HUMANIST INTERVIEW: Robin Morgan, 2007 Humanist Heroine

On Saturday, June 9, 2007, the Feminist Caucus of the American Humanist Association presented Robin Morgan with the Humanist Heroine Award. The following is adapted from her acceptance speech and the interview that followed.

Robin Morgan is a poet, novelist, political theorist, and lifetime feminist activist. She has published more than twenty books including the classic, Sisterhood Is Powerful, the 1970 collection of radical feminist writings that helped put the second wave feminist revolution on its path. She has spoken in every major university in North America, lectured around the world, and has been involved in organizing women globally against patriarchal oppression. Her books include the novels, Dry Your Smile and The Mer-Child, and nonfiction titles including Going Too Far, The Word of a Woman, and The Anatomy of Freedom. Together with the late Simone de Beauvoir and women from countries around the world, Morgan founded the Sisterhood is Global Institute, an international think tank and NGO with consultative status to the United Nations. More recently, she helped to cofound the Women’s Media Center and is now the consulting global editor of the first feminist magazine in the United States, Ms., of which she was editor-in-chief in the early 1990s, when she relaunched it as an international, award-winning, ad-free bimonthly.

The Humanist: The American Humanist Association (AHA), and particularly the Feminist Caucus, are very proud to call you our Humanist Heroine 2007. At the award ceremony you noticed and commented that the AHA is quite “pale male.” AHA President Mel Lipman came up to me after your talk to say that the AHA has tried to become more diverse but has had little success. So he wanted to know, how can a “pale male” organization and movement that sees itself as an alternative to dominant ideological institutions recreate its gender, racial, and economic demographics in a more representative relationship to those of our greater community?

Robin Morgan: I’m so pleased you ask this. My answer is that it isn’t a matter of blame, which is always counterproductive and boring, but of changing the paradigms of our thinking. We know that ethnically disadvantaged groups in the United States–a pretty racist country, given its history–have often been deeply religious communities in order to survive. And then religion gets all mixed up with culture, and with loyalty to culture. So I’m not surprised that the AHA has had outreach failures among the African-American community, where religion has played such a long and deeply political role. It’s the same with Catholicism in the Latino community, but much less so among Asian Americans and among Indigenous populations, who tend to practice cultural and mostly nonhierarchical belief systems.

Representative of the world and of America–as mixed, as powerful, as young, as multicolored, as diverse, and as energized–that is the face humanism should present. To bring that face to life, I would reply: look to the young, and in particular, look to women of any age.

We women are the proverbial canaries in the mine on every single issue afflicting the world today. Ninety percent of refugee populations are women and children. Two-thirds of the world’s nonliterates are women, and while the general illiteracy rate is falling, the female illiteracy rate rises. Women are the primary caregivers of children and the aged, and women tend to outlive men in most cultures. But if anything, we are the canaries in the mine on health issues, like toxic waste. Pollution’s toll is first manifested in cancers of the female reproductive system and in stillborn births and congenital deformities. We are the first hurt, we are the first killed, and we are the last consulted about the solutions, which are brought to us by the same people who brought us the problems in the first place.

Women (and the youth), almost always being the most powerless in any given group, are in quiet but consistent rebellion, whether or not outsiders see that. If the AHA empowered the Feminist Caucus to do outreach to women in ethnic communities, it might well be a very different kind of outreach than AHA is used to. It would, for instance, not criticize belief systems, but instead emphasize how crucial church-state separation is for religion; how different (and cynical and corrupt) the current influence of religion on politics is today compared to the “glory days” of the civil rights movement; how fundamentalism is based on repressing women and the young; and how humanism is simply about our all being, after all, human–which is the basic human rights message. Most women in communities of color get this approach: they damned well know the difference between Martin Luther King Jr. and Pat Robertson. But if they are made to feel defensive about their faith, they resist by default, unsurprisingly. And, too often, our approach has made them feel defensive.

A great start would be to ask your membership to earmark special contributions to the Feminist Caucus. (I got quite impassioned upon realizing that the FC budget for an entire year was only in the hundreds of dollars.) Also, I would suggest a non-faith-based alternative set of programs to help address needs in such communities: an AHA battered women’s shelter or rape crisis center, an AHA storefront to help local activists with whatever their specific priorities are. Remember, the religious right has already created such programs. They have women up front, doing outreach in the ghettos. They are approaching and manipulating poor people, people of color in this country in ways that are so staggering as to take your breath away and not give it back.

When these communities feel we’re doing something for them, they’ll take notice. And once it is realized that humanist involvement is in a community’s enlightened self-interest, watch them become AHA members.

The Humanist: This is the very successful approach that many missionary programs have used: attend to the physical needs of the population and they become your friends for life, or in other words, adopt your philosophies. That would be a very innovative approach for the AHA. Could you elaborate on how the Feminist Caucus specifically would enable such an effort?

Morgan: Women–even across the barriers of class, age, ability, sexual preference, and ethnicity–tend to trust other women from outside their communities much more than they do men from outside (and, sometimes, even men from inside). But such programs would take funding, time, dedication, and enormous hard work. The Feminist Caucus might research how many agnostic, atheistic, even deist or simply rebellious organizations (nuns who want to be priests, gay and lesbian groups of color, and things of that nature) there are out there among women, say, or in communities of color. Even a superficial hour googling away suggests an impressive number. They can be approached. Made to feel like priority invitees. Humbly asked what they would want from the AHA.

The Humanist: The United Nations has acknowledged that women have human rights and many countries have passed laws effecting this to different degrees. Given increases in prostitution, trafficking, the pornography industry, and poverty levels, where would you say women and girls are in terms of fully realizing our human rights?

Morgan: Well, in the time frame of our individual lives, progress of any kind is agonizingly slow. But if you pan back the camera and look at things from a historical perspective, we have made staggering progress in this country. Forty years ago, I couldn’t get credit or a driver’s license in my own name when I was married; battery and rape victims were blamed (even in the law) for being victimized; rape in marriage was perfectly legal, as was date rape and acquaintance rape; girls and women didn’t “do” sports; and the thought of a female secretary of state (two–white and black) and a major presidential candidate who’s a woman–forget about it. It took one hundred years, basically, to win suffrage in this country. I’d say we’re about halfway through the contemporary wave of feminism in the United States.

The Humanist: You’ve been a prime mover in the interests of Arab women, working to ameliorate the horrendous conditions that have been perpetrated upon them by Islamic forces and, perhaps no less now, by social and economic upheaval created by U.S. military and economic objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq. Would you describe some of your global feminist work?

Morgan: Do we have at least twelve weeks and endless pages? The specifics (and the amazing stories of terrific women and groups all over the globe) can be found in my books, especially Saturday’s Child: A Memoir, The Demon Lover: The Roots of Terrorism, and of course Sisterhood Is Global. What I can say here is that from my time spent in the Gaza Strip, in Lebanon at the height of the civil war, in Philippine rice paddies, Chinese slums, Brazilian favelas, and South African “townships,” I learned firsthand where feminism truly sings, where the human spirit shines through as women try to help one another and their kids survive in conditions that frost the brain–and come up with utterly new solutions to problems, to boot.

Recognition is the key factor, I think. Our not approaching the Global South because of guilt politics–feeling as though we were “lords and ladies bountiful,” patronizingly bestowing largesse (via belief systems, money, or both) on the faceless masses–isn’t in any way productive. We desperately need to educate ourselves, and not only about countries we invade after we tragically invade them! We need to work with women in developing countries and in some areas to catch up with them, also realizing that we’re in many of the same boats. In other words, we need recognition that female genital mutilation was practiced here in the United States until the 1940s, that there was a female Supreme Court Justice in Turkey as early as the 1940s, and so on. It’s huge, this global women’s movement, in the streets and in the legislatures, in the public and private realms. Also, this age of global communication puts us in a far better strategic position than ever before in history.

The Humanist: Switching gears a bit, 2006 was quite a year for you. Your long-awaited novel about the Inquisition and the witch trials in Ireland, The Burning Time, was published in March and Fighting Words: A Toolkit for Combating the Religious Right in September.

Morgan: Yes, it was a heavy year for me and an honor to have both books come out. The Burning Time is indeed about a period when the first Inquisition was in full flight on the continent of Europe. And then the pope, who at that point was based in Avignon, sent a bishop to Ireland to bring the Irish to heel, because the Irish were definitely not heeling for anybody. They were worshiping the old nature religions. They were pagans, wiccans, and heathens having a terrific time with fertility rites on the earth. Catholicism had already come. Christianity had come. But they had a classic Irish way of saying, “Okay, okay. One of our goddesses is called Bridget. Tell you what–we’ll make her a saint and then you’ll be happy because we will be leaving flowers and fruits at the foot of the saint, but we will know they’re for Bridget.”

So, it was working out pretty well and then this particular bishop came to wield his inquisitional impulses and attacks. Unfortunately for him, he chose as his target a woman named Alice Kyteler. He chose the wrong target because she was educated, she was wealthy, she was a landowner, and she fought back. It isn’t just a victimization tale. It’s a case of peasant uprisings and pagan peoples who didn’t go quietly and who won some and lost some.

The Burning Time has recently been bought for the movies, which is kind of amazing, by Ashley Judd who is a wonderful actor and who fell madly in love with the book. If it is muddled with too much–you know what happens betwixt and between–then just look for me to hold a press conference and denounce it! But I think not. I’m going to consult on the screenplay and I think we’ll be able to bring to the screen something that might, in the way that only pop culture can, educate people about alternate sets of real morality, real ethics, real conviviality and collegiality, and real egalitarianism that goes back further than the Decalogue, further than all the fake past that the religious right would have us believe in.

The Humanist: These are, of course, some of the same people who lay claim to the framers of the Constitution. Tell us about the second book, Fighting Words: A Toolkit for Combating the Religious Right.

Morgan: I don’t know about you, but I just got very tired of talking back to my television set. And you begin to think you’re a crazy lady, which I began to think around the time I was twenty-two, but the nice thing about turning sixty-six is that you can get away with it because people think it’s eccentric. So, I put together Fighting Words literally as a toolkit, very small and tight, something affordable you could stick in your pocket, or your backpack, or your purse so that when others misread or misquote the framers, you would have a “oh-no-they-did-not” resource.

The framers certainly were imperfect people. Some of them held slaves. (Others like Tom Paine and Ben Franklin helped found the first anti-slavery societies in the States). Women weren’t even on their radar screens (although Abigail Adams tried). But on the subject of church and state, on the subject of what today we would call freethinking or humanism, they were radicals. They, of course, had been fighting King George who was the head of the church as well as the head of the state. And some of their quotes are just amazing. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, for example, John Adams wrote:

    I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved–the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!

James Madison, considered the father of the Constitution, warned against the threat of “ecclesiastical corporations” with incredible forethought, and Jefferson–well, his quotable words just go on and on.

I also have a section on the fighting words of major justices of the Supreme Court and another from notable, wonderful Americans so that I could get some women (like the great Elizabeth Cady Stanton) and people of color in the book, and so that I could get some humor in as well. Naturally, Mark Twain is included here because nobody does religion like Mark Twain. (“If there is a God, he is a malign thug.”) And there’s a section titled “In Other Words: The Opposition,” featuring biblical quotes (“The earth is shaped like a rectangle.” Ezekiel 7:2; Revelation 7:1) and utterly outlandish statements from the likes of Jerry Falwell and former Texas governor, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, as she was called in the 1920s. (While brandishing a bible after outlawing the teaching of foreign languages in Texas, Ferguson said, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it is good enough for Texas.”)

And then at the end are the basic documents themselves. The declaration, in its first draft, made absolutely no mention of religion. The Constitution makes no mention of religion, except to say that it cannot be a determination for office. The first drafts of the Gettysburg Address made no mention of it. We were never endowed in the first drafts by any Creator but, under pressure, suddenly we were.

In writing Fighting Words, I felt that, as an organizer, I didn’t want to leave people psychotically depressed by informing them of every injustice. I wanted to get them to do something. So I included a whole section of resources. And with all the websites, books to read, organizations to join, things to do, I created a true toolkit for arguing and combating the religious right and retaining the separation of church and state. And, of course, because of the alphabetical order of the groups, the AHA is listed first. I think that’s probably the reason why I got the Feminist Heroine Award. It is actually the alphabet that should get the Feminist Heroine Award.

But in all seriousness, I do want to thank the AHA and its chapters for all the extraordinary work they do on the frontlines, in small towns and cities, and big cities across this country.

I will conclude with the words of a man, Benjamin Franklin, who, after the Constitutional Convention came out to the lobby and was asked, “What form of government have you given us?” Nobody knew then if it would be parliamentary, and he replied, “We have given you a republic–if you can keep it.” Keeping it and growing it is in our hands. And they are very good hands but they also have to be smaller hands, and bigger hands, and brown hands, and black hands, and women’s hands most of all. So I wish us all that power and the grace, in the best secular sense, to use it well.