Laboring in the Atheistical Vineyards

Thank you so much for this wonderful award. I’m just thrilled to be among so many like-minded humanistic people. I do want to say one thing, though: I’m not a heroine. I was given a similar award years ago by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Why? Because I said in public that I was an atheist. And I’m thinking, Gosh, things have come to a pretty pass if just saying you’re an atheist gets you a big prize. So, repeat:  I’m not a heroine. I don’t even get hate mail anymore. Atheist bloggers like Amanda Marcotte and Greta Christina get hate mail all the time. People say awful things to them. They get trolled, which is a big cause in life for some people. But I never hear from the haters anymore, so I guess I’m just going to have to try a lot harder.

2013 Humanist Heroine
Who would I say are some heroines of humanism today? Certainly women in Afghanistan. These women are facing unbelievable crises, violence, and attacks on their rights, not just at the state level but within their families: child marriage, forced marriage, domestic violence, all sorts of coercion. If they are raped or run away from home they can be put in jail. And yet they resist. These women are heroines, and so are the Afghan women who are starting schools and clinics and job-creating programs and who are trying to build a civil society where women can participate equally with men. Other heroines? Abortion providers. There are fewer than 1,800 women and men doing this vital work, and they’re mostly in their fifties, and getting older. We have to persuade younger people to step up to the plate, but it isn’t easy because it’s very hard to be a doctor who is known to perform abortions.  They don’t get much respect in the medical community, and they have to deal with threats of multiple kinds all the time, from stalking to arson to sometimes murder or attempted murder. Their work can make them extremely unpopular in their communities—except among people who need their services, of course. And yet they go to work every day, sometimes in bulletproof vests. Those people are real heroes and heroines. On a lighter note, there’s Rebecca Vitsmun of Moore, Oklahoma. You may recall in May, after that powerful tornado hit the town, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer went there to commiserate with everyone. He spoke to Vitsmun, whose house had been destroyed but who had made the right decision to flee just beforehand. So she’s standing there with her adorable little toddler and they’re both smiling and Blitzer says to her, “You gotta thank the Lord. Are you thanking the Lord right now?”  “Well, actually,” she replies, “I’m an atheist.” Now, the reason I know so many of you are familiar with her story is that an atheist comedian started an Indiegogo campaign that raised well over $100,000 for her—and the members of the American Humanist Association gave her an additional $10,000. So congratulations on that good deed! I want to talk about a few more things that have been in the news involving religion, women, or both. The first comes from Ireland, where a group of nuns came out defending the Magdalene laundries, which you may know were places where, under contract with the state and with the church, girls and women were confined and forced to do laundry without pay for the army and the priests. From the 1700s until just a few decades ago, women were sent there—sometimes by their families, sometimes by the government, and sometimes by the parish priest—for various failings of supposed morality like having a child out of wedlock, or even just for being a pretty girl who liked to flirt. The nuns issued a public statement, which basically said, “you have to look at the context. You have to look at it historically. They did a lot of good in those laundries.” There’s just no limit to people’s willingness to defend the indefensible. Next in the department of defending the indefensible comes Polish film director Roman Polanski, who said in late May that the birth control pill has killed romance. The seventy-nine-year-old Polanski, who was convicted of unlawful sex with a minor in that infamous 1977 case (even though we all know it was rape), was speaking at the Cannes Film Festival. “I think the pill has changed greatly the woman of our times, masculinized her,” he opined. “That chases away the romance from our lives and that’s a great pity.” He also claimed that trying to achieve gender equality is “purely idiotic.” I’d say women need to man-up a little more, so that Polanski will really have something to complain about! Another recent story that got a lot of attention was a report that 40 percent of families now either have a sole female breadwinner or a woman who makes more than her husband. This was treated as a big advance for women, but if you looked beyond the headline, you would see that the vast majority of these women are single mothers; they were always the single breadwinner in their family so that’s not new. Only about 15 percent of wives make more than their husbands. Nonetheless, the 40 percent statistic was enough to send Christian conservatives into a total tizzy. Christian radio host Bryan Fischer, for example, pined for “the way God set it up… Husbands are to use their stamina, and their strength, and their brainpower. Not that they’re smarter than women, I’m not saying that, but God has given them a brain. The purpose for using their mental ability is to provide for their families. Women were designed to focus on making a home for her children and her husband.” Katha Pollitt accepts the 2013 Humanist Heroine AwardBut proving that misogyny has a life of its own regardless of religion, the ultra-conservative RedState blogger Erick Erickson said on Fox News: “I’m so used to liberals telling conservatives that they’re anti-science. When you look at biology, when you look at the natural world, the male is typically in the dominant role. The female is not the antithesis or it’s not competing, it’s a complementary role.” And then the great-feminist-heroine-who-says-she’s-not-a-feminist, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, replied, “What makes you dominant and me submissive, and who died and made you scientist-in-chief?” I love that—who died and made you scientist-in-chief? And now I’d like to touch on the very disturbing story of Beatriz, a twenty-two-year-old El Salvadorian woman suffering from lupus, serious hypertension, and very serious kidney disease while also pregnant with an anencephalic fetus. Beatriz had tried to get an abortion since she was twelve weeks pregnant. However, in El Salvador abortion isn’t allowed for any reason, even to save the woman’s life. So her saga went on for weeks and weeks. The Salvadorian minister of health said she should be able to have an abortion but the supreme court stalled for several weeks, and finally ruled that she couldn’t. When this was all happening I did something I never thought I’d do: I signed a petition to Pope Francis asking him to intervene with the very conservative and very powerful Salvadorian bishops. “Oh, Katha,” I said to myself sadly, “you’re signing a petition to the pope. That’s so pathetic.” But I did it, and the minister of health, a woman, said that Beatriz could have a C-section, which would not be an abortion. It’s one of these angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin things; the C-section is considered a birth, even though the fetus will die soon after. It’s not an abortion, even though it’s exactly the same thing as an abortion. But what they’re really saying is you can’t have a normal abortion, when it’s early in the pregnancy and safe. You have to wait, and wait, and wait until you’re really, really sick and then, maybe, if you’re lucky and the whole world is protesting, they’ll find a loophole. [Update: Beatriz had the procedure on June 3, 2013, and, as expected, the twenty-seven-week-old fetus died hours later.] Savita Halappanavar died when a similar situation arose last year in Ireland. She suffered a miscarriage, but because her fetus still had a heartbeat, they wouldn’t perform an abortion to save her life, even though the fetus had no chance of survival. I recently read a blog post at the site that I really feel I can get behind. The title tells you the whole story: “It’s Time to Strip Catholic Hospitals of Their Right to Provide Maternity Care.” I’m sure one can get quality medical care in Catholic hospitals, but not when it comes to women’s reproductive systems. They just shouldn’t be able to give this kind of care. They shouldn’t get federal funds for putting women’s lives at risk in order to follow religious directives. I just want to say a few more things. People often wonder why, according to studies, women are more religious than men. I think the reasons often given—that women are stupid, uneducated, credulous, don’t understand science—are wrong-headed (also sexist). Women are more religious than men because, as Nietzsche pointed out, Christianity offers a way for the powerless to restrain the powerful: it calls on men to be faithful husbands, good providers, and attentive and kindly fathers. It honors motherhood and caregiving and acknowledges women’s daily struggles. It provides a social world in which women play important roles, even if ultimately they are subordinated to male authorities. If secularism became a truly woman-friendly place throughout all its different manifestations, I think a lot of women would be ready to make the leap because, like everyone else, they’d rather be in a space that respects them as equals and not where they’re told: you’re inferior but we’re going to be nice to you if you follow our rules. Something else: all over the world, birth rates are falling. Why? Because women are getting access to education and birth control. Humanist Jane Roberts of the 34 Million Friends of the UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund) has done such wonderful work, bringing respectful reproductive health care to women globally. The early phases of the movement against overpopulation didn’t see women as social and political actors; they were more the problem to be fixed. Now we are recognizing that the more equality women have, the more choices and options everyone has. That is what’s going to lead to small families around the world. The award I was given by the AHA’s Feminist Caucus has a little globe on it as a symbol of feminism. Indeed, feminism is a global movement. We all have to help make sure that women around the world have education, good health care, rights, and freedom. We have to do what Sean Faircloth suggested in the wonderful panel he was on at the AHA conference. We have to organize. We have to get out there. We have to contact our congressional representatives. We have to make ourselves just as visible as the misogynist religious people do. They’re very busy. We need to be busy too. Q&A Q: You said that humanist and atheist movements need to make women feel entirely welcome as equals. What are some things you think we could be doing to achieve that feeling of equality? A: When a formerly majority male institution opens up to women, it changes a little bit. Women and men see some things differently in terms of how to approach people romantically (what counts as a sexist remark as opposed to a flattering remark), who listens to whom, who interrupts whom, what the make-up of the speakers is at panels and conferences, and so on. These are all things to consider when representing yourselves as a co-ed organization as opposed to a single-sex organization. And that goes for opening up to more people of color, to people who are LGBTQI, and all the other initials. It takes effort to change. It takes effort to listen to other people and to really hear what they’re saying. But I think it’s something we can all do. Q: I’m from Florida, the land of old ladies, and I’m an old lady. I would like to ask you about the Equal Rights Amendment. My mother and my aunt marched for the ERA around 1920, and I’ll be fighting for the ERA until I am near death. I would like to point out that in my time we had pensions, we had a wage that was the same as the men in many professions. All of this has vanished, yet we still fight for the ERA and we want petitions signed. But what is your attitude towards the ERA, and how can we get it passed? A: I wrote a column about the ERA recently and said it may be time to bring it back. I know it’s been a cause that the American Humanist Association and its Feminist Caucus have taken up. I will say this: as long as you have over twenty state legislatures where both houses are controlled by very conservative Republicans and where the governor is often a conservative Republican, the ERA has an uphill road. I think it’s very important that people start paying attention to state legislatures. We tend to think of politics as national, but a lot of things are decided at the state level, and the ERA is one of them. People also need to look at local races and get involved in school boards, because that’s where the fundamentalist Christians get a lot of their ability to sway what gets taught in schools. These are not sexy causes and they’re a lot of work, but I think we have to do it. State Senator Jamie Raskin (D-MD), who attended the AHA conference, shows that one person can really make a difference, because the state legislature of Maryland has just abolished the death penalty. A year before that, they brought in gay marriage. I’m not saying he did all these things by himself. He had help, but one and one and one makes a lot of people before you know it. I would say the takeaway for anyone who wants the ERA passed, and for anyone who wants to see the schools become more secular and fair to everybody is to get involved in local and state politics. Q: What can men do to really help the feminist cause? Sometimes when I try to get involved, I feel like I might appear patronizing, and I want everyone to be equal. A: What a great question. One thing you can do is talk to other men. Because not every man feels the way you do, and others only hear about feminism from women in ways they interpret as whiny or hostile or I-guess-you’re-not-going-to-sleep-with-me-after-all ways. Those men can hear better from other men because it breaks up the women-vs.-men thing that they have deeply planted in their minds. So go forth and proselytize among your kind. Thank you very much.