Boston Globe

Sunday, February 28, 1999

Educator steers her own course

By Eileen McNamara, Globe Columnist, 02/28/99

Boys, boys, boys, settle down. Mary didn't mean to hurt your feelings. She knows you hate being excluded, that you get cranky when you feel left out.

You're accustomed to making the rules and then along comes Mary to say that everything is not about you, you, you. It's hard not to sulk. She knows you're angry, that you've come to the simplistic conclusion that she's guilty of reverse discrimination because she refuses to teach you alongside her female students, that you think she's somehow mistaken Boston College for Wellesley.

But Mary Daly knows exactly where she is. Boston College hasn't changed much since the Jesuits hired her in 1967. They let women take classes other than nursing and education now, but the Heights is in no danger of becoming what John Silber once called his English Department at Boston University: ''a damned matriarchy.''

Only 29 percent of BC's 433 tenured faculty members are women. Mary Daly is even one of them. But, truth be told, the 70-year-old philosopher/theologian isn't that grateful. She thinks she earned it.

She's never known her place, this Mary Daly. Not when she challenged the tenure game after her own bid was first denied. Not when she confronted sexism in the Catholic Church in print. Not when she declared her lesbianism. Not now, when she says BC's demand that she integrate her classroom is just a ruse to placate the right wing and get rid of a feminist thorn in its side.

Of all the issues that might ignite a sex discrimination complaint, isn't it curious the battlefield is a class on ''Feminist Ethics?'' Of all the lawyers that might represent an aggrieved student, isn't it curious his cause is championed by the Center for Individual Rights, which has fought affirmative action policies at universities from Texas to Michigan?

But to suspect a political motive is to be a conspiracy theorist, says BC spokesman Jack Dunn, who equates Daly's class with the institutional bias outlawed in Plessy v. Ferguson: ''Separate is inherently unequal. You'd think a professor of her stature would relish the challenge of teaching men.''

Who wouldn't welcome the chance to hear young men harrumph about male-hating feminazis? Mary Daly does; she's even been known to convert a few. She doesn't refuse to teach men; she assigns them to a separate section. BC would have you believe that makes her a bigot. To the contrary, she's a scholar; the empirical evidence is on her side. The studies are clear: from grade school to graduate school, males dominate the classroom. They demand more attention from teachers and they get it.

No one argues that single-sex classes are a cure-all. How could they be when fewer than 2 percent of college women attend women's colleges? But there is no mistaking that more graduates of women's colleges earn advanced degrees, especially in math and science, than do women from co-ed schools. Even the US Supreme Court, in its 1996 decision in the Virginia Military Institute case, noted that single-sex education could be legally protected if it serves a compensatory goal, if its aim is to challenge gender bias, not institutionalize it. The court could have been describing Mary Daly's classroom.

There is no denying the progress women have made in the last 25 years. There is, however, serious denial of how much inequity remains. Daly's troubles were reported alongside news of a doctor retaining his medical license despite accusations that he sexually assaulted female patients; of two cavemen fighting over one hospitalized woman in an argument that left one man dead; of the struggle for pay equity in an economy where women earn 74 cents on the dollar.

An exclusive focus on women's gains ignores the gulf between legal rights and daily realities. It is one thing to say women have a right to abortion; it's another to find doctors willing to perform the procedure in the face of terrorism. It's one thing to note the number of women in the workplace; it's another to welcome them into the board room. That gender bias is more subtle than it once was makes it no less pernicious.

It is Mary Daly's lot to be a radical in timid times. The same week she stood tall, the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe capitulated and opened to men what has been a rare academic haven for women for 39 years. It acted out of fear that someday, some man, backed by some group like the Center for Individual Rights, might sue. Given the choice, I'll stand with Mary Daly.

Eileen McNamara's e-mail address is mcnamara@globe.com.

This story ran on page B01 of the Boston Globe on 02/28/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.