It’s rather like a case of acne; we’ve got it, people are pointing it out, and we’re trying out denial as a solution. It doesn’t work. I think Victoria Bekiempis is quite right in pointing out that New Atheism is a boys’ club.
But other female atheists are blunt in their assessment of why the face of atheism doesn’t necessarily reflect the gender makeup of its adherents. Annie Laurie Gaylor, who founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation with her mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor, in 1978, sums it up succinctly: “One word – sexism.” Gaylor’s husband, Dan Barker, who helms the organisation along with her, is usually the one invited to speaking engagements, despite her longer tenure as the organisation’s leader and her numerous books on atheism. Doubt author Hecht, too, identifies basic chauvinism in the persistent lower profile of female atheists, stating that in her own experience, the work of female atheists tends to be individualised, rather than contextualised as part of a watershed scholarly movement. “Nobody talked about [Doubt] as a ‘phenomenon’,” she notes. “They just talked about the book.” Finally, when well-known atheists also happen to be just as well known for their misogynist statements – like Hitchens, as well as fellow skeptic Stephen Fry, who once theorised that women “don’t really like sex” – it just adds to atheism’s existing public-relations problem.
Representation matters, and when various media reports combined to create the “New Atheist” meme without mentioning the contributions of the women involved in the movement, the result was that the meme itself became masculinised. And because contemporary atheism has become so synonymous with this initially identified group, women atheists may well continue to be overlooked by the mainstream (or will, as some female skeptics have, reject inclusion on principle). It’s a state of affairs very much in line with the history of women in other fields in which battling continued institutional neglect – as opposed to intrinsic hostility – is an ongoing theme.
I know what happens next. Hackles rise, men get all defensive, and get huffy and angry while simultaneously denying that they have a pimple and how rude of those nasty feminists (said with a sneer) to point it out. But the facts are all there. Women have been activists and leaders in this movement for a long, long time — I blame Susan Jacoby and her book Freethinkers as the catalyst that first really inspired me — and yet, somehow, they always get forgotten when it’s time to give credit or build a list of invited speakers for a conference or when the media, largely ignorant of atheism, tries to name a few atheists. I’ve seen it happen over and over. It’s a very real phenomenon that Bekiempis is describing, and what’s also real is how some people will get very angry if anyone mentions it.
I think that last line is mostly correct, though. It’s not an intrinsic hostility to women (although we’ve encountered a few people who are nasty haters — but they are a fringe minority and definitely not part of the leadership), but a pattern of blindness. The good news is that this is a problem we can easily correct: we have no shortage of talented women in atheism right now, most of the atheists I’ve talked to readily acknowledge atheist women’s existence with a little nudging, and every conference organizer is receptive to the idea of greater inclusion.
It isn’t just atheism, either. I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in my classes: I often put optional, extra-credit questions on my exams, and one I used many times is the simple, “Name a female scientist”…and students are often stumped by it. The most common answer I get is “Marie Curie”; the second most common is no answer at all. And this is in a department where half the faculty are women! There are other famous female scientists besides Marie Curie, and they ought to be at least aware of the local talent.
The solution is relatively easy: more of that consciousness raising. The women are here, the guys just have to notice…and that doesn’t mean noticing that there are breasts around, but that there are good minds without Y chromosomes, and that we can be equals without diminishing the male contribution.
Our one obstacle? The small number of indignant people who will be in denial, and take recognition of a common problem as an insult. Get over it. Appreciating women as partners actually doesn’t hurt, and the only insult here is the bizarrely obtuse attitude of some men and women.