Dealing with badly behaving speakers »« I’m off to the Women in Secularism conference!

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.

Comments

  1. EcksLibris says

    I couldn’t come this year but I second your call for a second one! I would gladly per-purchase a ticket today!

  2. says

    It was so great to meet you, Jenn! And, yes, this was a fantastic conference. I’m really glad I came. I met a lot of neat people, and I am continuing to churn over the ideas in my head. I have to confess that feminist issues are not something which I have given a tremendous amount of thought — but since Elevatorgate happened, I have continued to try to learn more about this subject (and have to confess that my initial reaction to Elevatorgate was extraordinarily naive and probably offensive to some.) Your blog has definitely been one of the places that I’ve continued to learn and grow from.

    Trying to find a male friend who wanted to come with me (and completely failing), I can tell you a little bit about what kinds of things people said in response to me. None of them indicated that the topics being discussed were things they weren’t interested in (though one female friend did indicate this.) One male friend really wanted to go, but had to back out at the last minute. Most of the people I talked to simply said that they didn’t think they would be welcome, as men, in attending the conference. A number of people asked me if the people running the conference knew that I was male when I told them that I was going to be attending. I have to confess that that the first thing I thought when I saw an ad for the conference was that men would not be welcome, until I saw a CFI e-mail indicating otherwise. And then Dren Asselmeir pointed out to me that there was a student discount. Maybe in the future there could be a bigger effort to get the word out that men shouldn’t be scared to attend? I’m not sure if there was already an effort along those lines that I just didn’t happen to see, but I think it could have drawn more men if they didn’t think it was a women-only conference. Perhaps even writing a blog post on here indicating that men were welcome would help fix that.

  3. says

    I’m so glad the conference succeeded beyond expectations, and really hope there might be another – one which I might have some remote chance of being able to get to! Not being able to be there this time, I want to make a quick shout-out to those who were live-tweeting it and giving some of the flavour of each of the talks, especially Melody Hensley, Stephanie Zvan, and yourself. Some of them sounded really interesting even when reduced to 140 character snippets and quick blog posts, so I’m looking forward to seeing them when they become available.

  4. says

    It rocked indeed. My reading list has just gotten a whole lot longer.

    I agree Edwina Rogers’ speech was a lot of bullet points. She came across as a competent lobbyist and organizer, but I still don’t hear the passion for the secular movement that I heard from every other speaker there. I remain guardedly pessimistic. I hope she is able to succeed, but I fear that will only happen if can really engage with us and listen to what we have to say.

    Jen, it was great seeing you again. Until next time, and I am also all in afvor of a WIS 2.

  5. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    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.

    I think there’s kind of a double-bind here: a lot of men will feel like this is an issue that doesn’t affect them, a lot more will feel like this is an issue that they can’t speak to, and a lot of the remainder will feel like they’re intruding. :/

  6. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Well, were the things she said either true or at least not laughably, trivially false, this time?

    If so, she’s at least improving.

  7. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    I thought not being swarmed by people with 2 WIS was one of the high points of the conference. :P

  8. John Horstman says

    Or “gentle”, as in “gentlewoman”. Unless maybe a lack of Jews is a stereotype that was being challenged because not everyone was a Gentile?

    Looking forward to the videos – I very much wanted to attend, but holding conferences during finals/graduation weekend is not good for students nor those who work for universities (and especially not those of us in both groups).

  9. Tim says

    “Most of the people I talked to simply said that they didn’t think they would be welcome, as men, in attending the conference. A number of people asked me if the people running the conference knew that I was male when I told them that I was going to be attending. I have to confess that that the first thing I thought when I saw an ad for the conference was that men would not be welcome, until I saw a CFI e-mail indicating otherwise.”

    This is precisely why the Women in Secularism conference was held. The title of a conference is an indication of its content; not the content of its audience. If I were to announce that I was attending Skepticon (which I did last year!), would anyone assume that non-skeptics were not welcome? Well, sure, there will nearly always be one netty who conflates the topic of a conference and its audience. But when it comes to topics of sex/gender, there appears to be a greater prevalence of this nonsense.

    This wasn’t directed at you, Dan. I am a little jealous you got to go, but I couldn’t! :-)

  10. John Horstman says

    Maybe, though a more generous reading might be that he perceived the conference as an intended women-only space and didn’t want to assert privilege by invading it uninvited.

    Granted, latent or overt sexism is a statistically-more-likely motivation than awareness of and behavioral regulation around carefully-examined privilege, but as someone who constantly tries to practice the latter, I have to acknowledge it as a possibility. I’m not sure how to interpret Hanlon’s Razor in the context of strong statistical bias toward malice (whether conscious or not) as opposed to ignorance.

  11. says

    As the conference organizer, I want to thank all of the awesome men who came to Women in Secularism. I hope that we can have another Women in Secularism in the future and we will have even more men come out to learn, participate, and support this important cause.

  12. John Horstman says

    Actually, yes, I do assume that non-skeptics are not particularly welcome at Skepticon, though they’re not banned. I do definitely assume that it is an environment that is unwelcoming to irrationality, if not downright hostile to it. That may be a bad assumption, and I don’t think it functions as a particularly good analogy, since there’s nothing intrinsic to women that’s unwelcoming to men, while skepticism is intrinsically unwelcoming to unreasoned credulity.

    I think that a lot of the assumption of hostility is due to constructions of straw feminism as hostile to men in popular culture, and is a bad assumption, but it’s not surprising to me. I can even see how some pro-feminist men might be wary of attending, if they perceive the intent to create a woman-only space and don’t wish to inappropriately exercise male privilege by assuming access to the space (of course, a look at the literature from CFI should disabuse one of that notion, and I think that a perception of straw feminism is a far more likely cause in most cases, but it’s a possibility).

  13. oldebabe says

    I wish I could have been there, and heard Susan Jacoby as well.

    Another reason for low attendance could have been other conferences that were taking place at the same time, i.e. the ImagineNoReligion2 in Kamloops, on exactly the same dates, and almost opposite sides of the country.

    Hopefully, next year, more care will be taken (by CFI?) re:event timing and advertising so others, like myself, can attend.

  14. says

    They were true, but impersonal. She gave a description of what the Secular Coalition is, what it does, and who are the member organizations. She listed off areas of concern that the coalition would be addressing. She set out goals for the coming year, including increasing the number of organizations who endorse it, and adding state chapters for every state. Basic organizational stuff, and exactly the kind of thing we need the executive director to be good at. She’s doing her homework, for sure.

    Nothing about why she personally is becoming involved with the secular movement, or what she cares deeply about, or why. She was at the reception the night before, but I did not have a chance to talk to her (Ophelia Benson and Rebecca Watson were too interesting.)

  15. says

    One of the good things that Edwina Rogers mentioned is that CFI is starting a calendar for major secular events on their website. If everybody will post their conferences there it should make it easier to be sure we are not scheduling major events all at the same time.

  16. says

    We had planned and signed contracts before Reason Rally was announced or we had heard about ImagineNoReligion2 (I had actually never heard of this conference before). It’s great there were so many event and conference options for the atheist community this year, but it definitely affected our attendance. However, I have heard from many attendees that this was their favorite conference they had attended so I consider it a great success.

  17. debbiegoddard says

    Maybe in the future there could be a bigger effort to get the word out that men shouldn’t be scared to attend? I’m not sure if there was already an effort along those lines that I just didn’t happen to see, but I think it could have drawn more men if they didn’t think it was a women-only conference. Perhaps even writing a blog post on here indicating that men were welcome would help fix that.

    I gotta say, I was really surprised to hear this perspective. CFI bloggers said several times that men should attend. CFI e-mails said that men should attend. Writers here on FtB said that men should attend. Even PZ Myers said that men should attend!

    See http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/2012/04/talk-about-it-like-a-grownup/ for a post here on FtB linking to several blogs (including Pharyngula) that say that men were invited and should attend. I think a good effort was made to get the word out that men were invited.

    Dan, what other efforts should have been made that would have let men know that they were invited?

  18. says

    Thanks for the summary, Jen!

    .

    As for the genetics of religiosity…..in Kamloops we had J. Anderson Thomson give his talk on the evolutionary background for religious belief, from his and Clare Aukofer’s “Why We Believe in God(s): A concise guide to the science of faith.”

    .

    It describes the brain software that evolution has coded over the years to instill religiosity in most humans. Cornwell should have mentioned the book, because she’s quoted in the front as “advanced praise.” It’s only about 100 pages and well worth a look.

  19. says

    Wanted to add that I really wish I could have been at both conferences last weekend. I definitely didn’t see “Women in Secularism” as a women-only advertisement, and I would have loved to sit and listen to Susan Jacoby talk for hours and hours.

  20. says

    >Dan, what other efforts should have been made that would have let men know that they were invited?

    I honestly don’t know! Obviously, I lost the impression that men couldn’t attend after seeing the various blog posts and CFI e-mails. I *did* attend, had a great time, and wish to see this conference happen again next year. Please don’t misunderstand me; I was also very confused that there were people who hadn’t come across the information that you’re referencing. I made a suggestion that a blog post go up on here because there were a few people who have stated that they felt that way in this comments section.

    It just seems that were still a number of people who I spoke to that this information didn’t get to. I don’t know how to get that information to them any more effectively than what you’ve outlined. But this might be something to think about.

  21. Emio says

    To be honest, I was really thinking about going, because I live close by and I could have probably afforded it (even though I’m a poor student). But I wasn’t sure if it was open to men, for one thing I wasn’t sure what kind of “feminism” I’d find there.

    For example some feminists believe “that each and every man has a fundamental stake in the patriarchy’s existence; that men as a class create and maintain, and men as individuals rely on and benefit from, the patriarchy’s subsystems and institutions. There is no way in hell that men could contribute to that complete overhaul — given that it’s the patriarchy that protects, defends, enables, and feeds men every day of their lives from their moment of birth to their moment of death (and ridiculously, beyond death and previous to life). There is no way that men are going to knock the very foundation of their status out from under their own feet and efforts to include them in the feminist movement is a waste of women’s precious time and energy.” – http://noanodyne.com/2011/11/taking-back-feminism-a-manifesto/

    Emphasis on that last sentence. So, following that, I also thought there would be limited space and thus I simply assumed a women taking “my seat” would be better received. But I suppose my assumptions about the feminist community active in the skeptic & secular community, secular feminists, were also unfounded. So I’ll be sure to make the next one if it’s financially possible.

  22. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    …why would you expect that brand of “feminism” to predominate, anyway?

  23. says

    Jennifer,
    I really enjoyed the video of you and others on the May 18-20 Women in Secularism found on youtube. At the end you were talking about how when female bloggers speak out they get death threats, rape threats, etc. Meanwhile you had a big smile on your face. I wonder if you realized that dichotomy. I correctly or incorrectly identified with it. I grew up in an abusive home and years later as an adult when I talked about abuse that happened to me and others I had the biggest smile on my face. My therapist pointed that out. It like stunned me. I had learned that behavior and now when I talk about such abuse my face matches the gravity of what happened. I give it is proper due and don’t minimize it. Anyway, you did fantastic and you and the other women are my heros. Oh, just to let you know I am male with two wonderful daughters who are their own people and I just love it.

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