Where Are All The Atheist Women? Right Here

Is it accurate when the media portrays the atheist movement as a club for old white men? It’s undeniable that most of the time men outnumber women, whether you’re looking at conference attendees or conference speakers, blog readers or best-selling authors. But when Monica Shores wrote that “no women are currently recognized as leaders or even mentioned as a force within the movement,” the atheist community cried out.

Why? Because it’s blatantly untrue.

Women atheists not only exist–we’ve played pivotal roles within the secular community. The most vocal atheist activist at the beginning of the modern movement was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who founded American Atheists in 1963 and was instrumental in the removal of compulsory prayer from public schools in the US. While her personality was off-putting to some, it is undeniable that she brought atheism into the public eye.

Since then, women continue to fill leadership positions in the movement. Lori Lipman Brown is the founding director of Secular Coalition for America, the only lobbying group for atheist, agnostic and humanist Americans. Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-founder and current co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization devoted to upholding the separation of church and state. Camp Quest, a summer camp for children of parents with naturalistic worldviews, was co-founded by Helen Kagin and currently has Amanda Metskas as its executive director. Lyz Liddell is director of campus organizing for the Secular Student Alliance. Debbie Goddard is the director of African Americans for Humanism and campus outreach coordinator at the Center for Inquiry. Before someone quips that there are no atheist women in foxholes, Kathleen Johnson is the founder of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, in addition to being vice president of American Atheists.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

And don’t assume that women are relegated to working behind the scenes, or only come in the form of the “gentle storyteller.” Dozens and dozens of women authors, journalists, bloggers, podcasters and comedians are producing amazing work, some of them gnashing their teeth even louder than Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. (Check out the list at the end of this piece).

Then why, you may ask, are so few as well known as the male firebrands? Is it because, as Shores suggests, that “there’s little indication that atheists are receptive to the suggestion that they might benefit from diversifying in color or gender”?

If you’ll momentarily excuse me for lapsing into religious language: Hell no.

Atheists are well aware of this gender disparity and have been actively trying to close the gap. Local organizations are creating more family friendly events to encourage mothers to participate. Popular blogs like Pharyngula (written by a man) and Friendly Atheist (written by a, gasp!, young non-white man) frequently address women’s issues and ask how to make the movement more welcoming. Conference organizers have been recruiting more women as speakers and, thanks to that, women have become better represented as conference attendees. Just looking at my own schedule for the next couple months, I’ve been invited to speak about women and atheism by five different groups so far.

So why the gap?

People like to speculate that women are more inclined to supernatural thinking, hate to be aggressive or are more afraid of leaving community behind. These nonsensical ideas illustrate the true problem: We live in a society where everything is affected by sexism, and the atheist movement is downstream from those effects. So when atheists draw many members from academic and scientific circles, which have their own gender bias issues, we end up being a victim of statistics. What’s more, people in leadership positions tend to be older because they have more experience, so there’s always a bit of a time lag in diverse representation. (Given time, I think we’ll see more and more atheist women in positions of greater visibility, and I’d hazard a guess that one will have a best seller soon enough). This problem is compounded when the media fails to mention deserving women atheists–even in articles in feminist publications asking where all the atheist women are. Screaming “Right here!” only does so much.

It’s irritating when the media makes it seem like the atheist movement has a “woman problem.” For one thing, my experience in the movement has shown atheists to be far less sexist than the general population. It’s not surprising–humanism is explicitly supportive of gender equality, while many mainstream religions are extraordinarily anti-women. There’s always room to improve, mainly because we’re human, too, but we’re actively working towards those improvements.

But frankly, it’s most irritating because it can scare away women who need some extra courage in “coming out” as nonreligious. That’s what “New Atheism” is about–not just persuading people that religion is mistaken, but providing a community and refusing to sit silently.

So if you’re looking for some like-minded ladies, here are some amazing atheist women to check out. Don’t wait for the media to clue you in.

This is just a short list, painfully narrowed down for space; for the longer version, please check out the Large List of Awesome Female Atheists.

Jen McCreight blogs about atheism, feminism, science and sex at Blag Hag. She is a board member of the Secular Student Alliance and a contributor to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas.  She was recently listed as one of More Magazine’s top “New Feminists.” Her day job is geeking out about human genetics and evolution as a PhD candidate at the University of Washington.

Photo of Madalyn Murray O’Hair via WikiMedia Commons.

Comments

  1. I'm dumbfounded! What has gender got to do with Athesism?

    • well funny you should ask…. I’ve just spent the last 5 years milling around in online groups FULL of men…. and I asked my dad well where are all the women, and he sent me here…. so there you go!

    • This is what I have been wondering! It appears that a majority of atheist sites are militant and into sexual perversion, looking to recruit others to share in their perversions against God because He says it is wrong…look at the progression of this: 1. suppressing the truth about God, 2. moral depravity, 3. exchanging the truth of God for lie 4. shameful lusts (homosexuality and lesbianism) lastly out right ruthlessness. (Romans 1:18-32)

      • Eristae (@Eristae) says:

        Can you tell me how to get in on this lesbianism thing? My dad sexually abused me, and although Christians tell me that being sexually abused makes people gay, this doesn’t seem to have actually happened. Additionally, they tell me I can choose to be gay, but also seems to not be the case. And they tell me that rejecting God leads to being gay, but I’ve never been anything other than an atheist, and I’m still not a lesbian. I am peeved. Why can all the other atheists apparently (according to Christians) change their natural, God given sexual orientation and I can’t? It just isn’t fair!

  2. Good call George, speaking of "Man Made God" by Barbara Walker; it was published by Stellar House Publishing which was created by Acharya S. She was a significant source for the Zeitgeist part 1 movie and it was viewed by over 100 million worldwide in over 30 languages.

    Zeitgeist Part 1 & the Supportive Evidence http://freethoughtnation.com/forums/viewtopic.php

    Acharya S also created the first mythicist position – watch the video

    The Mythicist Position – video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKW9sbJ3v2w

  3. I enjoyed reading this article, but in my experience, most athiests and agnostics are just as sexist as religious fundamentalists. Many of them like evolutionary psychology, which believes that patriarchy is "in our genes."

    • ChristopherTK says:

      I disagree.

      Your experience is unfortunately limited and where do you get that "patriarchy is in our genes," rather than cultural?

      • Christopher, she was saying that many *atheists* seem to believe that the effects of patriarchy are actually genetically-programmed into us. This is sadly my experience as well, especially with male atheists. (I also believe that most sexism is cultural.) And you have no basis to judge whether her experience is "limited"; you can't just say that just because she has her experience is different from yours. To use a different example, roughly 4/5 men who contribute to open source software claim that they've never noticed sexism, but 4/5 women who contribute claim that they've seen it or experienced it themselves (numbers are from Kirrily Robert's 2009 OSCON keynote, and she got them through FLOSSPOLS). It's a lot easier for hatred to fly right over your head when it's not aimed at you directly.

      • Not that this (should) matter, but FTR I am an agnostic atheist. I just have no desire to be active in a community made up of a small percentage of people who are toxic, and a large percentage of people who defend them, pretend they aren't there, or stand nearby giggling at their bigotry. This was true when I quit going to church as a teen, and it's true as I avoid many atheist groups now.

        • ChristopherTK says:

          Meg,

          Yes, my perspective is affected by my gender but I stand by my interpretation of my experiences thus leaving me to think Ktrig's experiences are limited. I don't think this puts me in a category of defending toxic or bigoted people. I stated what I have experienced numerous times, with diverse groups of people, and in various locations.

          Maybe I'm fortunate enough to live in an area where this is not a problem, according to my observation, but I guess I'm the wrong sex to ask. I'll leave it to Godless Girl or Blag Hag and others like them from my area to discuss this concern.

    • Sadly I've seen this happen when I watched (on dvd) the 2007 AAI Conference in DC. (It's also posted on YouTube.) One of the speaker's lecture was that all men are violent by nature and women only when they're threatened or abused.. and that it's genes handed down through evolution that make this so. His lecture was on why suicide bombers do what they do as they're intelligent rational beings etc… Many women at the QandA session afterwards tried to point out his massive fail, but he dismissed them and their excellent points by saying that he had to distill down a complex situation and to trust him–the proof is there that it's evolutionary biology.

      Also, sadly the woman hosting the event, upon a sorta handsome man giving a speech, kept interjecting comments generalizing that ALL the women there wanted to know if he was married, and if there were maybe 70 more like him (as I guess there were about 70women at the confernce).

      • I think ChristophK shows the classic behavior that puts women off. His first response, after misreading Ktrig's post, was to discount her experience. No men have called him on this behavior and some women have defended him. I'm with Meg on this. Atheists are no different than that the rest of society when it comes to sexism. This includes the women who accept this behavior as OK, which men interpret as the behavior is OK for all women. When they run into women who don't accept this treatment They say well so-and-so is a women is OK with this so you should be too. I'm not going to change, you have to.

        I have worked in a field dominated by men. I was the first and only woman everywhere I worked. Since I didn't guy up to be accepted, the sexism was awful. I noticed that women with a slightly masculine personality are more comfortable in male dominated groups. Not all women have such personalities. I don't see why the standard to shoot for in equality should be male defined.

        Given my experiences, I am not inclined to put up with sexism in any groups including atheist ones. Been there. Done that. Don't recommend the experience.

  4. ChristopherTK says:

    http://www.blaghag.com/2010/01/large-list-of-awes

    Great article Jen!

    I would also like to add that every atheist event I attend seems to have an evenly split male/female crowd and usually, it is the women that ask the majority of purposeful questions.

    • I think that’s absolute nonsense, ChristopherTK. I have watched a lot of atheist events on youTube and frankly there is a sickeningly 50/50 split to the questioners’ quality in terms of gender.

  5. babe.wore.red says:

    There's also the infamous Ayn Rand and the director of the National Center for Science Education, Eugenie Scott.

  6. I am an atheist woman. I even have a website. If the media can’t fine us, they’re not looking very far.

    Also, Ayn Rand wasn’t so much an atheist as she was a psychopath. The atheism was secondary to the psycopathy.

  7. I can tell you from my experiences I cannot find any atheist women in Portland, Maine. Frustrating, very frustrating, being single, 50 + and so much enthusiasm for life.

  8. 100% of the recommended reading titles on the Richard Dawkins website are by men. I just noticed! Great titles, but a bit of an obvious boys club forming there. Didn’t used to be that way. I’m done with it. I’ll come back here next time I peruse the topic.

  9. I can’t agree with this article. The atheism ‘community’ does indeed have a woman problem, just as many other communities and organisations have one. Sure, there are atheist women bloggers, journalists and commentators but just how visible are they? Not very.

    The loud mouths are the most visible and it is *they* who then become the spokespeople for the movement, not the ones who are less visible, and who tend to be women.

    Also, I’ve noticed that the men who come to our local SITP still interrupt when women speak. They still shoot down ideas from women. And they still talk louder and more aggressively than the women do. So guess what, the women shut up.

    There’s also a lot of sexist jokes within the community. Because you know what, being an atheist says nothing about one’s morality. It also says nothing about one’s scepticism; it only says that one doesn’t believe in deities.

  10. I always wondered where all the atheists women were… I know they’re out there, but to be blunt, if women want to be better recognized in the atheist community, they need to raise their voices, stop being timid, and grow in numbers- there needs to be more authors, public speakers, and documentaries, and that’s about all I can say. Posting a blog here and there is not anything compared to the works of Dawkins and Hitchens. We need women to rise up and do what THEY have done, then they’ll be better recognized.

  11. I’m atheist and an advocate for those who’ve been spiritually abused. I also do investigative journalism on cults and coercive groups.

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