Women In Secularism – Reports from the Conference

“Given the role religion has played in the repression of women, they would seem to be natural allies, and, indeed, many feminists have been outspoken and influential secularists. However, the relationship between secularism and women’s issues remains largely unexamined. UNTIL NOW.”
This was the intriguing (and totally overdue) challenge that piqued my interest earlier this year. Discussing openly how dogmatic religion conspires to prevent the progress of women’s rights in our country, well, more women should be willing to confront that!
I was kind of nervous about attending this conference last weekend, “Women in Secularism,” because I was attending on my own and probably wouldn’t know anyone very well except by recognizing their faces from Facebook or other secular organizations. But since I am planning to lead a session on women at the American Humanist Association convention in New Orleans next month, I felt I couldn’t miss out on the chance to hear what women leaders in the movement were talking about. It would be embarrassing to do otherwise and risk being misinformed or totally behind the times.

So I decided that since I missed out on the Reason Rally in March, it would benefit me to make the effort to attend an event that would address issues that are near and dear to my heart: feminism. And secularism. And the meshing of both.

The first session was a panel moderated by well-known author Susan Jacoby titled “The Intersection of Non-theism and Feminism.” The speakers included Ophelia Benson, Sikivu Hutchinson (who will be a speaker at AHA in New Orleans in June), Jennifer McCreight and Rebecca Watson. Needless to say, there were some major names and I was excited to hear them in person.

Jacoby is a lovely person, full of incredible knowledge and humor. She explained in her opening remarks that she has asked this question, “…why are women more religious than men as whole?” to her regular readers and she didn’t sugar coat the responses, however misogynistic they might be.

“Because women are dumber-er.” That was the typical comment or variation of a theme that some men offered. Being religious is known as a common trait and characteristic of females world-wide across all socioeconomic levels. Education is not as much of a factor either. Black women with better education than black men are still more religious on average. It is heartening that younger women and better educated women are more than likely to be less religious, but as a whole, they aren’t as involved in atheism as a movement. It isn’t an easy sale to them.

“Dawkins is not the pope, Sam Harris is not a cardinal and Christopher Hitchens is not, forgive me, the Holy Ghost. And Susan Jacoby is not a nun,” she quoted to uproarious laughter.

She made a very important point that philosophy and science were not hospitable academic fields for women prior in the 1980s which was when and from where the leaders in the secular humanist movement developed, so it isn’t hard to see why women didn’t gravitate towards it as a group. They simply weren’t involved in the same numbers.

Oddly if men of the late 20th century were not interested the history of civil rights for women, Robert Ingersoll, the 19th century Golden Age freethinker, resembled more the feminists of the 1970s. Jacoby said he believed that it was a lack of opportunity for education that held women back and that the right to vote was a big “salvation” in his eyes. And it should be noted that women have always been part of the secular movement over the past two hundred year, but were never given as much public credit.

Jacoby concluded that women’s rights should move into the mainstream of the secular humanist chapters and conferences throughout the country. And furthermore, she believes that non-believers should not think of the religious as stupid. Not only do most of us not respond well to others when we’re called stupid, but her work and support of church-state separation has made her realize that believers think they have the absolute truth and that it is a gift. They sincerely wonder how their insistence of religion in the public square (and as a guide for American policy) can be an imposition on others. It is this view that is a constant source of agitation for most of us, isn’t it? And that alone is a paramount problem for secularists to tackle.

However, she has found that men as a group tend to not see this as a primary interest for them and the idea of the “smart-ass nerd guy” prevails. She would like to see more men become in involved in education issues and the civil rights of women which would lead to growth in numbers overall.

Next, my report on the panel discussion.