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Carolina Pachetti / Gavel Media

Mary Daly: What Her Legacy Means For BC’s Future

Journalist Robin Morgan called her “a fierce intellectual, an intrepid scholar, a wicked wit, and an uncompromising radical.” 

A hastily spray-painted message on the pavement in front of Stokes Hall South called her “a fe-male chauvinist pig”

She called herself a “positively revolting hag” (as a term of endearment).

Regardless of what has been said about her, there’s no denying that Mary Daly was one of the most highly regarded academics to ever teach at Boston College. She held three doctorates and seven degrees, wrote several groundbreaking books, and was a renowned scholar in the fields of feminist theology and philosophy. She is perhaps better known, however, for her illustrious 33-year career at BC and her many clashes with the university. 

Her BC career began in 1966 when she was hired as an assistant professor in the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, which, at the time, was still not accepting female students. Daly initially clashed with the university in late 1968, after the publication of her first book, The Church and the Second Sex. The book was a critique of the sexism embedded in the Catholic Church, with Daly claiming that if nothing changed, the church would become an “enemy of human progress.” The book propelled Daly to national recognition, but not everyone reacted positively. After three years as an assistant professor, during which she progressed her career significantly, Daly applied for a promotion. She was expected to at least be offered a position as a professor if not tenure. Instead, she was offered a one-year contract.

Daly was shocked by the decision, noting her “objective qualifications” for tenure and the lack of explanation from BC’s president at the time, Fr. W. Seavey Joyce. Considering the staunch traditional Catholic convictions held by BC, there was instant speculation that the lackluster offer was a direct response to Daly’s criticism of the church and was essentially a veiled effort to get rid of her. Because Daly refused to accept this offer, she was dismissed. When word got out, students were outraged. With the late '60s being a thriving era of student activism, the all-male scholars of MCAS rallied around Daly. There was talk of an “academic day of withdrawal” but the students opted instead for a petition, gathering 2,500 students's signatures on a letter calling for the university to reconsider their offer. One thousand five hundred students marched to St. Mary's Hall to see it delivered. The Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) condemned the dismissal, saying that it called into question the presence of academic freedom at BC. UGBC urged students to sign the petition and even considered stopping the senior gift program to demonstrate its dissatisfaction. Students continued to protest throughout the spring of 1969, even picketing outside the university president’s office. Although these protests were not addressed by the administration, they were impossible to ignore. In the summer of 1969, Daly was offered tenure and promotion to associate professor.

It seemed that the battle was won. The student body had corrected an injustice, BC had become more progressive, and Daly was free to continue teaching. The uproar over Daly’s dismissal only brought more attention to her work, rapidly advancing her career. She spoke openly about how the university had initially fired her because her feminist perspective on theology threatened their conventions. She wrote four more books over the next 20 years, espousing more radical ideas than those of The Church and the Second Sex, and several were very successful. It’s important to note that although she was a radical feminist and a lesbian, Daly still held transphobic views, a disappointing blot on her career. Although her iconoclastic attitude had put her career at risk, Daly never tried to conform to BC’s expectations. Most notably, she went through a period of self-discovery in the '70s that caused her to deem the Catholic Church irreparably patriarchal and she began to consider herself “post-Christian”, after having been Catholic all her life. 

As Daly grew more renowned in her field, it became more difficult to argue that she was undeserving of full professorship. She was well-liked by students, held more degrees than anyone else on the theology department staff, and had been extensively involved in university committees. In 1970, BC became fully co-ed, allowing Daly to begin teaching feminist theology to female students. Despite her achievements, she was denied full professorship when she applied for it in 1975. Daly also claimed that she was paid the salary of an entry-level assistant professor, despite her tenure and well-established career at BC. In 1983, Daly’s female students protested on her behalf, believing her full professorship was long overdue. Largely members of organizations such as Womynfire and BC Women’s Network, they held a series of protests, including a sit-in on the pavement in front of Stokes South and a gathering where they weaved yarn around the steps up to Gasson Hall, representative of the theme of weaving in Daly’s books. The most significant protest, however, took place when Daly’s supporters tried to enter Botolph House, the location of BC President Fr. J. Donald Monan’s office. BC police officers responded by pushing the students and pulling their hair to prevent them from entering. The students sat down in the entryway, refusing to leave until they could give Monan a letter expressing their discontent. The letter contained several demands, including a promotion and raise for Daly and an increase in the number of women faculty hired by BC, with an emphasis on women of color. 

The protestors later moved in front of Gasson to reach the academic deans, specifically the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences Robert Barth, as he had sent Daly a letter in which he deemed her books “unscholarly.” The students remained in front of Gasson for some time, chanting “Barth and Monan, peas in a pod; keep women down in the name of God!” and “Witch trial, Jesuit style!” The students also spoke through a bullhorn, reading excerpts from letters of support for Daly and airing their frustrations with BC administrators. BC Professor Judith Wilt addressed the crowd, saying; “Scholarship about women is scholarship. Mary Daly’s feminist scholarship is scholarship.” Some onlookers, however, disagreed with these views. One sophomore male said “I think they’re all manhaters” and graffiti calling Daly a “fe-male chauvinist pig” appeared on the pavement in front of Stokes South.

Daly’s final run-in with BC generated huge controversy, attracting national media attention and resulting in a lawsuit. In 1998, two male students complained that Daly would not allow them to enroll in one of her advanced feminist ethics classes. Daly had begun teaching female-only advanced classes in 1977, as she felt that her female students needed their own “creative space” to more freely express their opinions and explore feminist topics. There had been a few other complaints in previous years, but they were usually resolved, as Daly still allowed men in her introductory courses and offered male students private tutoring in more advanced subjects. These two students believed this policy was discriminatory toward men and a violation of Title IX, which bars gender-based discrimination in education. One of the complainants, a senior and a member of the BC Republicans, received backing from a conservative law firm and advocacy group, the Center for Individual Rights. Daly claimed that the student in question had not completed a prerequisite course for the class and that his complaint had a political agenda, saying “the last thing he'd have an interest in is feminist philosophy.” With the threat of legal action from the CIR, the university reprimanded Daly and informed her she was now required to allow men into all of her classes. Daly refused. She chose to abstain from all her classes rather than allow male students into her female-only classrooms. As she said in an interview ten years earlier, “It is a cosmic and a comic reversal that if the administration focuses upon what they see as a problem of women only sections, when their church discriminates or oppresses women as blatantly as it obviously does.”

Daly’s 33-year career at the university came to an end when BC announced in early 1999 that Daly had agreed to retire. Daly maintained that she never agreed to retire and had been forced out despite her tenure. She filed a suit against the university for breach of tenure, breach of academic freedom, and breach of due process. Though it was settled outside of court, Daly’s stance on the issue never wavered. She remained publicly critical of how BC had treated her up until her death in 2010. Reflecting on the experience, she said “It’s happening all over the United States that academics who have creative ideas or hope for diversity are squashed. People being squashed are women, lesbians, gays, other minorities, blacks, Asians, Native Americans and those with deviant ideas … this is a microcosm of what is happening to those who disagree with the establishment, which is becoming increasingly oppressive.”

It’s been 25 years since Mary Daly’s “retirement” from BC and many students are unaware of her story, perhaps a symptom of the university’s shame surrounding the whole affair. Second chances are rare, but recent events that echo similar themes could be an opportunity for the university to redeem itself, should it choose to take it. Hristina Nikolova, a marketing professor in the Carroll School of Management filed a lawsuit against BC last year for, among other things, breach of contract and sex & pregnancy discrimination. Nikolova was denied tenure twice despite the praise her work had received from the university and her qualifications as a marketing scholar, as well as a report recommending her for tenure from the Tenured Faculty Committee. Nikolova’s suit alleges that, on multiple occasions, BC President Fr. William P. Leahy implied that she was not granted tenure because she is a wife and a mother. Leahy is alleged to have made a statement to the effect of “Your husband is lucky to have you as his wife and your children are lucky to have you as their mother” to Nikolova in a meeting about why her application for tenure had been rejected. 

The role of women and feminism at BC has changed dramatically since the days Daly walked the school's halls. BC now has a women's studies program. The majority of students are female and there are more female faculty members than ever. But how much has BC changed its treatment of female professors who don’t align with their traditional Catholic expectations of women? Why have scholars like Mary Daly and Hristina Nikolova consistently been overlooked while others are celebrated? Why is there such reluctance to acknowledge their achievements? This lack of recognition doesn’t just hinder women in the academic sphere at BC: It hinders BC itself, as it deprives the university of the contributions of its talented and capable female professors. To quote Fr. Leahy himself, “When individuals are not recognized, or don’t feel at home, or are unable to contribute as they might, we all suffer, we’re all weakened. We’re not as strong as we could be.” Daly never took BC to court, but Nikolova’s lawsuit is ongoing. BC has filed a defense, denying all allegations. Only time will tell how much BC has truly changed in the last 25 years. 

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