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The Women in Secularism conference ROCKED

In the months leading up to CFI’s Women in Secularism conference, I admit I had my worries. I was worried attendance would be low because men wouldn’t be interested. I was worried it might be the same feminist talk over and over again. I was worried that any perceived failure would be trumpeted by the sexist atheists and skeptics as proof that women just aren’t as good at speaking, don’t know anything about secularism, and don’t have issues that are relevant to secularism.

My worries were unfounded.

I can’t stress enough how wonderful I thought WIS was. It was one of the most fun, enlightening, informational, and moving conferences I’ve been to. The material was so refreshing. As Paul Fidalgo said in The Morning Heresy, “This was no egg-headed snoozer, this was no reiteration of why we like Darwin so much (not that there’s anything wrong with those).” We didn’t just repeat the 3827 arguments against God’s existence.

I want to end on a positive note, so let me briefly comment on some things that weren’t so great (other than both of my panels being at ~9am, which is cruel for a grad student from the west coast). For one thing, the audience was a little small for a speaker lineup of this calibre. Part of the overall lower turnout was due to the temporal and physical proximity of the Reason Rally and the fact that graduations and finals were going on. But part of it was the dearth of men. While it was weird and refreshing to look out at an audience that was a majority women, I wish more men would have realized these issues affect them too. The men who did come kept telling me what a great time they were having – it definitely wasn’t a women-only conference.

As for content, there were only a couple of things I didn’t like. It really bugged me how Liz Cornwell of the Richard Dawkins Foundation kept stating how genetics and evolution explain how religiosity came to be. It’s an interesting hypothesis, but she presented it as undisputed fact and didn’t cite any studies. I mean, we hardly known the genetics behind highly heritable traits like height – I know of no good evidence for the “genetics” of religion. Alas, I wasn’t on the panel and my question didn’t get picked for the Q&A, so I couldn’t ask for a clarification or citation.

My other complaint is Edwina Rogers’ lackluster talk. I should be glad that only 15 minutes of an entire conference was lackluster, but I was disappointed. I was hoping she would use those 15 minutes to give a passionate talk about her motivations to join the secular movement, focusing on women’s issues – I thought maybe she could save a little face from the weeks of botched interviews. Instead she gave a canned “Intro to the SCA” talk that I’ve seen Sean Faircloth do before. It was a 15 minute advertisement that had little do with women in secularism (other than a couple of bullet points on the end), and she basically read off the list and lacked the passion and charisma that Faircloth had. Then she rushed out to leave for another conference so there was no Q&A or even time to say hello. Bah.

But now that’s out of the way, I want to stress why I had such a blast:

1. Moving beyond Feminism 101. When I’m invited to speak at conferences, I’m often the only woman or one of few. And as our movement begins to recognize the importance of addressing diversity, sexism, and women’s issues, they usually request that I talk about it. Which I’m happy to do – I think it’s very important! But when I (or another female speaker in my boat) am giving a talk to a general audience, we often have to spend our hour on stage walking through basic concepts about feminism, sexism, and privilege. Because everyone at WIS had that same background, and because we had a whole conference instead of an hour to talk about it, we got to talk about so much more interesting stuff. It also meant the questions in the Q&A were wonderfully thoughtful, instead of the same infuriating uninformed arguments we’ve debunked 37618295 times before.

CFI will be putting the talks online (yay!). If you can’t wait until then, you can satisfy your curiosity in a number of places. The Skeptical Seeker has a great summary of the main ideas presented at WIS. If you want a more detailed summary, check out the detailed liveblogging coverage of Ashley F. Miller (123456) and Ophelia Benson (1234567). If you want a highlight of the main concepts and great one-liners, peruse through #wiscfi on twitter.

2. Discovering new role-models. It’s funny. When I talk about diversity, I always mention how there are all these wonderful female atheists out there doing wonderful things, but we’re just unaware about it because they don’t get promoted as much. Hell, I keep a list of them (that sorely needs an update, I know) precisely for that reason. And I saw that in action:

  • While I knew of Susan Jacoby, I had never seen her speak. She’s now my hero. Not only did she manage to keep us awake with the dreaded 8:30am time slot, but she was hilarious, incisive, and strong. I’ll post her talk when it’s online, since my summary can’t do it justice.
  • Bernice Sandler was wonderful, and her talk should be required listening for anyone who has to run a department, or committee, or classroom, or…hell, anyone who has to interact with groups of people. She talked about the little differences in how people treat men and women – how women are interrupted more, more likely to have their ideas attributed to others, more likely to be called a bitch instead of aggressive, etc. You can see the full list on her website. She also gave practical advice on how to counter these things, and I’ll be sure to share the video.
  • Wafa Sultan. Wow. I’ve never seen such a powerful, moving talk at any previous conference. I quickly realized my goal would be to not cry, which I promptly failed. She talked about the abuses she and her friends, family, and patients faced under Islamic rule. “Just walking early in the morning to Starbucks without being called a whore…that is freedom.” You can probably guess by now, but yeah, I’m gluing your eyeballs open and making you watch the video.

3. The stereotype-breaking. We embraced the term “promiscuous assembly.” We joked about baby eating and Jamila Bey’s “Show me on the doll where Jesus touched you” shirt. Even people with softer voices like Annie Laurie Gaylor and Margaret Downey were anything but soft-spoken – they were just as fierce critics of religion as Hitchens or Dawkins. We’re not all demure gentile ladies, or humorless killjoy feminists. We are human.

4. Meeting wonderful people. I always love seeing my atheist friends. Greta Christina, her wife Ingrid, Jamila Bey, Debbie Goddard, Ophelia Benson, Jessica Ahlquist, Ashley F. Miller, Stephanie Zvan, Brianne Bilyeu, Rebecca Watson…I wish I could have drinks and dinner with these people every week. But I also love meeting all the new people. And no, I don’t just mean hobnobbing with speakers (though I was so happy Wafa Sultan sat next to me at dinner and we got to chat a lot). I love meeting the random blog readers and Secular Student Alliance members. I feel honored getting personal feedback, but I love it even more when I meet someone who is just overjoyed about the conference in general. I met so many women who had never gotten involved in secularism before, but this conference had them hooked. “Finally!” one told me. Finally indeed.

I’m sure I’ll continue to think about wonderful things from the weekend, but I only have one more thing to say: I hope there’s a Women in Secularism 2.