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May 22 2013

Assorted Thoughts on Women in Secularism 2

The WiS2 conference logo.

Last post about Women in Secularism (for now), I promise!

I just wanted to give a quick overview of how things went since I couldn’t do much over the weekend but liveblog/-tweet obsessively.

First of all, I want to thank Marcus Ranum (and Stephanie) once again for getting me there. I’m still a little shocked that people would buy me plane/conference tickets just like that and it makes me really happy. So thank you, again. I hope there will someday be a way for me to repay all the various acts of kindness that have come my way simply because I joined this community.

Second, I want to thank Melody Hensley and the rest of the CFI-DC staff for organizing this. Even if I had paid my way to the conference, I think it would’ve felt like a small price to pay.

General logistics stuff. This was the first professional conference I’ve been to and I was really impressed by how well it was organized. The hotel was awesome, everything was easy to find, there were beverages in the tabling area, there was plenty of space for people to mingle, things generally started and ended on time, and so on.

The questions were handled differently than most conferences I’ve been to: rather than people raising their hands and asking, they wrote their questions down on cards that were provided beforehand, and the MC chose the best questions to ask the speakers. While some people felt that this made the experience feel less interactive and personal, I think it was a wise decision. First of all, it prevented long, irrelevant, not-really-a-question-but-more-of-a-chance-for-me-to-talk-too “questions.” Second, it made it possible for people who don’t feel comfortable speaking up in front of a huge room of people to ask questions too.

My one issue was that there wasn’t really any mention of the harassment policy. While I knew that WiS has one (I wouldn’t attend a con that doesn’t), I was surprised that the staff never mentioned it during any of the brief housekeeping comments at the beginning. I realized at the end that had something happened, I wouldn’t have really been sure who to go to or how to contact them. On the other hand, aside from a few awkward situations, I felt so safe and comfortable all weekend that this was never an issue.

The talks. Were amazing. My favorites were the panels, especially Faith-Based Pseudoscience and What The Secular Movement Can Learn From Other Social Movements. (Apparently there was also a fantastic panel on women leaving religion, but that was at 8:30 on Saturday and I slept through it oops.) I knew that Stephanie, Greta, Rebecca, Amy, Debbie Goddard, Sarah Moglia, et al. would be awesome, but I also got to hear Carrie Poppy and Desiree Schell on the panels and thought they were great. I also enjoyed the solo talks, especially Rebecca Goldstein’s and Susan Jacoby’s.

My one gripe is that I felt that the talks kinda focused too much on history and philosophy, which–don’t get me wrong–are interesting and important subjects, but I would’ve loved to hear more about strategy and organizing and the issues facing non-white/queer/poor/etc. women in religion or in the secular movement. That said, the variety of talks seemed intentionally designed to appeal to as great a variety of people as possible, so I won’t kvetch about it too much.

The people. AHHH. The people are always my favorite part of going to conferences. I finally got to meet a ton of people I’ve been friends with online and also made a lot of new friends. On Saturday night, PZ graciously lent us his room for a 25-person Cards Against Humanity game, which later dissolved into a 4 AM rant session. And there were plenty of lunches and dinners and hanging out between talks.

The best thing, though, were all the compliments. All weekend I kept hearing people affirming each other and pulling each other up. It seemed like any conversation I participated in involved someone being like “I’ve really admired your writing for a long time” and “That piece you wrote about X meant a lot to me” or even just “Your fashion sense rocks.” While I obviously liked it when people did it to me, it also felt really nice to hear people complimenting others. It was a reminder that we really do have a community.

The FtB gang (well, most of it) at WiS2. Credit: Brian D. Engler

The FtB gang (well, most of it) at WiS2. Credit: Brian D. Engler

Diversity. It was pointed out several times by attendees that the audience at WiS2 was very, very white. I noticed this too. I’m not sure if it’s a consequence of the cost, the subjects of the talks, the marketing, or something else, but I hope that future WiS conferences make an extra effort to engage and welcome atheists of color.

In other ways, though, it was quite a diverse audience. There were folks of all ages, including a few really awesome kids and teens. There were plenty of men (so much for the claims of “separate but equal”). I got to talk to a bunch of queer/trans* people, which is always great. And although Elisabeth Cornwell mentioned in her talk that there weren’t any poor people in the audience, there were in fact quite a few, many of whom had benefited from Secular Woman’s, Surly Amy’s, or Marcus’s travel grants.

The Ronald Lindsay thing. If you’re reading this you’ve probably already heard all about this, but if not, here are some excellent observations on it from Rebecca, PZ, Stephanie, Adam, Ashley, Amanda, and even Cuttlefish.

I think that, completely regardless of Lindsay’s views on feminism and its tactics, the remarks and the aftermath were inappropriate. First of all, this was not the time and place. As the CEO of a major organization and a blogger, Lindsay has plenty of fora in which to air his ideas and concerns about feminism. The opening remarks of a conference created in response to vicious attacks on women in the movement just shouldn’t be one of those fora. Lindsay likewise could’ve discussed his concerns privately with influential feminists in the movement rather than posing them to a conference audience. Not to belabor the point, but it would be like opening a conference on mental illness by suggesting that some people with mental illnesses use their illnesses as an excuse to be lazy, or something.

I don’t think that Lindsay is a bad person or opposes women’s rights or anything like that. Although I disagree with the views he expressed about feminism and the concept of privilege, I don’t think that these views should never be expressed. This just wasn’t the appropriate place to express them.

Second, there’s the issue of Lindsay’s subsequent doubling down. While I was irritated by his opening remarks, I didn’t think it was a huge deal…until he responded to Rebecca Watson’s criticism by producing another blog post in which he attacked her and compared her to North Korea. Literally. Keep in mind that Rebecca was a speaker at this conference, and that, apparently, Lindsay wrote this post instead of attending a fundraising dinner for the conference.

Needless to say, this is unprofessional, petty, and inappropriate for the CEO of an organization. Lindsay made many of us feel as though he was supporting this conference under duress and in name only.

Lindsay’s talk was as notable for what it left out as what it included. While he addressed the use of religion to oppress women, he made absolutely no mention of the vicious abuse women, including many of the women in the audience this weekend, have faced in the secular movement. He made no mention of the bullying of Jen McCreight, of the posting of Surly Amy’s address online,  or of the continued impersonation, harassment, and threats toward Stephanie, Ophelia, Rebecca, Greta, and others. He did not say that even if Jen, Amy, Stephanie, Ophelia, Rebecca, and Greta are completely wrong about every single thing they’ve ever said or written, this does not make it okay to threaten them with death and rape. He did not make a single comment about why this conference was organized in the first place. This omission was glaring and telling. It shows that he doesn’t understand what it is we’re fighting for.

Anyway, I deliberately left this till the end of my post because I think it’s unfortunate that the vast majority of what happened at this conference, which was fantastic, is getting overshadowed by this unprofessional incident. I think it’s important to talk about it, but I also want to emphasize that I thought that this conference was a huge success and I hope there will be a third one. (If you’d like to help make that happen, by the way, you should donate to CFI and earmark the money for Women in Secularism.)

In any case, I think it’s pretty clear why a conference like this needs to exist. Women and (male allies) need a space to discuss their place in the secular movement without being accused of trying to make men “shut up.” We don’t want men to shut up; we just want to be as heard as they are.

WiS2 attendees after Maryam Namazie's talk. Credit: Brian D. Engler

WiS2 attendees after Maryam Namazie’s talk. Credit: Brian D. Engler

13 comments

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  1. 1
    Raging Bee

    Needless to say, this is unprofessional, petty, and inappropriate for the CEO of an organization.

    Hell, it’s unprofessional, petty, and inappropriate even for a burger-flipper.

    1. 1.1
      Radi

      Agreed.

  2. 2
    Radi

    Thank you, Miri. This was a wonderful writeup. I loved playing Cards Against Humanity – if ever you take it retail (or if it is already available), please let me know, because I would love to buy a copy! :-)

    Melody and co. did a wonderful job organizing this conference – it was so very smooth and very well done. I am full of admiration for the CFI employees and volunteers who put this together.

    Also, the overall impression I had of Ron Lindsay I got was that he was being forced to lead (i.e., pushed from behind) rather than enthusiastically supporting the conference. And I am profoundly disappointed in both his behavior and in the Board of CFI dragging their feet about this. It is making me want to reconsider my membership in CFI as well as my monthly donation –> luckily earmarked entirely for future WIS conferences. I expect that CFI will refund the entire donation amount should they decide not to host WIS again.

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Oh, I didn’t make that game! I just made some custom cards for the preexisting deck. Check it out here: cardsagainsthumanity.com.

      Agreed about Lindsay. And yes, they will be forced to refund the donation if they don’t use it for what you earmarked it for, which is why it’s such a good idea to do that. Hopefully enough people do and they’ll have a lot of money sitting around and they’ll WANT to use it.

    2. 2.2
      maidao-horton

      Radi, I’m so sorry I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to you, we must have crossed paths on the way to the restaurant, because you had left by the time I arrived. Missed giving you a big giant hug! You were awesome to hang with.

  3. 3
    smhll

    I’m glad you had some great experiences at the conference. Thank you for writing.

    I’m hearing a gendered double-standard casting a shadow on Ron Lindsay’s speech and follow-up. It’s almost as if, on one hand: when women are talking (eep), men are silenced. On the other hand, when men are talking, valuable lessons are on offer. (Yeah, sure.)

  4. 4
    queequack

    I agree 100% with Lindsay’s assessment of privilege… however, I’ll grant that it was not the time nor the place. It was actually shockingly inappropriate, and I don’t understand why a) someone didn’t review his speech beforehand, or, b) if they did, why he was allowed to go onstage and undermine the conference that his own organization was hosting. His subsequent blog posts addressed to Rebecca Watson or whoever were also immature and unbecoming. I did smile when John Scalzi got randomly linked, that guy’s getting around.

    I don’t think he should resign or anything ridiculous like that, but yes, he should apologize. Not for his views on feminism, because he’s correct, but independently of that, he acted like an ass. And when you act like an ass, you should own it.

  5. 5
    Jadehawk

    On Saturday night, PZ graciously lent us his room for a 25-person Cards Against Humanity game

    oh, so that is where y’all disappeared to. We were told the game was in the lobby, so when we went to see what it was all about, we couldn’t find you. So we left :-p

    The best thing, though, were all the compliments.

    oh yes. When one person told me that me/my writing were responsible for them coming to WiSCFI, that was the best thing ever :-D

    Also, I’m totally in that picture

  6. 6
    cethis

    I canceled my monthly donation to CFI and told them it was because of Lindsay’s conduct. I hope they resolve this in some way so I can resume my donations.

  7. 7
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    Yay Miri it was great to meet you! :D

  8. 8
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    So am I! Way in the back, you can see just my head, I almost died falling off the back of the stage.

  9. 9
    maidao-horton

    Great write up Miri, this sums it up in great part for me too – I am still basking in the warmth of meeting you and all the other lovely people I came in contact with!

    To your final comment – you may be tickled by this.

    Just got back from my orthopedist. He’s been keeping up with what’s been going on, and when we discussed what Ronald did, he said “Well, I guess he proved to everyone why WiS needs to exist – so they better have one next year, because I’ll be going too!”

  10. 10
    Elisabeth Cornwell

    Regarding your comment “And although Elisabeth Cornwell mentioned in her talk that there weren’t any poor people in the audience, there were in fact quite a few, many of whom had benefited from Secular Woman’s, Surly Amy’s, or Marcus’s travel grants. …”

    There may have been people who did not have a great deal of money, but there were no people in the audience. I am speaking about poverty. If you have ever lived in an area where there is poverty, or traveled and worked in areas outside the US where there is poverty – then you would understand what I actually had said. Poor is relative, yes, but your interpretation of what I was actually saying suggests that you and I have very different views on what defines poverty. I never suggested that there were not people in the audience who could use financial support. That does not equate poverty.

    Thank you for allowing me to clarify this point.

  1. 11
    Women in Secularism 2: Breaking News: Even at WiS, we have to defend the purpose of WiS! | Dissent of a Woman

    [...] Professional Fun-Ruiner brings Assorted Thoughts on Women in Secularism 2, making a point to mention all the greatness at this conference and not just the trash Lindsay [...]

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