There’s a bunch of talk going on about Women in Secularism that seems unique to this conference. There’s the post at A Voice for Men that claims they were invited by PZ (they weren’t, and it’s not PZ’s conference even if he had been that silly). There are the calls to put together a panel of largely inexperienced women speakers or women who don’t speak about secularism, because they disagree that there should be such a conference and their viewpoint should be represented. There’s the idea that this conference should be used to push the women participating into once again hearing viewpoints that have been inescapable for the last couple of years.
Seeing it all, I have to ask, “What do people think this conference is for?”
I can tell you the purpose that Melody Hensley had in mind when she proposed the conference. It was nothing to do with Elevatorgate. That was still almost three months in the future when the speakers were asked and accepted.
No, the point was to celebrate the contributions of women to the secular movement and secular ideals and to come together to address some of the challenges women faced in contributing fully. That one of those challenges was getting ready to explode in a way that caught national attention and drove some women out of the movement may have been a coincidence–or it may have been inevitable. I don’t know, but it wasn’t what the conference was about.
What the conference was about was bringing together a group of diverse group of women who had made secularism stronger and more visible to world. There was certainly no lack of disagreement among the participants. Sikivu Hutchinson’s politics and Wafa Sultan’s are very different, even though each is a passionate defender of women from the ills of religion. At least one woman on the dais doesn’t, to the best of my knowledge, identify as a feminist. I would be surprised if there weren’t more, given what I know about the speakers list.
Beyond that, we saw a remarkable amount of ethnic diversity on that stage. We saw graduate students and women whose names I grew up hearing. We saw writers and radio hosts, professional speakers, professional activists, and the leaders of several organizations. We heard about our past, our future, and our present. We heard optimism, frustration, and despair over problems that were past the point where they could be fixed, at least for some people. And we’re still just talking about what happened on stage.
At the reception, bar, banquet, and other meals, we met people we knew only by reputation or by Twitter handle. We did our best not to seem overawed by each other. We exercised tact over disagreements, even strong ones, and we commiserated over shared challenges. We laughed and raged. We inspired each other. We made plans to collaborate on secular projects. We offered help. We played matchmaker for people with ideas and people with means. We gossiped–where gossiping is sharing information about the political landscape on which we all try to be as effective as possible.
In short, it was a successful conference. Beyond that, it was perhaps the most productive conference I’ve ever attended. The aftereffects will be felt for a long time to come.
So now some people want to dictate that the conference should carry additional burdens. They want it to carve out time to justify its own existence–as though being that successful weren’t justification enough. They think one of the limited number of panels should be dedicated, not to those who have contributed and shaped the movement–but to those who brag about being atheist or secular only by the strictest of dictionary definitions. They think we should give up that open, collaborative atmosphere to “welcome” those whose have told us we should get out of the movement.
They think the details of our celebration of success should be dictated by the people who want us to fail.
It’s a compliment to the conference in a way. Women in Secularism can’t be ignored. Things have happened and are expected to happen there that affect the secular movement as a whole.
It’s also an insult. It says that our priorities as women, our work, the space we created to aid in that work–those are disposable. That successful conference is up for grabs for anyone else who feels entitled to a piece of it, whether or not they have the tiniest shred of respect for the purpose of the conference.
Who would demand that creationists speak from the stage of an evolution conference? Who would suggest that someone who had written for Stormfront should be welcome at a conference of black educators as a critical voice? Who would suggest that a medium and a ghost hunter should sit on a panel about at a skeptics conference on the topic of whether skeptics should get “special” conferences? Who would suggest that an LGBT conference was a good place for LGBT attendees to listen to the perspective of Bradlee Dean and maybe reach some kind of understanding?
Women in Secularism, though? I’m seeing people I generally respect suggest that at least some of those parallels would be just fine at a woman-centric conference. I’m trying very hard and mostly failing to not come to the conclusion that people think accommodation is “women’s work”.
We don’t really get to do both at the conference. Either we can work on last year’s successful model*, or we can change the conference to better meet the needs of people who have shown every evidence of wanting it to fail. I know which of these choices I think is likely to produce another successful conference.
Making peace for the sake of peace also really isn’t my role. Nor is it something I could do if I wished. There are people with whom I can and do compromise in order to meet my goals. They aren’t the people who have told me to get out of the movement, stop writing, stop talking, stop standing up for myself or anyone else. They’re offering no compromise, only capitulation. That isn’t my job as a woman in this movement either.
My job is to be an effective advocate, thinker, writer, and speaker. Soon, it will also be my job to lead effectively. Women in Secularism helped me do all those things last year. I hope it will for many years to come, for me and many other secular women. That’s its role.
* “We” here mostly means CFI, since the details of the planning are theirs, however invested I may feel in this conference. Nor do I think CFI would bow to the nuttier demands made.