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Jul 31 2013

Where, Indeed? My Response to Katie Engelhart’s “Where Are The Women Of New Atheism?” Piece in Salon

salon-logoI was going to sit this one out, since other people have already said most of what I was going to say on the subject. (Soraya Chemaly especially hit it out of the park, IMO.) But I’ve been asked to make a comment on Katie Engelhart’s widely-discussed “Where Are The Women Of New Atheism?” piece in Salon: I was just going to give a quick quote, but it turned into a blog post, so here it is.

My main problem with Engelhart’s article is that it conflates several different questions… and proceeds to respond as if they all had the same answer. Why do proportionately fewer women self-identify as non-believers? Why do women who do self-identify as non-believers participate in the atheist community at proportionately lower rates? Why are there proportionately fewer women in positions of leadership and visibility in the atheist community? Why is there so little media attention given to the women who are in the atheist community, and who are in positions of leadership and visibility?

These are not the same questions. They have different answers — answers that are related and connected, but not the same. Some of them have to do with issues of sexism within the atheist community… and some have to do with issues of sexism in society in general… and some have to do with the intersection between the two. (IMO, Soraya Chemaly’s response in Salon did a bang-up job of addressing them.)

I mean, come on. You’re asking why the mainstream media doesn’t pay attention to female leaders in the atheist movement… and the answer, “because the mainstream media is totally fucking sexist, with a well-documented history of ignoring women in any situation” isn’t even on the table?

There are lots of prominent female atheists. Lots and lots and lots. In no particular order: Teresa MacBain, Jessica Ahlquist, Jamila Bey, Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasreen, Amanda Knief, Amanda Metskas, Amanda Marcotte, Lyz Liddell, Susan Jacoby, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Rebecca Goldstein, Rebecca Watson, Rebecca Hensler, Rebecca Hale, Debbie Goddard, Katherine Stewart, Ophelia Benson, Julia Galef, Lauren Anderson Youngblood, Lauren Lane, Lauren Becker, Ayanna Watson, Mandisa Lateefah Thomas, Maggie Ardiente, Jennifer Bardi, Valerie Tarico, Libby Anne, Beth Presswood, Jen Peeples, Tracie Harris, Lindsay Beyerstein, Sarah Moglia, Ania Bula, Kim Rippere, Jennifer McCreight, Ashley F. Miller, Sikivu Hutchinson, Zinnia Jones, Miri Mogilevsky, Kate Donovan, Charone Paget, Heina Dadabhoy, Stephanie Zvan, Dana Hunter, Brianne Bilyeu, Chris Rodda, Yemisi Ilesanmi, Kylie Sturgess, Nicome Taylor, Desiree Schell, Melody Hensley, Vyckie Garrison, Soraya Chemaly, Bridget Gaudette, Cara Santa Maria, Ashley Paramore, A.J. Johnson, Jennifer Micheal Hecht, Wafa Sultan, Sylvia Broeckx, Indra Zuno, Amy Davis Roth, Shelley Segal, Naima Washington, Carrie Poppy, Harriet Thugman, Cristina Rad, Laci Green, Mina Ahadi, Naima Cabelle, Margaret Downey, me, loads more than I’m leaving out because there just isn’t room or time. The fact that Katie Engelhart doesn’t seem to know about us, or that the mainstream media isn’t reporting on us, doesn’t mean we’re not here, or that we’re not a significant part of this movement.

Do we need more? Hell, yes. Do we need to deal with the sexism and misogyny in our movement? Hell, yes. Many of us are already working on this, have been working on it for some time — and we’ve gotten results. (Atheist conferences with all- or mostly-male speaker lineups used to be common: now they’re a rarity. And female attendance at atheist conferences has gone up significantly.) But if Salon wants to address the issue of why female atheists aren’t getting enough attention outside the atheist community, maybe they could start by not illustrating an article on women atheists with pictures of Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Stephen Okawa

    So it has nothing to do with the fact that some of the prominent male atheists have A.) More expertise B.) Might be better speakers and debaters C.) Appeal to a wider audience (since there are, ahem, more male atheists than female) D.) Have actually written more than female atheists E.) Historically, there has been a tradition of prominent male atheists/agnostics orators (Robert Ingersoll, Charles Bradlaugh, Darwin, Russell, Sagan, Fyneman, Hitchens, Dawkins, T.H. Huxley, etc. etc. etc)?

    This all goes to the wayside?

    What else would you like to discard in order to prove your point and wrap it in a neat little package called sexism — which, by the way, I do believe exists; but not as a blanket term for every disparity there is.

  2. 2
    Stephen Okawa

    Equality is fine. But to use racism or sexism or feminism as proof-positive absolutes? No thank you. Catch-alls are for religious dogma. This is the opposite of free-thought; this is purposely guilting people into making changes that, yes, need to come, but also need to come from a place of facts and evidence. Again, you have an unfalsifiable claim. Do you want an egalitarian result based on equal efforts or a dead-reckoning of ideas?

  3. 3
    Greta Christina

    Stephen Okawa @ #2: This was explained to you on Twitter, ad nauseum, and you failed to engage in good faith. You didn’t respond to any of the actual arguments being made: in fact, you ignored them.

    To repeat those points, for those who aren’t on Twitter: This piece, the one being discussed right now, the one right above these comments, links to documentation of sexism in the media. Sexism is still sexism, even if there isn’t conscious intent to discriminate. There is also extensive, rigorously researched documentation of unconscious sexism in society in general. To think that atheists are somehow free of this pattern would be an extraordinary claim indeed. The parsimonious explanation for female under-representation in atheism is that sexism is at least part of the problem. And we have seen plenty of examples of extensive sexism in the atheist community. This is not an extraordinary claim. Why does it so frequently get treated as it were a claim of Bigfoot?

    Stephen Okawa, btw, is the person who claimed on Twitter that, quote, “Making sexist comments doesn’t make [people] sexist.” Making sexist comments. Isn’t. Sexist.

    I have no reason to think that this person is engaging in good faith. Looks like a troll; smells like a troll. Bye.

  4. 4
    Greta Christina

    Opps — missed Stephen Okawa’s trollly comments in #1. He’s been banned, largely for his trolly behavior on Twitter. But for the sake of anyone else following this:

    A.) More expertise B.) Might be better speakers and debaters.

    Women in Secularism, Affirmative Action, and “Lowering the Bar”

    C.) Appeal to a wider audience (since there are, ahem, more male atheists than female)

    Interesting that you think “wider audience” = “male audience.” Yes, we understand that there are currently more men in the atheist community than women. This is the exact thing that we’re trying to fix — among other things, by making a conscious effort to get more women as speakers. We’re trying to make atheism bigger, by making it appealing to a wider demographic than it’s traditionally appealed to, by (among other things) dealing with the unconscious biases that have been making these other demographics feel unwelcome. And the assumption that a male audience wouldn’t be interested in listening to women speakers is not only sexist against women — it’s incredibly insulting to men.

    D.) Have actually written more than female atheists E.) Historically, there has been a tradition of prominent male atheists/agnostics orators (Robert Ingersoll, Charles Bradlaugh, Darwin, Russell, Sagan, Fyneman, Hitchens, Dawkins, T.H. Huxley, etc. etc. etc)?

    And the well-documented, rigorously researched phenomenon of unconscious (and indeed often conscious) sexism doesn’t have anything to do with that. The fact that it’s been easier for men to get publishing contracts and speaking gigs, and has been for decades and centuries, doesn’t have anything to do with sexism. m-/

  5. 5
    Gen, Uppity Ingrate and Ilk

    You’ve got to love it when someone’s response to something like this is: (paraphrase)

    “This isn’t due to sexism! Men are just better at speaking and writing and thinking. Atheism and leadership are both guy things! Calling it sexism is absurd!’

    It’s either laugh or start crying.

  6. 6
    schnauzermom

    When I read that Salon article, I kept looking for your name, Greta. In fact, I went back and re-read it a number of times, thinking I must have missed it. But no. And of course, the other names of prominent women atheists that you listed — all absent. So my conclusion was that Katie Englehart either left you and the others out intentionally just to make a (dishonest) point or just doesn’t try very hard to find and read the works of atheist who are also women. Because you’re not hard to find. (I operate on the assumption that if I, a person who is not necessarily internet-savvy, can find or do a thing on the internet, then ANYBODY can do it.)

    And yes, the mainstream media is incredibly sexist. And dumb. It’s painful and maddening to watch. (Flipping channels in a hotel room the other day, I passed through The Today Show — which I usually avoid — for something like 5 seconds, and was treated to a chirpy voice saying that they were going to tell Kate Middleton how to get rid of that “baby bump.” Because we have to 1) give a shit that she has one and 2) as a woman who had just given birth days before, of course, she is not allowed to even look as if she has just given birth. AAArrrrrrgh.)

  7. 7
    Steve Sirhan

    Well, if there’s several different questions that got conflated, they can’t all really have the same answer, can they? Stephen’s right. I don’t know what he’s said on Twitter, but, if what he said here is also trollery, I wouldn’t die for getting banned, either. Also, I hope, in light of this and what Stephanie’s said, that Twitter rethinks its Block Bot. http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/07/and-what-if-more-atheists-are-men.html

  8. 8
    Joe Knapka

    More male atheists than female, huh? To quote Harry Potter (the smart one): “What do you think you know, and why do you think you know it?”

    I attend two different nontheist groups, and both of them have a pretty equal split between male and female members. One of those is a group I founded last November, in which we have made a conscious effort to include as many women and people of color as we can – and we’ve attracted a lot of them. I don’t think, based on my admittedly small sample of 50 or so individuals, that there are significantly more male atheists than female ones. If you look for nontheist women, or even just take a minute to avoid annoying them, you will find a bunch.

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