Leaning the other way

Leaning the other way

My reflections on a recent gathering of secularist women in Washington DC

THEE weeks ago I took part in the second Women in Secularism conference organized by the Center for Inquiry in Washington DC. It was an exhilarating, content-rich event, with talks by Katha Pollitt, Susan Jacoby, Rebecca Goldstein, Jennifer Michael Hecht, and my friend Maryam Namazie, to name
only a few.

Maryam blew everyone away, as she always does. At the end she asked us all to write signs for a group picture in solidarity with the persecuted atheist bloggers in Bangladesh. (You’ll be wondering what I wrote for my sign. I said: WE ARE ATHEIST. WE ARE WITH YOU.)


It sounds brilliant, doesn’t it, yet there are people who are sharply critical of the very idea of such conferences. (Many of those people don’t stop at questioning, but fill out their objections with personal insults and even threats aimed at some participants, which seems to me to demonstrate that such conferences are indeed needed.)

They claim there is no need for them, that they are “divisive”, and even that they insult women by specifying “the correct genitalia” (yes that’s a real claim) instead of relying on gender-blind merit. It would be nice if we lived in a world where we didn’t have to correct for unconscious biases and stereotypes, and everyone could simply recognize and quantify merit with the straightforward exactitude of measuring a length of road or volume of water. But we don’t. Merit doesn’t come neatly labeled and measured.

It’s a judgment, an evaluation, and it gets muddled up with all sorts of irrelevant markers – looks, height, accent, race, age, resemblance to loved or hated people – you name it. Gender is one such irrelevant marker, one of the biggest and maybe one of the hardest to shift.

We don’t have to blame particular people for that. We can blame history and the way it shapes our expectations, instead. Think “authority” – what rises to the surface of the mind? Warlords, soldiers, judges, clerics, scholars, heads of state, news readers – who throughout all but the most recent history have been men, and who still are mostly men.

There’s a pattern in our heads that we can’t second-guess if we’re not aware of it, and most people, still, aren’t aware of it. That’s why such conferences are needed. They are needed because it’s not the case that people putting together a conference and choosing The Best will think to choose Katha Pollitt, Maryam Namazie, Rebecca Goldstein, Susan Jacoby, and Soraya Chemaly. It’s not that they think of them and decide “no, not her, she’s a woman”; it’s that they forget to think of them at all.

They think of previous conferences and chat shows, and invite the people who come to mind that way … who are all men. You have to break the pattern in order to break the pattern.

This is because we’re not all that clever, we people. (Now we are blaming people, though still not particular people. We blame history, which is made by people,
and we also blame people.) We don’t look at all relevant data, we look at what we mistakenly take to be all relevant data.

If we’ve grown up seeing mostly men explaining what’s what (and we all have), then we think it’s men who are supposed to do that, and we think it without even
realizing we think it. We assume it. How can you correct assumptions of that kind except by correcting them? Make a point of inviting more women, so that over time the assumption will wither away. (The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to other under-represented groups.)

(I love saying mutatis mutandis, no doubt because I was so bad at Latin in school.)

That’s only one reason, of course. There’s also the fact that women’s experience of theocratic oppression is important and needs to be a conspicuous part of the secular project.

One of my favorite panels at the conference was on leaving religion, with Maryam, Vyckie Garrison, Jamila Bey, and Teresa MacBain: four women with deep experience of the consequences of leaving a religion. Maryam gets hate mail and threats. Teresa MacBain also get hate mail, some of it from people who had been close friends – she was a Methodist pastor for 15 years, and she made headlines last year when she came out as an atheist at the American Atheists national convention.

Teresa McBain

Teresa McBain

It was a wrenching, upsetting process, which is still happening. Vyckie turned herself into a very fundamentalist Christian as an adult, part of the “Quiverfull” movement to produce many children as arrows for God. Now she tells the rest of us what that was like.

Jamila is an anomaly as a non-religious black woman, and was disowned by her parents over it (though she is “undisowned” now).

That panel wouldn’t have happened if that conference hadn’t happened. If a panel like that happened at another conference it would still be a matter of deciding
to hear from women in particular. When conference organizers (and publishers, and universities, and foundations) don’t decide to hear from women in particular, they tend to hear from men in particular instead. To correct an imbalance, sometimes it’s necessary to lean in the opposite
direction for some period of time.

Eventually, balance is achieved.

Freethinker, July 2013

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