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. JM, you are profoundly awesome. It makes me sad that I left Seattle about the same time you moved there. Because we would've been besties. Or I might've stalked you. To-may-to to-mah-to.

    Thanks for once again unapologetically, loudly, gleefully and in-your-face-ly kicking a** and taking names.

  2. As Jen shows, there's plenty of room for women in the "New Atheist movement" and I hope Ms. will do more to highlight the women in the movement.

  3. Love this!!! Women are here (I'm one of them).

  4. caliguy7281 says:

    As a white male atheist I must say thank you Jen and Ms. Magazine for shedding light on modern atheism. We need to be more aware of the stereotypes as viewed from outside atheism so we can combat them. Ms.(or Mrs.) Shores article was immensely helpful in showing us where we stand to those looking in from the outside, and that gives us the opportunity to showcase ourselves in a light that we might not have known we've needed to previously. So once again thank you Ms. Magazine, Ms.(or Mrs.) Shores, and of course the wonderful Jen McCreight, for working together to show atheism, in a realistic and positive light. Ramen.

  5. Thank you for setting the record straight. There are plenty of female atheists (I'm one). There are also many atheists who are people of color. If people can't seem to find them they just need to look harder.

  6. Or it could have something to do with the relentless assumptions that media makes, leading it to showcase men and not women, to overlook women's accomplishments and such. A trap that I would have expected Ms. blog to have avoided in the first place, really.

  7. dangeroustalk says:

    Great article. Don't forget about Margaret Downey. She is the president of the Philadelphia based group, The Freethought Society and has appeared on Fox News to defend the group's "Tree of Knowledge" outside the Chester County Court House during the winter season.

    The current president of the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia is also a woman, Martha Knox.

    -Staks
    PhillyCoR Coordinator (a pro-equality guy)

  8. Whoo go Jen! Atheist woman right here, and there are so many more :) As mentioned in the article, the atheist/skeptic community really is a largely positive community for women, and women's voices are always valued.

  9. We well written and thoughtful post! Always good to see accurate representations of atheism outside of atheist media.

  10. So many fb shares, but no comments yet? I heard (and subsequently read) about the rebutted article on Jen's blog. This is an EXCELLENT rebuttal (I hate using the same word so close to each other). Succinctly refuting the points of the other article with actual proof!

    I for one welcome our outspoken female over-atheists.

  11. Thanks for representing us well :)

  12. Charles Stevens says:

    Great article from one of my favorite atheist bloggers (male OR female).
    I had assumed that I was not alone in feeling a bit dismayed and scratching my head after reading the Shores article.
    I do wish that you had included Eugenie Scott (executive director of the National Center for Science Education) in your short list.
    Yes, I see that she is in your long list but she is fantastic.

  13. Great to see such a strong rebuttal to one of the worst pieces of journalism it has been my misofortune to read in a long while. Good work Ms McCreight.

  14. Jen, well done article. THanks for speaking out and setting us straight.

  15. It seems superficially nice of Ms Magazine to offer Jen space for a rebuttal like this, but it's a poor way to deal with the criticism of the original piece. The appropriate response to such an egregious failing of journalistic standards which went as far as to cite Conservapedia as a reliable source on the atheist movement is to issue a retraction and apology, not merely present the 'other side of the argument'.

    • Yes, THIS. When one "side of the argument" has no legs to stand on, continuing to present both is not fair and balanced–it's simply ignorant.

    • Absolutely…this is a somewhat somewhat disingenuous way of dealing with the issue. Like the concept of 'debating the controversy' with creationists. Strong, well reasoned rebuttal though.

    • AND to ask for the original author to do it again properly without additional compensation, since Ms. didn't get their money's worth the first time.

  16. Not Guilty says:

    Great article Jen! Young, white, feminist atheist checking in Ms. Magazine!

  17. Awesome Job Jen!

  18. The Atheist women are really doing a great job in the white man's world but how i wish they can extend the same to African

  19. Awesome article. : ) The atheist community is sexist, but surely less so than in the general population.

  20. Thank you so much for this, Jen. From one atheist feminist to another, I think this did an excellent job in speaking to the "woman problem" of the "movement," particularly your last few paragraphs on the trickle-down effects that sexism continues to have on society as a whole.

  21. aFEMALEatheist says:

    THANK YOU

  22. GeneQueen says:

    Here!Here! We are atheists and we are women – and you'll be hearing plenty more from us!
    Thanks for this response, Jen.

  23. oldearthaccretionist says:

    Yay!

    And as was said many times in response to the previous article, female atheists need more visibility. Not just with people who non-believe the same way we do, which is where people actually do see us, but in the larger body of the media. I applaud Ms. Magazine for listening to our comments and seeking out a reasoned response.

    Some atheists are sexist, but they are not sexist because they are atheists. And women are making extremely important waves within their communities and outside of them in the context of all sorts of secular activities, from founding and organizing societies, to contributing to science, to standing up against people who are trying to kill reason (http://blog.newhumanist.org.uk/2010/11/bad-faith-awards-2010-vote-for-this.html), to simply standing up and saying, "I do not believe in a god, and I am a good person".

  24. Brava, Jen!

    To Ms. Mag Editors: Please do a WELL RESEARCHED article on Atheist women. Don't just throw out a bunch of nonsense to stir something up. That just wastes everyone's time and insults our intelligence.

    I live in the Birmingham, AL and have been unemployed for the last 18 months after being bullied out of my job for being an Atheist. I have a fear that my next job will just be more of the same. For Ms. Magazine and so many others to just throw out such nonsense makes it more difficult for women like me to survive in a world surrounded by ignorance. Just do me and all Atheist women a favor – get your facts straight before putting up another mess of an article.

    Thank you.

  25. Hear! Hear!
    Great job, Jen.

  26. Great response Jen! I think it covers the issue succintly.

  27. The Picard says:

    Anne Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation: http://ffrf.org/

  28. Great post Jen! I love it. I'm a long-time female atheist and fan of Ms. magazine. It's nice to see my favorite blogger be recognized and heard by a great publication. Jen, you are one of the amazing atheist women making a difference. Thank you for your voice!

  29. I am a 34 year old woman that was raised atheist. My 3 kids are atheist as well. I haven't known many fellow atheists, male or female. I would like to see a new age of reason, but am fearful that the big animal known as The People are too ignorant and fearful to leave their blankie behind.

  30. Great article, though I do have a quibble with this:(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).

    Hirsi-Ali's Infidel, which you mention, has already been a NYT Bestseller: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infidel_%28book%29

    I wonder if this doesn't come to mind as an atheist best-seller because it's part memoir? Reminds me a bit of how some folks didn't want to consider bell hooks an academic…

  31. Great article! and well researched.
    It is a mere quibble but i would think Ayaan Hirsi Ali is right up there in stature with Dawkins and Hitchins.

  32. I always chuckle at the way stereotypes about differences between the genders are angrily dismissed as "nonsensical"…unless they're flattering to women. Plenty of women who should know better have no problem claiming that women are more empathetic, or better communicators; but don't ever try suggesting that they are worse at math or logic! It seems to me that if women are better at some things, logically, they must be worse at other things.

    • adamcoster says:

      Nope, that's not logical at all. Women could be better at everything.

      • That's a possibility. There's also another possibility: That sexual socialization affects both the male as well as the female, and that the same stereotypes that tell women they are no good at math and logic also tell men they are no good at empathy or communication. People often internalize what they are taught as kids and the expectations of society and authority figures such as teachers and parents. When parents, teachers, and society say both explicitly and implicitly that a girl's priority should be beauty and getting a boyfriend (and being good at math and logic will make the boys not like you, so you'll be a failure, so don't worry your pretty head about it, and yes I have gotten that kind of attitude on both levels), and a boy's priority should be leadership and getting an education and forging ahead with confidence, that if a boy is insensitive or rude or uncommunicative or combative or cruel it's just "boys will be boys" and is given a pass rather than be dealt with, when those people put more effort into teaching math, science, or logic to male students because they assume it will be a wasted effort on the female students, it's no wonder why you might see some kind of correlation of certain skills with certain sexes. But correlation doesn't equal causation and there is little indication that this correlation is due to nature rather than nurture–quite the opposite. And it affects both sides. I firmly believe that males would have equal capability in "soft" skills if the stigmas and opportunities were erased, just as women have proven to be every bit as capable as males in the "hard" skills.

        Of course, many people just want to be inherently superior, and I do get irritated at women who want to claim inherent female superiority on the same level that the average sexist male might. However, I also get irritated at the men who have little issue claiming the useful and commanding characteristics such as math, science, logic, reason, and such and leaving the soft skills to the "little ladies" (storytelling, nurturing, pie-baking, etc.) and pretend they are being magnanimous in that. Given that those soft skills are not seen as particularly valuable and best relegated to the "weaker" sex, it pretty much amounts to the sentiment that toilet-scrubbing isn't a particularly interesting or intellectually challenging occupation but "someone's gotta do it". For you, the "soft" skills (being seen as female) are a step down from your pedestal of male dignity, so you're not being generous by "allowing" the ladies to own them.

        • Very well thought out. I suspect just about everything you said is true. I think the "argument" that women are more empathetic (or generally more emotional) stems as much from homophobia as it does from sexism though. Although it could be argued that homophobia is, if not itself a manifestation of sexism, at least heavily derived from sexism.

        • Two words: Eugenie Scott.

          Google her. If you're too lazy to do that, two other easily recognizable words: Marie Curie.

  33. MYTH BUSTED

    (as Adam Savage would say)

  34. Thankyou Jen for a wonderful article. The article by Shore had me in despair with her anti-atheist article that not only kicks at a minority, but does everything that feminism is out to counter: belittling women by ignoring them. Her religiously-inspired piece (quoting Conservapedia as a reliable source on atheists is the evidence of this) at the expense of women was not worthy of any type of journalism, let alone a feminist magazine.

    An apology is due. It is not enough to "present the other side" when one side is such egregious nonsense.

  35. r. leah-elsa landau says:

    "my experience in the movement has shown atheists to be far less sexist than the general population." In my experience, atheists are every bit as sexist, male and female, as the general population, from calling someone "girl" when she has earned her doctorate to "mansplaining" and selling buttons and panties with such insightful comments as "does it violate your genetic imperative if I come on your face?" Women such as Kari Byron are considered SEXY oh and smart too. And the recognition isn't so much smart IS sexy, but that sexy is sexy and sexy itself is a definition of sexual attraction and objectification… after all, when was the last time this was applied consistently to someone like Jeff Wagg? If you don't see the disparity between the two, I'm sure someone can mansplain it to you.

    • Della Street says:

      Can I ask what experiences you base this on? I think it's quite unfair of people to "dis-like" your comment simply because your comment isn't what others would like it to be. I think it's clear that the comment honestly reflects your experience – which isn't at all what *you* would like it to be, either.

      But the original article did argue that there are no women leaders in atheism, and that the reason that there are no women leaders is because atheists are embracing sexism and the power imbalances that sexism creates. This article here clearly articulates that there are many women leaders in atheism. And in particular, the original post argued that "new atheism" is every bit as exclusive of women's leadership as traditional religions – in the US that would be a bunch of denominations of christianity and 4 denominations of Judaism (5 if you count the Hasidim separately).

      I think that it's quite clear that last line of argument is complete bunk. Since that was the main part of the original post and that was what the critique primarily dealt with, I think some people may be dis-liking your comment because they feel it entirely misses the point of the main discussion.

      But me, I'm very interested in your point. It may not address whether atheism is open to powerful women controlling significant aspects of atheism's institutions, but it does speak to the possibility of other forms of sexism in the movement.

      But my question is, people have been talking (for better or worse) about "organized" atheism.

      So an interesting question – if you're willing to share – is this:
      Are these experiences of yours with "movement" atheism? Or are they experiences with individuals that you have met outside of any specifically atheist context who happened to be sexist jerks?

      And as for the selling of those panties – are you assuming that the designers & sellers of the panties and buttons are atheist because the slogan uses "biological imperative" or did the designers/sellers claim an explicitly atheist identity in some way?

      I ask because nothing in your post makes it clear where these events took place or how you know the acts were committed by atheists. Other people have been saying things like, "At the specifically atheist conference called ______, (X happened) or (Y spoke)."

      I'm not attempting to say that you're not correct that these things are sexist (they clearly are) or to challenge your observations. I'm merely seeking the fuller context of those observations.

      Imagine this for a moment: X small group of atheist guys score an 11 out of 10 on the sexist jerk scale as they cut people, and especially women, down while at a frat graduation party. 30 days later, the same small group of guys all attend an atheism/free thought conference and you witness them scoring about a 7 or 8 on the sexist jerk scale over the course of the conference.

      It could very well be that atheism is an anti-sexist force in their lives, but that it hasn't been acting on them for very many years. So they are still sexist jerks, but you can tell from the context that atheism doesn't exacerbate the sexism the same way that frat culture does.

      Do you see where I'm coming from? The fact that sexist guys exist who are also atheist does not mean that atheism is a force for increased sexism in their lives.

      where you live, there might be a culture of sexist atheism that does act to strengthen sexism rather than challenge it, but from your post, we can't tell that at all. From the info you gave us, we know that there are sexist guys around you. We need some more information to be able to say something about whether Atheism is a pro- or anti-sexist force, however.

    • Sorry, but you're wrong. The "does it violate your genetic…" button thing sounds like a sophomoric fratboy thing, not an Atheist thing. As for Kari Byron, she is plain sexy; but the fact that she is also smart makes her triply sexy. She would never have had so much attention were it not for her smarts and her attitude.

      Look at how many straight guys (including myself) find Rachel Maddow attractive. She is certainly not what one would consider classic model material, but the combination of good looks, adorable geekiness and utter brainiacness is REALLY hot.

      There is sexism within the Atheist community; there's sexism is EVERY community. But the examples you gave are off the mark, and show that you are arguing from animus rather than facts.

  36. Thank you so much, Jen! The original article was pathetic in it's attempt to obscure the truth. I mean, PZ has been posting so many feminist pieces, I don't know how they could have been missed. Oh, wait, I know- ZERO RESEARCH and an automatic bias against atheism.

  37. Just wanted to stop in and add my voice as yet another female atheist out in the world :) Thanks for correcting the previous article that said otherwise! ~R.A. at randomatheist.blogspot.com

  38. Great reply Jen! I appreciate all that you have been doing, for myself and my daughters.

  39. I'm a newer atheist and run a Secular Student Alliance affiliate club at my school. I was raised Southern Baptist and was a born-again xtian at 13. I'm happy to say that the veil has been lifted from my eyes and I see an entirely other vision. And I like it much better.

  40. Let's not forget that Eleanor Smeal, the president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which publishes and owns Ms. Magazine, is an atheist herself! Ellie Smeal accepted the 2008 Humanist Heroine award from the American Humanist Association at their national conference in Washington DC.

    Monica Shores (the author of the first post) simply didn't do her research. Great to see Jennifer McCreight's wonderful response!

  41. Aslo, along with Annie Laurie Gaylor, her mother, Anne Gaylor, who she founded FFRF with and who also runs a charity providing funds for abortion. Add also please, Butterfly McQueen and Vashti McCollum. How can someone who took church-state issues to the supreme court and changed public edcuation in America for the better be overlooked?

    In history, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Sanger, just for beginners. Check Annie Laurie's Gaylor's "Women Without Superstition" out of your local library for a slew of others.

  42. Let's not forget Valerie Tarico, Ph.D., psychologist, author of Trusting Doubt.

  43. I wish we could move beyond the name-calling and nasty label assignations like "racist" and "sexist". I am one of those older, white, male atheists. I am also a sexist. And a racist. And an ageist. And a classist. We ALL are, to some degree, because that how we're socialized. We are heavily scripted by our media, our families, our local communities, and the larger context of society. That being said, I can safely assert that among the atheists I know, we're far more open to challenging and re-writing our own scripting than our god-believing counterparts. I am constantly challenging my own assumptions, and I hope one day to reduce all of my "-isms" to the point where I can honestly and openly say that I see everyone in the same light.

  44. I'm glad Ms. is presenting both sides of the issue, because both sides have their valid points. There are indeed a lot of atheist women in the grassroots movement. There is a serious lack in the media. Atheists have a greater respect for women (and a far greater respect for LGBTQ people) than religious people do. Atheists are also full of sexist people who think being atheist makes them magically not sexist. Because of the great range of diversity in atheism, we're going to find that often both sides of any issue will have validity to them.

  45. Hypatia: first documented free thinker!!!

  46. antiintellect says:

    I'm a secular humanist but I support atheists. I'm just a little more upfront with the fact that I don't believe in supernatural beliefs. That being said, I know way too many women who have leadership positions in the atheist movement, so this notion that women aren't atheists strikes me as odd. Melody Hensly is just one of the women doing great work in the atheist community that I am aware of.

    Great post!

  47. Let's not forget Ann Gaylor, who founded FFRF.

  48. I notice Ms. McCreight doesn't put herself on that list. Which is quite modest of her given that anyone else's list of high-profile atheist women certainly would include her.

  49. kwinters1972 says:

    I'm not entirely sure how one becomes a 'prominent atheist thinker'. It seems that the key criteria is to publish a book critical of theism. I should get writing. As an academic, an atheist and a feminist perhaps the media would take me seriously. Or would I have to make ridiculous comments instead of well-reasoned ones in order to get any attention? ~ Dr. Kristi Winters

  50. A must addition to the "women authors" list has to be Barbara G. Walker who wrote, among other books relating to A-theism, "Man Made God" as well as articles for the pages of FFRF (see Ann and Annie Laurie Gaylor above) that are too numerouos to mention.
    Judith Hayes wrote "The Happy Heretic" and has a great web site.
    Betty Brogaard is the author of "The Homemade Atheist."
    Just to name a couple more.

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