On the Trail of Humanism’s Hidden Women

Photo by Thomas Bormans on Unsplash

Women’s History Month provides an opportunity to excavate the stories of some pioneering humanist women who paved the way for those to come, fighting for a vast range of causes with ethics rooted in rationalism and compassion.

“We have heard enough about a paradise behind the moon. We want something now. We are tired of hearing about the golden streets of the hereafter. What we want is good paved and drained streets in this world.”

When Lucy Parsons thundered these words before a Chicago crowd on January 23, 1889, she echoed the clarion call to practical action embodied in the definition of secularism outlined by George Jacob Holyoake nearly four decades earlier. Holyoake’s ‘secularism’ set superstition and ideas of immortality aside in favor of living the one life we are assured of in the best possible way—a definition synonymous with that of humanism today. Holyoake in the 1850s, and Parsons all those years later, called ‘to all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service’: an impulse taken up by scores of forgotten humanist women—before and since—who combined religious skepticism with an active social conscience.

That Holyoake was defining secularism, and Parsons socialism, only begins to hint at the multifarious ways in which freethinkers throughout history have adopted, expanded, and applied these fundamental values to the arena of practical action. Here, they offer a starting point from which to explore just a few of those forgotten humanist women who rejected the ‘golden streets of the hereafter’ in favor of the here and now.

The history of humanism is often viewed as a masculine one, or at the very least, male-dominated. In fact, there is a rich tradition of feminist freethought propelled through centuries by cooperation and inspiration, in which a remarkable number of women embodied their humanist values through a range of reforms and activism on an international level. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in The Woman’s Bible, the Christian faith has historically been no friend to women, so it should perhaps be no surprise that many found their own impulse to activism in the rejection of religious orthodoxy. The “idea of woman’s subordination,” Stanton argued, “is reiterated times without number, from Genesis to Revelations; and this is the basis of all church action.” Her friend and fellow suffragist, Sara A. Underwood, summed up the distinctive danger of this, adding that, “when millions have for centuries been brought up to believe that the Bible is an inspired and infallible revelation from God, its influence has been mischievous in a thousand ways.” But neither woman emerged from a vacuum, and both were keenly aware of the tradition of which they were a part.

In 1876, Underwood—a British-born writer, editor, and suffragist who lived most of her life in the US—had published Heroines of Freethought, containing chapters on Madame Roland, Mary Wollstonecraft, George Sand, Harriet Martineau, Frances Wright, Emma Martin, Margaret Chappellsmith, Ernestine Rose, George Eliot, and others. In doing so, she hoped “to win for them, from those to whom they are comparatively unknown… a little of the admiration and respect which I myself have ever felt for them because of the dignity and moral heroism of their lives.” Today, we are lucky also to have Annie Laurie Gaylor’s compendious Women Without Superstition, as well as biographies and collected writings of many of these humanist heroines.

Taken together, these women were active in causes ranging from abolition and suffrage to animal welfare and pacifism, and they are only a handful. But, frequently, in the case of women like these, even if their names are known and their activism acknowledged, their freethinking in matters of religion is sidelined or ignored altogether.

Madame Roland (1754—1793) was a French Revolutionary in whose example, wrote Underwood, “we find the refutation of the prevalent idea, that perfection of moral character is dependent on a belief in Christianity.” Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) was a writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s education—who asked, “how can a woman be expected to co-operate unless she knows why she ought to be virtuous?” Pioneering sociologist, abolitionist, and writer Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) began life as a Unitarian but gleefully embraced an escape from her “little enclosure of dogma,” becoming instead “a free rover on the broad, bright breezy common of the universe.” Frances Wright (1795–1852), Margaret Chappellsmith (1806–1883), and Emma Martin (1811/1812–1851) were all drawn to the ‘rational religion’ of proto-socialist Owenism.

Scottish-born Wright attempted to found a community along communalistic lines in America, and Chappellsmith, too, left England for the experimental Owenite community of New Harmony, Indiana, having made a name for herself lecturing on social, political, and financial topics for the British Owenite movement. Emma Martin turned an exacting knowledge of the Bible gained in her early years as a fervent Baptist towards the evisceration of religious bigotry wherever she found it, but ended her life as a privately practicing midwife—refused hospital employment on the grounds of her atheism. George Sand (Amandine-Aurore Dupin, 1804–1876) was a writer, radical, and proponent of women’s rights, who influenced novelist and freethinker George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, 1819–1880) to the extent that Evans’ pen name, at least in part, honors Sand. Both were among the bestselling authors of their eras, and both faced derision in their lifetimes for radicalism in religion and relationships.

Polish-born Ernestine Rose (1810–1892), whose life and work was pioneering across continents, rejected the Judaism into which she was born and remained an outspoken atheist for the remainder of her life. In 1836, she sent the first petition for a Married Woman’s Property Act (enabling married women to hold property in their name) to the New York state legislature and was lauded on her death as having been the first woman to speak on an anti-slavery platform in the US. Her example returns us to the international networks of these female freethinkers, and another example of women writing women. In their History of Woman Suffrage (1881), Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote that Rose’s had been “a double battle”:

Not only for the political rights of her sex as women, but for their religious rights as individual souls; to do their own thinking and believing. How much of the freedom they now enjoy, the women of America owe to this noble Polish woman, can not be estimated, for moral influences are too subtle for measurement.

Later, one obituary in an English newspaper described Rose as “that not very attractive or congenial individual, a feminine Freethinker,” grudgingly admitting that despite this “in a practical way she did good service.”

Indeed, despite this, the women above and so many other “heroines of freethought” helped to shape society in Europe and America, oftentimes risking a distinctly gendered odium to do so. As the organized humanist movements emerged and developed across both continents, and in the wider world, women continued to play leading roles. In the British Ethical movement, women frequently outnumbered men in the membership of its societies, and the first Honorary Secretary of the Union of Ethical Societies (which would become Humanists UK) was Zona Vallance, a feminist writer and lecturer who also carried out a lecture tour in America during the first years of the 20th century. When the First Humanist Society of New York was founded in 1929, one of its earliest members was Eva Ingersoll Brown Wakefield, granddaughter of Eva Parker Ingersoll, the activist and freethinker whose own ideas had so influenced those of her husband, the “great agnostic” himself, Robert Ingersoll.

In her 2020 article for The Humanist, Missing: Humanist Women, Krista Cox concluded with a challenge. Next time you’re asked to think of an atheist or humanist, she wrote, see how many women you can name. This Women’s History Month offers an excellent opportunity to brush up on this rich humanist heritage and to take inspiration from those pioneering figures who in turn found encouragement in their forebears.