Women in Secularism—A Conference for Everyone

February 24, 2012

CFI’s upcoming conference on Women in Secularism (register here) is most decidedly not a conference targeting an exclusively female audience. Yes, the speakers are all female and yes, the conference is focused on women’s concerns. But the concerns of women are not a concern for women only.
One of the claims made on behalf of humanism is that it does not share in the prejudices toward women and minorities that have been exhibited by many religions and some ideologies. We loudly proclaim that all humans, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation, are entitled to equal respect and the same fundamental rights.
But commitment to an abstract principle, however sincere, does not always translate into appropriate attitudes and actions. These things seem to me to be true: one, there is a widespread lack of knowledge about the contributions that women have made to secularism; two, women continue to be underrepresented in secular organizations and in the secular movement—at all levels; three, the challenges that face women are not always appreciated by, or do not receive the appropriate attention from, men in the movement; four, there is still much to be learned about the influence that sexism has on attitudes, cultural roles, and stereotypes. Finally, to state what I think is obvious: some secular men can be as sexist as any religious fundamentalist.
Some of you may dispute all or some of these points. That’s fine. That’s what we do. We make claims about interesting, relevant issues and then debate the evidence bearing on such claims. And Women in Secularism will provide a unique opportunity to have a discussion about these points. I doubt any of the speakers want a passive audience. They want an audience that will listen attentively, but who will also engage them with questions and challenges. Moreover, there will be ample opportunity for discussion not only with the speakers but also with one's fellow attendees. This conference will be a great learning experience—for both men and women.
As humanists, we aspire to base our values and actions on the best interests of humanity. I don’t think we can do a very good job of this if we are not attentive to the voices of half of humanity.
I hope to see you at the conference.


#1 gray1 on Friday February 24, 2012 at 1:55pm

I might have suggested that you invite Merlin Stone as a speaker but unfortunately yesterday marked the anniversary of her passing.  So I guess, depending on one’s viewpoint we might say that she can now lodge any complaints directly.
Women’s Rites as opposed to Women’s rights…

#2 Bruce M (Guest) on Friday February 24, 2012 at 10:01pm

Thank you for writing this blog post. Anyone who reads Annie Laurie Gaylor’s massive volume, “Women Without Superstition”, or Jennifer M. Hecht’s “History of Doubt” will have no doubt that secularism has a long tradition of intelligent people (both men and women) listening to intelligent speakers (both men and women). We may not have done as much as we should, but we have been trying. But this also requires us to make stronger efforts. I applaud CFI for hosting the upcoming conference, and I urge my colleagues in secularism to attend it. I especially urge my fellow males to attend it, and to join me in attempting to listen carefully while allowing women to have the floor for a change. Let’s be a model of intelligent Inquiry into new ideas. After decades of hearing discussions by religious males, it’s time to explore the opposite direction. Thank you.

#3 Melody Hensley on Saturday February 25, 2012 at 6:56pm

Thank you, Bruce.

#4 Benjamin Radford on Tuesday February 28, 2012 at 7:41pm

Sounds great, Ron!

I think this part of your piece struck me the most: “yes, the conference is focused on women’s concerns. But the concerns of women are not a concern for women only. ”

What, exactly, are “women’s concerns”? I’ve never understood that. Usually people offer examples like child care, the right to an abortion, the right to equal pay, domestic violence, rape, and those sort of issues as “women’s concerns,” which I think is unfortunate and misguided. These are HUMAN concerns, and equally important to men; the characterization of these as “women’s concerns,” it seems to me, only serves to marginalize these important issues. It’s like saying that gay marriage is a “gay issue,” when it’s really a human rights issue. I can understand why people use the phrase as shorthand for a diverse group of social issues, but it always strikes me as somewhat sexist…

And I second Bruce’s recommendation of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s excellent book “History of Doubt”—it should be required reading!

#5 Ophelia Benson on Tuesday March 06, 2012 at 7:27am

I don’t think it’s sexist to see rape (of women) and domestic violence (against women) and the right to abortion and the like as women’s issues. Yes they are also human issues, certainly, but rape of women happens to women and that makes it a women’s issue. That seems like pointing out the obvious, but there you go.

#6 Melody Hensley on Tuesday March 06, 2012 at 9:36am

Good point, Ophelia. Although they directly affect women, do you think it’s a stretch to say that these things indirectly affect the men in these women’s lives?

#7 Ophelia Benson on Tuesday March 06, 2012 at 10:14am

Not a stretch at all. Ben’s right to say that the issues matter to men too; it’s right to say that rights issues in general matter to all of us. As long as one person is in chains, I am not free, as the old saying has it. Quite right. But…there are still abuses that affect some people more than others - some groups more than others.

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