When she joined Boston College’s theology department as an assistant professor in 1966, Mary Daly taught men only. A pioneering feminist scholar, Daly had no choice: Until 1970 the school didn’t admit women to its liberal arts programs.
For the past 25 years, though, Daly, 70, has barred men from her classes, insisting that her female students learn better without male distractions. (She does teach interested men privately.) Then, last fall, a male student threatened to sue the school, claiming Daly was violating federal law. When Daly rejected the school’s ultimatum to admit men, she found herself out of a job. Two weeks ago a Cambridge, Mass., judge refused to block the college from forcing the tenured associate professor to retire. Daly calls the battle, which has caused an uproar in academic circles, an excuse to silence her. “The point of my class is that there be a space where women can create our own thoughts and our own philosophy, unencumbered by patriarchal invasions,” she says. “It’s not about discrimination at all.”
One thing is sure: Daly—long a controversial figure at the 14,200-student, Jesuit-run Catholic college—isn’t going quietly. “What they hate about my classes is they teach women not to be afraid,” she said on Roseanne’s talk show in April. The comedian called herself “profoundly” influenced by Daly, a lesbian who has posed for book jackets brandishing the double-edged ax of the legendary Amazons. Other supporters rallied: Gloria Steinem sent a donation signed “in sisterhood,” and the American Association of University Professors is protesting to the college. Daly’s dismissal is “outrageous,” says Katherine Roussos, 22, who attended a pro-Daly rally in Boston May 19 and calls Daly’s “Mythic Patterns of Patriarchy” course last year “the most refreshing academic experience I ever had.”
Daly says she adopted her women-only policy when she noticed female students spoke more freely when no men were around. (Recent studies of teens also contend girls perform better in single-sex classrooms.) But college officials maintain Daly’s stance violated the landmark 1972 Title IX legislation that bars gender discrimination at schools receiving federal funds and, ironically, led to the flourishing of college women’s athletics. “The university would have come down in the exact same fashion on a professor that taught just men,” says Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn, adding that Daly’s rule stifled campus debate: “She wanted to preach to a converted group of followers, and that’s dangerous.”
Over the years, college authorities had reprimanded Daly five times for her ban. But it took then-senior Duane Naquin’s legal assault to spark the showdown last fall. Naquin told The Boston Globe that Daly showed him the door when he arrived at her “Introduction to Feminist Ethics I” class: “I found that very offensive.” Naquin—who did not return phone calls—teamed up with the Center for Individual Rights, a civil libertarian, public interest law firm in Washington, D.C. It threatened suit, and Daly was out.
The groundbreaking radical feminist insists she hasn’t come this far to be squelched. Growing up in Schenectady, N.Y., the daughter of a traveling salesman and a telephone operator, Daly felt her first feminist stirrings as a Catholic schoolgirl: “Girls couldn’t become altar girls, and I was [angry] at the inequality.”
Hired as Boston College’s first female theology professor, she promptly lit into the Catholic Church’s treatment of women in her 1968 book The Church and the Second Sex. When she was denied tenure the following year, 1,500 male students protested with marches and petitions. The college gave in, though it never promoted her to full professor. (Last year it paid her just $42,625.) Her later tomes, such as 1978’s Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, won Daly a devoted academic following. Boston College’s claims to fame are “Mary Daly and the football team,” jokes Debra Campbell, who teaches a course on Daly at Maine’s Colby College.
Daly isn’t ready to retire to the small Newton, Mass., apartment she shares with her mixed-breed kitten. Her defenders plan more rallies and possibly more legal action. “I haven’t lost,” Daly says, choosing a metaphor sure to penetrate macho minds. “I’ve just lost the first inning.”
Mark Dagostino in Boston