Missing: Humanist Women

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

Who’s the first person who comes to mind when you think of humanism or atheism?

A follow-up question: Did you just think of a man?

When followers of the American Humanist Association’s Facebook page were asked this question recently, the results were varied—in a sense. Carl Sagan, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Bertrand Russell were mentioned most often. Atheist celebrities like George Carlin, Ricky Gervais, Penn Jillette, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson made the list, as did Isaac Asimov, Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, and Charles Darwin.

What isn’t varied about the list? They’re almost all men. (And, with few exceptions, almost all white men over age fifty.)

So where are all the humanist women?

A few people mentioned Madalyn Murray O’Hair; one person mentioned Anne Druyan and Annie Laurie Gaylor—but in conjunction with their respective husbands, Carl Sagan and Dan Barker. A handful of women answered “me” when prompted to think of an atheist or a humanist, and that’s actually great. But almost everyone—even women—named men.

There are certainly plenty of humanist and atheist women, past and present, including in leadership. Madalyn Murray O’Hair founded American Atheists, and Annie Laurie Gaylor cofounded the Freedom From Religion Foundation with her mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor. A peek at the present makeup of the boards of directors of major US secular organizations shows that while they’re not comprised equally of women and men, they’re not all male either. The Center for Inquiry is led by President Robyn Blumner and the Secular Coalition for America by Executive Director Debbie Allen. And for Women’s History Month each year, TheHumanist.com features influential humanist women like Gloria Steinem, Vashti McCollum, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Shirley Chisholm, and Marie Curie. We exist!

So why do people tend to think of men first? I have a few theories.

For one, there’s the notion of “men as the norm.” It’s a common enough idea to have its own Wikipedia page. In short, when we think of categories, we tend to think of the male version of something as the “default” and the female version as the exception. For example, we have basketball and women’s basketball. There are pens, and there are women’s pens. (The Society Pages, an online project of the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota, has numerous fun examples of the phenomenon.) Is it possible that we’re also conditioned to think of humanists and humanist women?

Consider some of the names people mentioned in association with humanism or atheism: Hitchens, Harris, Carlin, Gervais. That’s not a list of wallflowers—these men are agitators. It could be that people tend to remember the most outspoken, confrontational, unapologetic atheists (which would explain why Madalyn Murray O’Hair made it onto the list). But those are also traits society attempts to suppress in women. It’s difficult to be complacent, placating, silent, and memorable at the same time. When we’re angry, loud, or forceful, we’re often dismissed instead of admired (and that’s doubly true for Black women).

Finally, a lot of the women I know in humanist activism aren’t just focused on atheism—they’re working on women’s issues, social justice causes, environmental concerns, and any number of other things. I wonder if most people would consider my work with the Feminist Humanist Alliance, for example, feminist activism foremost, and only incidentally humanist. I would disagree, of course, since I consider feminism and other social justice causes an avenue to enact the foundational principles of humanism in our society. But others likely put organizations like Secular Woman into the “women’s issues” box instead of the “secular issues” box, and there we stay when people search their minds for names of secular leaders.

It’s an interesting question to ponder, so I asked a few active secular leaders—who happen to be women—for their take on it, and to name some of the secular women who inspire them.

Mandisa Thomas, the founder and president of Black Nonbelievers, who is also on the board of directors of both the American Humanist Association and American Atheists:

I think it is a result of white supremacy that has permeated our societies. Whether these are overt and/or underlying factors, we are conditioned to think that white males are and should be the most noted representatives, and that women and people of color don’t hold as much validation. Also, because white males have and continue to benefit from these factors, I don’t think they would be willing to even the field so readily.

[I admire] my co-organizers for the Women of Color Beyond Belief conference, Bridgett Crutchfield and Sikivu Hutchinson. I would also like to acknowledge Debbie Goddard, Candace Gorham, Gayle Jordan, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and finally Madalyn Murray O’Hair. These women have made important contributions to our community, and deserve to be celebrated appropriately.

Jennifer Kalmanson, vice president of the AHA Board of Directors and president of the Institute for Humanist Studies:

I think that we have a dominant view in this culture that puts male narratives first. It’s the same reason we can’t seem to collectively imagine a female president of the United States—we are simply so ingrained in the notion of maleness being equated with goodness and importance that it’s difficult to step outside that.

I’ve always admired Zora Neale Hurston for her visionary views on how women and people of color could change society for the better. While studying French in college I was very influenced by the writings of Simone de Beauvoir on female emancipation and the ethical obligations we women would take on when we become truly free. Closer to home, I’ve admired the strong women in the current and past leadership of our atheist institutions. From women like Suzanne Paul, who was president of the AHA during some of its more turbulent years, to pioneers like Sarah Levin, under whose leadership the Secular Coalition of America and Foundation Beyond Belief have been able to combine their missions, to innovative thinkers like Dr. Monica Miller—these women have made the organized humanist movement a brighter place for us all.

Monette Richards, immediate past president of Secular Woman and president of CFI Northeast Ohio:

I have many thoughts on why men more readily come to mind. None of them are peer reviewed; there are patterns we can see, though. Men get titles like “the Four Horsemen,” are put on stages, and have their books promoted. They are idolized and defended for speaking out against religion and pseudoscience. Organizations promote them and fans fill the seats of conferences where they speak. Articles are written asking “where are the women?” that include commentary from the same men who are always interviewed. Women, on the other hand, do not get the same level of uplifting. They are punished for speaking up about unequal treatment, some so harshly that they leave the movement altogether.

The women who have mostly made an impact on me aren’t on speaking tours. They are the women doing the work on the ground and, therefore, tend to be dismissed and ignored: Mandisa Thomas, who works so hard promoting Black Nonbelievers, organizing Women of Color Beyond Belief, and serving on boards. Sikivu Hutchinson does grassroots work with her Women’s Leadership Project in South Los Angeles high schools, working with impoverished young women of color. Debbie Goddard has worked in this movement for over ten years, often behind the scenes, organizing conferences, training, and campaigns. Stephanie Zvan was integral in getting conferences and organizations to design and implement codes of conduct to protect women from harassment. She has been harassed as a result, yet she still organizes conferences and serves on boards for our community.

You may not recognize the names of these women, and that’s part of the problem. But you can definitely see the results of their hard work, as each one has had a huge impact on the secular movement.

Research shows that breaking routines improves brain function. So this week, try making something totally new for dinner with your pandemic stock of food, break out the new board game you got two months ago, and, when you’re tasked with thinking of an atheist or humanist, see how many women you can name.

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