But Where Have the Women Gone?

As I might have mentioned, I’m on an 18th and 19th century freethinker spree. I’m taking great pleasure in reading the words of atheists and not-atheists-but-at-least-in-the-same-zip-code heretics. It’s refreshing, knowing we’re walking a trail blazed by super-sharp thinkers of the past, and seeing how they dealt with the same old tired arguments we hear ad nauseum today. Of course, there’s the corollary: they dealt with this shit, why do we have to keep dealing with it? But religion is like kudzu, and it takes the effort of more than a handful of heretics to weed it out.

I digress.

Since I got the Kindle Fire, I’ve gone on a spree. I can impulse-download all sorts of books for free. These are things I wouldn’t have spent money on before, because the authors are long dead and I’d rather give my scarce dollars to living ones. Also, they could be damned hard to find. But they are now things I don’t have to budget for, and so I can go wild, filling my virtual library with previously-unattainable works that have great value now.

There’s just one problem: my library’s filling up with dudes. I like men. I’m loving the men I’m reading. It’s just that, y’know, they’re only half the story. I wanted women’s words, too. And Skatje had posted a whole list of female freethinkers, which would surely make it easier to track down works by women, even if they hadn’t come up by simply searching “atheism,” right?


I spent a whole Friday night chasing down women on the internet, and all I got was a lousy handful of books. A pittance. I kept running up against walls. I’d see in Wikipedia that this or that woman was an author of all sorts of delicious-sounding books, or had been a lecturer, and I’d think, “Fantastic! I’ll go find that. I’m gonna love reading her stuff.” Only the Kindle Store had no idea who I was talking about. Project Gutenberg disavowed any knowledge of her existence. Even Google Books, which often listed works that didn’t exist on the other two, didn’t have copies. I found a few where I could pay lots of dollars to get a reprint. A paper reprint.

And perhaps that wouldn’t bother me quite so much if it weren’t for the fact that volunteers have lovingly tracked down the works of so many men, painstakingly digitized them, and offered them up for free, because they’re out of copyright and hard to find and deserve to be made widely available. You would think, from the dearth of the same sorts of books and collections of lectures by women, that women aren’t important enough to be granted the same treatment. No one seems to think women’s words matter quite as much. And that seems especially true for women’s words on freethought.

I can’t tell you how much this infuriates me.

These women were too often ignored and denigrated in their lifetimes. A smattering of people gave them the time of day and acknowledged their worth while the rest of civilization wished the damned harpies would shut up and get back to the whole baby-making business. Now they’re being ignored again.

At some point during the night, I got the brainwave that, while so many of their books and essays and lectures weren’t available through the usual channels, Infidels.org often had hard-to-find things by famous freethinkers. Surely they’d have some of these atheist and freethinking women. Surely.

They have three.


Out of 55. Fifty-five authors on that list, and three are women. Granted, there might be a female or two hiding behind pseudonyms. But three identifiable women out of fifty-five people is appalling. There’s no excuse. Women authors weren’t quite as numerous as men, but there were enough of them that you can do far better than 5.45%.

This has made me determined that, should I become wildly rich, or at least rich enough, a portion of my income will go to pay the salary of some poor detail-oriented person who’s willing and able to track down these women’s works and get them digitized. And we’ll also be tracking down the non-white freethinkers, and getting their works online. This shit’s ridiculous. We need to stop ignoring the contributions of so many people just because they’re not the gender that’s got bits dangling between their legs, and folks with skin that can be used to set a camera’s white balance in a pinch.

I’d do it myself, but I know I don’t have the temperament for this sort of thing. But I’ll tell you something: if some soul starts a crowd-sourcing project where they send out paper copies for people to digitize, I’ll sign up to do at least one work.

While we push for greater diversity in the movement today, we need to recognize the diversity it had yesterday. Women and people of color existed as freethinkers back then. Let’s make sure they’re not ever forgotten.

Marilla Ricker, one of the neglected women of freethought. Image courtesy Swathmore College.
But Where Have the Women Gone?

17 thoughts on “But Where Have the Women Gone?

  1. Jay

    Have you thought of sending a letter to the people at google? with a list of some of the books you are looking for. I’ve been surprised at how responsive they are sometimes. It can’t make it worse even if it’s not likely to help in the short run. Maybe it’ll get a few of the easier to find ones thrown into the queue?

  2. 4


    This is ridiculous, and there’s NO excuse for it in the internet age. Between the FTB readership, Skepchick, and probably the existing network of librarians (librarians have a network, seriously, they’re awesome) there’s got to be enough willing people to crowdsource this.

  3. 8

    You might find some of these women’s work in the Hathi Trust ( http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Search/Advanced ) or the Internet Archive ( http://archive.org/advancedsearch.php and make sure you’re searching for books). You’ll find full text for the material that is no longer under copyright. Later electronic book readers should be able to display the PDF’s that are available.

    Avoid Google for scan work. Their results aren’t as good as these others’.

    Also, I echo Skatje’s recommendation of Women Without Superstition, edited by Annie Laurie Gaylor. Gaylor saw the same problem you have, and assembled an anthology of writing by female atheists and freethinkers writings. It contains some of their words, and is not merely about these authors.

  4. F

    I would suspect that the issue is a continual one. Indeed, it is almost certain that people have not worked as hard at finding books written by women. But the problem also, almost certainly, has roots: Works authored by women probably had smaller printing runs, and went out of print sooner than works by men. Those copies were less likely to be preserved, and more likely to be destroyed. And if libraries are doing things today like destroying very old printings of extremely famous authors (like one-of-a-kind very nice copies of Shakespeare), I’m certain that works by women (freethinkers or otherwise) will have less of a chance of surviving this process as well.

    The problem is historical and systemic, and may be worse than we imagine. Those with the resources today certainly aren’t working hard enough at preserving these works, in a time where they could likely disappear forever if not found and preserved immediately.

  5. F

    I would also add that women writing today, particularly those who publish on the internet only, have some local backup of their works which is checked regularly. Multiple backups are even better.

    People like to say that once something is on the intarnets, it’s there forever. This may be a decent admonition against posting potentially embarrassing things, or personally identifying information which could be used against you (i.e., crime fodder). But it is certainly not true at large – stuff disappears forever all the time. Even if someone stored something locally, how does another person find it? The Internet Archive is cool, but hardly a catch-all.

    I’d hope that there would be a way for people one hundred years from now, and beyond, could access the thoughts of the freethinking women of today.

  6. 13

    There are twenty women in my book. (JK Henry being the only one on Skatje’s list.)

    You might want to hear from Minnie O. Parrish (Texan mother of four and pre-med student), Anna Fritz (age 14, and the daughter of anarchist Rosa Fritz), Winnie H. Green (age 18, and advocate for sensible shoes, no corsets, and smaller hats), or Harriet M. Closz (co-author of Women and Their Relation to the Church or Canon Law for Women, which was fully endorsed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and distributed alongside her Woman’s Bible). Here’s another awesome woman from that era…

    Dr. Esther Van Riper

    Judging by her story, preachers have a history of putting the “dog” in dogma.

  7. 15

    There is a medium for that “detail-oriented” person to get books into Gutenberg in high-quality renderings, and it is Project Gutenberg Distributed Proofreaders (http://www.pgdp.net/c/faq/faq_central.php). One of the earliest crowd-sourced sites, it distributes the work of picking OCR typos out of scanned texts before they go live at gutenberg.org.

    The point relevant here is, PGDP only processes books at the request of “project managers.” Each book in its pipeline has a “manager” who was responsible for acquiring the page images, setting editorial guidelines, following the book through multiple stages of proofing. To get a book into gutenberg, all (all?) you have to do is become a PGDP manager and sponsor that book. See http://www.pgdp.net/c/faq/pm-faq.php for a description of the process.

    So this is where you could send that detail-oriented person to take advantage of a well-oiled machine for making high-quality etexts.

  8. 17

    Check the “Bank of Wisdom” web site for reprints of some out-of-print and copyright books. I’ve got a link below to THe History of Woman Suffrage, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others, and it lists another book about women in the 19th century suffrage movement. The founder of the Bank has (had, not sure if he’s alive) an enormous collection of historic freethought books that he copied onto computer disks, then CDs, which he either gave away or sold.


Comments are closed.