How to Attract More Secular Women Activists

Susan Jacoby

At the pioneering program “Women in Secularism” sponsored in May 2012 by the Center for Inquiry–Washington D.C., I discussed some of the reasons—from the greater religiosity of women to actual denigration of female intellect by some male secular activists (which you wouldn’t think would exist among male creatures who pride themselves on their rationality)—for the underrepresentation of women at all levels of the secular movement.

What I did not do was offer any practical steps to narrow the male-female gap. I did not do so, in part, because this conference was a vital first step,and what I have to say is likely to offend quite a few secularists who are as attached as the religious to pseudoscientific beliefs not only about women but about their own righteousness. The religious own up to what they take on faith, but many secularists do not.

First, we need to stop pretending that women’s issues are “nonpartisan”—a myth to which secular groups have become attached not only because of concerns about tax-exempt status but because of the same wishful blindness that makes liberal politicians believe that there must be “moderate”—oh, that overused word!—Republicans to work with on social issues. There used to be, when I was a young woman in the 1970s, and there were as recently as ten years ago.There aren’t today.

To pretend, for example, that the whole issue of women’s reproductive health-care decisions, which has everything to do with religion, can be dealt with through some private compromise with well-meaning libertarian conservatives (hey, where were those moderates when Rush Limbaugh was calling Sandra Fluke a slut?), is a form of willful blindness. The only people this bogus outreach works for in the secular movement are Ayn Randian free-marketeers. I received a great many nasty e-mails from these boys, whose political views were fixed around age fifteen, when I was writing the “Spirited Atheist” column for theWashington Post. A good many of them, when asked why women are more religious than men, replied that women are stupider than men. These little boys are a turn-off for women of all ages, but particularly for the young.

There may even be some women who subscribe to this patent nonsense, although I’ve met very few of them. There actually are such women (Ann Coulter, who follows the dutiful right-wing whacko position that it’s wrong for the government to help the poor, the infirm, the aged but a crime to subsidize women’s health-screening tests, is a perfect example). Most of them aren’t even interested in the secular movement, given the mighty shtick divine fortress that is part of their official worldview. Peel off the secret “moderate” conservative libertarians if you will, but don’t think this is going to attract more young women to our movement. We should form alliances with our natural allies, not our natural enemies.

Second, we need to call out and name men, including those within the movement, who don’t offer full-throated support for women’s issues. The secular movement has been much more forthright, for much longer, in its stances in support of gay rights than of women’s issues. Obstacles to gay rights and obstacles to women’s autonomy come from exactly the same political and religious sources.

Third, we should be making special appeals to women in science. They are, indeed, a natural secular constituency. If I were in charge of the secular world,I would be expending a great deal of effort and spending money to reach, personally and through the mail, every woman studying science at the undergraduate level in college and in professional schools. Most of the young women I know who are medical students have never even heard of organizations like theCenter for Inquiry and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. That’s our fault, not theirs.

Fourth, we should stop excusing wishy-washy women, even if they are celebrities and effective leaders on other issues, for pretending that religion has not been one of the major forces holding back women throughout the ages. An interview with Gloria Steinem, published in the September/October 2012 issue of TheHumanist, is a classic example of this deferential genre. Don’t get me wrong! I have the greatest respect for Steinem’s role as a longtime leader of the women’s rights movement. But she’s one of those people who are absolutely terrified to say a bad word about religion.

“I always thought that ‘humanist’ was a good word long before I understood that anyone thought it was a bad word,” Steinem told her interviewer. “It seems to me that it means you believe in the great potential and the best of human beings, so I didn’t have to overcome anything to accept this award; it seems an unmitigated honor. And since the ultra-right wing has tried so hard to make it a bad word—‘humanist’ has been demonized in much the same way that the word ‘feminist’ has—it seemed especially important to identify as humanist and support humanist groups. This is the only national group I know of, but I run into local ones, too.”

I guess Steinem must suspect atheist activists of not believing in the potential of every human being. Gotta call yourself something else if you want to be seen as a nice person.

Then the interviewer for the Humanist asked Steinem directly about my views, expressed both in Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004) andThe Age of American Unreason (2008). In both of those books, I argue that the importance of secularism in both the nineteenth- and twentieth-century women’s rights movements has been systematically downgraded, usually by women themselves, for fear of tainting feminism with ungodliness.

Steinem avoided replying. “I don’t know. I’m more often confronted by women who come from religious traditions and don’t feel that they have a place in the feminist movement. . . . On a personal level, I’ve felt pressure when reporters asked me, ‘Do you believe in God?’ I do say, ‘No. I believe in people. I believe in nature,’ but I still understand how much cultural pressure there is.” Steinem goes on to say, “It has so much to do with what feels like home to us. It makes such sense to me to say that many of us are trying to rescue the good we grew up with. There’s a lovely poem by Alice Walker in which she talks about being taken as a little girl to church by the women in her family. She talks about the church service. She’s leaning against the women’s knees and she’s listening. She says, ‘I think about it now and salvage mostly the leaning.’”

What Steinem ought to be thinking about is the extent to which retrograde religion has held back all of the humanist/secular causes that require women’s energies. Ah, yes, home. The money given to preachers, as the great W. E. B. DuBois pointed out at the turn of the last century, instead of to education.The money that comes today from the purses of hard-working single mothers whose children lack the basic physical and educational necessities of life.

Steinem is trying to wiggle out of the fact that there is, and always has been, a huge conflict between women’s rights and traditional religion. She is one of those people, I’d be willing to bet, who would never accept a “Freethought Heroine of the Year” award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She maybe willing, when pushed to the wall, to admit she does not believe in God, but she’s terrified of any association between feminism and atheism. Steinem also accepts the canard t
hat atheism is a purely negative self-definition. One can be both a humanist and an atheist—I certainly am—but women who subscribe to the traditional American pejoratives about atheism are of no use to the secular movement.

Fifth, and this may sound like a contradiction, it is a good thing for secularists to enlist religious women to cooperate in efforts and on behalf of causes where we agree. Mainstream religious women in Pennsylvania played an important role in cooperating with civil libertarians in winning the Dover,Pennsylvania, school case, which barred creationism and intelligent design from public schools as the religious teachings they were. There are many community causes—and education is the prime one—in which women are leaders. There’s no reason we can’t work together on these causes, with the added benefit of showing religious women (here’s the remedy for Steinem’s nervousness on this point) that atheists don’t have horns.

Sixth, we must acknowledge the obvious: attendance by men at secular programs devoted to women’s issues is extremely low. The “Women in Secularism”conference in Washington was filled with fascinating speakers, including some Muslim women who have rebuilt their lives on Enlightenment values. I spoke and moderated a panel, and at both sessions more than 90 percent of the attendees were women. (Twenty percent of conference registrants were reportedly male; perhaps quite a few of them opted to skip my sessions.) Why aren’t most secular men willing to spend an hour or two on issues that lie at the heart of our women, given the fact that the first thing theocracies do is crush women’s rights? It insulted me to see how many men I knew—men who had attended my lectures on “non-woman” subjects in other venues—weren’t there. What was more important, guys? Playing golf? Doing a refresher course on Ayn Rand?

Last but not least, men like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens deserve a shout-out for speaking out forthrightly about the condition of women in much of the Islamic world. The namby-pambiness of multiculturalist secular liberals concerning extremist Islam and women’s rights is nothing less than a scandal. The insistence that the Arab Spring has been a good thing for women, which is patently false (I had hoped otherwise) in viewof the increasing restrictions on women in countries like Egypt (especially Egypt), is another one of those perennial delusions held by well-meaning people. I wish the Arab Spring was producing more, not fewer, rights for women. It isn’t. It should be the job of the secular movement, because no one else is doing it, to call constant attention to what is happening to women’s rights as more-religiously oriented Muslim men take power in their countries.

I was absolutely amazed when the distinguished doctor and Syrian émigré Wafa Sultan spoke on my panel, in a voice that trembled, about how difficult it still was for her to speak out in public without her husband at her side. Those of us, male and female, who have always enjoyed the right to free speech(even if we have occasionally paid for it in low book sales) cannot begin to imagine what these brave women have endured in order to exercise their basic human rights. It is an absolute scandal that there weren’t more prominent secular men in Washington last May to pay tribute to women like Sultan and to listen to what they had to say. Put your money where your mouth is, guys. Support women financially who are working for human, theocracy-free rights around the world. Show up when they speak. Blogging just doesn’t cut it.


Susan Jacoby is the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Metropolitan, 2004) and a forthcoming biography of Robert Green Ingersoll(Yale University Press).

Susan Jacoby

Susan Jacoby is the author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (Yale University Press). Her most recent books are The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Vintage) and Why Baseball Matters (Yale University Press).


At the pioneering program “Women in Secularism” sponsored in May 2012 by the Center for Inquiry–Washington D.C., I discussed some of the reasons—from the greater religiosity of women to actual denigration of female intellect by some male secular activists (which you wouldn’t think would exist among male creatures who pride themselves on their rationality)—for the …

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