[#wiscfi liveblog] Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today


The WiS2 conference logo.

Susan Jacoby is up! She is a journalist and author who’s written a bunch of awesome books, including The Age of American Unreason, which I recently read.

1:50: Susan Jacoby opens with a poem published in 1837 about the trend of women speaking publicly about political causes. Oh, the humanity:

1:53: The reason we’ve been having all this debate about whether or not the government should pay for contraception is because people have forgotten what it was like before women could control their own reproduction. They don’t know the history of women’s struggle, beginning at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.

The forgetting of the history of marginalized groups is both a cause and an effect of their marginalization. If you’re marginalized, you may not have the power to have your stories included in schools and what we teach about history.

Every brand of religion is a mechanism for transmitting ideas and values, whether or not you agree with those values. Secular organizations, which have loose and non-hierarchical structures, can’t necessarily transmit their histories so efficiently.

1:57: Most men of the Enlightenment didn’t give much thought to women’s rights; not all Enlightenment thinkers were feminists. But all feminists born in the 19th century were descendants of the Enlightenment.

Women who were agnostics/atheists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were largely written out of history after the 19th century by women’s suffrage organizations because they “could not afford” to be “identified with ungodliness.” Stanton was largely unknown until the revival of American secularism in the 1970s, but there was a similar trend then to downplay the influence of secular feminists. But secular feminists, especially secular Jews, played a large role in the new feminist movement.

As a Jew, it’s difficult to support feminism given that Jewish men say a prayer every morning in which they thank god for not having been born a woman. Similarly for Catholic women.

The fact that feminism has become a part of religion to some extent is part of an accommodation by religion to secular values.

The difficulty for feminists to embrace feminism’s connections to secularism is part of the belief that there can be no morality without faith.

2:04: There have been no secular activists who have made women’s rights an issue, except insofar as they are threatened by radical Islam. Telling the truth about radical Islam and women is important, but we need secularists to understand that discrimination and violence against women are hardly confined to the Islamic world.

Robert Ingersoll is the only male secularist who is an exception to this. Ingersoll’s 20th century biographers failed to recognize this, however, perhaps because they were writing before the emergence of second-wave feminists in the 1970s. Ingersoll sided with Stanton in viewing religion as the main cause of women’s oppression and, along with Stanton, disagreed that giving women the vote would be enough. In this sense he resembled second-wave feminists as opposed to his contemporary suffragists.

He also understood that compulsory childbirth was used both by the Church and by individual men to stymy women’s goals. “Science must make woman the owner and mistress of herself.” Women would always be oppressed as long as they had to “rely on the self-control of men” to prevent pregnancy. He criticized the idea that fear is superior to knowledge and that virtue stems from ignorance (or slavery).

Think of the comments of Rush Limbaugh regarding Sandra Fluke, who he claimed wanted the government to “pay” for her to have sex.

2:10: Ingersoll noted that women were more religious than men. But unlike religious leaders, he attributed this not to women’s superior virtue but to the fact that they were so uneducated compared to men.

I’m not suggesting that secular women need a man such as Ingersoll to speak for them. Rather, that the secular movement needs more people, men and women, who have a passion for what was once considered exclusively “women’s issues.” Just issuing press releases is not enough. This is the case for all social causes that have relevance to secularism, even if that relevance is not immediately obvious.

2:12: The reason demographics show fewer female than male atheists is because atheism is a social pejorative, and women may be more sensitive to this than men. Some women worry that being out atheists will affect how their children are treated.

But we need more women involved. That’s why it’s important to recognize this historical connection between feminism and secularism.

2:16: McCollum v. Board of Education is a case that many people sadly don’t know about because it’s not taught in schools. But the case concerned whether or not schools can set aside time for religious instruction. The case was brought by Vashti McCollum, a mother whose son was being ostracized for skipping the religious classes. The family’s cat got lynched. It’s understandable that women would worry about speaking out about atheism.

2:21: Audience question: Can you tell us more about Helen Gardner?

Jacoby: She’s another one of those lost women secularists. She wrote Men, Women, and Gods, which sided with Stanton and Ingersoll in calling out religion for its role against women’s rights.

Audience question: Where are some good starting points to learn about women in secularism?

Jacoby: Look up the writing of women like Gardner and Stanton. Don’t go to the New Yorker article about Shulamith Firestone, though. That article took a disturbed person who did write some important things and used her to represent all feminists of the 1960s and 70s. It serves the purpose of people who oppose feminism and secularism to present portraits of feminists as unhappy, bitter women.

2:26: Audience question: Frederick Douglass was also a secularist and a feminist, but that’s never recognized. Is this due to racism?

Jacoby: Maybe. But how much of a feminist was he really? He did support women’s right to vote, but he didn’t speak out much about women’s issues. But he definitely had a lot else on his plate [audience laughs], so we can give him a pass for not being more vocal about women.

Audience question: What about Susan B. Anthony?

Jacoby: She was an agnostic but kept it private. She and Stanton were good friends, but she actually begged Stanton not to publish her book about secularism.

2:29: Audience question: How will history look on those who have stifled the concerns of women in this movement becuase they’re not “as bad” as those in other countries? I assume you are a psychic.

Jacoby: It depends on who writes the history.

Audience question: Can you talk about Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex?

Jacoby: Do I have to? [audience laughs] It’s not a book I ever liked that much because I felt it was dishonest in a way. While it explored the psychological roots of women’s oppressions, she did not draw from her own life and her own relationships, this brilliant women who subordinated her own intellect to that of men. It’s certainly a foundational work, but it doesn’t go far enough.

2:31: Audience question: What about the role of women in anti-war activism? Does military culture support sexism?

Jacoby: What better example do we have of this than sexual assault in the military? The idea of a culture in which superior physical strength is what prevails is certainly not good for women. And yes, I know, somewhere in the past there was Xena Warrior Princess. But in fact we know that warrior cultures have not been good for women. Is it worse in the military than in any government department? Sure it is, because the military is something in which physical abilities is highly valued and war is thought to be a separate state in which ordinary rules do not apply. Nazi Germany, for example–women were to be the child-bearers. Warrior culture is not good for men. It’s not so great for men, either.

2:34: Audience question: Are we going to have to fight this battle every 50 years?

Jacoby: I would hope not. But I was taken aback by how many emails I received from women who didn’t know that as late as the 1960s, a married woman would’ve had great difficulty getting birth control. One might say that that’s a good thing because nothing bad’s going to happen along those lines anymore, but that’s not true. Bad things are happening.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Gender Equality in the Secular Movement (Panel)

Comments

  1. says

    Yeah, this is brilliant.

    I never knew so many of the first-wave feminists were also secularists.

    I also like Jacoby’s point about The Second Sex; I liked the book a lot, but imagining it filled with details from Simone de Beauvoir’s own life makes it so much better. That’s what I liked so much about The Feminine Mystique, all the detail, all the examples of subtle-but-pervasive sexism across so many women’s lives.

    Maybe de Beauvoir thought she couldn’t include that kind of personal stuff in a book she wanted to be a weighty, philosophical tome? Not that you can’t write philosophy that way, but that she knew the stereotype of the “scribbling woman” she was up against, especially since she was a woman writing about women?

    Anyway, it felt less dishonest to me and more “I am writing this way so that you will take me seriously.”

  2. says

    “There have been no secular activists who have made women’s rights an issue…Robert Ingersoll is the only male secularist who is an exception to this.”

    Susan Jacoby has made great contributions to getting freethinkers (and especially Ingersoll) back in front of American readers. But this statement is just plain wrong. Charles Knowlton, Robert Dale Owen, and Abner Kneeland are just three examples of 19th century male freethinkers who championed women’s issues (mostly birth control). In England, Richard Carlile, Francis Place, John Stuart Mill. The list goes on.

    I think it’s important for freethinkers to appreciate the number of people who were involved in secularism, and the ways they were connected. Painting a figure like Ingersoll as a monolithic hero hides this in much the same way Jacoby says mainstream historians have written out freethinkers.