Lines in the Sand: Daly, Showalter and Tactics of Exclusion

The second-wave radical feminist theologian and professor Mary Daly died earlier this month, and there has been a veritable outpouring of eulogies from various feminist blogs.

Few of these eulogies have acknowledged Daly’s transphobia and racism.

I do not deny that Daly was an important figure in second-wave feminism, but to mourn her passing without a nod to her work’s more problematic aspects, or explorations of these aspects, are, to put it mildly, not good. In particular, the intense, hateful transphobia found in some of her writing, and her issues with unexamined white privilege and racism — which both QueenEmily at Questioning Transphobia and Sungold at Kittywampus cover very well in recent posts — strikes many as both deeply disturbing and an old pattern that has, and continues to, rear its grotesque head in certain segments of contemporary feminism. I include myself among those who are deeply troubled by Daly’s transphobic sentiments and her questionable record when it came to examining the entrenched racism and issues surrounding white privilege in the second-wave feminist movement.

I should probably mention at this point that I do not mean to appropriate or co-opt the struggles of trans* folks in any way, although my cis privilege will most likely be unintentionally reflected at points in this piece. Though the struggles of trans* people, trans feminists and PWDs and disabled feminists are not the exact same, some exclusionary tactics of certain cisgendered feminists and those of abled feminists sometimes take similar forms, especially within the mainstream feminist movement. The oppression of trans* folks and PWDs in cis, abled culture intersect in a number of ways; this post, however, barely scratches that surface. I believe that the many issues present in Daly’s work–as well as the reaction to her death around the blogosphere–can serve as just one entry point to discussions of the similarities in oppression(s) that trans* people and PWDs face. There are also clear differences, among them the fact Daly used language that can only be called genocidal, while many other feminists of her generation did not advocate such an extreme path when it came to keeping certain individuals out of feminism. I will be focusing on feminism’s exclusion of trans* and PWDs as reflected in the work of two very influential second-wave feminists here, but there is, of course, much more to these stories.

Daly’s penchant for exclusion and outright hatred (particularly of trans* individuals) couched in oddly phrased academic rhetoric unfortunately brings to mind another famous second-waver’s similar issues with people (particularly women) with disabilities. Princeton scholar Elaine Showalter — best known for bringing feminist literary theory to the fore in the academy at a time when such a discipline was, for the most part, inconceivable — dismissed disabling conditions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome and mental health issues such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (referred to in the text as Multiple Personality Disorder) in her 1997 book Hystories.

In Hystories, Showalter attempted to debunk “modern media epidemics” such as the aforementioned disabilities as well as more traditionally disproven phenomena such as alien abduction and satanic ritual abuse. In the book’s chapter on Chronic Fatigue, Showalter rather disingenuously declared that she did not want to “disparage the suffering” of people with such conditions only a few pages before she called CFS an extension of Western “fin de siecle [end of the century] anxiety.” She followed this stunning assertion with the claim that the Western news media was primarily responsible for making CFS into an escalating “psychogenic epidemic” (117, 131).

Like Daly’s severe opinion of trans* people as dupes of the medical industry (which Kittywampus cites in her post), Showalter also seemed to be taken with the idea that people with CFS are somehow being duped into thinking that they are ill because of the media focus on their condition. She wrote that many CFS patients and their defenders are “hostile to psychiatric or social explanations” of the condition, and that many of them react in a way that is not friendly to the labeling of CFS as “psychiatric” (128). However, the reactions of these same patients make sense if considered from a non-abled perspective. Showalter also seemed completely mystified by these “hostile” reactions. If CFS is just a manifestation of “fin seicle anxiety,” as she contended (adding that “emotions have tremendous power over the body”) she seemed to push the conclusion — without any scientific or medical proof — that many people with CFS have somehow been brainwashed into believing they have it; thus, the media-driven “hysterical epidemic” has worked.

Nowhere are feminists with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or related conditions consulted; the not-so-feminist implication here is that feminists with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome either do not exist or are just victims of a “hysterical” media-led epidemic and therefore cannot be “real” feminists. This is similar to how trans* feminists were erased, excluded and castigated by Daly as somehow not “real” women or feminists, and as benefiting from patriarchy in a way that “real” women and feminists could not. To put it crudely: This is exclusionary bullcrap, and it does not do trans* people, people with disabilities, feminists who fit either (or both) of these categories, or the feminist movement as a whole any favors whatsoever.

Exclusion is not radical. It has never been radical. It is, in fact, extraordinarily status-quo. No one should be able to arbitrarily pick and choose who “belongs” in the feminist movement and who does not, especially if those who are being excluded because of their gender identity, sexual identity or disability actively identify as feminist. Feminism should be for a wide variety of people; exclusion, however, is something that is not — and has never been — very  feminist.

Author’s note: I will be moderating this thread with an iron fist; please have the courtesy to not try to tell me how Daly really was an ally to trans* folks, or how Showalter didn’t mean what she said about CFS *that* way, or that either author’s influence on the feminist movement somehow excuses their hatred and bigotry. Thank you.

[Cross-posted to Ham.Blog]


  1. Wow, I had no idea! I have that book sitting on my shelf at home, but I must have read (bits of it) before I got sick and then got into disability studies etc. There’s really *no* excuse for uncritcally equating CFS/ME with hysteria, especially since Susan Wendell’s The Rejected Body was published in 1996.

    Thank-you very much for this post.

  2. One thing that’s been frustrating on more mainstream blogs is for her to be criticized more for her exclusion of men from feminist spaces than for her transphobia and racism. Like, it was SO MUCH WORSE that she wouldn’t let men take a course or ask a question during a talk. You know, compared to outright excluding an entire segment of women as conspirators against feminism who must be physically harmed.

  3. People who think DID doesn’t REALLY exist make me very stabby.
    .-= Shiyiya´s last blog ..Since I wrote this fuckass long thing….. =-.

  4. I’m writing this as a historian and as a person who once had a diagnosis of CFS about 20 years ago. It’s absolutely legitimate to look at how ideas about health and sickness have changed over the centuries, including how certain diagnoses appear and disappear. It’s *not* OK to ignore the lived experiences of people and say, “oh, their problems are/were all in their heads!” Sure, mind/body are not separable. I felt sicker, for instance, when I couldn’t get a diagnosis. But I was absolutely furious when Showalter came out with this thesis that basically suggested that my experience was just a form of modern-day hysteria. Wouldn’t it be more useful to ask what kinds of experiences lurked below the diagnosis of hysteria in the 19th century?

    Personally, I’m not convinced that everyone with a CFS diagnosis has the same underlying condition. Nearly three years after I first got sick – and about a year after I’d started doing quite well – I seemed to “relapse.” I was found to have a hypoactive thyroid. Most likely, my original symptoms were caused by Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and it took a while for my thyroid to stop functioning. My husband had a tentative CFS diagnosis but turned out to have Hodgkins lymphoma! So I think it’s important to say that people with CFS really are sick with physical ailments that aren’t reducible to mental health issues – *and* to insist that doctors not use CFS as a default diagnosis for folks whose fatigue is not immediately explainable.

    It’s ironic that both Showalter and Daly – as second-wave feminists – were so dismissive of people’s accounts of their lived experience, given the centrality of “experience” to second-wave feminist thought. I guess everyone’s experience is equal, but some people’s experience is more equal than others.

  5. By “traditionally disproven”, I’m curious about what you mean. It is my experience that ritual abuse exists (and it isn’t all satanic). I’m a survivor of it, and feel really uncomfortable with it being mentioned in the same breath as alien abductions. I’m hoping that all you meant is that some mainstream, traditional sources consider it to be disproven, not that it actually was.

  6. myriad, I’m sorry that I even used that example; I was attempting to riff off of Showalter, as she puts CFS, alien abduction, etc. in the same category (which is Not Good). I apologize for my insensitivity, and thought that “Satanic Ritual Abuse” referred to a specific group of incidents (ie: the McMartin preschool trial, et cetera–WARNING for potentially triggering material on Wikipedia) rather than ritual abuse as a whole, which, for the record, is not something I dismiss (nor do I want to).

    I hope this clears it up.

  7. thanks for the clarification. i really like the issues your post raised, and i do think it’s all of a piece – basically, no one’s experience is worth invalidating. there’s no academic excuse good enough to justify ignoring people’s own accounts about themselves. and my experience is definitely a popular one to invalidate.

    i hesitated to comment, because i didn’t want it to seem like i was criticizing the piece. i appreciated the chance to learn about the two women and what they’ve written.

    i could point to information about ritual abuse and mcmartin specifically if you’d like, but i don’t feel i should do so here since that’s not the focus of this post.

  8. Not to mention that comparing any mental disorder to so-called “plain old/generic anxiety” is something I find rather offensive considering anxiety itself, in a severe form, can be a debilitating disorder—intrusive thought battler (I refuse to use the word “sufferer”) speaking here. As much as I resent being labeled, I almost wish there were a pretentious medical name for what Wikipedia just calls intrusive thoughts (as in right here:—I favor “dysmethia” myself, to give it more legitimacy as a devastating syndrome. Plus, I like pretentious Greek names!

    But in general, all prattle about myself aside, exclusion among advocacy groups is something I just don’t understand. I’m aware that while some of this exclusion is genuinely hateful, other elements of it are just plain ignorant—and while ignorance is never excusable, it can be comprehensible given one’s background. Still, ignorance of the willful variety is something that has no place in advocacy for the disenfranchised, and making sweeping blanket statements without knowing what repercussions they may have is nothing less than burying your head in the sand. Those who are ignorant through no fault of their own should be educated, but there is no excuse whatsoever for exclusion, whether or not it has hatred behind it.

  9. I’m a historian who went to graduate school (Cornell) with Sungold. I gave up on Showalter after reading _The Female Malady_, in which she makes a similar argument for women in the nineteenth century. My graduate adviser, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, talked about the reciprocity of biology and culture when examining mental illness, or diseases like anorexia nervosa which have both a biological and psychological component. That is, the illness is a real biological entity, but the symptoms and meanings are shaped by particular historical and cultural circumstances. I hope that makes sense.