I’m preparing to facilitate an undergraduate honors seminar in feminist theology. Eleven students have signed up — a rather perfect number, I think — and, not surprisingly (but a little disappointedly) all are women.

I’ve been mindful of the life and legacy of Mary Daly who died recently, whose work in feminist studies was ground-breaking and, depending on your point of view and life experiences, either alienating or exhilarating.

Like most iconoclasts, Daly was not subtle. But the times in which she lived and wrote and taught did not call for subtlety. “For the hard of hearing you shout,” Flannery O’Connor once said. “For the almost blind you draw large, startling figures.” An Irish-Catholic like O’Connor but, unlike Flannery, a fierce despiser of the Church, Daly seemed to take this insight on as a kind of personal and professional motto. Because she did, a couple of generations of feminist theorists, thinkers, and theologians are in her debt.

Daly famously excluded men from her feminist ethics class and other advanced courses. This position, as has been noted in her many obituaries, ultimately led to her forced retirement from Boston College. Daly’s rationale was that, in a “mixed” classroom, women are less likely to speak out and speak honestly; they are less confident, more self-conscious; bound by entrenched habits of deference and acquiescence. These sorts of dynamics, Daly reasoned, would undermine the  radical feminism she was trying to foster and advance. No little irony there.

I taught for a few semesters as an adjunct instructor at a small, women-only liberal arts college. The semester before I began, I taught at another institution, similar in size, mission, and religious affiliation — save that it was co-educational. The difference between the two schools, in terms of classroom dynamics, couldn’t have been more different.

This was the late 1990s but the sexual tension in the co-ed classroom seemed like something from a Doris Day movie. Female students: coy, but flirty; prim, yet sometimes a little sleazy. Male students: sublimated animal aggression. (I exaggerate only a little).

At the women-only college, students often came to class in their pajamas. There were no games, no sexual tension. 

I don’t want to generalize (too much). There’s more complexity to these matters of male-female dynamics in the college classroom than even Mary Daly was willing to acknowledge.  But it does make a teacher pause and reflect — on pedagogy and process, on how we learn and how learning is thwarted, on the “hidden curriculum” always at work in our classrooms.

I’m looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds in the feminist theology class. No men – but the ghost of Mary Daly will definitely be hovering about.