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Law firm forces Mary Daly’s hand

NCR Staff

Feminist author Mary Daly’s stormy 33-year career in the theology department at Boston College may be coming to an end. Her nemesis is a single male student who has demanded entrance to one of her women-only classes, challenging her 20-year policy of teaching men separately.

The student, Duane Naquin, is a pro bono client of the Center for Individual Rights, an aggressive, conservative, Washington-based public-interest law firm that has warned Boston College of a possible lawsuit on Naquin’s behalf.

Rather than admit the student, Daly asked the university to cancel her spring semester classes. She is on paid leave and, saying she is effectively being forced to retire, is negotiating terms with the university. Daly said she is being “deprived of her right to teach freely.”

Daly, who has often clashed with officials of the Jesuit school since she began teaching there in 1966, accused administrators of “caving in” to the law firm. The firm is engaged in a legal assault on affirmative action at universities around the country. In a recent fundraising letter, the center promised to devote “increased energy and resources” to fighting “radical feminism.”

Daly, a self-proclaimed radical feminist, lesbian and “post-Christian,” said she is deeply disappointed that Boston College had “buckled under to pressure from a right-wing group. They bully institutions,” she said. Daly said she is confident Naquin had no interest in the content of her course in feminist ethics. She remains adamant about her women-only classroom policy.

Federal law

“I am caught in a double bind,” she said. “Either I go in and teach men who would ruin my classes, or I find a way to negotiate a solution.”

Jack Dunn, director of public affairs at Boston College, said Daly’s policy violates university policy and federal law. Administrators had not been swayed by the center’s involvement and would have taken the student’s side regardless, he said. Dunn said a second student had also challenged Daly’s policy.

“Our position is that all the educational resources of the university are available to all students regardless of race or gender,” he said. “Separate is inherently unequal.”

“Federal law backs us, specifically Title IX,” he said. “It would be wrong to make an exception.” Dunn added, “Mary Daly has a unique perspective, and we think all students, including males, should be able to avail themselves of it.”

Dunn said the university is not trying to push Daly out. “It was she rather than us who raised the issue of retirement,” Dunn said.

Daly, who has published seven books but been denied full professorship at Boston College, has taught men separately since the late 1970s. She said she uses a time-tested “feminist strategy” of preserving a place where women can talk freely without the presence of men. She offers men separate instruction using the same books and materials as she uses in the class, she said.

Daly said her policy is not anti-male. Rather, she said, it derives from her discovery that women are less focused in her classes when men are involved, directing part of their attention to the way men are reacting to class material.

“I never refused to teach a male,” she said. “But after I discovered how the dynamics changed in the classroom, I taught them separately.” Usually, she said, just one or two men would be interested.

The university and its male students have tolerated Daly’s policy over the years, although it has been one source of her intermittent clashes with school officials. Dunn said Daly’s policy had stood because it had gone unchallenged by students. This year, though, Naquin, a senior at the university who signed up for Daly’s introductory course in feminist ethics, wasn’t buying it. Shortly after Daly explained her teaching policy to him, a letter arrived at Boston College from the Washington-based center threatening legal action unless Daly’s classes were opened to men and its client, Naquin, was allowed to attend classes with women in Daly’s spring semester course.

The letter was sent in mid-October to Jesuit Fr. William Leahy, president of Boston College, Daly said, but she was not informed of the center’s involvement until late December. “Boston College officials sat on it for two-and-a-half months. That didn’t leave me time to strategize or consider my options,” she said.

Daly said Naquin had lacked the required prerequisite for her course but had nevertheless been admitted by the theology department chair. She said she finds it shameful that Boston College would give in to pressures from “the right wing.”

‘Diversity a hallmark’

“I am calling on Boston College to do the right thing and stand by faculty and students against assaults that would violate academic freedom,” she said. “The right wing is trying to make this an issue of discrimination when it is about refusing to dumb down education and about the right and obligation of faculty not to be forced to accept students in their classes who are not qualified and do not have the prerequisites.

“One of the hallmarks of a great university is that it allows for diversity of methodology,” she said.

Naquin refused to talk with NCR. The theology department chair, Donald Dietrich, said he was unable to discuss a legal matter and referred NCR to higher university officials. Terence J. Pell, senior counsel at the Center for Individual Rights, said he had “no comment” on the Boston College situation.

The Center for Individual Rights gained national recognition in 1996 when it won a case that signaled a halt to affirmative action polices and stunned higher education officials around the country. According to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in that case, known as Hopwood v. State of Texas, the University of Texas Law School was barred from using racial quotas in deciding which applicants to admit but was allowed to consider an applicant’s race as a “plus” among many other factors.

The center is behind lawsuits challenging race-based admission policies at the University of Michigan and the University of Washington. In late January, the center released a handbook instructing readers how to initiate lawsuits against institutions whose affirmative action policies allegedly violate the law. The handbook was advertised in campus newspapers at 14 major institutions. In its fundraising letter last fall, the center charged that the courts, “on practically every issue,” had “ratified feminism’s most extreme demands.” Examples, the letter said, included holding employers liable for “sexual harassment the employers never knew about” and declaring all-male colleges to be unconstitutional.

In meetings with university administrators in late December, Daly, who turned 70 Oct. 16, decided that, rather than change her long-standing teaching practice and admit a male student who had already threatened to sue, she would ask the university to cancel her spring semester classes, go on paid leave and evaluate her options. One option, Daly said, is to work toward a retirement settlement with the university, although before the recent conflicts she had planned to teach indefinitely. “I want to stress that it was never my intention to retire at this time,” she said.

Daly said she hopes to be compensated for what she describes as years of low salary due to conflicts with university officials. Further, she said, during her 33 years at Boston College, she has taken 14 years of unpaid leave to produce her books, resulting in a significant loss of retirement funds.

Daly declined to state the amount of her salary. In 1989, she earned $33,800. The average salary then for associate professors was $40,600. Daly said she had received few increases in the past 10 years.

Daly, who holds a master’s degree in English from The Catholic University of America, a doctorate in religion from St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, and four degrees from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, including doctorates in Sacred Theology and philosophy, was the first woman on the faculty of Boston College’s theology department.

She points out that during her first three years at Boston College, from 1966 to 1969, she taught only men because women were not admitted to the school, except for nursing programs, until 1970. Daly was denied tenure in 1969, following publication of her book The Church and the Second Sex. Daly describes that book as a mild exposition of the church’s “misogyny.”

Student support

Ironically, she points out, it was demonstrations by some 1,500 students, nearly all of them men, that saved her job. “Fifteen hundred of those young men marched and demonstrated for me in 1969,” she said. “Some 2,000 professors and students signed a petition. That’s how I got promotion and tenure.” Now, she said, “one male student is trying to undo what they did.” Daly was promoted to associate professor following those demonstrations, the rank she still holds.

Daly said her decision to cancel her spring semester classes had been difficult for other students. “I regret that,” she said. The present situation had come as a “complete shock” after several years largely free of the conflicts of the past, she said. “I’ve been treated wrongly, and the students are deprived of my voice, a radical voice,” she said.

She was denied full professorship in 1975 and again in 1989. The six-member promotion committee that rejected her application in 1989 said she was “undistinguished in every area, including teaching and publication.” In 1979, following publication of her third book, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, faculty members and administrators monitored her classes and students again demonstrated in her support.

Daly has contended that the university has punished her for pushing the boundaries of theology and philosophy while benefitting from her high profile. In an article she wrote for the Feb. 26/March 4, 1996, issue of The New Yorker magazine, she said Boston College had served as “my laboratory for the study of patriarchal tricks.”

In the most recent controversy, a group of 14 female students demonstrated support for Daly in a letter published in the Feb. 15 issue of the campus newspaper, The Heights. The students described the impasse between Daly and university officials as “symptomatic of a much broader problem, that being a disrespect for and stifling of the multiplicity of perspectives crucial to academic freedom.”

The students wrote, “Throughout her 33-year career at Boston College, Professor Daly has provided insight, inspiration and mentoring as a world-renowned philosopher/theologian and radical lesbian feminist. In refusing to support Professor Daly against the potential lawsuit threatened by the Center for Individual Rights, the administration is silencing Mary Daly and negating the very ideals that it proclaims invaluable.”

Kate Heekin, one of the signers, said one class with Daly “absolutely changed my life.” She added: “I consider it a tragedy that she’s not teaching here anymore. I really do,” Heekin said.

Heekin acknowledged, though, the difficulty of mobilizing broad support for Daly in the current academic environment. “I can’t tell you how difficult it is to get even 20 women who have taken Mary Daly’s classes and consider themselves pretty radical to mobilize,” she said. “But there are about 10 of us, all seniors, who won’t graduate without letting the university know we are not happy about this.”

Megan Niziol, another signer, said Daly is “invaluable” as a professor. “She provides the environment to examine everything in your life in a way I had never done before,” Niziol said.

Daly said she would use her leave to write a sequel to her most recent book, Quintessence ... Realizing the Archaic Future: A Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto (Beacon Press 1998).

Other titles of Daly’s books, many of then notable for creative wordplay, are Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation; Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy; Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language; and Outercourse: The Be-Dazzling Voyage.

Daly’s work, though it has not earned her full professorship at Boston College, is known internationally. “There are dissertations and books about my books,” she said. She is frequently invited to speak at universities and conferences in the United States and abroad.

“The only place my work isn’t recognized is at Boston College,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999