Women’s History: A Core Secular Issue

Susan Jacoby

On May 17–19, 2013, the Center for Inquiry (the Council for Secular Humanism’s supporting organization) presented the second “Women In Secularism” conference in Washington, D.C. FREE INQUIRY is pleased to publish the following essays based on speeches delivered at “Women In Secularism 2.”—EDS.

In the famous abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in 1837, the early feminist Maria Weston Chapman replied to a large group of New England Congregationalist ministers who were scandalized by the fact that women were beginning to speak in public on behalf of political causes such as abolitionism. Her verse was aptly titled “The Times That Try Men’s Souls”:

They’ve taken a notion to speak for themselves,
And are wielding the tongue and the pen;
They’ve mounted the rostrum; the termagent elves,
And—oh horrid!—are talking to men!
With faces unblanched in our presence they come
To harangue us, they say, in behalf of the dumb. . . .

I am willing to bet that many well-educated secularist readers have never heard the name Maria Weston Chapman. That reflects not ignorance but the sad fact that the record of both women’s history and secular history—to say nothing of the connections between them—remains woefully incomplete in twenty-first-century America.

It has often been said that one of the great weaknesses of the women’s rights movement over the past two hundred years has been the tendency of its history to disappear, so that it must be resurrected for each new generation. I experienced a perfect example of this recently, when I published an e-book titled The Last Men on Top, about my father’s generation and what it was like growing up under the values that prevailed in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

The birth-control pill became available in 1963, when I was eighteen, but it was far from clear how or if the pill could be obtained by unmarried women (or girls, as we called ourselves then) in East Lansing, Michigan. So I went to a gynecologist, told him I was getting married in two months, and emphasized that I wanted to begin taking the pill so everything would be just fine for that holy of holies, my wedding night. I doubt that the doctor believed this story, but he prescribed the pill anyway.

My twenty-three-year-old niece found it almost incredible that I would have had to tell such a lie to obtain access to the pill, and I’ve since had many e-mails from other women her age saying the same thing. The whole reason we’ve had this ludicrous recent discussion about whether health insurance should pay for contraception is that our society has all but forgotten what things were like in the “good old days,” when women had little control over any aspect of their own reproductive systems.

My generation of feminists came of age in the late 1960s. We operated within the context of a society that knew almost nothing about the long struggle for women’s rights that began with the Seneca Falls convention in 1848. If you had asked me, in 1968, to come up with the names of American women who had been active in the struggle for legal justice for their sex in the past, the only one I am certain I could have pulled out of my head was Susan B. Anthony. I might, possibly, have thought of Eleanor Roosevelt, because I knew she had been ridiculed as the wife of the president for her interest in both the status of women and of black Americans.

The forgetting of the history of marginalized groups is both a cause and effect of their marginalization. If you are marginalized, you don’t have the clout to move your story into mainstream institutions—such as public schools—that automatically pass on the stories considered foundational to a society. Indeed, one of the main rationales for the existence and public support of such institutions is that they are necessary to passing on the common heritage of a culture. But the pertinent question is: Just who defines what is “common” in our heritage?

It isn’t surprising that the secular movement in America has been characterized by historical discontinuities that, in a number of respects, resemble the amnesia that held back feminism for so long. Every brand of religion maintains, and is, a permanent mechanism for transmitting ideas and values—whether one regards those values as admirable or ridiculous. Secularist organizations, with their generally looser, nonhierarchical structures, lack the power to hand down and disseminate their heritage in such a systematic way.

Even when once-marginalized movements succeed in changing minds in their own generation—as the Enlightenment rationalists did in the American revolutionary generation, as the abolitionists did in the nineteenth century, as feminists did in the 1970s—they are often subject to re-marginalization in the next generation. Reason is not a religion. Secularism is not a religion. Feminism is not a religion. If they were, there would be a feminist/secularist treasury to pay for the dissemination of its values from generation to generation.

I am concerned chiefly with the ways in which the lacunae and discontinuities in women’s history intersect with the same phenomena in secular history and affect our ability to influence public policy.


First, I think we have long underestimated the degree to which all movements aimed at justice and social, economic, and legal equality for women have been intertwined with secular movements, beginning with the Enlightenment. Now, it is absolutely true that not all Enlightenment thinkers were supporters of women’s rights. Most men of the Enlightenment, with the exception of Thomas Paine, seem to have given scarcely any thought to power relations between the sexes.

But while not all Enlightenment thinkers were feminists (and I’m ignoring the fact that feminist wasn’t a term used at that time), all feminists born at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries were products of the Enlightenment. The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, largely written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (born 1815), is explicitly modeled after the American Declaration of Independence. The Seneca Falls declaration states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. . . . But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government. . . . Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled.”

Stanton was referring, of course, to the “government” of men. The connection between Enlightenment values and women’s rights was there, by the way, for both secular and religious feminists such as the Quaker Lucretia Mott, whom Stanton called “the greatest woman of the nineteenth century” when she died in 1881. Religious feminists in the nineteenth century were invariably pilloried—called atheists and sluts—by the more orthodox of their coreligionists. As for feminists who were agnostics or atheists, such as Stanton herself, they were written out of the history of the women’s movement for a very long time in spite of their pivotal importance during the nineteenth century.

After the 1895 publication of Stanton’s Woman’s Bible, which excoriated all religion for its role in the subjugation of women, it was decided by the national woman-suffragist organization that the suffragist movement could not afford to be identified with ungodliness. Even after the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified in 1920, Stanton remained largely unknown until the revival of American feminism in the early 1970s.

There has been a similar effort to downplay the importance of secular women in the revived feminist movement of the last three decades of the twentieth century. Many religious women today are fighting for equality within their faiths, but that was not nearly as true at the end of the ‘60s.

The fact is that secular women—especially, nonobservant Jews—played an outsized role in the 1970s in a way that made feminists themselves uncomfortable (just as they had been uncomfortable about the antireligious Anthony in the 1890s). The reasons for this are complicated, but it really boils down to the fact that in socially progressive movements of the twentieth century, Jews were always overrepresented relative to their numbers in the American population. And the Jewish women who were so prominent among the founding mothers of the twentieth-century feminist movement—to name just a few, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug—were all secular Jews.

If you are a Jew, it is difficult to believe in equal rights for women if you also believe in a form of Judaism that enjoins each man to thank God every day for not having been born a woman. In the same way, if you are a Catholic woman, it is impossible to believe in a traditional patristic Catholicism that considers the male pope infallible and says that women can’t be priests because none of the twelve apostles was a female.

That there are many religious women who consider themselves feminists today should not obscure the fact that women’s equality was just as much a secular idea as the idea of religious freedom for all, not just for minority faiths, was and is a secularist idea. To the degree that feminism has become a part of religion today, this is part of the process of accommodation to secular values by liberal religion.

The question of how much accommodation to make for secular values is not only a divisive force between religions but within almost every religion, as we have witnessed in the confrontations between the Vatican and those uppity American Catholic nuns and between the most repressive, violent forms of Islam and women who are willing to die for their right to an education.

Feminism, because of the essentially misogynistic nature of the sacred books of all monotheistic religions, is by its very nature a secular challenge to faith. The reason it has been so difficult for American feminism to own up to—and to own—its secular origins is, of course, a product of the idea that there can be no morality without religion, and the political reality that being called “antireligious” has so often been the kiss of death for American social causes.

For its part, the secular movement has until fairly recently found it difficult to own up to the importance of feminist action as a possible template for secular action within society. We’ve begun to see much more emphasis in the past few years on issues such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights around the world—as well as gay rights—as secular issues. But the question is why it took so long, and I think the answer is to be found in these discontinuities in both secular and women’s history.


There has been no prominent atheist, no prominent figure in the secular movement for the past forty years, who has made women’s rights a fundamental rather than a side issue in the battle for secular values. The late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris—without question the three best-known atheist writers of the past ten years—have written about women’s rights as a secular issue almost entirely in terms of the treatment of women by radical Islam.

I should make it clear that I, too, believe that telling the truth about what Islamic theocrats do to women is extremely important, and I am completely opposed to multiculturalists who try to justify religious discrimination and violence against women—whether in areas controlled by the Taliban or in certain immigrant communities around the world—as understandable “cultural” traditions. Burning witches was once an accepted “cultural” tradition. As a secularist and a feminist, I want nothing to do with cultural justifications for clear violations of human rights.

We need, as secularists, to understand that discrimination and violence against women are hardly confined to the Islamic world, that they are hardly things of the past, and that they do have religious origins.

One of the reasons Robert Green Ingersoll has long been one of my heroes is that he is the only famous male American freethinker in our history to make a priority out of women’s rights as a secular issue. Ingersoll’s rejection of the idea that women were, by nature, intellectually inferior to men—an article of faith for most men and most women in his era—was one of his distinguishing characteristics as a humanistic freethinker.

Ingersoll’s twentieth-century biographers failed to recognize that their subject held a radical view of women’s rights and wrongs that went far beyond the suffragist movement of his time. Probably this was because most of them wrote before the emergence of the second wave of American feminism in the 1970s.

In the battle over the subjugation of women, Ingersoll sided with Stanton, who saw religion and centuries of religion-based law as the main cause of women’s oppression, rather than with those who saw the vote itself as the ultimate remedy for all of women’s ills. Like Stanton, Ingersoll viewed the franchise as necessary but not sufficient for women who wished not only to be the helpmates of men but the masters of their own lives. In this he resembled feminists of the 1970s and 1980s more than he did the suffragists of his own time.

Before there were any reliable means of contraception, Ingersoll spoke about birth control as the precondition for women’s liberation from servitude. He also understood that compulsory childbearing was used by both the church and individual men to stymie any other aspirations that women might form, and I think this is particularly important in view of the efforts of the religious Right today to limit access to contraception as well as abortion. Ingersoll said emphatically, “Science must make woman the owner, the mistress of herself … must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.” Women could never be truly free, he said, as long as they were forced to rely on the self-control of men to avoid unwanted pregnancy.

Those who considered the very mention of birth control obscene would be horrified by the possibility that women might choose whether or not to have children, because involuntary motherhood guaranteed patriarchal control over all female behavior. Ingersoll correctly described the ethos of both men and women “who believe that slaves are purer, truer than the free, who believe that fear is a safer guide than knowledge, that only those are really good who obey the commands of others, and that ignorance is the soil in which the perfect, perfumed flower of virtue grows.”

Ingersoll was well aware that women, as a group, were more religious than men—but in sharp contrast to Victorian moralists who considered the female sex “purer” than the male, he attributed feminine religiosity not to woman’s higher nature but to her lack of education and utter economic dependency on her husband.

In his preface to the prominent freethinker and feminist Helen H. Ga
rdener’s Men, Women and Gods (1885), Ingersoll said flatly, “Woman is not the intellectual inferior of man. She has lacked, not mind, but opportunity. . . . There were universities for men before the alphabet had been taught to women. At the intellectual feast, there was no place for wives and mothers. Even now they sit at the second table and eat the crusts and crumbs. The schools for women, at the present time, are just far enough behind those for men, to fall heirs to the discarded; on the same principle that when a doctrine becomes too absurd for the pulpit, it is given to the Sunday-school.”

By the way, Helen H. Gardener is another nineteenth-century feminist whose name has been forgotten.

By placing so much emphasis on Ingersoll, I am not suggesting that what secular women need is a man to speak for them. I am saying that the secular movement needs more people, both men and women, who have a real passion for the importance to the entire secular movement of what were once considered “women’s issues.”


Just issuing press releases about abortion, contraception, and violence against women is not enough. I think secularists need to involve themselves personally when volunteers are needed for causes of special import to women—and, for that matter, all social causes closely connected to secular values.

But women’s causes are particularly important to us in a strategic sense, as well, because we need more activist women as organizers of the secular movement. And I think, by the way, that there are many more women atheists than we see reflected in the polls, simply because atheism as a social pejorative is something to which women are more sensitive than men.

For example, I wrote a column for The New York Times after the Newtown shootings in which I criticized atheists who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” The column was reprinted the following week in the Dallas Morning News, and my author website was flooded with impassioned communications from atheists in Texas. One woman who lives in a suburb of Dallas wrote that she is an atheist who describes herself as “spiritual, but not religious” not because she is afraid of social criticism herself but because she knows that her children would be affected if her beliefs were generally known in her community. This was very instructive for me because, living as I do in New York City, I hadn’t thought about this aspect of the problem for atheists who don’t live in cosmopolitan environments. I have no doubt that this sort of family-connected social pressure weighs more heavily on women than on men.

At the same time, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere if mothers are afraid to stand up for their beliefs and show their children that atheism and secularism have a proud tradition among women as well as men. This, I think, is why it is so crucial to reclaim the historical knowledge at the intersection of feminism and secularism that has too often been lost in each generation.

I was recently reminded that this year marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of what is arguably the most important Supreme Court decision on church-state relations—one from which all others descend—McCollum v. the Board of Education of Champaign, Illinois.

This case was brought by Vashti McCollum, who died at the age of ninety-three in 2006. It challenged the practice of allowing clergy to provide religious instruction for students in, and on the premises of, public schools. Classes for Protestants were held on school premises; Jews and Catholics had to go elsewhere. Records were kept, and students who did not attend religious instruction had to go to a special classroom and be singled out from the rest.

The key issue in the case, one continually raised today, is whether the First Amendment ban on religious establishments meant that all faiths must be treated equally or whether it requires public neutrality between belief and unbelief. The latter was Vashti McCollum’s contention—and she won in an 8–1 decision with the majority opinion written by Associate Justice Hugo Black.

During the three-year struggle while the case made its way to the Supreme Court, McCollum was fired from her job as a dance instructor at the University of Illinois. The family’s cat was lynched. So it is not difficult to sympathize with that mother in Texas who felt that her children would be ostracized and possibly worse if it became common knowledge that they were being raised by atheists.

Vashti McCollum, who wrote about the case in her book One Woman’s Fight, is yet another woman in the pantheon of forgotten secular heroes. It is up to us to restore the full history of women’s involvement in the secular movement to our own store of knowledge as secularists and atheists. Only then can we begin to fight effectively to restore secular history to American history as a whole.


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).

It isn’t surprising that the secular movement in America has been characterized by historical discontinuities that, in a number of respects, resemble the amnesia that held back feminism for so long.

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