A Woman’s Place? The Dearth of Women in the Secular Movement

The following article is adapted from a speech given at the Women in Secularism Conference sponsored by the Center for Inquiry and held in Washington, DC, in May 2012.

The underrepresentation of women in the expanding American secular movement is an uncomfortable issue for many secularists and atheists. Many deny that there is a “woman problem” in organizations dedicated to the promotion of secular values. As an author who speaks about secularism—specifically, America’s secular history—to many different kinds of audiences, I can assure you that there is a problem.

When I speak before non-college audiences—that is, audiences in which no one is required to be there to get credit for a college course—75 percent of the people in the seats are men. The good news is that this is a significant improvement over the situation that prevailed eight years ago, when my book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism was published; at that time, my audiences were about 90 percent male. The bad news is that the gender gap in this movement remains as large as it is, although it’s less striking among people under thirty. The question is why.

The first and most obvious reason is that women, in the United States and every other country, are more religious and more devout in the practice of their religion than men. Public opinion polls show that this disparity affects every income, educational, and racial group—although it is much narrower among the highly educated than among the uneducated and the young than the old. African-American women, regardless of their level of education, are the most religious demographic in this country. This fact alone tells us that education is not the decisive factor, because although black women as a group are better educated than black men, black men are less religious. Space doesn’t permit a lengthy analysis of why women are more religious than men, so I’ll simply say that the greater religiosity of women means that both secular humanism and atheism are tougher sells to women.

I’ll also note that the very question of why women are more religious than men often elicits a prejudiced, sexist response. When I first began writing for the “On Faith” section of the Washington Post, one of the earliest questions asked for an explanation of women’s greater religiosity. An amazing number of men on my blog answered baldly, “Because women are stupider than men.”

I think most of us can agree, without parsing SAT and IQ scores, that this is not exactly a reasonable, evidence-based answer. It represents the so-called thinking of a group of modern-day social Darwinists who make up one component of the secular movement. These were the same angry white guys who would often call me “Susie” in their comments. Interestingly, the religious right-wingers on the blog simply referred to me as an “ugly old atheist.” (Apparently the former were under the impression that using a diminutive would make any woman burst into tears, while the latter group thought that calling you ugly or old was the worst possible insult.) I don’t want to make too much of this, in part because I place about as much value on anonymous opinions expressed on blogs as I do on professions of eternal love after drinking the night away in a bar. However, I don’t think it can be denied that the idea that women aren’t as, shall we say, tough-minded as men has long been held by an element in the secular movement, including the twentieth-century movement as it developed after World War II.

This misogyny sometimes shows up as a distinction between “soft” and “hard” atheists, describing people like my friend Sam Harris as a “hard” atheist because he argues that so-called moderate religion is even worse than fundamentalist religion, because moderate religion provides a respectable cover for fundamentalism. Speaking only for myself—and certainly not for womankind—I don’t agree with Harris about this. The job of the secular movement would be much easier if religion in the United States consisted only of liberal Protestantism, along with the liberal Catholicism that tells its bishops just where they can stick their doctrines, and Reform Judaism.

So does that position make me a “soft” atheist? A kinder, gentler atheist, as the religious historian Steve Prothero once described me? Such distinctions merely reduce a genuine, reasonable disagreement—one as much about tactics as principle—to a difference between the sexes. Because what’s really being said here is that in disagreeing with a male colleague on an intellectual issue, a female is “soft”—a word that’s synonymous with flabby and weak-minded. And she’s soft because, well, she’s a girl.

When I was writing my Washington Post column, “The Spirited Atheist,” I was often challenged to defend certain statements made by Harris or Richard Dawkins, and the point I always made was that one of the big differences between atheism and religion is that no atheist is obliged to agree with every single thing another atheist says. Richard Dawkins is not the pope, Sam Harris is not a cardinal, Christopher Hitchens is not the Holy Ghost, and I am most definitely not a nun. Now I’m in my sixties, and calling me soft—or even Susie-—is unlikely to crush my spirit or convince me that it’s time to repent and rejoin a church. But this kind of stereotyping is unwelcoming to young women atheists now on the fringes of the secular movement. My two nieces are both in their twenties and both atheists, but they are not at all involved in organized secularism. They consider this a quaint activity of mine, only to be expected from the generation that came of age in the 1960s—a decade which, of course, they’re sick of hearing about.

Looking back further historically, it is just a fact that a great many founders of twentieth-century secular organizations, like the Center for Inquiry or the American Humanist Association, came from either a philosophy or science background—and these two areas of academia were particularly inhospitable to women before the 1980s. I should also point out that the few women who were engaged in science and philosophy had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to maintain themselves professionally. They didn’t have the time to become involved in a marginalized secular movement. The energies of many of the smartest and most energetic women of my generation instead went into the feminist movement, which directly affected our everyday lives for the better. Personally, I’ve been an atheist since I was fifteen, but I simply saw this as something I was—not as something in which I wanted to invest my energies as a writer.

Looking at this from the historical perspective of my generation as we came of age, I must also mention the seemingly anomalous fact that the best-known atheist in the United States in the 1950s and early ’60s was the founder of American Atheists, Madalyn Murray, known as “Mad Madalyn” to her detractors. (She later married a man named O’Hair and took his last name—something I found curious at a time when many women were beginning to keep their own last names.) Now she had not, for the most part, said anything more forthright or abrasive to Christians than have Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens—but let’s not forget that she made her points at a time when atheism was much more demonized than it is now.

And, above all, she was a woman. She frequently described religion as lunacy and silliness, and the fact that she was a female without any special academic or professional credentials made it much easier for the rest of society to dismiss her as a nut case. In a speech at the University of Maryland in 1961, Murray mocked nonbelievers like Vashti McCollum—another extremely important but less well-known woman in the twentieth-century history of American secularism—for calling themselves humanist rather than atheist. McCollum was the plaintiff in McCollum v. Board of Education of the State of Illinois, a crucial 1948 case that struck down the then-common practice of “released time” for religious instruction in public schools.

Murray, however, was contemptuous of people like McCollum who described themselves as humanists. Murray was, of course, right about the prejudice against the term “atheist,” but she antagonized many people who called themselves secular humanists because of her insistence that only “atheist” could serve as an honorable self-definition.

In general, when women have made contributions to the secular movement, they haven’t been adequately recognized. The reason I emphasize Murray is that the reaction to her in the 1960s—from within the secular community as well as outside it—was not only a reaction to her sex, but to her failure to fit any socially acceptable definition of femininity. She didn’t look like Gloria Steinem, whose appearance had a lot to do with making feminism acceptable to young women. Atheists to this day are constantly accused of being shrill, but in a sexist atmosphere shrill seems shriller when it’s a woman who is speaking. As a Massachusetts newspaper wrote in the 1850s of Ernestine Rose, an immigrant from Poland who is another overlooked female figure in the history of American atheism, “We know of no object more deserving of contempt, loathing, and abhorrence than a female atheist. We hold the vilest strumpet from the stews to be by comparison respectable.”

It so happens that one of the most important and long-lasting atheist organizations—the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF)—was co-founded in 1976 by two women: Annie Laurie Gaylor and her mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor. But FFRF and its activities were not nearly as well known as Murray and her organization at a time when the media nearly always focused on what could be portrayed as antisocial atheist activities. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know much about the Freedom from Religion Foundation until 2004, when they gave me its Freethought Heroine of the Year Award. When I told a man who is a well-known figure in the secular movement that I was receiving this award, he said, “the Gaylor women have done a lot for this movement by showing that a female atheist doesn’t have to look and sound like a shrill bitch.” He considered this a compliment.

It’s hardly surprising within the secular movement—which, after all, is not some sort of alien entity divorced from society’s other beliefs—that some men hold these beliefs. Another longer-term reason for the lack of visibility of women in the entire history of American secularism is the conscious effort that has always been made to deny the essentially secular nature of women’s rights movements, beginning in 1848 with the Seneca Falls convention, which gave national prominence to the women’s suffrage movement. In recent years, we’ve become familiar with the phenomenon of religion trying to take credit for all of the progressive movements in U.S. cultural history. There’s no denying that religion—certain kinds of religion—played a vital role in both the abolitionist and the civil rights movements. But we also know very well that religion, like the rest of the institutions of American society, was divided on the issue of slavery and, a century later, on civil rights. One of the more gruesomely comical political phenomena of the past twenty years has been the spectacle of leaders of the religious right in the South trying to take credit for the civil rights movement. You’d never know from their crocodile tears for Martin Luther King that most southern Protestant churches—among the most segregated institutions in the country—fought bitterly against civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s and drummed out of their ministry those who disagreed.

But religion never played an important role in the nineteenth or twentieth-century women’s rights movements. Orthodox religion has always been the staunchest enemy of women’s rights: even unconventionally religious women like the great Quaker Lucretia Mott were often accused of being atheists when they spoke out about discrimination against women. So, by the way, were the Quaker sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who in the 1830s took the then unheard-of step—for women—of speaking out in public about both abolitionism and women’s rights. When the Grimkés began talking about the rapes of female slaves by their masters, Congregationalist ministers in Massachusetts issued a public condemnation to be read from every pulpit. The letter read, in part, “We appreciate the unostentatious prayers and efforts of woman in advancing the cause of religion at home and abroad; in Sabbath-schools; in leading religious inquiries to their pastors for instruction; and in all such associated effort as becomes the modesty of her sex, but when she assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer, her character becomes unnatural.”

Later in the nineteenth century, in 1892 to be exact, Elizabeth Cady Stanton published the Woman’s Bible (a compilation of criticism by female scholars of the upholding of male superiority in scripture), and she was written out of the woman suffrage movement. It was thought, even by Stanton’s comrade-in-arms, Susan B. Anthony (herself an agnostic), that if the suffragist movement was perceived to be antireligious, it would never get the male support it needed. At an 1885 meeting of the National Woman Suffrage Association in Washington, DC, Stanton had made her position clear:

You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded woman…What power is it that makes the Hindoo woman burn herself upon the funeral pyre of her husband? Her religion. What holds the Turkish woman in the harem? Her religion. By what power do the Mormons perpetuate their system of polygamy? By their religion. Man, of himself, could not do this; but when he declares, “Thus saith the Lord,” of course he can do it. So long as ministers stand up and tell us Christ is the head of the church, so is man the head of women, how are we to break the chains which have held women down through the ages? … Now I ask you if our religion teaches the dignity of women? It teaches us the abominable idea—Augustine’s idea—that motherhood is a curse, that woman is the author of sin, and is most corrupt. Can we ever cultivate any proper sense of self-respect as long as women take such sentiments from the mouths of the priesthood?

A year after the Woman’s Bible became an international bestseller, the suffrage association passed a resolution disavowing the book and, in effect, one of the two most important founders of their movement.

Yet even after passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the generation of suffragists that had censured Stanton for her antireligious views continued to deny her role in the movement. As recently as 1977, when female runners carried a torch from Seneca Falls to a meeting in observance of International Women’s Day in Houston, Texas, Stanton was still treated as a nonperson. Anthony’s grandniece was seated on the dais but no descendant of Stanton’s had been invited. Only in the 1980s did Americans rediscover Stanton because by then, the second wave of feminism had refocused attention on the issue Stanton was among the first to recognize—the need for women to change their view of themselves.

Today there are many religious feminists fighting for equal treatment of women within their faiths—something that doesn’t interest me but understandably interests them. But these women were the result, not the cause, of the twentieth-century feminist movement. Even so, there is still a tendency on the part of feminists themselves to downplay the role of secular women in the feminist movement.

Every one of us old enough to remember knows that the leadership of the feminist movement of the 1970s was disproportionately secular. But it’s not talked about or written about much, because one of the main accusations leveled by the right against feminism is that its proponents are godless. Certainly not all feminist women are godless, but a godless woman is more likely than not to be a feminist. There are exceptions. Ayn Rand, the great heroine of the far right (which is willing to overlook her atheism because of her idolatry of the free market), was extremely misogynous in her views.

The restoration of secular women to the history of various social movements is, I think, essential to attracting more young women into our ranks. But that alone isn’t enough, because we need to admit that some political divisions within our movement may make secular organization seem particularly inhospitable to these young women.

Let’s just admit it: there is a real division between secular humanists and secular conservatives—something that would surprise the religious right, which considers all atheists as socialists. In the Center for Inquiry, the organization with which I’m most familiar, this often expresses itself as a division between “humanists” and people who call themselves “skeptics.” There is a lot of overlap between these two groups but, in my experience, the skeptics tend to be more conservative and more male-oriented. Incidentally, I’ve been invited only once to speak at an event put on by people calling themselves skeptics, but I’m constantly being invited to speak before humanist groups.

When I was organizing events for the Center for Inquiry in New York City, I came to see rather quickly that male attendance at events focusing on what were perceived as women’s issues was very low. One of the first events I organized was a panel on women’s rights as human rights—something that’s obviously a key issue for us—and it was the worst-attended event we had that year. The Women in Secularism conference sponsored by the Center for Inquiry and held in Washington, DC, in May 2012 was a groundbreaking event, but it too was overwhelmingly female in its attendance. We have a long way to go in the secular movement before women’s rights are fully seen as one of “our” issues, that is an issue of equal concern to men and women.

So what can we do to move some of the audiences at secular events—ones not specifically directed toward women’s issues—toward something more representative of the educated population?

As I’ve already suggested, our first job is to write women back into secular history. I am not talking, by the way, about “political correctness”—a phrase I hate because it is generally used to mean a point of view at odds with whatever the person using the term is selling.

Our second task is to link the past denigration of women by conservative religion with the current relationship between theocracy and misogyny. I recently watched a segment on Hardball with Chris Matthews concerning a new book about the CIA’s twenty-year history in Afghanistan, and one retired operative said with a sneer that one of the things wrong with the current administration’s policy is its concern with such superfluous goals as “trying to make it safe for little girls to go to school.” It may well be impossible for well-meaning foreigners to make it safe for little girls to go to school in Afghanistan, but that goal does not deserve disdain.

The status of women within the Islamic theocratic world is a major secular issue, and secularists are in a better position than the religious to emphasize this because the religious are stuck with pretending that what happens to women in places like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia—to take two very different examples—has nothing, perish the thought, to do with “true” religion. Last spring I debated Dinesh D’Souza in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he accused me of suffering from “antireligious dementia”—apparently a new psychiatric diagnosis. But listen to what D’Souza says in his book, The Enemy at Home:

The left is responsible for 9/11 in the following ways. First, the cultural left has fostered a decadent American culture that angers and repulses traditional societies, especially those in the Islamic world that are being overwhelmed with this culture. In addition, the left is waging an aggressive global campaign to undermine the traditional family and to promote secular values in non-Western cultures. This campaign has provoked a violent reaction from Muslims who believe that their most cherished beliefs and institutions are under assault.

Their most cherished beliefs and institutions are under assault? Like the right to throw acid on little girls who want to attend school? The right to keep women from driving? The right to kill women who have been raped to restore honor to the family? By D’Souza’s claim the cultural left is responsible for making Islamists mad by denouncing these practices of the “traditional family” in countries that haven’t progressed beyond the fourteenth century in their attitudes toward women. There is a big opening for secular humanists on these issues. We need to put our money and volunteer efforts where our mouths are.

This certainly applies to issues at home—ranging from contraception to child day care—in which patriarchal right-wing Christian values are used to limit women’s opportunities.

Of course there is also a need to tap more women for positions of responsibility in secular organizations. Women have played a very important role in grassroots battles—say, the teaching of evolution in public schools—but they’re not as well represented at the organizational level. Again, I think part of this is generational and is about to change, but experience in other social movements shows that such change doesn’t happen automatically.

Finally, it’s time for women’s rights to be seen not as a “special” issue but as something integral to our larger mission of freeing society from anti-rational, supernaturally based restrictions. And nothing, by the way, is more important in this effort than the education of children—an endeavor that can draw on both the traditional role of women and the urgent need to educate the young in reason. It was Ernestine Rose who argued in 1853 against the pseudoscientific idea that there is some sort of a “God gene.” No, she said, religion is the result of indoctrination—not of a “natural” propensity to believe the unbelievable.

“A child may be made to believe in a falsehood and die in support of it,” she said. “And therefore there can be no merit in mere belief … Bibles are always written so obscure [sic] as to require priestly interpreters, and their means of salvation is to strangle every one they come in contact with who does not believe as they do.”

This is just as true today as it was 150 years ago, and no issue is more important to the secular movement in the United States and around the world than combating such ideology. We need more women on the front lines of this battle, and we need them now.