The Role of Women in Secularism

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.

The Role of Women in Secularism

35 thoughts on “The Role of Women in Secularism

  1. 1

    Obviously Women in Secularism is ignoring the vital (to AVM and slymepit) question: “What about the menz?”

    Why don’t the misogynists have their own conference? They could call it “The He-Man Woman-Haters Cattle Call” and gnaw on each others’ ankles.

  2. 2

    More of that entitlement going on… some people feel entitled to not only try to push you out of “their” spaces and into your own, but to then to demand room in your spaces as well. They don’t want feminists at TAM, but they feel like WIS needs to make room for anti-feminists?

    Seriously? Fuck them. They can take turns pissing up a rope. They can take a vacation in the north end of a southbound mule.

    … this has been my petition for a position in PR with CFI. 🙂

  3. 3

    Well here’s why. Nobody would suggest all those other possibilities you listed, but it totally makes sense to include vocal enemies at Women in Secularism because women need extra help with critical thinking.

    Now you understand, right? I knew you would.

  4. 4

    I am not aware of the problems / demands addressed here but I can imagine them. In my experience in the gay movement, in the inter-racial gay movement ( a minority within a minority of minorities) I advise: Follow you passions, follow your strengths, stick together, tap into the energy from the anger of your rejection, repeat your successes, and be strong. Persevere through the naysayers and denigrators, take power from your detractors by succeeding in spite of them. Be new! Be fresh! Be authentic, Be yourselves.

  5. 5

    Ophelia, I think Stangroom and Blackford were making that point on Twitter over the weekend… less privileged people NEED rich college educated straight white men to explain things to them, because we simply don’t have the education and broad reading required to understand our own experiences.

  6. 6

    They were not invited to participate as speakers or panel members, But they could still be attendees.

    What do conference attendees do? Listen, and participate when invited to. Support the mission of the
    conference. Take it back out to the larger world after the conference.

    No wonder this conference doesn’t work for them. They might have to shut up and listen for once.

  7. 7

    Oy. I’ve seen Stangroom say versions of that recently – including that the reason online feminism is so sucky is because social theory is difficult and requires training and knowledge to do it right. In short, only sociologists can do good feminism. Sorry, laydeez, you can’t be feminists unless you’re sociologists, so just give it up and get back in the kitchen.

    And, you know, black people can’t do anti-racism unless they’re sociologists, and LGBT people can’t do LGBT rights unless they’re sociologists, and poor people can’t occupy Wall St unless they’re sociologists, and workers can’t unionize unless they’re sociologists, and so on. There are no political movements, there is only social theory, which is for trained people only.

  8. 8

    Ophelia, I’ve been snarking for a little while that while I feel like I know what it is like to be a Hispanic person living in my particular circumstances, I can’t really know for sure unless I find a white man with a doctorate to explain my life experiences to me. And then you get these boneheads with degrees to make basically that argument in real life. My mind simply boggles.

  9. 9

    Memo to the writer of this blog. My daughters taught me the best answer to such people when they get insistent.
    The following in a stern and loud voice:
    F. O. A. D.

  10. 10

    Yeah, I recall Stangroom saying “privilege” is a not-useful concept because people don’t understand their own personal experience very well, while the privileged people, being better educated, know all the things.

    What Improbable Joe said, about ropes and mules, sums up my own feelings very well.

  11. 12

    It’s not enough to derail discussion after discussion in the public sphere? These clowns also want to derail an entire conference? If they want to make their own conference, let them. I’m sure it would be an Amazing Meeting. I’ll be happy to stay out of their way.

    Meanwhile, I’ll put my trust in Melody Hensley to keep CFI from caving into the pressure.

    @Improbable Joe– I knew you were in PR!

  12. 16

    in short, only sociologists can do good feminism.

    I recall Stangroom saying “privilege” is a not-useful concept because people don’t understand their own personal experience very well, while the privileged people, being better educated, know all the things.

    well, someone’s talking out their rear end, given that the concept of privilege is one of the first things you learn about in sociology. It’s a concept that’s mostly accepted as useful in feminist/gender sociology (and sociology that studies other aspects of the kyriarchy, for that matter).

  13. 17

    That’s seem to be the driving force behind Blackford’s descent into spittle-flecked ranting and consorting with the creepshow – which is in itself a little hilarious, particularly if you’ve read any of the exchanges he and Stangroom had; I guess their mutual low opinion of teh ladybrainz has allowed them to overcome that – that people not as super-duper smart or as educated as him are more likely to be asked for opinions than he is.

  14. 20

    Ohhh, I looked at Stangroom’s Twitter feed (and since he’s reading, hello, how are you?) and I think I understand:
    Underprivileged people often have horribe opinions on stuff, because they are, you know, people. And since they’re not 100% perfect, you can dismiss whatever they say. You see, since British muslims are on average homophobic, why should you listen to their experiences with racism? Sure you can see that.

  15. 21

    Hmmm … I’m not participating in the conference, but it seems to me that the WIS conference organisers should decide on its content and speakers, and everyone else can either accept that or else go away and let them carry on. No-one is forcing anyone’s participation in the event — it’s an event for those who support WIS’s goals.

    It’s not like WIS’s detractors aren’t going to write upteen blog posts and tweets denouncing them anyway.

  16. 22

    @18 and @20, that’s exactly right. I’m sure the organizers will welcome all submissions for future topics. They’ll rack’em and stack’em based on consideration of quality and match to conference goals and themes, then select as many as they can support given time/space limitations. Those not selected will be encouraged to try again next year or try another, similar venue. There is nothing particularly censorious about this procedure – AFAIK, pretty much every conference in existence uses some formal or informal variation of that procedure.

  17. 23

    You all aren’t even trying to quote Stangroom. You just “paraphrase” and expect everyone to believe you because everyone here already expects the worst out of him and the others that you call enemies (and many of them regard you as enemies too). I believe Stangroom was calling the motto “shut and listen” vacuous because it’s not a definitive answer or strategy as to the way to communicate with others. Here’s one of his tweets: “So when two members of a marginalized group tell you opposite things – who do you shut up & listen to the most…? #vacuous” and “A 2009 poll of 1500 British Muslims – a marginalized group – found 0% thought being gay was morally acceptable. Should I shut up & listen?” Does this sound racist or bigoted in any way? Sounds more like a philosophical issue to me.

  18. 24

    Wait…they’re saying I what? How can I invite someone to a conference that I’m not involved in, except as a spectator? I wouldn’t even want to invite the amoral cretins of AVfM to attend, nor would I want to meet them.

  19. 25

    More of that entitlement going on… some people feel entitled to not only try to push you out of “their” spaces and into your own, but to then to demand room in your spaces as well.

    Well, yeah. And it always happens to be regressives and right-wingers displaying that entitlement, which is why Red Scares are okay and movements like Occupy don’t deserve to be heard, and why not allowing Fox News to exist was such a travesty.

    They don’t want feminists at TAM, but they feel like WIS needs to make room for anti-feminists?

    Heh. I came across this blog post which talks about the apparent problem: that there is a large undercurrent of “skepticism cannot apply to political matters” amongst ‘mainstream’ skeptics and skeptical orgs like the JREF.

    Another thing I’ve noticed, is that there is a very large — or at least very loud — contingent of skeptics who are decidedly libertarian, following such wonderful names as Penn Jillette and Micheal Shermer. Shermer, furthermore, will readily break the unspoken “no politics” rule to complain about liberals in various ways, from his recent article in SciAm to parroting the tired old libertarian trope that non-libertarianism means BIG GOVERNMENT SOCIALISM which means MAO STALIN AND HITLER. And he will act like this is backed by evidence.

    There is also the fact that Penn and Teller, the keynotes at JREF, are also fellows of the Cato Institute, a well-known bastion of reason and hon…oh, wait, no, my mistake, it’s a libertarian think tank, one of many such think tanks that popped up in the 60s and 70s in order to astroturf up support for the radical right-wing neoliberal policies of Thatcher, Reagan, et al in response to the socialist hippy hordes that were threatening the institutions of white, religious, male, moneyed (etc, etc, etc) power.

    And then, of course, as mentioned in the article there’s the bit about SGU. How Rebecca Watson can’t even talk about abortion rights issues — never mind, of course, that it’s almost impossible to talk about the Religious Right while avoiding abortion — without there being calls for her to be kicked off. Even allowing that little bit of ‘politics’ is, apparently, poisonous.

    There is all too little discussion of politics within skepticism, and I’m wondering if there’s something up here. It seems to me like a lot of skepticism is white male libertarians who think that woo is liberal hippy crap and religion is just infringing on their wonderful Randian freedoms. At the very least, we need to turn a hard spotlight on libertarian “skeptics” and get them to either examine their libertarianism or abandon claims to skepticism — because they’re damn well not skeptical about their libertarianism.

    And given the history of right-wing politics when it comes to making the world better for anyone who isn’t a rich white straight cis Christian man, I don’t think skepticism will wind up being too friendly for conservatives as a whole =/

    …less privileged people NEED rich college educated straight white men to explain things to them, because we simply don’t have the education and broad reading required to understand our own experiences.

    And it usually turns out that the college educated straight white men have everything rationalized into some theory that’s Just The Way The World Is. This is a problem endemic to non-skeptics, and we’re supposed to be all about questioning what the college educated suits have to say because we know how it’s possible to be a college educated suit and still be horrifically wrong.

    But, apparently, if it’s Ezra Klein talking on MSNBC rather than Bill O’Reilly on Fox News Channel, we have to listen to the college educated straight white guy even when he says something that makes the mind go “whoa, back up there and unpack that one please”. Because they’re good college educated straight white guys who actually know things unlike those ignoramuses on FNC.

  20. 26

    How long until these maroons accuse us of violating their FREEZE PEACH because we didn’t give them a voice in an arena where their views are inappropriate?
    $10 says it happens before midnight, Pacific time.

  21. 27

    Wait, what? This is one time where I honestly don’t even understand what argument they’re trying to make, never mind whether it has any basis in any part of reality. They’re saying that WIS needs to have a specific type of panel, and moreover that it needs to have a panel devoted to…why WIS shouldn’t happen? That is a level of gall I almost can’t even fathom.

  22. 30

    I’m fine with applying skepticism to political positions, but I’m not sure why the basic feminist position (maleness is not inherently better, femaleness is not inherently worse) isn’t the null hypothesis in that discussion. If skepticism is about questioning the status quo — debatable, but I can see how one might reach that conclusion — I don’t think that means attacking feminism, which unfortunately also questions the status quo.

  23. 31

    Hershele Ostropoler,

    The point here is that skepticism is something that “skeptics” apply to other people in order to justify feeling superior, and to mock people who have dumb beliefs in Bigfoot and UFOs. It is absolutely, positively, 100% NOT something that “skeptics” apply to themselves, because that might force them to question their natural superiority and force them to change their attitudes and behaviors.

  24. 32

    Hershele Ostropoler – I think they think that whatever their own current societal structure status quo is is the default null hypothesis. That is, everything is fine now, so any attempt to change it in any way has to be justified as not being the null. In order to keep this interpretation, they have to vigorously attack any evidence that things aren’t great and claim that the evidence of problems is faulty.

  25. 33

    You all aren’t even trying to quote Stangroom. You just “paraphrase” and expect everyone to believe you because everyone here already expects the worst out of him and the others that you call enemies (and many of them regard you as enemies too).

    All right, here are the quotes:

    So when two members of a marginalized group tell you opposite things – who do you shut up & listen to the most…? #vacuous

    Data from the UK shows less “privileged” -> more likely to have negative views about immigration. So presumably I should listen… #vacuous

    A 2009 poll of 1500 British Muslims – a marginalized group – found 0% thought being gay was morally acceptable. Should I shut up & listen?

    2009 Pew study found 98% of Lebanese people – hugely marginalized – expressed negative opinions of Jews. Should I shut up & listen? #vacuous

    Should I have shut up & listened to my Iranian student when he boasted how he’d watched a gay person being stoned to death in his village?

    Or to my student from the Oman who not only thought that Jewish people were sub-human, but couldn’t comprehend that I did not?

    No, fuck it – there’s a chance I’ll listen (briefly), but I’m certanly not going to shut up. I’ll leave that to the Kool-Aid drinkers…

    Stangroom might want to spend a little time thinking about why almost all the incidents that come to mind are brown people, but to answer Joe’s question, no, probably not actively racist.

    What it mostly sounds like is a straw-man argument so egregious that a philosopher should be ashamed. It’s pretty obviously a response to Paul Fidalgo’s excellent post “Shut Up and Listen“. That post clearly sets up the situations in which Paul’s advice applies.

    “We do not like to be told we are being demeaning, or belittling, or discriminatory, or bigoted, even if by accident.” “Someone, likely not a white male, will point out how this comment is hurtful, how it exacerbates a stereotype, how it reveals one’s unacknowledged social privilege, how it seems to minimize the grievances of another group.” “What I said was devoid of bigotry, it was not demeaning, it was not belittling, it was not in any way tainted by privilege.” “When called out for saying something or for holding an opinion that seems to reveal a lack of sensitivity, a social ignorance, or an over-abundance of privilege…” “Though you are the Most Enlightened of White Males, you can never fully appreciate the feelings, injuries, and injustices known by members of those groups. You may have grokked all the data, you may have fought on the side of goodness and equality all your life, but you can’t know what it’s like.” “Do you have a sense of self strong enough that you can allow yourself to be criticized, nicely or not, about your choice of words, your perspective’s slant, your unintended belittling of another group or person?” “Take this opportunity to see if you can understand how you were wrong, how what you said could hurt.”

    It’s not really possible, unless you’re trying, to miss that these are the circumstances under which “shut up and listen” applies. That Stangroom decided to argue about applying it to completely different situations…well, this comment is already long enough.

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