary Daly – there is no way she would have maintained static ideas.
One day I will write more on this – I do not want future generations of feminists, trans friends included, thinking of Mary Daly as their enemy.
She really is an ally. Of course this is not to diminish the harm and effect that any trans-phobic expressions will continue to have. That’s the risk any of us take when we put something in writing – it seems so permanently true. But in reality, all texts simply capture one moment – it is only a reflection of that one moment in ones developing thoughts and theories…
I have no reason to doubt Xochitl and pretty good cause to believe her. Judging from her blog, she strikes me as smart and principled. She describes herself as queer and Christian in an unorthodox way (if I’ve read it right). Yes, she’s got some personal loyalties, but her political and religious commitments are her own, not Daly’s.
It would have been wonderful if Mary Daly had publicly renounced those transphobic passages from Gyn/Ecology. I’m not aware of her having done so – but if anyone knows better, please correct me. (I’m not so interested in static ideas, myself, especially if they’re wrong!) Daly could have sent a signal to the younger generations of women who’ve embraced radical-cultural feminism and its attendant idea that the mere existence of trans people poses a danger to “real” (cis) women. Whatever one’s feelings about the content of her work, Daly lived a remarkable life. Disowning her transphobia would have been a generous gesture that might have influenced younger generations. It might even have opened up her legacy to the trans people and their allies who know her only as the philosopher who called them power-mad, necrophiliac monsters in the shadow of Frankenstein.