Women in Secularism
This past weekend a group of us from the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Central Florida had the privilege of attending the first ever Women in Secularism conference put on by the Center for Inquiry (CFI). After a long but pleasant road trip from Orlando to Arlington Virginia we attended the opening reception where we were able to meet several of the conference attendees and speakers including Greta Cristina, Susan Jacoby, Sikivu Hutchinson, Melody Hensley, Debbie Goddard, Jessica Ahlquist, and American Atheists Director of Development AJ Johnson. As stated on CFI’s website, the purpose of the conference was to, “discuss and celebrate the many contributions women have made to the secular movement, while critically examining both the successes and failures of secularism in addressing women’s concerns.” The title of the conference and its stated purpose were especially pertinent for the secular movement tends to be male dominated. Unlike the previous secular conferences, the speakers’ roster was completely comprised of women. The WSI conference offered a unique forum to discuss secular issues adding an emphasis on the perspective of women.
The first panel discussion was titled “The Intersection of Non-theism and Feminism”. The moderator was Annie Laurie Gaylor and the panel included Sikivu Hutchison, Jennifer McCreight, Ophelia Benson, and Rebecca Watson. In her blog post summarizing this panel discussion on Pharyngula, Skatje Myers noted that, “Watson and McCreight discussed their experiences with introducing feminism into atheism/skepticism, and the backlash that results. The complaint when they do so is basically “this is not science/atheism, so it doesn’t belong here”. McCreight made the case that the goals are similar. Religious belief is irrational and not fact-based, and so is sexist belief. If your goal is to promote rational thinking, feminism is an inevitable part of that. But unfortunately, the difference between the two is that giving up religion feels freeing, whereas giving up sexist beliefs often feels more restricting.” Sikivu Hutchinson, the only woman of color on the panel, spoke about how minority women suffer more acutely from the effects of sexism in society. She also critiqued the secular movement’s promotion of “scientism” which she says is not inclusive to women and racial minorities.
Next up was the new executive director for the Secular Coalition of America (SCA) Edwina Rogers who gave a brief presentation about the lobbying efforts and organization building that her organization is working on. She plans to have affiliates in all 50 states that will help coalesce the different secular organizations and harness their power into a more effective lobbying effort.
Later in the day we attended the second panel discussion of the conference which included Susan Jacoby as the moderator, Greta Cristina, Dr. Wafa Sultan, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation Dr. Elisabeth Cornwell. This powerhouse panel was tasked with the topic of “Why Women Need Freedom from Religion”. During the discussion the issue of cultural imperialism was broached in regards to supporting women in Muslim countries. The panel was in agreement that it was a moral duty to help women in other cultures, not cultural imperialism. Greta Cristina launched an impassioned salvo against the notion that helping women in the Islamic world was akin to cultural imperialism. Greta stated, “Its cultural imperialism to help these women? Tell that to the girl who had her clitoris cut off, tell that to the girls who had acid thrown on their faces for going to school, tell that to the women being stoned to death for the crime of being raped. Tell that to them and then fuck you.” Greta also spoke about the LGBT rights movement in the 1960’s-70’s and how in an attempt to become more main stream, it distanced itself from secularists and emphasized liberal religious affiliations. Dr. Cornwell added that the fears of the godless communists also further stigmatized the secular movement in this country. Greta’s solution to this problem was to advocate for greater visibility for secularists as patriotic, humanitarian, and awesome allies to work with.
Following the intense panel discussion was Dr. Bernice Sandler who is well known for her pioneering work fighting sex discrimination in the 1970’s while on the House Subcommittee on Higher Education where she helped push Title IX to passage. Much of her speech dealt with the conversational dynamics at play during meetings and the ways in which she has observed men use certain tactics to undermine women in these meetings. Her speech was informative and laid out certain techniques that she has found to be effective at putting a stop to the sexist atmosphere in some male dominated committee meetings. Her talk was fascinating but only tangentially linked with the overarching secular theme of the conference.
Wrapping up the day Dr. Wafa Sultan gave a stellar presentation in which she gave a powerful plea to the women and men of the Western world to seek empowerment for women in Islam. Dr. Sultan is of Syrian birth. She encouraged women in the West not to take their rights for granted, to keep fighting for them but also to fight for the oppressed women in her own culture. She recounted numerous horrendous stories of the plights of various women in the Muslim world. When she finished speaking the audience rose to a standing ovation for this remarkable woman.
Looking back on the conference from a male perspective I see the need for the secular movement to reach out to minorities and help broaden the community. Women, African Americans, and the LGBT community are all negatively affected by religion and should be represented in the secular movement to a greater extent. Fellow UCF SSA member Katie Gunn reflects, “As a woman, I have often wondered why women tend to be more religious than men seeing as they are oppressed by religion. This conference shed some light on this. Now that we have an understanding I feel we can more readily reach out to women and get them more involved in the secular movement.” The movement as of now has been disproportionately male and while we need every secular minded person we can get, a greater focus on addressing women’s concerns and issues would serve the secular community well in its goal of providing a truly diverse and representative atmosphere.
- Dan Yarbrough
The Secular Student Alliance at UCF is officially Tumbling. Get ready for some reason, world!