American Culture

Mary Daly theorizing the “sado-ritual syndrome,” part I – the elements

“The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary,

And she conceived of the Holy Ghost…

Behold the handmaid of the Lord.

Be it done unto me according to thy word…

And the Word was made flesh.

And dwelt among us…”

— from The Angelus

“When I realized that they had made the Goddess into Mary and that the Annunciation scene was a depiction of the rape of the Goddess, I remembered that as a little girl I had been taught to recite “The Angelus” three times a day. I was horrified to realize that I had been taught to recite the rape of the Goddess and to cooperate in the mutilation and killing of my own self-image – of my own Self.”

— Linda Barufaldi

“These scholars

Translating ignorance into Latin and Greek….

How easy to be king

When all your subjects are dead….

Drone, drone

Drone your dreary dithyrambs

You stillborn, celibate intellects.

You fools, you frauds

You accumulated postules of useless learning….

The curse of the makers upon you.”

— Rita Mae Brown, from “Necropolis,” The Hand that Cradles the Rock

Writing In “Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism,” Mary Daly posits seven elements within what she calls “sado-ritual syndrome.” The syndrome is, Daly says, “a series of cross-cultural rituals designed to make us forget the murder and dismemberment of the Goddess, that is, the killing of be-ing, of the creative divine life and integrity in concrete, existing women.” In this post, I will explain what the seven elements of the syndrome are as given by Daly. In future posts, I will discuss manifestations of “sado-ritual syndrome” – Indian suttee, Chinese footbinding, African female genital mutilation, European witchburnings, and modern American gynecology and psychiatry. For each of these topics, I will do two posts, the first a history of the topic and the second applying Daly’s seven elements to the topic. Thus we will see what these cross-cultural highly ritualized areas of women’s oppression all have in common. This leads us to the feminist process that Daly calls the development of a “kind of positive paranoia.” I will tag all of these posts “sado-ritual syndrome” and “Mary Daly.”

Element I

This involves an obsession with purity.

This obsession legitimizes the fact that the women who are the primary victims of the original rites are erased physically as well as spiritually. These primary victims are often killed, as in the case of suttee. In other cases, such as Chinese footbinding…they are physically and psychically maimed. This original erasure obviously keeps the primary victims from being witnesses. In the name of “purity,” they are effectively silenced. Thus (in suttee) the widows’ sexual purity is “safeguarded” by ritual murder. In preparation for this ultimate purification they are ceremoniously bathed, and care is taken to kill them at a “pure” time, that is, when they are not menstruating or pregnant. Thus “society” is purified of these “wicked” widows and also all traces of female rebelliousness, for the women and girl-children who witness these events or hear of them must be perfectly brainwashed with terror of the same fate.

Element II

This is the total erasure of responsibility for the atrocities performed through such rituals.

Those doing the destruction commonly have recourse to the idea that they are acting “under orders” or following tradition (serving a Higher Order). This allows the self as role-carrier to commit acts which the personal / private self would find frightening or evil.

Element III

These ritualized practices have an inherent tendency to “catch on” and spread, “since they appeal to imaginations conditioned by the omnipresent ideology of male domination. Moreover, since the patriarchal imagination is hierarchical, there is a proliferation of atrocities from an elite to the upwardly aspiring lower echelons of society.”

Element IV

Women are used as scapegoats and token torturers. “This masks the male-centeredness of the ritualized atrocity and turns women against each other.”

I find this element particularly important. It is often mothers who pass on the suffering to their daughters, masking the fact that certain things are actually required by males. Think, for example of mothers holding their daughters down during genital mutilation or even doing the cutting themselves. Think of Chinese women binding their daughters’ feet. Women’s participation as “token torturers” in these atrocities masks the fact that men demand these things in any woman they might consider taking as wife and, of course, becoming a wife has been the only respectable means of survival for women. So, in essence, we have older women doing violence to younger women – woman-to-woman or horizontal violence – to prepare them, as they themselves were prepared, for the relative safety and security of being a wife within that particular – patriarchal – culture’s norms and mores. And what follows is the inevitable cultural and historical and anthropological (and infuriating) claim that women chose these things, since, after all, they carried them out on younger generations of their own sex . Even in the world of teenagers in our own country, any girl will tell you that it is the other girls who treat them the worst. The boys and patriarchal culture set the parameters for female behavior, sexuality, and appearance, and then girls police their own and viciously enforce the rules. But again I point out – who is actually initiator of the rules? Who benefits? (see, for example, Phyllis Chesler, “Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman”).

Element V

This involves “compulsive orderliness, obsessive repetitiveness, and fixation upon minute details, which divert attention from the horror. In short, attention is focused upon what is proper and ceremonial, rather than upon the woman’s horrible suffering and (sometimes) death.”

Element VI

This elements points out how “behavior which is at other times and places unacceptable become acceptable and even normative as a consequence of conditioning through the ritual atrocity….it is not surprising that the practice is desired and sometimes continued even after it has officially / legally been terminated.”

Element VII

There is legitimation of the ritual through “objective scholarship” despite appearances of disapproval.

In such “objective” scholarship, patterns emerge:

The basic cultural assumptions which make the atrocious ritual possible and plausible remain unquestioned, and the practice itself is misnamed and isolated from other parallel symptoms of the planetary patriarchal practice of female maiming and massacre. Jan Raymond has suggested that such scholarship could be called meta-ritual. The name is accurate, for this kind of writing not only “records” (erases) the original rituals but also provides “explanations” and legitimations for them, purporting to see beyond their materiality into their “soul” or meaning.

I would say that patriarchal scholarship is especially inclined towards moral relativism when it comes to cross-cultural crimes against woman. Daly foresees charges of racism and / or imperialism when she considers these crimes and insists on a woman-centered rather than a relativist analysis:

Those who claim to see racism and/or imperialism in my indictment of such atrocities can do so only by blinding themselves to the fact that the oppression of women knows no ethnic, national, or religious bounds. They are variations on the theme of oppression, but the phenomenon is planetary.

Nietzsche wondered how one can “create a memory for the human animal:”

How does one go about to impress anything on that partly dull, partly flighty human intelligence – that incarnation of forgetfulness – so as to make it stick?…”A thing is branded on the memory to make it stay there; only what goes on hurting will stick” – this is one of the oldest and, unfortunately, one of the most enduring psychological axioms…Whenever man has thought it necessary to create a memory for himself, his effort has been attended with torture, blood, and sacrifice.

(Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals”)

Although my topic was not actually his intended area of exploration, the misogynist philosopher here managed to well encapsulate the sado-rituals we will next explore – all violent and painful ways of pressing / cutting / invading / killing that create collective memory for woman.

It is because of that memory that I especially extend a hand to female readers. Please don’t just glance at these topics and think “Oh, that was just their culture” or “Those women must have had their reasons” as professors of Women’s Studies report their female undergrad students often do. Join me on a journey of remembering and re -membering. My hope is that in this journey we find our Selves.

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