There’s one part of Ron Lindsay’s opening speech at Women in Secularism that has been continuing to bug me. The rest of it, I’m mostly content to let others talk about. Greta’s had her say. No one has really stood up for any of the content of the speech in any detail as far as I know, just made vague calls for the value of questioning and critical thinking that ignore the context of the talk.
This part bugged me, though, because it was a mystery:
And who decides what’s included within the scope of social justice anyway? What is the definition of social justice? I read a blog post by Louise Pennington the other day; she stated that although patriarchy may predate capitalism, we cannot destroy patriarchy w/o destroying capitalism. Is the destruction of capitalism considered part of a social justice program? If so, that position certainly has very significant implications.
Oh, well, if Louise Pennington says–what?! Who is Louise Pennington? What did she actually say? Why is it we are expected to be listening to her and engaging with her ideas? And why mention her at a secularism conference?
So, though it took a bit of work, I went and found the blog post in question.
Until two years ago, I would have still identified as a socialist-feminist, although my awareness of the structural oppression of women was growing. The unrelenting misogyny and rape apologism on the left made me reconsider my political stance as did the creation of the Feminist/Women’s Rights board on Mumsnet. The more I read on Mumsnet, the more radical my feminism became. I started reading Andrea Dworkin, Natasha Walters, Kate Millett, Susan Faludi, Susan Maushart, Ariel Levy, Gail Dines, Germaine Greer, and Audre Lorde. I learned about cultural femicide and I started reading only fiction books written by women: Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Kate Mosse, Margaret Atwood, Kris Radish, Barbara Kingsolver, and Andrea Levy amongst many others. I started reading about women’s lives and the power of real sisterhood.
My feminism, both the definition and activism, has changed dramatically over the past 18 years. Now, I self-define as an anti-capitalist, pro-radical feminist as I believe that the source of women’s oppression is male violence which is perpetuated by the structures of our capitalist economy. The Patriarchy may predate capitalism but we cannot destroy it without destroying capitalism too. I don’t always feel a ‘real feminist’ or a ‘good enough’ feminist. All I know is that I am a feminist who truly believes that women have the power to liberate all women from male violence; that feminism is fundamentally about the power of sisterhood.
It is nice to see that Lindsay represented this argument, at least, accurately. It’s even a position that a handful of people in a room of 300 might even hold. The legacy of patriarchy is deeply embedded in our systems, including our economic systems. Capitalism does a great job of perpetuating existing inequalities of wealth and opportunity. There’s a discussion we could have there.
It still doesn’t belong in the opening speech of a secularism conference, though, any more than the fact that many communists are atheists gets brought up by Dave Silverman when he opens an American Atheist conference. There are plenty of communists in the secular movement. I serve on a board with one. I’ve done radio shows with members of the Revolutionary Communist Party. There was a communist on stage at Women in Secularism, I’m told, though I didn’t know it at the time.
It just isn’t something we’re told we should hash out on stage for a general audience. There are certainly questions we could talk about. There is evidence that at least a socialist approach reduces religious belief. We could definitely have a chat about how the destruction of capitalism would affect secular and atheist activism.
We don’t do that, though, unless we make a special event of it. We don’t do that unless speakers are ready to have that converstaion and comfortable having it in public. Conferences address our challenges, but they do it by emphasizing the commonalities among our diverse viewpoints. Economic discussions and revolutionary changes aren’t known for promoting common cause. We have lots of low-hanging fruit and ambitious goals we can work on together before we get to that point.
So mentioning the destruction of capitalism in the opening speech at WiS as an issue to be addressed there was decidedly odd.
I am less concerned with the “what” of this part of Lindsay’s speech, however, than the “who”. Who is Louise Pennington to be someone we should discuss at WiS? Who is she, in particular, that we should put discussing her in front of the topics we came to talk about because Ron Lindsay said so?
The excerpt I’ve given above suggests that Louise Pennington is relatively new to feminism, at least in any structured way. Perusal of her other writing at Huffington Post and at her personal blog supports that. She writes well. She seems to be able to think and apply what she’s read to new situations. She doesn’t seem to be revolutionary in the sense of using or promoting violence.
There’s particularly nothing wrong with her, though plenty of people (read: a large number of WiS attendees) are rightly not going to be thrilled with her desire to attend the explicitly transphobic RadFem conference. I would probably agree with her on many topics and be able to disagree intellegently on many more. I don’t really know, because I was completely unfamiliar with anything she had to say before Lindsay mentioned her and I got curious.
That’s important. I was unaware of Louise Pennington’s entire existence before Ron Lindsay brought her up.
I don’t think that’s any failing on my part. As far as I see, she’s not an atheist. She’s certainly not an atheist or secular activist. Her writing seems to have entered the online atheosphere with Lindsay’s talk, though it’s certainly being passed around now. She’s just one more blogger on Mumsnet and Huffington Post whose work, as far as I know, has never been recommended to me for any reason, competent as it is.
As much as this feels like picking on a blogger who is trying to gather an audience, it doesn’t seem that many other people know who Louise Pennington is either. She doesn’t seem to have broken out of the mass of mostly ignored bloggers that is HuffPo, probably because she’d contributed about a dozen posts total before this one. Some of her posts have failed to attract any comments, even at HuffPo. She isn’t someone whose work gets passed around.
This post that Lindsay cited is an exception. It has well over a hundred comments, Pennington’s peak.
Why did this one post get a load of comments? Did it catch the eye of atheists or better known feminists and get passed around? Are those comments heaping praise on Pennington’s sentiments?
No, the post was linked from A Voice for Men, in an article that’s is ridiculous even by their (lack of) standards. The hundred-puls comments are almost entriely from men claiming that talking about violence toward women from men constitutes sexist discrimination.
Atheists didn’t promote this post. Feminists didn’t promote this post. Men’s rights “activists” promoted this post.
So how the hell did it end up in the opening speech for Women in Secularism?
That is what’s bothering me now. How did a blog post known about by MRAs but not secular feminists end up in Lindsay’s speech? He didn’t just stumble across Pennington’s post.
Now, I doubt Lindsay reads AVfM himself. He’s acting like a touchy person who isn’t used to having his power or position challenged and isn’t willing or able to handle the situation professionally. He’s not acting like a men’s rights activist. I think he would be disgusted by what he found at AVfM, both in content and in the quality of “argument” presented.
Others in this movement do, however, read AVfM. We know that. What we didn’t know is that these people had, directly or through intermediaries, enough influence with the CEO of CFI to have their radical feminist boggarts addressed in the opening speech of Women in Secularism while the real feminism of the speakers and audience, with thousands upon thousands of words written about it in just the year between conferences, was ignored or mischaracterized. I find that a deeply disturbing thought.
Here I steal, with permission, a note from Greta about the difference between talking about things that disturb us and doing something about them:
If you have something to say about Ron Lindsay’s talk at the Women in Secularism 2 conference, and/or about his follow-up posts responding to the controversy… say it to the CFI Board of Directors.
Don’t just say it on Twitter, or on Facebook, or on blog comments, or even on your own blog. Say it to the people who can do something about it. If you’ve already said something on some other forum, please copy and paste it, edit as appropriate, and send it to the CFI Board of Directors.
The CFI Board of Directors can be emailed via the Corporate Secretary, Tom Flynn, at firstname.lastname@example.org.They can also be reached by snail mail, at:
Center for Inquiry Board of Directors
PO Box 741
Amherst, NY 14226-0741
I am told by Tom Flynn that letters to the board will be delivered to them several days before the meeting. That meeting is June 14, a week from today. If you have something to say but haven’t said it yet, now is the time.