Pursuing Real Empowerment: Freethought’s Women Leaders Close Out Day One

September 23, 2016

The last formal presentation for the first day of Women in Secularism 4 was a panel discussion with women leaders from five different freethought organizations, and what was incredibly striking to this writer how it showed that women leaders now span the full spectrum of the movement’s organizations. From major secularist institutions to vital smaller groups, having women in the prime leadership roles in freethought is now wonderfully normal.

It’s remarkable, too, at a time when the next President of the United States could very well be a woman, and yet there remains so much friction to general acceptance of a woman leader among the broader population. Robyn Blumner, CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the Richard Dawkins Foundation, mentioned a recent dig that Donald Trump made at Hillary Clinton about not “looking presidential,” pointing out how absurd it is to be attacking Clinton for not looking like the 44 men, and only men, that have gone before her.

But that prejudice about women in leadership is still part of the atmosphere. Relating the Trump slight against Clinton to the challenge of being a woman leader for any organization, Robyn said, “If you’re a man and you look distinguished … you have instant credibility to speak for an organization.”

“Women … have to be cognizant of that and prepare for it” when speaking to donors and supporters, said Robyn, adding that women had to be sure to assert themselves as being fully “in command,” which of course comes with its own problems. Again relating to the challenge faced by Hillary Clinton, Robyn noted that strong women face the risk of seeming “shrill.”

One recurring theme of the panel was how intertwined secular activism is with feminism. FFRF’s Annie Laurie Gaylor said that our movements were “on parallel courses,” noting that “we owe a great debt to the women freethinkers” of our own history who worked so hard to free women from the strictures of the Bible. “Feminism is taken [as] granted” at FFRF, Gaylor said, and likewise, Robyn said, “I would not work with someone who is not a feminist.”

Hypatia Alexandria of Hispanic American Freethinkers noted how cultural expectations can be incredibly burdensome on Hispanic women, as identity and community is wrapped up in faith, which leads to an expectation that women have kids (plural) before they’ve had a chance to advance themselves, “to move forward” as Alexandria put it, focusing first on their education and realizing their full selves.

Sarah Haider of the Ex-Muslims of North America pointed out how women can often believe that their religion, and even the restrictions it imposes, is empowering. “Women [in Islam] see the hijab as empowering,” she said. “They can be wrong, but that’s how they feel.” And this is an idea passed down not only through religious texts and clergy, but from mothers to their daughters, perceived as tools for success.

And Robyn laid out plainly what was at stake for women when it comes to religion. “When the rubber mees the road, there’s no room for leadership for women, women’s bodies are conrolled by men, women are seen sometimes a chattel, sometimes as property.” If women aren’t allowed to control their reproduction, she said, “they can’t control their lives.”

But if empowerment through religion is an illusion, it’s not enough to wave away the mirage. Alexandria said that there must be purpose to the secular movement beyond championing atheism. “How can I make the world better?” is the central question.

“It’s important that we give this culture and this society something else to hold on to,” said the American Humanist Association’s Rebecca Hale. She was quite adamant that secularists not leave the job half-done. “There’s a lot of talk in this movement” about having a positive impact on the world. Mentioning her own organization’s work on social justice issues, she said, “We need to get our hands dirty.”