They were right there

Soraya Chemaly offers answers to the perennial, silly question, “where are all the women in ___?” Actually it’s not in ___, but it might as well be. It’s in atheism, but it could be philosophy or gaming or politics or you know the drill.

In a Salon piece last week called, “Where are the women of new atheism?”, Katie Englehardt described what looks like diminishing participation of women in atheist life. She also encouraged atheist women to more openly embrace their beliefs.

Yeah it’s not that we don’t embrace our beliefs openly – it’s that people always forget to mention us, including Engelhart herself. Yes, Engelhart herself – in the very act of writing (yet another) article wondering where we all were, she herself concealed the names of a lot of us for no earthly reason. Look at it again – the article wondering where we all were.

But before long, these New Atheists were depicted as an old boys’ club—a clique of (white) men, bound by a particularly unyielding brand of disbelief.

Where were the women?

Why, they were right there: stolidly leading people away from the fold. They were irreverent bloggers and institution founders. And scholars. Around the time that the DawkinsHitchensHarris tripartite published its big wave of Atheist critique, historian Jennifer Michael Hecht published “Doubt” and journalist Susan Jacoby published “Freethinkers“—both critically acclaimed. And yet, these women, and many others, failed to emerge as public figures, household names.

See that? Two names, but also a whole slew of concealed ones, hiding under all those links. Stupid, isn’t it? Why not include the names in the article, instead of hiding them under links? Is it immodest to name women? Under irreverent you have Jen McCreight, under bloggers you have all the women of Skepchick (like Rebecca Watson, Amy Davis Roth, Elyse Anders, Heina Dadabhoy), under institution you have the pillars of Secular Woman like Kim Rippere and Monette Richards, under founders you have Annie Laurie Gaylor of FFRF. Under many you have Annie Laurie again and under others you have…me.

So that’s one place the women are – they’re being concealed even by people who are ostensibly writing about their very concealment. There aren’t enough face-palms in the world…

Among Soraya’s reasons –

Second, sexism is real and has an effect on women’s participation and leadership within the atheist community.  Rape jokes and sexual harassment, as penalties and tools to silence women, exist in atheist and secular groups as well as religious ones. Many people hold the tacit belief that atheism equals rationalism and rationalism is gender-neutral, and therefore sexism can’t exist among atheists. But critical thinkers do irrational things all the time — and unless they actively try to resist existing prejudices, they can easily fall into them.  The discrimination based on class, race, gender and sexuality that we see in the broader culture exists in atheist and secular communities too, and requires the same dismantling.

Big time. We’re working on it, but…right now it’s like going up a down escalator.

The Women in Secularism Conference, started by Melody Hensley and the Center for Free Inquiry in 2012, is meant to address imbalance. This year’s conference, which began with an efflorescent expression of the problems at hand, was bigger than last year’s.

Fifth, it’s no exaggeration to say that managing sexism is exhausting, depressing and distracts from work women could be doing as visible spokespeople of fighting for higher and equal pay, or immigration policies that include uneducated women, or ending sexual predation, or advocating for the right to control our own reproduction. All of which, by the way, would probably contribute to the growth of secular and non-religious culture.  (There are reasons why seven of the ten most religious states in the US are also rated the worse states for women to live in.) The need to constantly struggle against gender-based prejudice leaves women with less time and energy to work on any of these issues.

Conferences like Women in Secularism Conference or Blackout, a secular rally celebrating diversity started by Mandisa L. Thomas, president and founder of Black Nonbelievers, are vibrant events and important to building communities. But they’re not enough.  Kim Rippere, founder of Secular Woman explains,  “The secular community needs to be self-reflective regarding acceptance and inclusion both within our community and in society and the media has to stop ignoring women atheists or it will continue to be difficult for women to emerge as atheist leaders.”

Katie Engelhart please note.



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