The Elemental Feminist Philosophy
of Mary Daly
… Pure Lust names the high humor, hope and cosmic
accord/harmony of those women who choose to escape,
to follow our heart’s deepest desire and bound out of the
State of Bondage, Wanderlusting and Wonderlusting
with the elements, connecting with auras of animals and
plants, moving in planetary communion with the farthest stars … Women who choose biophilic be-ing belong
to the Race of Lusty Women, which participates in the
Race of Elemental Be-ing.
(Daly, 1984, pp. 3-4).
Under the conditions of patriarchy, women dis-cover
our Original Race through the release of deep ontological Fury. By Fury I do not mean an agitated state of
chronic or acute anger that immobilizes, or that misfires
at the wrong target. Rather, I mean a focused gynergetic
will to break through the obstacles that block the flow of
Female Force… It is the Rage of those who choose this,
our own Race of Elemental Be-ing over all man-made,
male-designed divisions and categories.
(Daly, 1984, p. 5)
These words are from Mary Daly’s most recent book, Pure
Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy, and they express, I think,
something of the anger, power and force of Daly’s vision of
autonomous and authentic women, and her conception of the
project of feminism. And the means she offers us of embarking
on this voyage, of discovering the ‘consciousness that is in
harmony with the Wild in nature and in the Self’ (p. 7) is fundamentally that of breaking the power of language. So, she
… the word woman names the alienating archetype that
freezes female be-ing, locking us into prisons of
‘forever feminine’ roles. But when we wield words to
dis-close the inner beauty, the radiance of the Race of
Lusty Women, we/they blaze open pathways to our
Background/homeland. Thus woman, wisely wielded,
Names a Wild and Lusty Female claiming wisdom, joy
and power as her own… Breaking the bonds/bars of
phallocracy requires breaking through to radiant powers
of words, so that by releasing words we can release our
Selves … The Race of Lusty Women, then has deep
connections with the Race of Radiant Words.
(Daly, 1984, p. 4).
I would like to raise some questions about the voyage that
Mary Daly invites us to undertake, and about her vision of the
project of feminism. l It is indeed true that women have often,
in many ways, been denied autonomy, and have felt unable to
undertake their own ‘authentic’ projects; and it is not difficult
to understand the power and potential energising force of
Daly’s vision for many women. I think, however, that the
routes Daly offers us to achieve female freedom are
problematic, and the sort of ‘freedom’ she invites us to realise
may have little connection with the practical and material
struggles of many women’s lives. She offers us a romantic,
idealised and spiritualised notion of ‘autonomy’; and her conception of the authentic, Elemental or Original Female Self is
one which is both highly normative and potentially divisive.
Mary Daly offers us an essentialist ‘humanism’ that postulates the following things:
1. An essential or original female self which is
wholly autonomous and is sharply contrasted with
women who are ‘man-made’ or ‘brainwashed’ by
2. A conception of this self which sees it as potentially
unitary, non-contradictory, and wholly perspicuous to itself; and which sees psychic knots, tangles, barriers,
obstacles and splits as the result of the invasion of this
self, both physical and psychic, by forces which are
alien to it.
‘Humanist’ ideas about the self have a long and important,
though also problematic history within feminist thinking. It
was the ‘humanist’ ideas of the Enlightenment, for example,
which stressed such things as the ‘natural virtue’ and perfectibility of human beings, given the right environment, and the
evils brought about by inequality, which formed the context for
the work of Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft wanted to extend the new humanism to women; she asked that women be
allowed to attain a character as human beings regardless of the
distinctions of sex. One of the main targets of her criticism, in
A Vindication of the Rights of Women, was Rousseau’s description, in Emile, of the way in which the girl Sophie, Emile’s
companion, was to be brought up. Emile’s virtues were to be
those of hardiness of body and autonomy and independence of
mind and judgement Sophie’s virtues were to be those which
would simply make her a compliant and pleasing companion
for Emile. And yet, as Cora Kaplan has shown in her essay
‘Wild Nights’ (1987), despite Wollstonecraft’s bitter attack on
Rousseau, there are fundamental respects in which she shares
his estimation of women. Rousseau regarded women as inferior
because of their excess of sensibility, and he saw female
sexuality as a potentially dangerous and anarchic force which
needed containing within the patriarchal bourgeois nuclear
family. Wollstonecraft, too, saw women as degraded by an excess of sensuality and by a debased and eroticized femininity.
But she saw the origins of this degradation, not in female nature, but in the very conditions which Rousseau had prescribed
for the controlling of female sexuality. The programme
Wollstonecraft recommended for women in the Vindication
was a strenuous one of re-education to renounce the sensual.
As Kaplan puts it:
Sexuality and pleasure are narcotic inducements to a life
of lubricious slavery. Reason is the only human attribute
appropriate to the revolutionary character, and women
are impeded from their early and corrupt initiation in the
sensual from using theirs … A Vindication offers the
reader a puritan sexual ethic with such passionate conviction that self-denial seems a libidinized activity (p.
The history of humanist ideas within feminism since
Wollstonecraft is a complex one. The ‘authenticity’ and
autonomy of a reformed or regenerate female self has, for example, been characterised in different ways, sometimes featuring sexuality and feelings, sometimes not Wollstonecraft’s
ideal of the rational and prudent self accomplished by the victory over sensuality and desire was echoed, for example, by
some feminists who were involved in such things as moral
purity and reform campaigns in the 19th century. 20th-century
manifestations of humanism have not, on the whole, opted for
this downplaying of the sensual. Sexuality is often included in
the ‘authentic self’, though it may be a ‘reformed’ sexuality,
purified of any taint of masculine indoctrination and free of
contradictions. 2 It is interesting, however, that in the work of
Mary Daly, although there is a great deal of discussion of the
forms of sexual torture and coercion to which women have
been subjected, sexual pleasure and desire barely figure at all in
her conception of the ‘authentic’ woman.
Cora Kaplan writes that ‘Idealised humanity, as it appears
in (Wollstonecraft’s) text, is a rational plain speaking bourgeois
man’ (1987, p. 37). And indeed programmes of liberal feminist
reform have recapitulated central themes of humanism – the
themes of autonomy, rationality, of choice and self-determination for women. Such programmes have, like Wollstonecraft,
tended to see the problem for women as being that they were
simply prevented by conditions of inequality from possessing
the same rights and choices and opportunities as men. Within
much radical feminist thinking, however, humanist ideas have
been put to a rather different use. There are interesting
similarities between Wollstonecraft and Daly. Both stress the
degradation and corruption of women, and are scornful of most
‘feminine’ desires. Both evade the problem of giving an adequate account of female sexual desire. Wollstonecraft’s pas-
sionate rejection of sensuality and celebration of female
rationality is matched by Daly’s passionate rejection of all conventions of ‘femininity’ and celebration of the Original female
self. Wollstonecraft’s impassioned plea, however, was for a
humanism that included women. Daly offers us an essentialist
humanism that excludes men. And I would like now to look at
some of the ways in which this essentialist humanism is
elaborated in her work.
In her book GynlEcology (1979), Daly gives an account of
the many forms of violence which have been and are done to
women; she discusses, for example, practices such as suttee,
clitoridectomy and footbinding. But she is concerned just as
much with what she sees as the psychic violence which has
been done to women. Women, she argues, have been indoctrinated, brainwashed; and the language she uses is often
striking. She describes them as lobotomised, moronised,
robotised; as fembots, as the ‘puppets of Papa’, even as
‘mutants’. In fact, virtually all male interactions with women
are seen as ‘violent’ in some way, and the act of intercourse itself is often seen as a paradigm of, and symbol for, the
degradation and pollution of women by the ‘penetration’ of
male force and ideology.
Contrasted with the ‘fembot’ is the woman who is ‘wild’ or
untamed. In her writing, Daly aims to reclaim, via such things
as explorations into etymology, positive meanings for words
associated with women which often have a derogatory sense.
Her ‘wild’ women are Shrews, Nags, Bitches and Crones who
are strong and self-defined. They live lives that are not
‘mediated; by or dependent on or defined by men. They may
‘bond’ with others, but they will do so out of strength, not out
of weakness or need.
I have written elsewhere at greater length about the way
some of these themes appear in GynlEcology (Grimshaw,
1986). Here I want to draw attention to Daly’s most recent
book, Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy, and in particular to her discussion of the passions.
The ‘tamed’ woman, the ‘fembot’ of GynlEcology, is a
woman, Daly writes, whose passions have been ‘stopped or
stunted’. She draws a distinction between what she calls ‘plastic’ or ‘potted’ passions, and passions which are real or authentic. Real passions, she argues, are those which connect us with
the world; they allow women to name the agents of their oppression. They possess what Daly calls a ‘natural wildness’,
and they arise from within the self. Plastic passions, however,
are those which, while ‘real’ in the sense that they exist, are
‘blobs in inner space’ which pre-occupy and paralyze their victims. They are substitutes for real passions. They include
emotions such as guilt, anxiety, depression, hostility, bitterness,
resentment, boredom, resignation; in fact, any ‘negative’ emo-
tion which is not clearly focused on an external object or event
in the world as its cause, or which does not lead to a clear
course of action.
A woman recognises that when she experiences real
Anger – that is, Rage – at her oppressor/suppressor she
is moved to action by her Rage. She sses that in contrast
to this, if she is merely frozen in states that can accurately be labelled ‘hostile’ or ‘bitter’ or ‘resentful’ she
is not moved to act She sees also that the agents of
snooldom are constantly trying to convert her rage into
plastic by labelling it as ‘hostility’, ‘bitterness’ etc. – the
furthest she can move within this package deal is resignation (1984, p. 203).
The plastic passions, Daly writes, are ‘unnatural knots, snarls
of the spirit’ – instead of spiralling outward, these snap backward, strangling their victim. They are unnatural because they
are the result of an attempt to prevent women from seeing what
is really oppressing them. And what is wrong is always ‘out
there’, in the present.
A woman is often therapeutically directed to express her
anger towards her mother for events that transpired
several decades ago, when the fact is right now that the
sado-society’s plug-uglies are physically and/or psychically battering her (1984, p. 207).
Psychic life, according to this sort of view, has no endemic or
intrinsic complexity, ambivalence or contradictions. Tangles,
knots and spirals would all disappear if only the violence and
brainwashing to which women are subjected could be removed.
Self-knowledge could be wholly unproblematic. And ‘reality’
is in principle transparent; agents of oppression are all clearly
nameable so that it should be possible for consciousness always to name the ‘real’ psychic harm that is being done to it
Any view which suggests that it might sometimes be at least
partly to the ‘inside’ or the past that we have to look to explain
these knots and tangles is dismissed by Daly, pejoratively, as
‘therapy’, which she also describes as ‘psychobabble’.
sional help, alcohol, pills and all kinds of man-made
things (1984, p. 204).
Daly produces, in fact, a highly normative discourse about the
‘proper’ objects of female desire. What are these ‘proper’ objects? One example that Daly gives occurs in a discussion of a
cover photo of TIme magazine which showed the actress Jaclyn
Smith pregnant and discussed a supposed ‘baby boom’ among
career women and actresses. This report, Daly argues, was part
and parcel of Time’s deliberate erasure of ‘strong and creative’
women. And indeed that article as Daly describes it did seem to
imply that it was only motherhood that could give women real
satisfaction. Nevertheless, the way in which Daly contrasts the
photo of a pregnancy with that of a ‘strong or creative’ woman
raises a suspicion that a desire for a baby is not seen as an
‘authentic’ female desire. Neither, I think, is desire for sex with
a man. Daly is scornful, too, of most forms of ‘domesticity’.
Almost anything which could in any way be seen as associated
with any ‘traditional’ view of femininity is dismissed as not a
proper or legitimate object of female desire. But it is not just
sex, babies and domesticity that seem to be ruled out. Daly is
almost as dismissive of the aspirations of women to participate
and achieve success in any field or institution which either includes or is dominated by men. So restrictive is her conception
of the ‘proper objects’ of female desire, in fact, that it seems to
rule out nearly all the aspirations of most women, be they associated with home and family or with work outside the home.
So there are specific ‘wrong objects’ for female desire. But
Daly also gives a much more general account of the ways in
which she thinks female experience is dulled and stunted. And
here her arguments recapitulate in such a striking way a certain
type of arguument about experience and the mass media that
was common in the 1950s that I will digress for a moment to
give an example. It is from an article by Van Den Haag, written
in 1957, which offers a critique of mass culture and the mass
media. A central feature of this critique is that the mass media
are seen as offering poor substitutes for real or authentic experience, and in so doing they inhibit the capacity for the latter.
Van Den Haag argues, for example, that the cost of wide
popular appeal is the ‘de-individualisation’ of the relationship
between those who cater and those who are catered for.
Though profit and sensation can be achieved by depersonalisation, the satisfaction ultimately sought cannot
be, for the very part of the personality in which it is felt
– the individual self – is stunted and atrophied; at least if
de-individualisation continues long enough and is comprehensive. Ultimately, too, the sense of violation is
numbed (1957, p.ll).
The mass media, Van Den Haag argues, impair people’s
capacity to experience what he calls ‘life itself’; and their impact is strong and cumulative.
The ‘plastic’ passions, then, are ‘negative’ passions which
are not clearly directed on to some aspect of reality. The ‘potted’ passions, on the other hand, are those which are directed
on to the wrong objects. Daly is scornful of the concept of
‘fulfilment’. She writes:
Fulfilment is the therapeutized perversion of the passion
of joy. A fulfilled woman is one who is filled full. She is
a vessel, a stuffed container, her condition being comparable to that of a wild animal that has been shot and
stuffed… Because of her frustration and low self-image
she craves romantic love and marriage, religion, profes-
All mass media in the end alienate people from personal
experience… One may turn to the mass media when
lonely or bored. But mass media, once they become a
habit, impair the capacity for meaningful experience
This sort of view of mass culture has been a very common one.
Despite the differences in their political perspectives and concerns, a rather similar view was held by members of the
Frankfurt school such as Adorno, and by the Leavisite tradition
of English criticism. A central problem with this view is its assumption of the passivity of the audience and recipients of
mass culture, and its failure to recognise the very different
ways in which people may read or negotiate a text in the light
of their social situation. Another is the mystifying and totally
ahistorical conception of the real or authentic experience which
is contrasted with mass culture. And it is striking how closely
Daly’s arguments both replicate those of Van Den Haag and
produce the same problems.
Daly moves, as I have said, from a critique of specific
wrong objects of female desire to what amounts to a slamming
indictment of almost all of contemporary culture. She writes,
for example, of the State of Boredom, or of Bore-Ocracy, and
quotes with approval an American book which claims that
television is ‘inherently boring’ , and that it has a hypnotic-addictive quality which keeps the viewer fixated and hooked and
substitutes ‘artificial stimulation’ for real experience. Daly herself writes a breathless paragraph in which she criticises the
tedium of work, architecture and furnishings, the nature of
modem conversation, guided tours and package vacations,
electronic games. These all narrow experience, block creativity
and impose passivity. So, she writes:
terning’, moments at which a woman can be ‘deeply in touch
with her creative powers’ (p. 342), she mentions travelling in a
foreign country (presumably not on a package tour), riding a
bicycle, being engaged in a Spinning discussion of ideas, walking on the beach – and writing a book of feminist philosophy.
How many women have the resources to travel, the time or
opportunity to walk on the beach, or the education to Spin
Words and to write or understand feminist philosophy? But it is
not just this. Daly’s Elemental E-Motion and auras and forcefields, her conception of the woman who is untamed and
Original, seem to have almost nothing to do with much of the
real or historical lives and activities of women – their productive labour, for example, or their love and care for their
children, or their efforts to struggle against oppressive conditions. And it is divisive and elitist to dismiss the desires,
pleasures and aspirations of ‘ordinary’ women as merely conditioned and retrograde.
… Those who are bored, especially if they don’t even
know that this is the case, are penetrated and filled with
alien and alienating images and impulses that paralyze…
This means that our auras or force-fields are stunted and
dimmed, for auras are expanded essentially through acts
of creation. Spiritually weakened and withered by boreocracy’s infliction of passivity, women suffer from
anxiety and look to bores for relief and fulfilment (1984,
Daly also plays on the other meaning of the word ‘bore’ – to
drill, penetrate or invade. Really, there is very little difference
between what she and Van Den Haag say about mass culture,
with two exceptions. Van Den Haag contrasts Art with mass
culture as something that is connected to real or meaningful
experience. Daly, in a number of places, dismisses Art and
Literature as themselves part of the bore-ocracy’s plot to deny
women their authentic Selves. And whereas Van Den Haag
does not suggest that there is a gendered difference in the effects of mass culture, Daly does. In what I think is a revealing
sentence, she writes:
Under these conditions women, animals, plants and all
of the elements are subjected to the tyranny of the
Boring, that is, to the drilling, penetrating, invading
touches of Boredom’s privileged prickers (1984, p.
Daly sees the connection between women and nature in terms
of metaphors of the elemental, wild and free rather than the
vegetative. But the association is no less problematic. Nor is it
clear whether there could be, in Daly’s scheme, an authentic
male self which was prevented from expression in similar ways
to the female self. After all, men watch TV, undertake tedious
and mind-numbing labour and go on package vacations.
However, one is not uncommonly led to suspect that the only
authenticity allowed to men is that of being authentic villains
Daly’s conception of the authentic, elemental, and ‘wild’
creativity of women is often in fact quite mystifying. It is
sometimes not clear, for example, what women can actually do,
given the extraordinarily global nature of Daly’s critique of
modern society, that could count as authentic, or what passions
and desires could be seen as real and not ‘potted’. But at times
in Pure Lust she does give some hints and suggestions. She
contrasts the range of experiences and activities she has indicted with those in which one is ‘alive’, and she gives some examples of the latter. In a discussion of what she calls ‘Metapat-
Furthermore, to say that women often want babies, or sex
with men, or find romance pleasurable, or enjoy watching soap
operas and so forth, simply because they are ‘conditioned’to
do so or because such pleasures are ‘man-made’ is to offer a
quasi-behaviourist conception which wrongly assumes that
their relationship to these practices or texts is wholly passive
and undifferentiated. It does not help, for example, in understanding the specific and often different ways in which
romance may ‘speak’ to women and afford them ways of either
recognising or fantasising their own desires. 3 It does not help in
understanding the very different ways in which the desire for a
baby may arise, or the ways in which women may negotiate the
ambivalences and problems involved in being a mother. In
Landscape for a Good Woman (1986), Carolyn Steedman discusses the ways in which her own mother, unmarried, lived ‘at
the margins’ of maternal and familial ideology. She was a conscientious ‘good mother’ as she saw it, and wanted children,
partly out of the vain hope that their father would marry her.
Yet Steedman also recalls her saying such things as ‘Never
have children dear, they ruin your life’, or ‘If it wasn’t for you,
think what I could be doing’. Her children, as she saw it, excluded her from other things that life had to offer. These were
mainly material things; after years of wartime austerity she
longed for a New Look skirt that took twenty yards of cloth.
But this longing should not, Steedman suggests, be dismissed
merely as evidence of a consumerist mentality or feminine indoctrination. Material things were to her a symbol of the real
exclusions and deprivations suffered by the working class.
In Wigan Pier Revisited (1986) Beatrix Campbell points out
that for many British working-class girls with little chance of
employment, having a baby may represent the only chance they
have of leaving home and being more independen4 albeit very
poor, and being a mother the only possibility of an adult identity. The desire for a baby is not necessarily closely linked at
all, as it may be in the case of other women, to that of romantic
love or marriage, and many of these girls are single mothers.
All complexities such as these are ironed out in Daly’s writing.
It is not that we should uncritically celebrate all female desires
and pleasures just because they are female. The material things
such as the ‘New Look’ skirt which Carolyn Steedman’s
mother saw as a symbol of her own exclusion did not lead her
into any form of real political understanding or resistance, and
single .motherhood is not a solution to the problems of unemployment and poverty. It is rather that a blanket dismissal of
all aspects of ‘femininity’ and most female desires as passively
retrograde does not get us one bit further in understanding
women’s desires, or the ways in which women may try to use
the resources they have to hand for trying to make sense of or
resolve the contradictions in their own lives. Nor does it help
us to understand texts such as those of romantic finction. These
often do not convey a monolithic message about ‘femininity’
that is all of a piece. Helen Taylor (1986) has shown that the
romantic novel Gone With the Wind is valued by many women
for its portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara as a strong and independent
woman. Scarlett saves Tara on her own. Yet Tara symbolises
the values of the Old South, in which racism and the subordination of women were central, arid Scarlett herself is in many
ways dependent on men.
Daly writes too, as I have said, as if all women’s problems
had a clearly identifiable ‘external’ cause, which could be perceived were it not for the power of male indoctrination. Hence
she distinguishes between ‘real’ anger, which is supposedly always directed on to a nameable external objec4 and ‘plastic’
anger, which is seen as the result of male intervention to stop
women seeing the real causes of their problems. Of course it is
true that women have sometimes been directed by psychiatrists
or therapists to look inside their own psyches, or to see themselves as ‘failing’ to achieve some norm of ‘femininity’ or
‘mental health’ , in circumstances where a change in their social
situation might have solved the problem. It is interesting nevertheless to compare what Daly writes about ‘real’ anger with
Freud’s discussion of anxiety in his Introductory Lectures on
Psychoanalysis. In Lecture 25, Freud discusses the difference
between ‘realistic’ and ‘neurotic’ anxiety. Realistic anxiety is,
he says, a rational and intelligible (though not always expedient) response to a perception of an external danger. In
some forms of neurotic anxiety, however, such as phobic
anxieties, ‘internal’ dangers are treated as though they were
‘external’ ones; that is to say, the anxiety that arises from some
inner conflict is projected on to an external object or situation.
(This is the exact reverse of Daly’s account of the way in which
external dangers can be treated as though they were internal
ones.) Both processes, in fac4 can happen. But Freud also
argues that it is very difficult to distinguish sharply between
realistic and neurotic anxiety, especially in children. A child,
for instance, is often afraid of strangers. BU4 says Freud:
A child is not afraid of these strangers because he attributes evil intentions to them and compares his weakness to their strength … A child who is mistrustful in this
way and terrified of the aggressive instinct which
dominates the world is a theoretical construction that
has quite miscarried… A child is frightened of a strange
face because he is adjusted to the sight of a familiar and
beloved figure – ultimately of his mother. It is his disappointment and longing that are transformed into anxiety
– his libido, in fact, which has become unemployable …
and is discharged as anxiety (1973, p. 455).
It is not the case, Freud argues, that neurotic anxiety is only
secondary and a special case of realistic anxiety. Rather,
children seem to have little true realistic anxiety, and often
what appears to be a realistic anxiety may share essential
features with neurotic anxieties.
One does not have to accept all of Freud’s explanation of
anxiety, which is based on the libido theory, to recognise that
emotions ilke anger may often not be easily traceable to any
clear set of features of the environment, or may be ‘overdetermined’. The psychoanalyst Joel Kovel points out in A Complete Guide to Therapy (1978) how complex the roots of
anxiety, anger and other psychic states are. They may, for example, be directed on to a realistic external object to an unrealistic degree. As Kovel puts i4 one can be alienated and oppressed and neurotic. Of course it is true that oppressive social
conditions help to shape the human psyche and enter into the
making of neurotic misery. But anxiety and neurosis do n04 in
a simple way, mirror these conditions, and it should not be
supposed that their removal would necessarily lead to the undoing of all psychic knots, tangles and contradictions, and the
rendering of the human self always wholly perspicuous to itself.
Discourse about the self may serve both to articulate aspects of
experience and to help construct that very same experience. An
interesting analogy can be provided for example, by considering discourse about homosexuality. It has been argued, by
Foucault and others, that the notion of a homosexual identity,
that one was a homosexual rather than simply performed
homosexual acts, dates from the mid-to-Iate 19th century (and
that the notion of a female homosexual identity post-dates that
of a male one). When Radclyffe Hall wrote The Well Of
Loneliness (which was banned amid a great deal of publicity in
1928), she received large numbers of letters from women
saying how they recognised their own experience in what she
wrote. The theory of homosexuality in her novel is that of the
‘invert’, the ‘third sex’, and Stephen, the central character in
the book, is born with ‘masculine’ characteristics in a female
body (though the body itself in some ways resembles a male
one). Such a theory of homosexuality is immensely
problematic, not least because it assumes that sexual desire and
object choice is something predetermined at birth. But, as Jeffrey Weeks (1985) points out, notions of ‘sexual identity’ are
politically ambivalent. They can be experienced as liberating;
they can serve as a focal point for resistance to various forms
of sexual oppression, and they can give a form of expression to
the experience of many people that their sexual desires are not
a matter of ‘choice’, but are overwhelmingly given and intransigent. (In that sense, Radclyffe Hall’s theory of the invert
probably ‘spoke’ to female desires more plausibly than some
later feminist suggestions that lesbianism is primarily a matter
of political choice). But notions of ‘sexual identity’ can also be
oppressive. They can, for example, identify people as the targets or scapegoats of repressive campaigns (one thinks for example of much discourse about AIDS). And they do not necessarily lead to effective or liberating political strategies.
There is no doubt about the power and appeal to many
women of Mary Daly’s work, and of the inspirational quality of
her vision of the authentic untamed female self. It is clear that
many women have found that they can articulate aspects of
their own experience by reference to her writing. Her work has
provided above all, I think, a way of conceptualising the sharp
anger many women came, often quite suddenly, to feel, and the
passionate conviction that women could understand themselves
and relate to each other in ways that were very different from
many dominant paradigms. The voyage that Daly’s Lusty
Women are invited to undertake, however, is primarily a
spiritual one. They are invited to Spin Words to break the spells
of patriarchal language and to Reach the Realms of Elemental
Reality, the Original Self which can be born again (the
religious metaphor is apt) from the unregenerate and passive
fembot It is as if it were words themselves that imprisoned
women.4 It is interesting that in Pure Lust, Daly is sympathetic
towards the Aristotelian idea of happiness as a life of contemplation. She includes activity in her ideal of happiness,
however; but just as there is in her work a highly normative
and exclusive conception of the proper objects of female
desire, so is there, too, of the proper objects of female activity.
Feminist women may legitimately engage in ‘Metapatterning’
activities, in forms of female bonding, and in romantic association with Nature. They may also engage in what Daly calls:
… the products of women’s activism – such as shelters
for battered women, rape crisis centers, anti-pornography demonstrations, women’s concerts, anti-nuclear
protests, the women’s health movement, female-identified rituals … (1984, p. 385).
periences of black and white women, and the ways in which
black women, in resisting racism, may have interests in common with black men. It has been suggested (by Lynne Segal,
for example) that her work excludes working-class women.
Daly does not point out, Segal suggests, that to follow her,
‘women must be affluent, highly educated, white, Western, free
of needy dependents and all exhausting commitments’ (1987,
p. 21). It is true, I think, to say that the practical struggles of
women, especially working-class women, against the economic
and material burdens of their lives, are given short shrift and
little space in Daly’s work. It is not true to say that Daly simply
ignores racism, or the oppression of Black and Third World
women. She writes quite a lot about it. It is rather that it is
difficult to see how, within her scheme of autonomous female
psychic and spiritual voyaging, set against a background of undifferentiated male and terror and violence, it would be possible to develop any effective strategies at all for adequately
understanding or combating either the specific oppression of
women, or the forms of oppression, terror and conflict which
often confront women and men alike.
Daly’s feminism is, in fact, idealist rather than ‘radical’.
The breakthrough into new realms of the Spinsters’ weaving of
cosmic tapestries is really a retreat from the world. Daly offers
an exhilarating and strenuous myth of female salvation, rather
than any hope of common or effective political action. Notions
of ‘autonomy’ and ‘authenticity’ have been central to the ways
in which women have attempted to conceptualise their lives
and their aspirations. But we need, I think, a conception of
autonomy which does not see most of women’s desires merely
as a product of male indoctrination, and does not suppose that
to be ‘autonomous’ is somehow to transcend social location
and history. And we need a conception of authenticity which
does not posit an ideal of the regenerate self that will tend to
exclude this self from those forms of action that seem most
likely to meet, and indeed sometimes to challenge, women’s
aspirations for their own lives.
But, as Lynne Segal (1987) puts it:
Beyond the pale of acceptable women’s activity is any
which seeks reform or change within existing institutions, in the world of paid work, or the state, or in
any alliance with men (p. 20).
Excluded therefore is any serious or sustained political involvement with things such as existing political parties, Trades
Union activity, or any institutions which are currently maledominated. The ‘token feminist’ who does these things is sometimes seen as almost more dangerous than the fembot Everything that afflicts, endangers, pollutes or corrupts the earth is seen
as the direct and unmediated outcome of the phallic havoc
wreaked by the ‘killer male’, whose nature is unchanging and
unchangeable, and who is motivated by his lust to control and
Mary Daly has been taken to task by some black American
feminists such as Audre Lorde (1981) for falsely essentialising
‘woman’, and for failing to recognise the very different ex-
Very similar views have been put forward by Janice Raymond, in
A Passion/or Friends. Raymond’s view of the Original Female
Self and of authenticity for women follows closely that of Daly,
although Raymond tries to draw back from some of the apparently problematic implications of Daly’s work (e.g. the rejection of all heterosexual relationships).
Cora Kaplan (1987) has argued that this is true of Adrienne
Rich’s view of female sexuality, in Rich (1983).
Examples of discussions of ‘mass culture’, especially those
fonns of it which have a strong appeal for women, are provided
in the books by Ang, Modleski and Radford in the bibliography.
For a useful discussion of issues concerning feminism and
language, see Cameron (1985).
Ang, Ien (1985), Watching Dallas, Methuen, London.
Cameron, Deborah (1985), Feminism and Linguistic Theory, MacmilIan, London.
Camp bell, Beatrix (1986), WiganPier Revisited, Virago, London.
Daly, Mary (1979), GynlEcology: the Metaethics 0/ Radical
Feminism, The Women’s Press, London (Beacon Press, Boston, 1978).
Daly, Mary (1984), Pure Lust: Ele~ntal Feminist Philosophy, The
Women’s Press, London (Beacon Press, Boston).
Freud, Sigrnund (1973), Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis,
Grimshaw, Jean (1986), Feminist Philosophers: Wo~n’s Perspectives on Philosophical Traditions, Wheatsheaf, Brighton (published in
the US under the title Philosophy and Feminist Thinking, University
of Minnesota Press).
Kaplan, Cora (1987). ‘Wild Nights’, in Kaplan, Sea Changes: Culture
and Feminism, Verso, London.
Kovel, Joel (1978), A Complete Guide to Therapy, Pelican, Harmondsworth.
Lorde, Audre (1981), ‘An Open Letter to Mary Daly’, in C. Moraga
(ed.), This Bridge Called My Back, Persephone Press.
Modleski, Tania (1982), Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced
Fantasiesfor Wo~n, Methuen, New York.
Radford, Jean (1986), The Progress of Romance: The Politics of
Popular Fiction, Roudedge and Kegan Paul, London (and in association with Methuen, New York).
Raymond, Janice (1986), A Passion for Friends: Towards a
Philosophy of Female Affection, The Women’s Press, London (Beacon
Rich, Adrienne (1983), ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian
Existence’, in Abel and Abel (ed.), The Signs Reader, University of
Chicago Press, 1983.
Segal, Lynne (1987), Is the Future Female? Troubled Thoughts on
Contemporary Feminism, Virago: London.
Steedman, Carolyn (1986), Landscape for a Good Woman, Virago,
Taylor, Helen (1986), ‘Gone with the Wind: The Marnrny of them
all”, in Radford, 1986.
Van Den Haag, Emest (1957), ‘Of Happiness and Despair We Have
no Measure’, in Ross and Van Den Haag, The Fabric of Society .
USES OF THE MEDIA
WITH _ _
• Reports on new uses of film, video, radio, photography, print
• Regular up-dates on production, distribution and exhibition
including a special section on media education
• The latest news and debates; events listings; reviews of books,
tapes, films and exhibitions; plus many job opportunities
FOR AN ANNUAL SUBSCRIPTION O F _
• £7.50 for individuals
• £15.00 for institutions (2 copies a month!)
• £15.00 for overseas mailing
I wish to subscribe althe Individual I Institutional I Overseas rate.
I enclose a cheque (made payable 10 Independent Media)for _ _ _ _ _ __
D I would like a free sample copy 0 Please invoice me
Independent Media, 16 Fernhill Road, Cove, Farnborough, Hampshire GU14 9RX.