Writing Women Activists Into History

Yesterday, I published a post talking about how women get pushed out of spaces as those spaces become more valued. I wrote the post more than a month ago, planning to look for a paying home for it. I posted it because I didn’t want it to languish while I waited to find the time and energy to pitch it. This is a topic that’s been on my mind a lot lately.

Nor am I the only one. Talking to someone from Secular Woman about where I wanted to turn my attention now that the code of conduct battle is largely won*, I discovered that they already had a project in the works to make sure the history of freethinking women gets written down rather than lost.

The mission of Secular Woman is to amplify the voice, presence and influence of non-religious women in all aspects of society. Ironically, one formidable obstacle to accomplishing this is a perception among some in the broader secular movement that women activists are some new and exotic species whose insistence on being heard and recognized as equals can be ignored or even brutally punished without any great loss to the secular movement itself. While this perception is plainly incorrect, the obstacle nevertheless persists.


The Her•Story Project aims to counter the ahistorical narrative underlying this obstacle with an ongoing series of posts highlighting the contributions of secular women throughout history and into the present day. A second but no less important aim of The Her•Story Project is to inform and inspire younger generations of secular women activists. A chance encounter proved just how necessary this effort is.

I’d already been thinking about something similar, having seen some very recent history of women’s atheist activism erased. I’ll be joining forces with them for this. If you want a chance to do some interviewing, writing, and/or Wikipedia editing, Secular Woman can use some help. Training and support will be available, even if I do it myself.

Of particular interest to me is regional organizing in the decade or two before atheism became a media darling. Once upon a time, Madalyn Murray O’Hair was very interested in seeing more women in leadership roles. American Atheists state chapters attracted or produced female activists who went on to be very influential in creating and running the national groups we have now. Many of them also helped form local groups when American Atheists disbanded its state chapters.

How many groups even have the history of their officers online? How many have taken the time to put their old newsletters online? How many even tout their own historical accomplishments? As long as these things can be forgotten, they will be, with women’s contributions more likely to vanish than men’s.

We could use people who have copies of all this old information that they’re willing to see digitized. We could use people willing to talk to their local groups about why this history should be preserved. We could use people willing to pull local histories together and get them into searchable forms. We could use help finding the women who led these groups and talking to them about how they helped to make the movement what it is today. If someone with the funds is very excited to see this happen, we could probably use funding to pay for some of the more tedious work to be done quickly.

(A note about feminism, because this will confuse some people: This kind of project is not about writing the “best” feminists into movement history. It’s about capturing women’s participation everywhere. Men don’t have to face anything like the level of scrutiny women do in order to have their work valued. The point is to see women treated equally.)

If this sounds like your kind of project, let Secular Woman know. Or just go ahead and submit a profile of an activist you think should be included.

*Really, it is. Noisy people don’t change the fact that most places have adopted codes of conduct and those that don’t feel pressure from more than just a few activists to do so. There’s plenty of work still to be done on implementation, but unfortunately, much of that waits for us to see how and why enforcement of codes breaks down.

Writing Women Activists Into History