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Jan 17 2013

The Role of Feminism in Secular Organizations

Ron Lindsay has asked for input going into a meeting of national secular organizations.

Specifically, I’d like your input on these two questions: 1. What specific steps do you think secular groups should take to increase diversity within our movement, in particular with respect to the participation of minority groups? 2. As you are aware, there are some stark differences of opinion within the movement about the appropriate understanding of feminism and how feminism (however defined) should influence the practices and mission of secular organizations. How do you think these differences can best be narrowed or resolved?

I answered the first question already, but the second required some more thought. After all, if I knew how to resolve those differences, I would do something about them.

Then I realized that there is one thing I do fairly regularly in this respect because I think it’s important. I try to make sure that the apparent starkness of those differences of opinion isn’t due to misrepresentation of my position. So here is my position on feminism and its role within secular organizations.

To start, I am not a “gender feminist”. That term only exists in contrast to “equity feminism”, which claims that we should (as a philosophical rather than empirical matter) only consider gender inequalities that are caused directly by the law. I don’t see any good reason to make that distinction in questions of gender any more than I do in questions of religion. I support action to remove discrimination against atheists beyond merely legal discrimination, and the same is true for discrimination against those who step outside their socially assigned gender roles.

Exactly how much of the small average differences observed between genders are attributable to social versus biological primary causes is an open question. That there is strong social pressure to conform to much more binary gender roles is a demonstrated fact. That there is discrimination–ranging from mild to violent to legal–against those who do not conform to those binary roles is also well-documented fact. We have more documentation of harms done–ranging from emotional to economic to death–by that enforcement.

Fighting against those harms by delegitimizing that enforcement? That’s my feminism.

Note that I said, “my feminism”. This is a role I’ve taken on for myself. It isn’t the mission of a secular organization. An organization may have very similar goals with respect to religious discrimination, goals that are also similar to mine on that score, but that doesn’t require them to fight the same feminist fight I do. So what do I see as the role of feminism in secular organizations?

Some of that role is common to any organization. Annie Laurie Gaylor’s work to make sure that the history of women in freethought gives us a plethora of potential role models we might otherwise have overlooked. Activists, polemicists, philosophers–feminism is responsible for making sure the lessons they have for us aren’t lost to time and our societal tendencies to remember a movement as consisting of a few big men. It also tells us where to look in our modern society when we wonder where the atheist women are, but more on that later.

Feminist economic studies are required to understand the resources any organization truly has to call on, as well. Accounting requirements mean that we tend to focus on cash, investments, and real estate, but no movement survives without volunteer work, much less thrives. We have feminism to thank for our understanding of the value of unpaid work in our society.

We also have to credit feminist social science for our understanding that if we failed to pay attention to our internalized societal biases, our organizations would miss out on a wealth of talent by largely employing men. Looking around at our national organizations, I think this is a lesson the secular movement has internalized quite well. However, if we’re going to talk about the role (and legitimacy) of feminism, it’s worth mentioning.

None of those, though, are contentious. None of those are areas in which most of the people who want me drummed out of the movement are going to disagree with me…as far as I know. If they do, there’s a good chance they’d be doing so out of habit.

No, they disagree with me that anything about the secular movement should change. They disagree that things that have changed over the last few years should have changed. They think that some people’s status should not have risen, that other people’s reputations should have remained untarnished, that the small numbers of rules and processes that have changed should not have.

Here is what people need to remember about that. For the last several years, our movement has been dealing with the questions “Where are the atheist women? Why are they not part of what we’re doing?” We know that they exist. We know that they have always existed and been strong activists, just not usually our strong activists. We couldn’t make them ours if we didn’t understand why they weren’t.

The people who claimed to be equity feminists offered the answer that their feminist model provides. “There aren’t any rules keeping them out, so they don’t exist or aren’t suited/compelled to activism.” People can compare this paragraph to the prior one and decide whether that answer satisfies them.

It did not satisfy many of us who identify as feminists. We asked atheist women instead why they didn’t go to meetings and conferences or volunteer. They gave us answers: time, child care, cost, being told women aren’t smart, being treated as sexual prospects instead of peers, harassment. We gave those answers to the organizations that were asking the questions.

What should those organizations do with that information now? That’s something they need to decide for themselves. Many have already decided that acting on at least some of it is a smart idea. We’ve seen sponsored child care. We’ve seen attempts to keep costs down. We’ve seen harassment policies. I’m completely behind them on all of that.

I want to see more, of course, though I know that change can be costly. Each organization will have to decide for itself what changes make sense for it. One thing I definitely want to see, however, is some thought given to the fact that these competing positions are competing answers. They aren’t merely political slates that we’re lobbying for.

It would be much appreciated, I say as someone who’s done a fraction of the heavy lifting, if they were considered as such. We aren’t meddling or introducing agendas or trying to take anything over. We were asked for information and gave it, some of us at considerable personal cost.

Feminism should perhaps inform how we view that as well, but this seems like a good place to stop. After all, I think the reactions we’ve gotten give us excellent evidence we can use to sort out those competing answers.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Wowbagger, Designated Snarker

    As I see it, in some ways it’s a big fish/small pond problem. Certain people are unhappy at the idea of losing the position they currently have in the community, and – consciously or otherwise – are resisting its expansion and diluting their power and influence.

    Then there are those attached to having their interests catered to by writers and convention speakers. All they want to hear about is how stupid religious people are and how much better they are than them simply for rejecting god-beliefs. They don’t want to hear about society’s problems or how them changing their behaviour could make things better for the less privileged. Their atheism is nothing to do with skepticism or rationality or making the world a better place; it’s about having their egos stroked.

    As I’ve noted before, this is why there’s so much bitterness, particularly towards PZ. He once gave them everything they wanted to feel better about themselves for not being religious. Now he’s not only stopped doing that but also started pointing out the flaws in the atheist community. That’s not what a lot of them signed up for, and it’s made them very, very mad.

  2. 2
    hypatiasdaughter

    Let us accept, for argument’s sake, the idea that women ARE different – they are, in general, more superstitious and religious, less “suited/compelled to activism.”
    Then, if you want to reach out to and change the minds of 50% of society; and, more importantly, the segment that is CHIEFLY IN CHARGE OF FILLING CHURCHES AND INDOCTRINATING CHILDREN, you will have to pay attention to their concerns – which, by the definition of these equity feminists, are different than men’s. Having more women as spokespeople for the movement and addressing “women’s” concerns and issues is the only way to make the movement attractive to half the population.
    I don’t personally accept the initial preposition. I believe most of us started out trapped by superstitious and religious thinking but that women (and other minorities) have a harder time than white men in escaping it due to social, familial and economic reasons.
    What is wrong with your mind that you write off the low percentages of women at a freethought meeting or conference to “women being more superstitious” (without any evidence) while completely overlooking them TELLING you “I can’t bring my kids to a pub for a skeptic’s meeting; or to a conference halfway across the country because they don’t have daycare”?

  3. 3
    Bjarte Foshaug

    For the last several years, our movement has been dealing with the questions “Where are the atheist women? Why are they not part of what we’re doing?” We know that they exist. We know that they have always existed and been strong activists, just not usually our strong activists. We couldn’t make them ours if we didn’t understand why they weren’t.

    If I were a woman, here’s what I would be thinking:

    If even such a ridiculously reasonable request as “Guys, don’t do that” can spark such a insanely hostile reaction from a large section of the community, why on earth should I expect them to treat me any better the moment my personal boundaries rub up against their sociopathic sense of entitlement, and why on earth would I want to be part of a community that keeps telling me that that’s what I can expect?

    If the ultimatum that the atheist/skeptical/humanist movements have to offer women is “Shut up and be grateful for whatever level of ‘respect’ entitled, sleazy male perverts are willing to grant you, or face the same as Rebecca (or Stephanie, or Ophelia, or Amy, or Melody, or Jen, or Greta, or…)”, the only real mystery is why female attendance isn’t lower.

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