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May 19 2013

Asking the Wrong Question about Ingersoll #wiscfi

I ended up missing the last two talks of the Women In Secularism conference because I had to catch a stupid plane that was stupid ten hours earlier than I would have stupid liked. Stupid. Blah.

Okay, I’m happy that I’m home, and completely bloody spent, but in a good way. A mostly good way. There were a few nasty objectionable ragey bits, but that’s okay, we can all disagree here on the internet. And it’s not like disagreement with those nasty bits weren’t put front and centre on the stage through the entire conference.

Those ragey bits had a minor trend among them — several of them were expressly about how uninviting such a conference or such a social justice movement in general might be to men. In the one case, you have CFI CEO Ron A Lindsay’s opening speech claiming that feminists are using the word privilege to shut down civil disagreements or as a club to end arguments (without providing examples), and “cautioning” the feminists in the audience that men should not be told to “shut up and listen”. (As though only men did that.) We won’t talk about this poorly thought-out exercise in well-poisoning, this abuse of Lindsay’s bully pulpit, because many people have already expended far too many words (though here’s some excellent ones) about a man’s point of view during a conference attempting to expand women’s input in the secular movement. Suffice it to say, I strongly disagree with Ron, but making this conference even more about him undercuts all the worthy content from the women who spoke this weekend.

Sadly, I didn’t get to see one of the other ragey bits in person. During the second-last slot of the day today, R Elisabeth Cornwell of the Richard Dawkins Foundation presented a talk titled Who Speaks for Feminism. Kate Donovan was on hand to live-blog it. There were a few sticking points in it, but I’m most interested in this brief post (well, brief compared to all the other transcription I’ve done this weekend!), in challenging only one part.

I will reserve judgement on the exact wording of this part of the talk, but Kate transcribed a passage where Cornwell extolled the virtues of Robert Green Ingersoll, someone whose name had come up more than once during the course of this conference. Kate’s take:

The first wave of feminism was about getting the rights that we now consider unthinkable (in the West) to lack. Susan Jacoby reminded us that even old white Republican males can speak for feminism. Would Robert Ingersoll be welcome at this conference. Would he have been told that because he’s not a woman he can’t be here? [Me: WHAT. One audience member: YES! Rest of audience: NO!!]

I’ll further reserve judgement on who that one audience member was, but I have a suspicion or two. (Update: see Simon’s comment for an explanation.) Either way, they may actually be right, in a way. They may not, though.

I strongly suspect that Robert G Ingersoll, if asked to make a case for feminism and secularism, could do a bang up job. Sure, he was a “staunch conservative Republican,” performing oratory as entertainment back when that was the most popular form of entertainment, back in the days when Republicans were Democrats and Democrats were Republicans. Remember that weird flip in who wanted strong government and who had all the progressives and human rights activists, sometime in the 1960s, during the Southern Strategy, when the Republicans transformed into the party of the Religious Right? That flip inverted the color map of the United States, where the North opposing slavery, the party of Lincoln, was the Republicans and the South, supporting slavery states’ rights (to own slaves), was Democrats. The liberal northern Democrats stayed put, the conservative southern Democrats joined the Republicans. Also remember that the Republican party came into being when neither the Democrats nor Whigs had any intention of ever doing anything about slavery.

This fact drastically undermines the point Cornwell wanted to make here, unfortunately, that some political affiliations that are today blatantly anti-woman might be capable of standing up for feminism. Not that there aren’t real feminist Republicans — I’m sure there are people who self-identify as such, and might even manage to compromise one or the other to make those labels fit.

Ingersoll as a “conservative” was an economic conservative. He was a vocal agnostic antitheist, and easily the most vocal male feminist of his time in the West. As a white male, he was one of the privileged few able to voice opinions in his day. He was blatantly anti-corporate, supporting an eight-hour work day, even going so far as to demand equal pay for women. The guy was definitely on the side of angels about most things, even where he was still the product of his 19th century upbringing.

He also commanded practically exorbitant orator fees for his performances — almost a buck a head, back when that added up to real money. He made a good living off his craft, despite critics who were terribly irritated by his anti-theist jabs. He’d be a real moneymaker if added to any conference.

The real question that Cornwell likely posed, presuming that the transcript was clipped as it was a live blog, cannot “would he be welcome at Women In Secularism”, as there were many, many feminist or feminist-leaning men who were in the audience and most welcome to listen to the talks and participate in the socialization and even ask tough questions. I know — I’m one of those men. So, too, was Justin Vacula, who was personally welcomed by Ron Lindsay on behalf of CFI — though he evidently thought that “no harassment” meant “no socialization”, and kept his head bowed through just about every single talk, and I somehow managed to never see him outside of a conference room. So even anti-feminist men were welcome there (as long as they didn’t harass people). The question of whether a man would be welcome at the convention is mooted by the reality of this one.

The real question that Cornwell must have posed, then — despite the audience’s reaction, which serves as evidence against this interpretation — is whether or not Ingersoll would have been welcome to speak. I contend that he might have been a significantly better choice to speak than Ron Lindsay, given what they each had to say about the subject, frankly; if Ingersoll was the CEO of CFI, I’d expect him to set a better tone with his opening remarks. (Possibly using the word “bailiwick“. I love that word.) However, knowing that this conference was called Women in Secularism, he presents as the wrong gender to really help improve the visibility of non-cis-white-males at conferences in general. Chances are he wouldn’t have been asked, because he was already a popular draw and a man, not a less-popular woman, and that kinda cuts the whole conference off at the knees.

But I still think this is the wrong question. The real question should be, in my mind: “Would Robert G Ingersoll speak at Women in Secularism, if he was asked?”

Would he speak at a conference called Women In Secularism, knowing full well that he wasn’t one, if he was asked? I’d like to think, if he’s half the booster of women’s right to do work at the same pay as men, he would command his prices per head speaking at the convention, then show up and do Lauren Becker’s duties of keeping time and introducing the speakers. Or he might just sit down in the audience and listen quietly. I don’t know that we particularly have any pull quotes from his oratory that specifically support my hunch, but it seems like the kind of thing the wag might do.

But that’s pure speculation. I know, imagining myself as an orator of his calibre but every bit as feminist as I am today, that if I was asked, I’d say “hell no”. I’d want to be a contributor in subtle ways that emphasize the women involved, and not myself. Ways like liveblogging the entire conference, for instance.

I’m just sayin’.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    bobapthorpe

    I expect he’d speak if asked, if he felt his contribution was germane, and then only if he felt both the crowd & speakers felt him speaking was appropriate. I think he’d have enough grace and sense to be interesting & inspiring & positive while not making it about him.

    Read whatever you want into that. For better and for worse, we’re far from the days of ol’ Col. Bob.

  2. 2
    Simon

    FYI I was an audience member that said “yes” fairly loudly (my voice carries) and probably one of the the first to do so (I think I heard others), because I heard the first part of Liz’s question as “Would Robert Ingersoll be welcome here?” I do have a personal tendency that rightly annoys people and that is to be somewhat enthusiastic about responding to questions and don’t always wait for people to finish their sentence :-( However, after I had said this the latter part registered to me as “would he be welcome to speak here?” which others then said “no” to and at which point I started to reconsider. I’m not sure if it was two questions one after the other or one sentence though. I then commented to the woman next to me that I thought this was a bit of a “gotcha” type of question mainly for the reasons you cite and namely that the Republican party was quite different at that time. Lincoln was a Republican after all too. Like everyone else, I don’t have the transcript to know exactly how it was phrased but just putting out there what I perceived as the sequence. The video will come out however this is one where we can “go to the tape” eventually.

  3. 3
    Mattir, Another One With Boltcutters

    And playing cards against humanity so as to be a bad influence on teenagers.

    I’m just sayin’.

  4. 4
    phil zombi

    I daresay if Robert Ingersoll were alive today he would be speaking at practically every other goddamn atheist convention. I can’t think of any particular reason that he would not be welcome to contribute from the audience.

  5. 5
    Bruce

    Mrs. Robert Ingersoll would perhaps have said this:
    As most of you know, my husband, Colonel Ingersoll, has often spoken of the perfect harmony that exists between himself and myself. On this occasion of the Women in Secularism Conference 2, let me point out the obvious, that our harmony has only been possible because of our deep and independent shared commitment to the principles of free-thought. As has been evident for the past year, the WiS2 conference is an appropriate venue for speech only by us ladies. Thus, the Colonel is giving his strongest possible endorsement to this gathering by being a model attendee, sitting down there in the second row, listening to all the female speakers attentively, and refraining from any public comment during this conference.
    While the Colonel was quite willing to serve as an aide in the drafting of my remarks, I assured him from the beginning that such gallant assistance was neither required nor appropriate, and he has fully accepted this. After around a half-century of my own forethought views, admittedly somewhat influenced by listening to the great agnostic orator of our age, my remarks to follow are entirely my own in every sense. And the Colonel will be able to assure you — after the conference — that this is the case.

  6. 6
    Silentbob

    I’ve got my pedant’s hat on, but it’s Ronald A Lindsay (not “J”).

  7. 7
    Jason Thibeault

    Simon: linked your comment in the body.

    Silentbob: Fixed in the two places I made that same mistake. Must be because A and J sound the same when spoken? I dunno. Anyway. Thanks!

  8. 8
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    Jason, OT, but it was great meeting you and giving you a hug! :D

  9. 9
    Stephanie Zvan

    Bruce, are you trying to tell me that Eva Ingersoll had a career that we in the secular movement should be remembering or that the people on stage at WiS were or would be chosen for being married to someone famous?

  10. 10
    Dan Allosso

    The Republican Party “of Lincoln” was a coalition of several pretty diverse elements, including Whigs, Free Soilers, eastern Abolitionists. After they had stopped slavery, each group gradually began to focus again on their own interests and point of view. This may tell us something useful about movements.

    I wasn’t there, but it seems the air was filled with the name Ingersoll, and that many people came out of Susan Jacoby’s talk (and into discussions like this one) with the idea that Robert Ingersoll was the only male secularist in our history who was interested in women’s issues. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

    Charles Knowlton, Robert Dale Owen, and Abner Kneeland jump easily to mind (because while you folks were in WA, I was in the Twin Cities talking about these guys with MN Atheists), and in England, Richard Carlile, Francis Place, John Stuart Mill. Look below the “big names,” and there are many more. The point is that women’s and family issues were central to the programs of many freethinkers in history. Often their interests centered on family planning and birth control, bit Owen campaigned against the “medieval” laws that stripped his fiance of her rights and property when she married him.

    It might help the movement, to better understand the real relationship between secularism and social causes (in addition to women’s issues, we might look at abolition, labor reform, education…). It would also help, I think, to understand that the movement and these concerns were very broad-based. Ingersoll was not a monolith. He CAME FROM a freethought tradition and lived within one. Although picking a woman to headline a secular women’s event would be a good start, maybe what we need to address longer term is not so much the “man” thing, but the “great man” thing.

  11. 11
    smhll

    …and “cautioning” the feminists in the audience that men should not be told to “shut up and listen”.

    Because it’s apparently a fucking waste of breath anyway.

    Sigh, it’s not like “shut up and listen” wasn’t preceeded by many, many iterations of “listen… listen… listen… listen” that did not achieve the goal of having men set aside their prejudices and really listen, hear and believe what women were saying.

    This goes all the way back to Abigail Adams in the year 1776, asking her husband to “remember the ladies” and maybe give them some legal rights. (He didn’t.)

  12. 12
    Reginald Selkirk

    The Republican Party of the 19th century bore no resemblance to today’s POG (Party of God). Just recently we had Senator Rand Paul trying to teach U.S. black history to students of Howard University, and had his *** handed back to him.

  13. 13
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    Actually, I honestly thought it was the person who came with Vacula who shouted “yes” after Cornwell’s second question about Ingersoll being uninvited because he’s male. Kate’s transcription is actually accurate, at least to what I remember… I had also rage-quit as I told you on Twitter, as I found her speech infuriating beyond belief, so it’s totally possible that my memory is rather off… but what Kate wrote jives with my memory.

    I actually like that the conference is all about women, and that it’s women doing the speaking. I think it needs to stay that way, as well.

    META:
    Next time, Jason, you have to stay for the whole CAH game… we need the whole thing live-blogged and tweeted. :D

  14. 14
    smhll

    I had also rage-quit as I told you on Twitter, as I found her speech infuriating beyond belief, so it’s totally possible that my memory is rather off…

    Veering somewhat off topic, today my husband and I had an interesting conversation about the words/phrases/memes in discourse that are fraught with meaning for us and provoke our ire and how conversation deteriorates after that point. (I can’t really call these keywords and key ideas “triggers” as that has another meaning, but am not sure what to call them.) But, yes, there are some really smug arguments that interfere with my reading comprehension as I start muttering things like “I can’t believe you brought up that shitty old argument…”)

    Not sure how to let all the arguments that are fairly evidenced based into the arena while screening out the low-quality, repetitive crap.

  15. 15
    MyaR

    (Person who came with Vacula was Karla Porter. See: invitation to WBC to come to WiS.)

  16. 16
    Bruce

    My apologies to the wonderful Stephanie Zvan (#9) and anyone else who might have construed my comment (#5) as suggesting that speakers might have been selected for personal reasons. I would never mean to suggest that.

    Instead, I meant to propose that if the Ingersolls had been here in 2012-2013, my hypothesis is that Col. & Mrs. Ingersoll would have realized that WiS#1 was a speaking opportunity that the Colonel, as a male, could NOT in good conscience have participated in. Then, this would (I propose) have inspired Mrs. Ingersoll to realize that she was fully capable of expressing her own views by herself, even though history indicates she had always felt it adequate to leave that to her husband. In other words, the environment and the raised consciousness of the discussion in this past year would have prompted her to speak out on her own, and to find her own voice. I created this “voice” for Eva Ingersoll in response to the post topic of what would Robert Ingersoll do. My answer to the original topic was implicitly that Robert Ingersoll would have shut up and listened most graciously, and that he would have thought it very appropriate to do so.

    If one could imagine any speakers from the past century, there is a book full of qualified ones in “Women Without Superstition” by Annie Laurie Gaylor. Eva Ingersoll was not prominent enough in her lifetime to be one of those speakers, but the post topic implicitly limited it to Ingersolls, so I was stretching it even to include Eva.

    But let’s also remember what Eva Ingersoll wrote in the 1898 appendix to “The Women’s Bible, Part II.” She said “In the days of darkness, women … were allowed no voice in public affairs. … It gives me pleasure to know that women are beginning to think and are becoming dissatisfied with the religion of barbarians.” So Eva had her own free-thought views. She just wouldn’t have seen herself as a public speaker until presumably after WiS#1.

    Thanks to Stephanie for prompting me to clarify myself.

  17. 17
    Bruce

    On a separate aspect of planning conferences, here is an analogy.
    In the 1840s and 1850s, there were several anti-slavery conferences. After 1865, there was much less motivation for anyone to organize one, because everyone (at least publicly) was anti-slavery.
    In the same way, once everyone is an atheist, there will be no more desire for atheist conferences (but that day will probably never come).
    Similarly, once everyone is a feminist (at least publicly), there will be no more need for feminist conferences, and no more need for Secular conferences at which all the speakers should be female. I think that day will come eventually, but perhaps not within my lifetime (I’m not young). People who criticize women will be viewed as we now view people who think the left-handed are agents of Satan. You notice nobody has a pro-slavery web site, and nobody has a web site calling for a voice for right-handers. It will become an embarrassment to admit that we had ancestors who participated in ANY form of “witch”-hunting, or McCarthyism, or pursuing left-handers because “that’s the hand THEY use.”

  18. 18
    smhll

    Similarly, once everyone is a feminist (at least publicly), there will be no more need for feminist conferences, and no more need for Secular conferences at which all the speakers should be female.

    I’m looking forward to the day when we can stop gathering at “conferences” and start having more “festivals”. (Although gathering and conferring about science will still go on even if the need for conferences about injustice dies out, because there will always be cool new discoveries to talk about.)

  19. 19
    sezit

    I was there, and I walked out near the beginning of his talk because I was so irritated. IThe speech was compltely tone deaf. That was even before he got to the scolding. Frankly, my thinking was “what white person would have introduced a black panel with all the crappy biblical slavery quotes that they already know?” It always sucks when someone who hasn’t experienced it tells your story to you. As if you had no idea.

    However, I would have welcomed Linday (or Ingersoll, for that matter) if the speech had been all about his desire as a leader of the movement to (#1) visibly show his support for our equality and say that he looked forward to (#2) listening and (#3) learning. In other words, a true welcome. His actual speech did not indicate enthusiastic commitment to any of these 3 items. Major fail.

  20. 20
    Jason Thibeault

    Katherine: Ditto! Hopefully we’ll have more time to chat next time!

    Nate: If said CAH game is held sometime when I’m not preoccupied with all the responsibilities, you’re on.

    smhll: Hear hear. Would so love a festival rather than a conference — perhaps one day matters won’t be quite so pressing.

    Bruce: I actually didn’t interpret it the way Stephanie did (I interpreted it as Eva stepping in and answering FOR her husband), but your clarification was exceedingly graceful either way. Cheers!

  21. 21
    Stephanie Zvan

    Thank you, Bruce, both for the clarification and for responding so gracefully to my confusion.

  22. 22
    Eamon Knight

    @Mattir: Well, you did rather leave them in our tender hands…..

  1. 23
    Women in Secularism 2: Breaking News: Even at WiS, we have to defend the purpose of WiS! | Dissent of a Woman

    [...] an aside, Elisabeth Cornwell was apparently kind of ridiculous on Sunday as well due to her shallow understanding of women’… but considering I skipped that day and went home early because she has done this before, I am not [...]

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