I am grateful for receiving this honor as Humanist Heroine. I’m now in my eighties so I’m also just grateful for being here and for my friends who are here. Now that I am in my dotage, however, I’m more opinionated than ever. I’m less tolerant of people with prejudices, those who use sexist language, materialistic jerks, and greedy CEOs. I’m less tolerant of discrimination, misogyny, patriarchy, stupidity, Republicans, and a whole lot of Democrats.
A few years ago, while doing research in Spokane, Washington, I visited a friend whose seven-year-old grandson kept interrupting us with this mantra: “Well, what do you know for sure? Well, what do you know for sure?” Except for the inevitability of death and taxes, I’m reviewing what I know for sure. Yes, I know Bertrand Russell’s first commandment is, “Do not feel absolutely certain about anything.” But I know that if each day you perform one random act of kindness and give at least one hug, you will be a happier person. I know that, to quote Art Jackson, “Humanism is the key to human progress.” And I know that the future is up to us. The future or eternity is not something that begins after you’re dead; it is going on all the time. We’re in it now. And one thing I know for sure is that no one is born before their time.
We need those on the cutting edge, those out-of-the-box people to pave the way for social change and inspire us—the Emma Goldmans, Margaret Sangers, and the Barbara Lees. We not only need leaders who share our values, who work to promote peace, equal rights, and the common good—we need our friends. How many times has your own light flickered and been rekindled by a spark from another person? Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lit the flame within us.
What else do I know for sure? Well, in politics and religion, I am not a mugwump, sitting on the fence with my mug on one side and my wump on the other. Strong, independent women do not hesitate to say what’s on their mind. So here are a few things I know for sure.
First, the biblical stories of a Jesus Christ are conglomerated stories and myths from dozens of sources. There never was a historical J.C. If you need confirmation, just read eight pages from my bible, which is The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara G. Walker—pages 464 to 471. (Incidentally, she was our brilliant Humanist Heroine of 1993.) Better yet, read Walker’s powerful new book, Man Made God.
For sure, I know two of the biggest lies or myths perpetrated on humans: Number one is the attempt to classify humans into racial categories. Classification is basic to human thinking and central to human language, but the idea of race is a cultural and historical attempt to classify humans. It’s a social construct. A study in superstitions. Race is a most dangerous myth that leads to thinking some groups of people are superior to others. What a crock!
Having lighter skin is only beneficial for acceptance when we say it is. I know that people with lighter skin, say of European ancestry, enjoy white privilege and are socialized to feel entitled, to feel superior, and these feelings are so ingrained that many don’t recognize it as racism or ethnocentrism or acknowledge that colonialism and slavery and genocide have been justified by that lie. Racial categories, like other cultural inventions, become deeply internalized and profoundly shape the perceptions of our social world. There is only one race, the human race. I know for sure that if we could trace our ancestry back far enough, we Homo sapiens are all related. We are all cousins.
The other lie or myth is that men are superior to women—that men have the innate right to have power over women, over children, and over the earth, and to dominate the serfs, slaves, governments, and corporations, and religions, and education, and the media and, well, everything. In order to sell this myth, the all-boys club needed a hierarchy, and at the top of their hierarchy they needed an all-powerful male god, one big, bad honcho to validate their power and to control the people. Zeus, Thor, Yahweh, Allah, God, whatever. The divine right of kings? Another lie! And because of this myth, the males of our species everywhere are socialized to feel entitled, and these feelings of entitlement are called double standards, sexism, male chauvinism, and patriarchy, which leads to rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, wage differentials, female genital mutilation, witch burning, burqas, child rape—well, it’s the denigration of women and girls. There will never be peace on this little planet until there is an end to patriarchy.
The women’s movement, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Susan B. Anthony, to Lorrie Williams, Rosemary Matson, and Annie Laurie Gaylor, is the most important social movement in history challenging male power. The oldest of injustices is now a worldwide social movement. And many humanists can probably proclaim that, “Yes, we were and are a part of the women’s liberation movement!”
I remember a time when the concept of equal rights did not exist, when women of all ages were “girls,” when abortion was a back-alley procedure, when there was no such thing as a rape crisis center or a shelter for battered women, when sexual harassment had not yet been named or defined. I remember when we didn’t even have words for date rape or the glass ceiling.
We will also never have peace on this little planet until we create a better economic system, a better method than cut-throat capitalism. A better way than a giant craps game in a country controlled by six greedy banks with their predatory lending practices, salaries of $10 million a day, huge bonuses with taxpayer money, massive fraud shenanigans throughout Wall Street, sophisticated scams, and kickbacks. If you’re too big to fail, you’re too damn big! Break them up. Set a limit. As Jim Hightower says, “The big corporate dogs think that we, the people, are fire hydrants, and the water won’t clear up until we get the hogs out of the creek.” Well, let’s not be naïve. Hogs or swine have to be pushed. I don’t know if we’re going to get regulations or real controls or a federal consumer protection agency. You know the corporations have already spent over half a billion dollars in the 2010 elections. And I’m sure you all heard about the Security Exchange Commission, which is supposed to oversee banks. Instead, the SEC boys were watching pornography. Well, they were watching the wrong people getting screwed.
We know that war is a racket, a way for corporations to make money, lots of money. We know that the United States has become a perpetual war machine and we know that corporations are not persons. (If you want to know a fascinating history, log on to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and go to “Corporate Personhood.”) And those five Justices on the Supreme Court who ruled that corporations could give candidates as much money as they wish are traitors to our ideals. What happened to the common good? To quote President Obama, “It’s a corporate takeover of our elections.”
I also know that there will never be peace until we see the huge elephant in the room—overpopulation—which takes us right back to patriarchal religions and control over women. We need accurate sex education, reliable birth control, and reproductive choice. I know for sure that every improvement in the status of women and education for girls translates into women having more control over their fertility. The best twenty-first century contraceptives are education for girls and micro-loans to women. Thank Kiva Microfunds!
Hillary Clinton said, “The unfinished business of the twenty-first century is the rights of women,” and I would add campaign finance reform. I know for sure that you can’t untangle the present from the past, but history never repeats itself and the future is up to us. I know for sure how powerful language and rhetoric is, especially hate language, be it racist, ageist, sexist, homophobic, jingoistic—whether spewed by the Nazis during the 1920s and ’30s or by local right-wing radio nuts, Tea Baggers, or the resurging Ku Klux Klan. We can’t ignore those who fan the flames of hatred.
During the 1970s and ’80s, and into the ’90s, women had consciousness-raising groups all over the country. And one of our issues was to reduce or eliminate sexist language, and we did a pretty good job. But now, gender-exclusive language is back. Newspapers, magazines, TV, even PBS, are back to using “mankind” instead of “humankind” or “humanity.” Even President Obama called a woman “chairman” in Ebony magazine. We know that girls and women feel left out when sexist, gender-exclusive language is used. And please—don’t look directly at several females and say, “Well, now you guys,” as Dr. Phil and Oprah and Dr. Oz and even a woman I adore, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, do. Can you imagine anyone looking directly at several men and saying, “Well, now you gals”? “Guys” is not generic. It’s gender-exclusive language.
Lastly, I am a sociologist and I know for sure that we humans represent a complex interrelationship between genes and environment—nature and nurture. I study primarily nurture. We are products of our environment and our ascribed status, the family, the time, the place, the society, the culture, the socialization, indoctrination, brainwashing, and education we’re born into. Robert McAfee Brown noted, “Who you listen to determines what you hear. Where you stand determines what you see. What you do determines who you are.” We humans learn language, values, and behavior norms. We learn our roles, our ascribed status, and how open our society is.
I come from the prairies of North Dakota at a time when girls received a basic education, with the restriction that they become a teacher, secretary, or nurse. I became a teacher and my sister became a nurse. And of course, we were all expected to get married and have children, which I did several times. Ah, but there were books to read and there were the suffragists and other foremothers of the women’s movement. And when I graduated from high school, there was a civil rights movement and then a peace movement emerging. I loved the sit-ins, the civil rights marches, helping to set up the Mississippi Freedom Schools, working for fair housing and desegregation, and I never missed a peace march here in the Bay Area. I loved the women’s movement, the issues, the organization, the sisterhood.
What a time we have lived. We initiated and supported social change and we are still making a difference. This is an incredible time to be alive. But remember, it takes social action, so write those letters, sign those petitions, support your candidate, join that march.
One thing I don’t know for sure is the future. Some futurists are optimistic, but most see the world being run by very greedy multinational corporations, nothing done about global warming, and corporations controlling politicians, which is the definition of fascism. Fascism is corporatism. If you don’t like the F-word, call it plutocracy. Plutocracy is rule by the rich to get richer. And as you know, today the top 1 percent now own more financial wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
So let me close by describing a more optimistic, feminist scenario. Gloria Steinem is a humanist and a leading feminist. Last year, for her 75th birthday, she shared her wishes for twenty-five years hence, the year 2034. She asked for the following, “On the news, women and men of all ages and colors report on what went right as well as what went wrong. All media have a peace correspondent reporting on conflict resolution without war. Men are interviewed on how they combine career and family. As many men as women care for the baby. People accept their own unique bodies. No more breast implants, nose jobs, liposuctions. And shopping malls are turned into really nice schools, community centers and parks, and this is possible because people only buy what they really need or love. Schools and children’s centers have the military budget, and the military is used only for disaster relief and peacekeeping.”
What would I like for the future? Well, I want what Gloria wants: an end to all wars and full equality for women, little things. Universal single-payer healthcare for everyone would be fine. How about for the first time, a female honorary president of the American Humanist Association? And lastly, to show that our nation has truly gotten over its prejudices, how about a woman elected president of the United States who is openly gay, a vegetarian, a feminist, and why not, a secular humanist? Remember, the future is up to us.