Women In Secularism 2 – Susan Jacoby liveblog #wiscfi

Women In Secularism 2 logo

Author of The Great Agnostic, about Robert Ingersoll. E-book called Last Man On Top.

Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today

Excerpt of verse from The Liberator in 1837, to group of ministers scandalized by idea of abolitionism: called The Times that Try Men’s Souls. Maria Weston Chapman

The Pill was prescribed to her by her doctor to ensure her purity for her husband. Not all men at the time were sexists like in Mad Men, but it was still a huge fight for control of reproductive system.

Forgetting of history of marginalized peoples is self-perpetuating, cause and effect are the same. Not surprising that secular movement has been characterized by amnesias that held back feminism for so long. Secular orgs with loose, non-hierarchical structures lack ability to pass down history and ensure people remember history as it actually happened. Often subject to remarginalization in the next generation. Secularism, reason and feminism are not religion, otherwise there might be a treasury to pay these speakers at this conference!

Feminism and secularism intersect in many ways. Absolutely true that not all enlightenment intellectuals were feminists, but all feminists born at end of 18th and start of 19th century (e.g. Seneca Falls) were influenced by the enlightenment. Seneca Falls copied the Declaration of Independence — well, fixed it, really, to include voice about women. Government of men had traditionally ignored women’s issues.

Atheist/secular women were forgotten and written out of history. Largely unknown in suffrage organizations, because suffrage movements couldn’t afford to associate with them. Secular women, especially non-observent jews, played an outsized role in the 1970s which made feminists uncomfortable. Jewish women still played outsized role even as secularists. Hard to believe in a god who enjoins men to thank god every day for not being born a woman. Hard to accept pope who says women can’t be priests because none of the apostles were.

When feminism was pulled into religion, that was a form of accomodationism of the feminist movement. Feminism, because of misogyny of all sacred books, is naturally a secular challenge to faith, but feminism has a hard time marrying itself to secularism. Secular movement has had hard time accepting feminism as worthwhile.

Jacoby heartened to see so many men at this conference where last year’s was 95% women. shout out to Melody Hensley.

Why are there so few prominent women atheists of the calibre of recognition of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens? Secular woman activists have made most inroads in fighting Islam, but there are so few fighting the discrimination outside Islam.

Ingersoll rejected idea — article of faith — that women were intellectually inferior to women. Biographers failed to recognize that Ingersoll held a radical feminist view, beyond even suffragists. He sided with Stanton that religion was main cause of oppression for women.

Ingersoll resembled the feminists of the 20th century moreso than the 19th. Saw birth control as the path to women’s liberation. Saw that compulsory childbearing as a spoiler for women’s ambitions, both by religious right and individual men. Opposition to contraception was a control mechanism. “Women would never be truly free as long as they relied on the self control of men to avoid pregnancy.”

Questioned the ethos of those who thought that slaves were better than the free; that ignorance grows virtue. Ingersoll also said something presagely about Rush Limbaugh: “These men think of priests as detectives in disguise, and god the police”

Ingersoll believed that women lacked opportunity, not ability. They’re relegated to “the crust and the crumbs” of education. “When a doctrine is too absurd for the pulpit, it is given to the Sunday school.”

Not suggesting that what women need today is a man to speak for them — but that there should be both men and women advocating for women’s issues in the secular movement. For all social causes that are closely connected to secular social values, we need to advocate for them. Need more active women in the movement — there are more atheist women than we see in the polls, likely, because atheism is “a social pejorative”.

Stories of women afraid to come out because how much more her stigma would weigh on her children. Weighs heavier on women than men.

Intersection of feminism and secularism has been too often lost to history.

McCollum vs BoE of Champaign IL, challenging practice of allowing religious to provide religious instruction in classrooms. Key issue of this case was whether or not public neutrality between belief and unbelief was to be treated equally.

Not difficult to sympathize with mother in Texas after hearing that there was a family who was bullied, mother fired, and family cat lynched for being an atheist.

It is our job to restore the full history of women in the secular movement.


1: Can Madelaine Murray O’Hair be rehabilitated into a secular humanist hero?

– Responsible for so many important decisions in school prayer cases. Problem is that she was THE image of the atheist in the 1960s — she was not considered a role model. She was not a humanist — was an atheist. But was mentally disturbed. Also, no accident that much publicity was received by Gloria Steinem — because she’s traditionally attractive.

2: Helen Gardner?

Wrote Men, Women and Gods. Interesting and important book. Socked it to all religions for their role in repressing women. Was on the side of Stanton and Ingersoll. one of those names that fell out of history.

3: Homework assignment: where do we find resources?

Read Gardner, Stanton, “Not For Ourselves Alone”. Don’t go to the New Yorker article about Firestone for instance. She was hardly the ideal feminist, but headline was “couldn’t live in the world she made”. Like religious folks pretending atheists repent on their deathbeds — idea that feminists are bitter because they’re unattractive, that they repent at the end of their lives.

Image of secularist as someone who looks unhappy in conventional terms is damaging. Important to keep this in mind when looking at positive contributions by these folks.

More forgotten: Shirley Chisholm. Hillary wasn’t first woman candidate!

3: Frederick Douglass was also an abolitionist and a secularist and suffragist — how much of a feminist?

He might have had other priorities. Will give him a pass on not making women his first priority.

4: Stanton and Anthony were friends, how did Anthony avoid the stigma?

Stanton downplayed her agnosticism. Was concerned about causing rifts. But Susan B Anthony begged Stanton not to publish book about secularism.

5: Vibrant non-western secularist history. If people won’t read secular tradition from their own languages, how can we help secularists from other regions?

– Don’t know. Don’t think that apart from making grants for scholars qualified to study this history there’s much we can do. Apparently a number of Indians heard Ingersoll and were impressed — his works were translated to native languages including local small languages. Would be stupid and patronizing to do anything but offer scholarly grants.

6: How will history look at leaders who stifle concerns of women because those concerns “aren’t as bad” as people in other regions?

— Depends on who writes the history.

7: De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex?

Not a book I ever like that much because felt it was dishonest in a way — explored psychological roots of oppression, but didn’t draw from her own lives and relationships, where she subordinated her intellect to men. don’t think it’s as great or foundational work as some people do. Doesn’t go far enough.

8: Role of women in anti-war activism (e.g. code pink)? War promotes sexism?

Revelations of sexual assault in the military — idea of culture of physical strength, that that’s what prevails, is a warrior culture, and that’s not good for women. Yes, I know, soemwhere in the distant past there was Xena: Warrior Princess, but these cultures are not good for women. Is it worse in military than other government departments? Sure it is. Physical abilities are highly valued, wars count as separate state where certain rules don’t apply. How was Nazi Germany good for women? Forcing women to be childbearers? Of course not so great for men either.

9: Going to have to fight this battle every fifty years?

Or in this case every hundred. I hope not. Taken aback by women in their 20s who didn’t know that unmarried women in 1960s would have difficulty getting birth control. Haven’t done a good enough job celebrating our wins. Has been so forgotten. Bad things happen when people forget and have to re-fight!

Women In Secularism 2 – Susan Jacoby liveblog #wiscfi