Melody Hensley

To organize an event with a focus on issues affecting a particular group, be it religion, race, gender, or sexual orientation, is to endure accusations of tokenism—the idea that inequality and tensions can be papered-over by the superficial inclusion or promotion of a particular group for the sake of appearances. Such insincerity and posturing can make an event or organization seem unserious, even desperate—and in the reality-focused skeptic and secular movements, doubly so.

Suffice it to say that the idea of a conference made up exclusively of female speakers (save for Center for Inquiry [CFI] President Ronald A. Lindsay, who spoke at the opening reception) and focused entirely on the concerns of women in the secular movement ruffled the feathers of those whose insincerity alarms are easily tripped.

Indeed, some of the response to the “Women in Secularism” conference’s very existence (mind you, long before the actual event took place) revealed a level of defensiveness within the movement that surprised me. Many lashed out at CFI and me personally for propagating the allegedly false ideas that (a) women are underrepresented within the secular movement—particularly at conferences—and (b) that there are issues surrounding both religion and the freethought community that affect women primarily and deserve a forum to address them specifically. These are truths that, to me, seem fully self-evident, but nonetheless the resistance to them was (and continues to be) astonishing.

No matter. When the “Women in Secularism” conference finally began on May 18, 2012, it was obvious to all in attendance—male and female—that we had struck a chord. Here was, at long last, a forum in which to address all of the struggles of and about women—both in the face of religious oppression and also the unaddressed sexism and misogyny within our own community. The sense that a pressure valve had been opened was palpable. Topics once almost un-airable lest the speaker be subjected to a torrent of abuse, online and elsewhere, were getting a full hearing. There was no doubt that a floodgate had been opened.

Before the conference had concluded its first day of events, participants were expressing their enthusiasm but also their concern at the prospect of this being a one-off event whose powerful momentum might be lost. There was simply so much more ground to cover, so much more to discuss and debate. There was a consensus among the women I spoke with that they felt a sense of empowerment and solidarity. Many had plans to take their convictions and what they had learned back to their hometowns and work toward a more equitable secular community. On the final day, when Lindsay announced that there would be another“Women in Secularism” conference in 2013, there was a general sense of relief and renewed determination.

As expected, the activity at the conference spilled over into a round of “secular soul-searching” and heated exchanges across the freethought blogosphere.It has unearthed brilliant self-realizations about how we treat and think of women in our movement—and also a frankly astonishing level of hostility against the very idea that something such as “women’s concerns” should even be addressed by what is to many a strictly pro-science and antireligious movement.

In the pages that follow, Free Inquiry will present writings from the women involved with the conference. Some pieces are taken directly from thepresentations given at the event, while others reflect on the conference’s core issues and its aftermath.

Ophelia Benson exposes gender stereotypes that bubble up even within our own enlightened movement, in regard to what is and is not “a guy thing” and whether women should simply accept the reduced role to which they have been assigned. Jennifer McCreight, who recently spawned the controversial new social-justice-centered “Atheism +” concept (and has sadly felt compelled to excuse herself from the movement in the wake of an onslaught of online abuse),attempts to shatter the notion that being a member of the secular movement should deal only with god-debunking to the exclusion of all else and warns that we are in just as much danger of clinging to outmoded, oppressive beliefs as any religious sect.

Rebecca Watson, whose mild pleas for understanding of women’s sense of personal security ignited a firestorm of debate and hatred, wants the secular movement to be ready to welcome those who begin to peel off from religion. As American women in particular wake up to the idea that religion does not have their best interests at heart and is in fact hostile to them, the skeptic and atheist movements have to be prepared to receive them—an effort that is utterly hampered if misogyny and sexism continue to run rampant.

Author and scholar Jennifer Michael Hecht awed conference attendees with a special reading of selections from her poetry: evocative verses that filled us with wonder, tugged at our hearts, and made us laugh at ourselves. Those poems are, happily, also found within these pages.

Having examined the lack of women within the secular movement in her conference presentation, Susan Jacoby in her article in this issue takes the next step, offering a clear and (perhaps to some) harsh prescription for correcting that disparity, in part by rejecting the “willful blindness” that has led many to ignore the conflict between traditional religion and women’s rights. Sikivu Hutchinson, meanwhile, forces us to take an even broader view, asking the white males who dominate our movement to live their humanism by confronting the unbearable weight of racism that is crushing the prospects of minorities.

Perhaps no presentation at the “Women in Secularism” conference was more affecting than that of Wafa Sultan, who had startled the world in 2006 with her televised condemnation of Islam’s abuse of women. As a physician in Syria, she had to daily face and then try to repair as best she could the damage done to women because of her religion’s tenet that “women are deficient in mind.” Her harrowing and inspiring tale brought the audience first to tears, then to their feet. We are proud to present her talk here.

What a fascinating and exciting time to be a part of the freethought community! True, our discussions and arguments over the past months have revealed real, substantive divisions among us. They have given rise to hurt feelings, bruised egos, and genuine fear. But I cannot help but be encouraged by the fact that this debate took place. Ours is a movement of facts and science, but it is also one of liberation from the shackles of old myths. When we are no longer chained by theological bonds, it may be that we have cultural bonds unrelated to the divine that we must next chisel away. We won’t know until we talk about it, consider all sides, and act on our conclusions. Progress is messy but worth the trouble.


Melody Hensley is the executive director of CFI–Washington, D.C., which sponsored the “Women in Secularism” conference. A second conference is scheduled for May 2013.

Melody Hensley

Melody Hensley is the former Executive Director of the DC branch of the Center for Inquiry.

To organize an event with a focus on issues affecting a particular group, be it religion, race, gender, or sexual orientation, is to endure accusations of tokenism—the idea that inequality and tensions can be papered-over by the superficial inclusion or promotion of a particular group for the sake of appearances. Such insincerity and posturing can …

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