Yes, Virginia, There Was a Twentieth Century

Tom Flynn

Reader alert: the sentence that follows will include more slashes than I have ever penned—oops, I’m showing my age, keyboarded—in my life.

If any topic in our movement has liberated more virtual ink than the current debate/flame war over feminism/misogyny in atheism/secular humanism/secularism/freethought, I don’t know what it is/might be.

Phalanxes of words have been spewed in the blogosphere and on social media about gender imbalance in the movement generally and at conferences; shabby treatment of women, nowhere more so than in online discussions of that very subject; and the movement’s supposed long-standing paucity of women leaders. Inall of this, of course, there is much truth. Attendees at movement events remain far more male (and white, and old) than the general population. Sexual harassment is a real problem at some events; gender-based harassment is more like a cancer, afflicting way too much online dialogue.

But the claim that our movement has a long-standing paucity of female leadership is more questionable. Undeniably, leadership today is top-heavy with older white males, and that’s as sadly true in the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry as it is elsewhere. Still, it wasn’t that long ago that the atheist side of the movement was—hang onto your seats—led exclusively by women.

Of course, to appreciate that fact, one must recognize that the movement has a history stretching back further than 2006 (The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins)—or 2004 (The End of Faith by Sam Harris)—or even 2000, when the number of Americans telling pollsters that they identified with no religious denomination first exceeded 10 percent. Multiple factors underlie the ferocity of online disputes over misogyny in our movement and its correction—and one of them seems to be a lack of historical perspective.

Both the number of Americans who reject denominational labels and the smaller number who self-identify as atheists have swelled abruptly since the millennium’s turn. Moreover, younger Americans identify as “Nones” or atheists at rates sharply higher than their elders. The result has been a tsunami of youthful activists in whose experience organized unbelief didn’t exist until the 2000s. Of course these younger activists are most strongly represented online. In my review of Susan Jacoby’s excellent book The Great Agnostic (FI, February/March 2013), I regretted that this youthful cohort is “too likely to imagine that atheism began ex nihilo with Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens.”

Old-timers–by whom I mean anyone who was involved with organized unbelief before the so-called New Atheism*—may recall a similar phenomenon. How many atheists and humanists active in the seventies, eighties, and nineties recognized the names of Joseph Lewis or Emanuel Haldeman-Julius or Joseph McCabe,much less Frances Wright? For most, the world of atheism began with Madalyn Murray O’Hair (of whom more later). With the rise of a new generation, that phenomenon has repeated. This time, though, historical myopia may add venom to a clash that threatens to corrode the movement.

With that in mind, let’s rediscover atheism’s “feminist golden age.”

The mists of ancient epochs creep back to reveal—well, the early 1960s. Most Americans thought organized unbelief did not exist, and they weren’t far wrong. A U.S. freethought movement that had been prominent in the nineteenth century and still active into the 1930s had largely disappeared. Joseph McCabe, the most prolific atheist writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had died in 1955. (McCabe was British, but his works were ubiquitous among American freethinkers after being republished stateside by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. A socialist-turned-entrepreneur, Haldeman-Julius largely invented direct-mail book marketing and the paperback book. Starting in the twenties, he had sold tens of millions of his “Little Blue Books,” mostly freethought and sex-education titles. He died in 1951.) Joseph Lewis, essentially the sole public face of American atheism in the forties and fifties, was in his dotage and would die in 1968. By the early sixties, then, there was a vacuum where an American freethought movement should have been.

In 1963, that vacuum would be filled.

The stage had been set the year before, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down compulsory recitation of an educator-composed prayer in public schools. The plaintiffs in Engel v. Vitale were New York parents of mixed religious backgrounds. In 1963, the high court dropped the other shoe and ruled that public schools could not conduct teacher-led Bible readings either. That decision resolved two cases, one from Pennsylvania and one from Maryland. In the Pennsylvania case, Abingdon School District v. Schempp, the plaintiff was a young Unitarian Universalist. In the Maryland case, Murray v. Curlett, the plaintiff was a young atheist.

That young atheist’s mother was a gruff woman named Madalyn Murray.

From a legal perspective, Abingdon v. Schempp was the more important case. But where the Schempp family sought to avoid media attention, Madalyn Murray lusted after it. In short order, most Americans came to think that Murray had torn Bible reading out of public schools single-handedly. In 1963, the nation had no active national atheist organization; Murray founded what would become American Atheists. In 1964, Life magazine dubbed her “the most hated woman in America.” In 1965, she married Richard O’Hair. Madalyn Murray O’Hair became a household name—the new face of American atheism.

For the cause of unbelief, this was a decidedly mixed blessing. O’Hair had wrestled atheism back into the national consciousness, but she was mercurial,vulgar, and abrasive. She helped to cement popular stereotypes of atheists as pushy and intolerant. Still, for more than three decades the most prominent atheist leader in America—quite literally, the only atheist most Americans of the time could name—was O’Hair. No atheist played a more prominent role for a longer period than she did.

During many of those years, America’s next-most prominent atheist leader was also a woman. In the late sixties, Madison, Wisconsin,atheist Anne Nicol Gaylor began to campaign for abortion rights. In the seventies, she launched first a referral service, then an organized charity that helped thousands of women obtain abortions. She was O’Hair’s right hand until they had a falling-out (the usual fate of O’Hair lieutenants). In 1976,Gaylor founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). In marked contrast to O’Hair, Gaylor was calm and professional in demeanor, though her views were little less radical than O’Hair’s.

Until 1991, when a coalition of former American Atheists local groups organized as the Atheist Alliance, American Atheists and FFRF were the only national organizations devoted explicitly to atheism, and both were woman-led. To put it another way, for more than a quarter of that far-off, misty twentieth century, all the top atheist leadership in the United States was female.

Nor is our roster of women atheist leaders complete. For several years, Atheist Alliance was led by Marie Castle. From O’Hair’s 1995 disappearance until2008, American Atheists was led by Ellen Johnson, principal architect of the 2002 Godless Americans March on Washington (which the Council for SecularHumanism cosponsored), the largest physical gathering of American nonbelievers until 2012&rsqu
o;s Reason Rally. Anne Gaylor’s daughter, Annie Laurie Gaylor, now runs FFRF with her husband, evangelist-turned-atheist Dan Barker. Space does not permit me to name a score of female activists who played significant volunteer roles in the work of American Atheists and FFRF during these years.

That said, neither group should be held up as an exemplar of gender parity. American Atheists and FFRF conventions looked like any other movement gathering of the time, overwhelmingly dominated by older white males. It’s probably fair to say that late-twentieth-century organized atheism displayed a “reverse glass ceiling”—female at the top, mostly male below—a structure seen in few other organizations of the time. It’s an anomaly that, to the best of my knowledge, feminist scholarship has yet to explore.

What larger message should we draw from that? It’s hard to say. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, in particular, was such an idiosyncratic figure that it’s unclear what lesson contemporary feminists might draw from her example. Nonetheless, as younger voices in our movement decry it for falling short of its obligations to half of the human race—with sound reason, in my view—let’s not lose track of history. Yes, Virginia, there was a twentieth century, and during most of its latter third, organized American atheism was a woman-led phenomenon. Whatever that may signify, it is unfair to characterize our movement as one unrelievedly tainted by misogyny.


* The embarrassing fact about the New Atheism is that almost nothing about it is new. See my “Why I Don’t Believe in the New Atheism” (FI,April/May 2010). For information on the movement’s history, from the ancient Indians and Greeks to, yes, Frances Wright until just before the supposed NewAtheism emerged, consult biographical historical entries in my The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Prometheus Books, 2007).


Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry and the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

Reader alert: the sentence that follows will include more slashes than I have ever penned—oops, I’m showing my age, keyboarded—in my life. If any topic in our movement has liberated more virtual ink than the current debate/flame war over feminism/misogyny in atheism/secular humanism/secularism/freethought, I don’t know what it is/might be. Phalanxes of words have been …

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