The Trouble With Women

“The church is a terrible engine of oppression, especially as concerns women.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a local megachurch’s men’s conference, and report back about the goings-on there. One of the things that I noticed was the servile-and-separate role that was played by the women in the congregation, who cooked and cleaned and hand-delivered ice cream sandwiches to guys watching other guys punch each other in the mouth.

(Yes, this happened in a church. It’s also, not coincidentally, the same church where the pastor bedded his wife on the roof and tried to arrange a zoo for Easter this year. So, you know, it’s that kind of church.)

To me, the way that these gender roles were accepted and presumably defined by the organizers was icky at best, and downright insulting at worst. But more importantly, I was probably the only person out of the thousand-or-so attendees who thought so. And just over a decade ago, I would most likely not have noticed them at all. As a young Christian, I happily accepted the typical gender dynamics of the religious culture (Man as the “head,” Woman as the “helpmeet”), and was particularly proud of myself for writing an opinion piece for my college paper that lauded women as precious “gifts from God.”

After my apostasy those views changed dramatically, to say the least. My dating patterns changed as well, and I began to seek out women whose courage and strength mirrored and transcended my own. I even married the best of the bunch. As I became involved in the atheist community, two things were clear: there were similar women to be found, but few had a voice. One of the first things that I did was to take an organization led by two men, and create a directing board populated by equal numbers of men and women. When founding the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, the original board was overwhelmingly female. In fact, I was the only male director until the first official election, when a more equivalent balance resumed.

This was not something that was particularly orchestrated, or a long-running conspiracy to tinker with the gender balance of a local organization. Rather, it was an instinctive desire (shared by many in addition to myself) to make the local secular community welcoming to both sexes. And the easiest way to do that, in my own humble opinion, is to find female leaders, put them in charge, and get the fuck out of their way.

This strategy has paid massive dividends. Across the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, the gender distribution is 60% male, 40% female. This remains consistent in both of the largest member organizations, the Metroplex Atheists and the aforementioned FoFDallas. Not coincidentally, both of those organizations also have leadership boards that are at least 40% female. (We’re still working on racial and ethnic diversity.)

That’s why it’s so disappointing to hear about sexism in the atheist community at large, which has been an unfortunately recurring theme over the past few years. Last year’s “Elevatorgate” incident boiled over the atheist blogosphere like nothing I’d ever seen before (although the FoFDallas did an excellent job analyzing and contextualizing the issues locally). This year, it appears to be another minor comment in the wake of the Women in Secularism conference (a landmark event which will hopefully not be overshadowed by the brewing controversy). Instead of the intrepid Rebecca Watson advising potential suitors to avoid late-night elevator propositions, this time around it’s Jen McCreight who let slip some inside baseball about icky male speakers.

Yes, it’s disappointing. But it’s important. And here’s why.

To my own great discredit, I’ve been privy to some of the same advice that Jen received (although couched in a different context), and it didn’t occur to me that this would be a concern to women. Not even once. Oh, sure, I thought “ew, gross” to myself a few times, and made a mental checklist of which speakers I did and did not want to associate with, but that’s as far as my concern went. I suppose that’s about what would be expected from someone with my level of societal privilege, but frankly that’s not good enough.

I should be held to a higher standard. We all should. And I offer my gratitude to Jen for (unknowingly) raising my consciousness about this issue. I’ll never look at it the same way again.

If organizations within the secular movement want to represent men and women equally, then they’ll need to stand as strongly on that principle as they do on any other issue. Don’t talk about advancing humanism if you can’t provide an environment where women feel safe. I suspect that conferences and conventions are more at risk than local organizations; people tend to act with less social restraint when they’re on the road, I’ve observed. So if it’s the case that you know what I know and Jen knows (and presumably other insiders know), please make a point to disinvite those individuals to your next event. I know I will, attendance be damned – the secular community does not exist for the purpose of organizing conventions, and we don’t need conventions to exist as a community.

If we in the secular community are truly serious about providing a counterpoint to the perceived oppression of women by religious institutions, then we’d damned sure better act like it. The next secular event I attend or organize will have a clear anti-harassment policy or it won’t happen. Simple as that.

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