I ended up missing the last two talks of the Women In Secularism conference because I had to catch a stupid plane that was stupid ten hours earlier than I would have stupid liked. Stupid. Blah.
Okay, I’m happy that I’m home, and completely bloody spent, but in a good way. A mostly good way. There were a few nasty objectionable ragey bits, but that’s okay, we can all disagree here on the internet. And it’s not like disagreement with those nasty bits weren’t put front and centre on the stage through the entire conference.
Those ragey bits had a minor trend among them — several of them were expressly about how uninviting such a conference or such a social justice movement in general might be to men. In the one case, you have CFI CEO Ron A Lindsay’s opening speech claiming that feminists are using the word privilege to shut down civil disagreements or as a club to end arguments (without providing examples), and “cautioning” the feminists in the audience that men should not be told to “shut up and listen”. (As though only men did that.) We won’t talk about this poorly thought-out exercise in well-poisoning, this abuse of Lindsay’s bully pulpit, because many people have already expended far too many words (though here’s some excellent ones) about a man’s point of view during a conference attempting to expand women’s input in the secular movement. Suffice it to say, I strongly disagree with Ron, but making this conference even more about him undercuts all the worthy content from the women who spoke this weekend.
Sadly, I didn’t get to see one of the other ragey bits in person. During the second-last slot of the day today, R Elisabeth Cornwell of the Richard Dawkins Foundation presented a talk titled Who Speaks for Feminism. Kate Donovan was on hand to live-blog it. There were a few sticking points in it, but I’m most interested in this brief post (well, brief compared to all the other transcription I’ve done this weekend!), in challenging only one part.
I will reserve judgement on the exact wording of this part of the talk, but Kate transcribed a passage where Cornwell extolled the virtues of Robert Green Ingersoll, someone whose name had come up more than once during the course of this conference. Kate’s take:
The first wave of feminism was about getting the rights that we now consider unthinkable (in the West) to lack. Susan Jacoby reminded us that even old white Republican males can speak for feminism. Would Robert Ingersoll be welcome at this conference. Would he have been told that because he’s not a woman he can’t be here? [Me: WHAT. One audience member: YES! Rest of audience: NO!!]
I’ll further reserve judgement on who that one audience member was, but I have a suspicion or two. (Update: see Simon’s comment for an explanation.) Either way, they may actually be right, in a way. They may not, though.
I strongly suspect that Robert G Ingersoll, if asked to make a case for feminism and secularism, could do a bang up job. Sure, he was a “staunch conservative Republican,” performing oratory as entertainment back when that was the most popular form of entertainment, back in the days when Republicans were Democrats and Democrats were Republicans. Remember that weird flip in who wanted strong government and who had all the progressives and human rights activists, sometime in the 1960s, during the Southern Strategy, when the Republicans transformed into the party of the Religious Right? That flip inverted the color map of the United States, where the North opposing slavery, the party of Lincoln, was the Republicans and the South, supporting
slavery states’ rights (to own slaves), was Democrats. The liberal northern Democrats stayed put, the conservative southern Democrats joined the Republicans. Also remember that the Republican party came into being when neither the Democrats nor Whigs had any intention of ever doing anything about slavery.
This fact drastically undermines the point Cornwell wanted to make here, unfortunately, that some political affiliations that are today blatantly anti-woman might be capable of standing up for feminism. Not that there aren’t real feminist Republicans — I’m sure there are people who self-identify as such, and might even manage to compromise one or the other to make those labels fit.
Ingersoll as a “conservative” was an economic conservative. He was a vocal agnostic antitheist, and easily the most vocal male feminist of his time in the West. As a white male, he was one of the privileged few able to voice opinions in his day. He was blatantly anti-corporate, supporting an eight-hour work day, even going so far as to demand equal pay for women. The guy was definitely on the side of angels about most things, even where he was still the product of his 19th century upbringing.
He also commanded practically exorbitant orator fees for his performances — almost a buck a head, back when that added up to real money. He made a good living off his craft, despite critics who were terribly irritated by his anti-theist jabs. He’d be a real moneymaker if added to any conference.
The real question that Cornwell likely posed, presuming that the transcript was clipped as it was a live blog, cannot “would he be welcome at Women In Secularism”, as there were many, many feminist or feminist-leaning men who were in the audience and most welcome to listen to the talks and participate in the socialization and even ask tough questions. I know — I’m one of those men. So, too, was Justin Vacula, who was personally welcomed by Ron Lindsay on behalf of CFI — though he evidently thought that “no harassment” meant “no socialization”, and kept his head bowed through just about every single talk, and I somehow managed to never see him outside of a conference room. So even anti-feminist men were welcome there (as long as they didn’t harass people). The question of whether a man would be welcome at the convention is mooted by the reality of this one.
The real question that Cornwell must have posed, then — despite the audience’s reaction, which serves as evidence against this interpretation — is whether or not Ingersoll would have been welcome to speak. I contend that he might have been a significantly better choice to speak than Ron Lindsay, given what they each had to say about the subject, frankly; if Ingersoll was the CEO of CFI, I’d expect him to set a better tone with his opening remarks. (Possibly using the word “bailiwick“. I love that word.) However, knowing that this conference was called Women in Secularism, he presents as the wrong gender to really help improve the visibility of non-cis-white-males at conferences in general. Chances are he wouldn’t have been asked, because he was already a popular draw and a man, not a less-popular woman, and that kinda cuts the whole conference off at the knees.
But I still think this is the wrong question. The real question should be, in my mind: “Would Robert G Ingersoll speak at Women in Secularism, if he was asked?”
Would he speak at a conference called Women In Secularism, knowing full well that he wasn’t one, if he was asked? I’d like to think, if he’s half the booster of women’s right to do work at the same pay as men, he would command his prices per head speaking at the convention, then show up and do Lauren Becker’s duties of keeping time and introducing the speakers. Or he might just sit down in the audience and listen quietly. I don’t know that we particularly have any pull quotes from his oratory that specifically support my hunch, but it seems like the kind of thing the wag might do.
But that’s pure speculation. I know, imagining myself as an orator of his calibre but every bit as feminist as I am today, that if I was asked, I’d say “hell no”. I’d want to be a contributor in subtle ways that emphasize the women involved, and not myself. Ways like liveblogging the entire conference, for instance.
I’m just sayin’.