Eastern and Western Feminism: Murasaki Shikibu and Mary Daly

Updated on July 29, 2019
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Published 10 years, Lisa's trip down the rabbit hole began in Phil/101. More classes, and hours of research followed. Why? she was hooked!

An illustration of Murasaki at Ishiyama-dera by Yoshitoshi (1889)
An illustration of Murasaki at Ishiyama-dera by Yoshitoshi (1889) | Source

Murasaki Shikibu and Mary Daly were two feminist philosophers from different times and different places. Both women held similar beliefs regarding the aspects of society, and how they needed to change. However, their solutions to the problems of the world were quite different. One may say that Mary Daly was a pioneer of her day. She was responsible for pushing woman’s rights forward in leaps and bounds. It can also be said that Murasaki Shikibu was one of the greatest minds of her day. With her quiet resilience, she kept pushing on. She eventually became a major influence on woman’s rights in Japan.

Murasaki Shikibu

Murasaki Shikibu lived in Japan at a time when being a woman was looked upon as retribution for bad Karma from a past life. At this time, people believed that a woman could not attain salvation. They could only prepare for reincarnation and hope they lived a chaste enough life to be reborn as a man. Murasaki believed much of what Japanese Buddhism taught. However, she believed that women could, in fact, achieve salvation. Japanese Buddhism at the time was a combination of:

  • Shinto Animism: a nature-loving religion where there are many Deities; the sun, moon, fire, and water are all good examples.
  • Viable causes: suffering can be ended. The way to end suffering is through enlightened living, as expressed in the Eightfold Path.
  • Yin: expansive forces in the universe
  • Yang: contractive forces in the universe
  • Confucius Virtues: Confucius believed one could become a superior man if they were honest, and their thoughts matched their deeds. One must be a person who could be depended on, for anything.

  • The Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of void: Prince Shotoku merged the belief in one God with the Shinto religion.

To this list, Murasaki added the quest for spiritual enlightenment.

Murasaki's father was an educated man, as well as a Governor. Murasaki’s intelligence was realized at a very young age. When she was young, her father told her he wished she had been born a boy, she would have brought him much happiness. Nevertheless, he let her observe her brothers' studies. She became well known for her writing, including a diary, and a book that may have been the first novel ever.

This book was called The Tale of Genji, and was set approximately 75 years before Murasaki’s time. The time span of the events occurring in the book lasted approximately the same amount of time, 75 years. In this book, Murasaki speaks of love, jealousy, rage, and passion. These emotions are not looked well upon in the Buddhist religion. It is, in fact, considered a sin to feel these emotions.

However, The Tale of Genji has since been viewed as a learning tool. The story shows the consequences of emotions. When the characters focus on their earthly needs and succumb to these emotions they in effect, suffer deeply. Moreover, it is not until someone releases these needs and emotions, they can truly reach enlightenment. It was an interesting read. Some of the characters actions would be unthinkable today, which makes the book even more fascinating. It feels like Shikabu drew her reader's a map if what needed to be changed in society.

Mary Daly

Mary Daly lived from 1928–2010. She was known for her feminist work, specifically in the male-dominated world of religion. One of her colleagues at Boston College was one of her biggest supporters. John Mcdargh often speaks of something that happened back in the 1970s: Daly noticed a young African American student in one of her classes was struggling with his studies. She questioned him about it, and he confided in her that he had been traumatized by a hate crime at the university.

She spent time with this student for weeks, slowly bringing back his self-esteem. She focused on helping him to look at the situation from a different historical standpoint. He began to understand that the events unfolding right then would pave the way for his children and their children. This helped him to be able to put the traumatic episode behind him and move on.

Interestingly, Daly, like Shikabu, felt her religion's archaic system of beliefs had a negative impact on how women were viewed. She was certain that God was an important part of everyday life. However, she felt as if God as the "all-powerful" male figure was detrimental to the rights. She often referred to this Male God, as "The supreme phallus In the sky."

Daly maintained that God's dualistic image of a vengeful father and an all-loving fatherly figure paved the way to bad intentions. According to Daly, "God's plan is often a front for men's plans and a cover for inadequacy, ignorance, and evil" (1976). She speculated that this image allowed people, to feel like they could justly hate, and discriminate against others, not living as the vengeful God mandates. In fact, they even presumed, she felt there was an implied, moral obligation, to do these things, out of “love” for their fellow man.

Daly suspected a society which considered it an honor to refer to God as a male accepted woman as inferior to men. Furthermore, Daly proposed, God should be a verb, not a noun. She went on to say that God had stolen the identity of the faithful people, willing to blindly follow. In addition, she concluded, God dangled salvation over the faithful's head, while promoting hate, fear, and guilt. She demanded for women to stand up for themselves and use their anger to spread the word of a sexless God.


These two philosophers, although from different times and different sides of the world, agreed on many points. Both agreed that woman should be more important in the religious world. Additionally, they agreed God should be considered a verb, and that God is not male or female, is not explainable, and is asexual. Also, both of these women were responsible for creating educational work that helped pave the way for woman's rights, helping women for years to come.

The major difference between these women is the way they went about getting their information out. Murasaki was meek and timid. She lived a righteous life in which anger was not permitted. Daly fueled woman’s anger so that woman everywhere could be heard. In addition, although they both believed in a sexless god, the similarity between the religions ends there.

Murasaki was a Buddhist. She was certain that one must meet their karmic goal. If the goal wasn't met, the reincarnation cycle would repeat again, and again, until destiny was achieved. Only after achieving one's destiny could enlightenment occur. Daly was a post-Christian, who lived by the doctrines of Christianity, minus the aforementioned beliefs she held.

In conclusion, both were extremely intelligent women who made a huge impact on the world. Shikibu made it through her quiet resolve, while Daly made it through force, pushing her way out into the male-dominated world. Although markedly different, neither women were wrong about how they chose to make a difference. They had to do things their own way in order to be able to make any difference. The important thing os not how they did it, but that they did it. The fact is, love them or hate them, both of their lives left an imprint on women's rights that will last many lifetimes.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Lisa Chronister


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