By now it’s clear, I’d say, that the Women in Secularism conference put on by CFI this past May was a milestone event in the secular movement’s history, as it raised consciousness for all in attendance — men and women — about all manner of issues affecting women both in and outside the secular and skeptic communities. Discussions and debates were spurred on a huge variety of subjects, from the personal to the political, and even if you had only been able to attend one session, you could not have walked away without a deeper understanding of what was being discussed.
It was such a success, that we’re thrilled to be able to say that a second Women in Secularism conference will take place May 17-19, 2013. After all, there’s so much more to talk about! (BTW, the dates are 99% certain, with a bit of negotiating remaining on the venue; look for a conference registration webpage in a few weeks.)
But like many important events, some of this past conference’s content has been mischaracterized or misunderstood, especially by some who were not in attendance. That’s understandable; the conference sparked an enormous amount of ongoing discussion that continues today, well after the hotel staff kicked us out of the ballroom. Naturally, chatter on blogs and in tweets can be misconstrued or poorly expressed, and even the smartest and best-intentioned of us can draw the wrong conclusions.
So let’s clear a little bit of it up, just so we can all start from the same page.
The main point of contention that we’ve seen revolves, predictably, around the topic of sexual harassment. (I know, you can’t get enough of this subject. Me neither. Just stick with me here.) If I may briefly sum up the idea underlying the biggest misunderstanding, it seems that many are under the impression that the sexual harassment issue — and more specifically, policing sexual harassment — was a central theme of the sessions, with most folks acceding to some kind of draconian solution to eradicate the problem altogether.
Well, that’s not really at all correct.
The topic was raised and briefly discussed in at least one panel discussion. Many of you have read about this by now, so I won’t belabor the details, but the most often cited bit was when Jennifer McCreight expressed concern about the issue of women not feeling safe at some events. As one might expect, this touched a nerve, and as important as it is, it has overshadowed almost everything else about the conference in the back-and-forth between folks, most of whom were not in attendance.
But although there was some serious discussion about the issue of sexual harassment at conferences — as there should be — it was only one topic, among many, many others. This is not to minimize the issue’s importance (or aggrandize it), but it genuinely wasn’t a central theme at this particular event.
So then what was discussed?
Well, there was a brilliant overview from Annie Laurie Gaylor on the heroines of freethought who have been written out of history. There was a panel on what the movement can do going forward as its aims coincide with other forms of social justice. Margaret Downey told us about the phenomenon of secularized rituals and life passages. There was an eye-opening lesson in “micro-inequities” between the sexes by Bernice Sandler. Wafa Sultan, a survivor of some of the horrors perpetrated against women in some Islamic cultures, had the audience in tears as she told her harrowing and inspiring tale. Jennifer Michael Hecht treated us to some of her brilliant and funny poetry.
Oh, and there are a few sessions whose content I can prove to you definitively because we’ve been able to get their videos edited and published online. We learned about the current (and woeful) state of women’s involvement in secularism today from Susan Jacoby. In our first panel, we learned about the immediate concerns of women from all walks of life and how they are addressed (or not addressed) by our movement. And we even got to meet publicly, for the first time, the Secular Coalition’s new director and her plans for the organization, of which the Council for Secular Humanism is a member organization. (All of these videos are included in this post below – and more are coming soon.)
I barely scratched the surface there. There was an astounding variety of content, things that made me think and question my own suppositions and prejudices. Things that made me feel moved, despondent, enlightened, and yes, encouraged to keep working.
Obviously, women feeling unsafe at conferences is a crucial issue for our movement to solve, particularly considering the fact that we espouse a humanist worldview that rejects notions of one sex being less human, less entitled to respect than the other. That discussion will go on, and I imagine at times heatedly, no matter what did or did not occur at this event. But it’s important for folks to know that CFI’s conference was multi-faceted, spanning a wide and fascinating array of subjects. Its attitude was inclusive, warm, and welcoming to all points of view, and its results were on the whole inspiring. Indeed, we decided to do it again before the first one was even over.
So next time, you can come, and see for yourself.