Ideas from the Women in Secularism Conference #wiscfi

Ideas from the Women in Secularism Conference #wiscfi

The Women in Secularism Conference is over now, and I am back at home enjoying one more day of vacation before jumping back into my work-a-day life. While I still have a bit of time off, I want to reflect on what I have learned at the Women in Secularism conference and how I can incorporate these ideas into my activism in the days to come.

1. If we wish to reach more people, we must engage in activities that affect their lives.

Typically, meetings of atheist groups are things that have appealed to people who have access to plenty of spare time, disposable income, and ample transportation. The leaders and topics of meetings have largely been from the sciences and from philosophy as well, topics that have been dominated for a long time by middle to upper class white men. I though it was a good point made by someone (sorry I forget who) that the reason we have such a imbalance of gender and race in atheist meetings is that most of our leaders come from a background that has the exact same problem.
Unfortunately, not everyone who might be interested in atheist community can stop in the middle of their busy lives in order to drive across town for a science lecture (or something similar). In order to reach a broader audience, we need to engage in activities that affect people in their daily lives. Things like volunteering on school boards, and providing child care services. I’m not exactly sure how to implement these ideas into our group in Louisville yet, but it is a question I will be pondering in the near future.

2. Misogynistic beliefs are a lot like religious (or any other) beliefs. It can be difficult to recognize such beliefs in oneself, and it may take many encounters to finally stop these patterns of thinking.

Greta Christina and Jen McCreight both noted that as a result of their writing about both atheism and feminism on their blogs, that they have gotten many messages from atheists saying that they had changed their minds about feminism. Greta has noted progress in this area, saying that every time there is a massive argument about sexism in the atheist blogosphere, the discussion is less neatly divided along lines of sex and the more men are accepting and repeating the feminist arguments. Yay progress!

3. Studies on communications styles have shown that women are generally less likely to speak up in meetings and more likely to be interrupted when they are speaking.

This is due to the fact that people with more perceived power in an interaction are more likely to interrupt and talk often and loudly. This is worth noting in male/female interactions since femininity is associated with submissiveness and masculinity with aggressiveness. Women are more likely to be concerned with saving face for others and with consensus building, so they are more likely to use a deferent tone when speaking in a meeting. The main takeaway from this talk was that both men and women need to learn both the submissive style and the assertive styles of speaking and to use them when appropriate. There is more information on this at under the section on The Chilly Climate.

Also, a takeaway for group leaders is to be aware of these differences in communication styles and make sure that everyone in a group discussion is heard and has their ideas recognized.

4. Studies have shown that women are more likely to attend a conference and to feel comfortable there when where are an equitable number of women on the podium.

This finding has clear implications for the organizers of atheist conferences. There are plenty of women atheist activists out there, so get them as speakers and panelists.

5. We have a lot to gain from working with religious and “interfaith” groups in order to obtain specific goals. However, we must be careful to define in advance what our values are and what we are willing to compromise to make sure that our beliefs and values are not steamrolled in the process. 

Greta noted a secular student group and Muslim group working together to fight religious discrimination after a the secular group started a discussion with them over Everybody Draw Muhammad day. Even though they disagreed about drawing Muhammad, that discussion lead to an acknowledgment of the areas where they did agree and could work together. There is also the example of The American Cancer society rejecting the full participation of the Foundation Beyond Belief in their fundraising. Unfortunately, an otherwise decent charity may blanch at the idea of working with the atheists (even for a very large donation!). Happily, FBB found another great organization who is willing to work with them, and participates with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Foundation in their Light the Night program. You can see the acknowledgment of FBB on the Light the Night website at

This post does not even come close to highlighting all of the great ideas and contributors at the Women in Secularism Conference, only the main ideas that have stuck in my mind which I hope to apply to my own efforts in the near future. I have also brought home Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars by Sikivu Hutchinson, as her contributions on the panel have convinced me that I really need to know more on this topic.

I am looking forward to reading Why Truth Matters, which was coauthored by Ophelia Benson who was also a panelist in the convention.


I also highly recommend the books Doubt, A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht and Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby. Though I had read their books many years ago as a new atheist, this is the first time I heard either of them speak.

I am looking forward to WIS2.

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Upcoming Women in Secularism Conference

Next weekend I will be attending the Center for Inquiry’s Women in Secularism conference in Washington DC.  I’ve been to multiple atheist conventions in the past, including the American Atheists Convention and Skepticon, but this will be the first time I’ve been to a conference focusing on the contributions of women to the secular movement.

Up to this point the secular movement has been focused mostly on single, individualistic, people who do not have children. This has been a setup that caters mainly to the needs of singles seeking a social scene, people who are willing to go to events alone, and people who are old enough to attend events in bars. And senior citizens and retirees, especially at meetings that have the word “Humanist” in the title. Unfortunately, many women though their 20’s-30’s have the brunt of child care responsibilities, and for social support and safety reason may not want to go alone to events with a bunch of strangers. And some women whose stories I have heard have not wanted to attend atheist meetups for the same sort of reason they might not want to step foot into a comic book store…there is the potential of meeting a bunch of geeky guys who see an unclaimed women in the room mainly as a potential date. (Just tread carefully here guys…) Or who could hear a great discussion points by a woman but can think of nothing but her appearance. (“You’re beautiful” is not an appropriate response to a woman who has just made an intellectual point.)

Fortunately as the secular movement has grown larger, there has been more focus on community building and issues that affect women have been brought more to the forefront. At the most recent American Atheists Convention, there was child care was provided by a local licensed nanny service. Other conferences, including this one, are having childcare expenses funded by the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Women’s contributions are being talked about more frequently. Convention organizers are making more of a deliberate effort to enlist women speakers.  And outspoken women leaders in the secular community have raised everyone’s consciousness about sexism among otherwise rational people.

It’s a step in the right direction.

For more reading on women and women’s issues in the secular movement:

Where are all the atheist women? Right here!

More Women in Skepticism Blog: This blog addresses myths and questions regarding sexism in the secular/skeptical community. I have learned quite a lot from following this blog.

SkepChick Blog: Not exclusively women’s issues, but a quick search of the site will find relevant posts.

See more information about the Women in Secularism Conference at

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The Vagina Monologues: My Thoughts

The Vagina Monologues: My Thoughts

The Vagina Monologues has been in production since 2001, the same year that I transferred my college career to the University of Louisville. I never got around to actually seeing UofL’s annual production of the play until this year. Last Friday in fact, and with my husband. Nevermind that I was a bit nervous about telling him I wanted to go see a show with the word “vagina” in the title. I was open to going by myself if he was not interested, but in the end (and after looking up a few reviews online) he decided to come with me.

The Vagina Monologues at UofL

I was not sure what to expect, even though I had the book. I’d first purchased the book about the same time the play came out, and when I took my single Women’s Studies class at UofL to help fill a requirement in my general education. Women in American Culture. Many ideas that were discussed in the class were very new to me at the time. Things like the way women are sexualized and infantilized in a lot of ads (often at the same time). It was my first exposure to feminist ideas, and it was such a departure from my accustomed mode of thinking that it made my head spin. I remember commenting on a story about how a college-age woman was raped at a college party that maybe she should have been more careful and not gotten drunk. And got jumped on for it, rightly, though I didn’t quite understand the problem at the time. Blaming the victim? Novel idea to me. That I ever made a comment like that amazes me.

I read the class materials with fascination. Stories of fat women, skinny, blacks, whites, Latinos, lesbians, transsexuals… Especially the latter two. I’d been indoctrinated with stories about how it was bad and a perversion of God’s plan to be gay or otherwise live outside the “normal” sexual binary system. I don’t think I’d thought about gays as real people until I read the stories. It’s hard, at least for me, to judge someone as alien and other once they have let you into their story. This interest is what lead me to purchase the book for The Vagina Monologues and read it.

It has been several years since I read the book, though as I watched the play I remembered a few bits and pieces from my reading. It had been so long since I’d read it that I went into the play not really still not knowing what to expect. And reading a transcript and seeing a performance are quite different things, as this experience reminded me. With a book you can skim or skip bits that make you uncomfortable, but when you are watching a play it’s more of a commitment to see the whole thing.

The V-day logo

With my scant memory of the book I didn’t know if this was going to be, as one reviewer put it, an embarrassing “moan fest” or if there would be man-bashing (especially with my husband there). I didn’t want to be made to feel scared, like a victim, like the world is in conspiracy against my personal fulfillment. Those old stereotypes of feminism still haunt me. The play had none of those things, and rather than being angry many of the monologues were actually raucously hilarious. The discussions covered some intense topics like genital mutilation and the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Congo, which were horrifying as they should be and at time made me want to sink down in my seat, but still I listened and let the descriptions wash over me. And even they were not angry, but intensely personal. Then there was the monologue about different types of moans which was the most hilarious of all even though I had worried it would be awkward and embarrassing. The women on stage recounted the responses the interviewees had given to questions like what their vagina’s would wear (which stretches my artistic imagination to the limit) and what it would say and what do they call it?

The most wonderful part to me is that I identified with a lot of the stories myself. Face it, the vagina is not something that gets a lot of press. I recall parts of my childhood and teen years when “down there” was a total enigma to me…I was told that a guy can get you pregnant if he puts his penis there but other than that I was not told much else. I first was exposed to the ideas of “clitoris” and “orgasm” though a sneakily read issue of Cosmo. I know I am not the only girl who has dealt with this guilty silence about her own sexuality. Why such taboo and secrecy about something we all share? Presentations like The Vagina Monologue help.

I’m glad I went to see it. Maybe I will go again next year.

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Commuting By Bike

I completed my first full trip bike-only commute yesterday. My situation is right for it: I live slightly over 6 miles from my workplace, and am able to stick mostly to residential streets and avoid major car traffic. I also have a YMCA 0.1 miles from my workplace, which also comes in handy for a shower and change of clothes before going into the office. I’m not quite ready to do this every day, but I think I could do 2-3 times a week.

Did you know the bicycle is closely associated with women’s rights? It gave her the ability to move around easily, and was featured in the push to allow women to wear comfortable clothes. It’s much more difficult to ride a bike in a corset after all, since it holds your back straight and inhibits easy breathing. Nor is riding a bike optimal in an ankle length skirt. (see Fashion for the active woman, 1894 style)

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” -Susan B. Anthony (quote borrowed from

And this is not to mention the benefits of the exercise, lessening one’s one dependence on oil for transportation, and chance to spend some quality time outdoors before sitting at a desk in an office all day.

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Highlights from the 2010 American Atheists Convention

Highlights from the 2010 American Atheists Convention

This is the first time I’ve ever been to an atheist (or atheist related) convention. It was quite an exciting time, and I’ve come away with quite a lot of inspiration and ideas. What follows is not quite a full report but rather a skimming over of some of my favorite happenings at AACON 2010. It is also not strictly chronological.

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