Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Originally appeared Dec. 23, 1999, in The Weekly News (Miami), and San Diego Update.

Mary Daly, the fighting feminist professor, has created quite a stir - again. What's interesting about the latest brouhaha is the way it's exposed fault lines within the feminist movement, with implications for the lesbigay movement as well.

For those who haven't been following the story, here's a rundown. Professor Daly, now 70, is considered one of the founding mothers of the feminist movement. She is the author of seven works of feminist philosophy taught in many women's studies courses, and she herself has taught a women-only course in women's studies at Jesuit-run Boston College since 1974. On the heels of a lawsuit brought by a male student claiming that federal anti-discrimination statutes bar any college that receives federal aid from discriminating on the basis of sex, the college is demanding that she stop excluding males from her classroom - or retire. Daly is fighting back.

"I don't think about men," she is quoted as saying in a recent magazine interview. "I really don't care about them. I'm concerned with women's capacities, which have been infinitely diminished under patriarchy. That takes all my energy. I'm not interested in the differences between women and men. I really am totally uninterested in men's capacities."

A recent New York Times story described Daly as "a lesbian feminist battling patriarchy from within a Jesuit institution." Daly has also described herself as a "radical elemental feminist" and has said, "We're living in hell," as she listed "the horror of phallocracy, penocracy, jockocracy, cockocracy, call it whatever - patriarchy."

Some prominent feminists, including Gloria Steinem and Eleanor Smeal, have rallied to Daly's defense. But other influential feminists are distancing themselves from her. Katha Pollitt, for instance, has criticized same-sex education in general and Professor Daly in particular. The media attention Daly has received "confirms a certain stereotype about feminists, which is lesbian separatism," Pollitt disapprovingly told the Times.

In defending the exclusion of male students from her women's studies course, Daly has reflected that, minus the male element, "There's quite an intimate connection in the classroom. ... There's a circulating energy that's extremely exciting and is felt by everybody, that somehow puts me in touch with something real in women."

Here's the rub. It's easy to vilify the Mary Daly school of feminism, with its men/bad women/good ethos. On the other hand, I'll confess there's something about Daly's fighting spirit that appeals to me - especially given the triumph of so much of today's whiny "victim feminism," with its speech codes and star-chamber inquisitions (where an accusation of sexism is tantamount to a finding of guilt). I suspect Mary Daly is not the sort who would run to college authorities complaining that she had been "sexually harassed" by the "male gaze" of a student.

Leaving aside the issue of federal anti-discrimination law, and ignoring for a moment the anti-male animus within Daly's worldview, I'd argue there is, in fact, something is to be said for the maintenance of "women's space." But I'd also argue, contra feminist dogma, that there's something to be said as well for "men's space." Moreover, what is somewhat refreshing about unrepentant lesbian separatism is that it departs from the politically correct assertion that there are no significant differences between men and women.

Anthropologist Lionel Tiger wrote in his classic study "Men in Groups" that, cross-culturally, men have a deep need to bond together in all-male societies and clubs. Today, such bonding rites are often verboten by unisex authorities. Witness what's happened at many liberal arts colleges, subject of an AP story titled "Fraternities Go Underground to Defy College Ban." At colleges where single-sex social organizations have been banned and students are barred from participating in any all-male fraternity activity - even off-campus - fraternity brothers have been turned into outlaws, meeting in secret. So much for freedom of association.

Unseen is how the assault on male association doesn't just strike at our heterosexual brethren; it's also aimed at expunging the ideal of fraternity to which gay male culture once aspired - the chance to revel in the company of men. It has now become difficult in many areas to form new gay men's social organizations (aside, that is, from sex clubs), since any gay male group (a hiking club, for example) immediately faces pressure from the local lesbigay establishment to admit women. Lesbian groups and gatherings promoting an exclusive women's culture for women who love women, in contrast, have typically not faced pressure to gender integrate.

Maybe we could recognize that their is something special about same-gender socialization, and that it's not parallel, say, with racism. Then perhaps we could let people gender associate the way they want to, without making a big deal of it if some want female-only classrooms - or bars, or male-only bridge clubs.

"Iron John" author Robert Bly, an advocate of the "mythopoetic" men's movement, wrote recently in Harper's magazine that "High school girls can usually rattle off any number of reasons to feel pride in their gender, but most young men are hard put to identify any good quality of masculinity, and that is sad indeed." Hmm. Perhaps it's time for male-only courses in men's studies?

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