Women in Secularism conference: a summary, part 1

Daughter-spawn here. I recently got back from CFI’s Women in Secularism conference in Washington, D.C. I’m just going to do some brief summaries/impressions of the talks/panels for those who were not one of the lucky 200-some people in attendance.

The first talk was by Susan Jacoby (author of The Age of American Unreason and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism), entitled “The Dearth of Women in the Secular Movement: Let’s Look in the Mirror”

I unfortunately missed the first half of Jacoby’s talk, but she seemed all over the place. Jumping from discussing the history of secularism and feminism to the difference between the atheism and skepticism movements (the skeptic movement tending to be more conservative and male-oriented) to the recent case of an Arizona Catholic high school softball team forfeiting because the other team had a girl on it. I was having a hard time finding a cohesive theme in her talk. Rocky start to the conference, IMO.

This was made up for by the next session, a panel moderated by Annie Laurie Gaylor, with Ophelia Benson, Sikivu Hutchinson, Jennifer McCreight, and Rebecca Watson: “The Intersection of Non-theism and Feminism”.

Hutchinson provided a welcome racial minority perspective here. She talked about how disproportionately affected by sexism minority women were and are; how historically black women’s reproduction was strictly controlled by slave owners, how black and Hispanic women are seen as “dangerous breeders” and the recent laws regarding “chemical endangerment” and such are targeting them. I don’t think she really established a link between what she was talking about and secularism, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Hutchinson also criticised the secular movement for promoting scientism, saying that scientism generally excludes racial minorities and women, even throwing out the accusation of white supremacy.

Watson and McCreight discussed their experiences with introducing feminism into atheism/skepticism, and the backlash that results. The complaint when they do so is basically “this is not science/atheism, so it doesn’t belong here”. McCreight made the case that the goals are similar. Religious belief is irrational and not fact-based, and so is sexist belief. If your goal is to promote rational thinking, feminism is an inevitable part of that. But unfortunately, the difference between the two is that giving up religion feels freeing, whereas giving up sexist beliefs often feels more restricting.

Benson talked about how at some point, some of the feminist movement stopped pushing for equality, and embraced a “Okay, we’re not equal, but we’re different in good ways” attitude, which created the common stereotypes of women being more caring, better at emotions, more family-oriented, and so on. This attitude, perpetuated by a lot of women’s studies academics, has been harmful to women in secularism since none of these supposedly “good” stereotypes are advantageous for secular activism, so women are passed over.

The next talk was by the new head of the Secular Coalition for America, Edwina Rogers: “Religiously Motivated Legislation Particularly Harms Women”. Turns out the title was misleading. This 15-minute talk served more as an advertisement for the SCA. Most of it was discussing plans to expand to more states, the staff structure of the organisation, affiliated organisations, and so on. Then she whizzed through lists of the issues that SCA is focused on lobbying about — contraceptive access, violence against women, pharmacist and employer exemptions, and so on. She had to be somewhere else, so she couldn’t do a longer talk, but I’m not convinced that was a bad thing.

Next up was Annie Laurie Gaylor, “The History of Women in Freethought”. Great talk. I had no idea the extent to which women had been involved in the past. It’s sad how many of these women have been forgotten, and it wasn’t due to lack of contribution.

She talked about how the women’s rights movement was founded by female freethinkers. Since the lack of legal rights and lower social standing that women had were of biblical origin, it was the women who left religion who were the first to speak up.

She gave brief bios of a large number of female freethinkers: Anne Hutchinson (the first female heretic in North America, excluding Native Americans), Mary Wollstonecraft (who wrote the first book talking about women’s rights), Frances Wright (“Turn your churches into halls of science, exchange your teachers of faith for expounders of nature”), Ernestine L. Rose (who had a large hand in the Married Women’s Property Act), Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage (who founded the first feminist organisation to advocate separation of church and state).

Josephine K. Henry, Clara Colby, Lillie Devereux Blake, Mathilde Amneke, Ella Elvira Gibson, Helen H. Gardener, Harriet Marineau, Lydia Maria Child, Margaret Fuller, George Eliot (Marian Evans), Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramée), Sharlot Hall, Elmina D. Slenker, Zona Gale, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Lucy N. Coleman, Etta Semple, Susan H. Wixon, Marilla M. Ricker, Annie Besant, Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, Voltairine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman, Lucy Parsons, Margret Sanger, Marian Noel Sherman, Dora Russell, Meridel le Sueur, Queen Silver, Margaret Knight, Butterfly McQueen, Vashti Cromwell McCollum, Ruth Hurmence Green, Catherine Fahringer, Barbara Smoker, Meg Bowman, Barbara G. Walker, Madalyn O’Hair, Kay Nolte Smith, Anne Nicol Gaylor, Sherry Matulis, Sonia Johnson, Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, Taslima Nasrin, Alice Walker, Ursula K. LeGuin, Wendy Kaminer, Ann Dryuan, Natalie Angier, Sara Paretsky, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Robin Morgan, Julia Sweeney, Jamila Bey, Susan Jacoby, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Sikivu Hutchinson, Jessica Ahlquist.

So much for the “there haven’t been very many female atheist activists” excuse for not being able to name five. For more on the subject, Gaylor has a book called Women Without Superstition.

So I’ll conclude part 1 here, and have part 2 up shortly, but there was something else I wanted to talk about. During the previously mentioned panel, Jen mentioned getting emails from women warning her about which male speakers at secular conferences that women should avoid. And from my talking with other people at the conference, it sounds like there are quite a few stories of well-known speakers being misogynistic or sleazy.

That’s a problem. It’s a problem that anyone is behaving that way, and it’s a problem that they’re not being called out on it. Several times the importance of calling people out on their actions was discussed at this conference, but this just isn’t being done.

If the issue is that individuals who’ve had these experiences are worried about backlash, or career suicide, I’m sure we could work out a way of anonymously publishing at least some of this information. If the issue is a fear of hurting the secular movement at large, I just don’t think that’s something to be greatly concerned about. So a speaker is called out for his comments or actions — they have the option to admit wrong and apologise, or to defend themselves, or to deny it. But at least there will be some amount of accountability. It might deter future misconduct, and conference organisers and attendees can make an informed choice about who to invite or support. There’s no shortage of good speakers to replace them.

Seriously, we need to do something about this.