By Robin Marie on June 5, 2013
In 1965, two women of Students for a Democratic Society, Casey Hayden and Mary King, wrote an essay bringing attention to the problem of sexism within SDS. In their essay, the authors cautiously raised the issue of sexism in the student movement (indeed, the subtitle of the essay, “A Kind of Memo,” suggested just how cautious they were), arguing that women engaged in movements for social justice needed to start communicating to both each other, and their fellow male activists about their experiences. Deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Hayden and King went out of their way to be clear that they were in no sense equating the discrimination and oppression they experienced as women with the oppression experienced by African Americans in the United States. Nonetheless, it had become increasingly clear to them that sexism did not stop at the door of the radical meeting house – it was a very real problem in the New Left community, and it had to be dealt with.
Two years later, frustrated by the tepid and insulting response of many men in SDS to their call for gender equality, the women of SDS again penned an essay which attempted to explain why attacking sexism was so important to the overall struggle for social justice. As they wrote:
“We seek the liberation of all human beings. The struggle for liberation of women must be part of the larger fight for human freedom. We recognize the difficulty our brothers will have in dealing with male chauvinism and we will assume our full responsibility in helping to resolve the contradiction. Freedom now! We love you!”
The journal New Left Notes published the essay, but it ran accompanied by this image:
I would hope that I do not have to unpack the implications that are evident here. Rather than respond to the women of SDS with respect, rather than listening to their concerns, the male editors of New Left Notes condescendingly ran their story next to an image which mocked the very idea that they were adult human beings with serious and legitimate complaints.
Unfortunately, this response was not an outlier amongst New Left men, nor did it merely represent the growing pains of an expanding movement, soon to be scorned by all and moved past. Over the next few years, New Left feminists encountered over and over against the condescension, disrespect, and often outright misogamy of New Left men. For many activist women, this was devastating. Here were the people that they were supposed to be most united with in fighting inhumanity, treating them as subhuman. Here were the people who spoke out articulately and bravely against racial and social injustice, perpetuating the ugly, violent culture of patriarchy. Here were people who had been friends and lovers refusing to listen to them seriously – and maybe, many wondered, their relationship with these men had never been about anything substantial, after all. Perhaps, they had been used.
So many of them left the New Left, and founded radical feminism. Many decided to never have anything to do with men again. Out of this break, we gained a lot – strategies for helping women unite around shared grievances, brilliant new critical theory, and an independent movement by women for women. However, a lot was lost, as well. Increasingly suspicious of anyone who deviated from what they considered the most revolutionary break with patriarchy, many of the radical feminists groups splintered and splintered, until there was very little left inside them or between them. A national political culture veering rightward, meanwhile, manipulated some of the more brilliant protest techniques of the radical feminists to argue that the essence of feminism was, in a word, “femi-nazism.” Feminism certainly survived all this, and eventually, the routine sexist behavior in SDS would grow to be at least officially stigmatized amongst the majority of progressive social movements. However, the pain, disappointment, and lost opportunities for solidarity between New Left men and women would linger in the minds of SDS women, and continue to damage the ability for feminism to make cultural inroads in the broader society.
That is a long story. But I’m afraid it is also about to become a familiar one. The recent controversy surrounding Ron Lindsay’s opening speech and the Women in Secularism 2 conference has me remembering this history, and shaking my head. I remember the first time a prestigious member of the atheist community openly mocked Rebecca Watson – I wrote about it then, with a tone much calmer, and much less angry, than I feel today. The fact that two years later, this is still happening on a somewhat regular basis, is a certain type of frustrating difficult to capture. A few nights ago, I listened to two people talk about whether or not to identify as “atheist” – while one openly does so, the other, too familiar with the way some atheists respond to the concerns of women and minorities, could not bring herself to attach the title to her identity. For her, it was just too wrapped up in the ugly.
Fortunately, today, we still have a lot of cause for hope. We have Watson, we have Skepchick, and dozens and dozens of other atheist feminists – including many men, such as PZ Myers – who in the last few years have been relentless in holding the atheist community responsible for its misogyny and bigotry. But I sense also that a lot of us are tired. Tired of having to explain the fundamentals over and over again – tired of being dismissed as dogmatic or close-minded when we point out all the myriad ways sexism infects our community. We speak out against sexist behavior at conferences, for example, and then get blamed for making women uncomfortable with going to conferences, as though we created the problem. Some of us get hate mail, a lot of it – indeed we get entire websites devoted to attacking us. Some of us get this treatment so constantly, we give up and attempt to retreat back into private life to escape it.
Meanwhile, a lot of people sit around in the middle and talk about “reasonableness” — and it is to these people that this post is primarily directed. You have to stop this fence sitting. It is not principled, nor does it reflect reality. Such fence sitting denies what is clearly a substantial problem, and engages in the discussion as though atheist feminists are not being viciously attacked every day by members of the atheist community, and therefore in some sense, are “overreacting” — it denies that the level of overt sexism and hatred being spewed out at atheist feminists more than overwhelmingly illustrates the reality they are speaking to. And it denies that even the much more quiet, clueless contempt they receive at conferences supposedly organized for them does not also, in a more subtle but very significant way, also speak to this reality. This, in other words, is starting to get exhausting.
I am not, however, planning on going anywhere. I don’t know what an independent atheist feminist movement would mean, and I do not believe that this community is composed of a majority of overt sexists or is past saving. But atheism itself has garnered itself a very shaky reputation amongst people who care more about social justice than explaining why religions make false claims – and it has this shaky reputation for good reason. The sexism problem is a huge one. The only way, it seems to me, to respond to this is to increasingly put pressure on fence-sitters – to continue to debate and relentlessly explain why no, it is not just a matter of a few bad apples and why yes, it is sexist to proposition a woman in the context of a conference for sex. There are “unreasonable” people all over the place, both men and women – but the story of the last few years cannot be explained by a few “dogmatic” atheist feminists overreacting to every little thing; the story of the last few years can only be explained by the continuing power of sexism in this community. This is a question, in other words, you need to take a side on. Which does not mean that henceforth, everything a woman says is right, and everything a man says is wrong – but if you are feeling more passionate about the “unreasonableness” of feminist members of the atheist community than you are about the sexists who attack them, there is a serious problem here. I implore all of us, then, to step back, recognize that there is more at stake here than our own guilt or innocence, and relentlessly attack this problem.
Because here’s the thing. While radical feminist groups undoubtedly bequeathed to future generations of feminists wisdom, hope, and community, in many ways they failed. Usually, social movements built on factionalism – on splintering yourself off from those who could hurt you or do not fall within a proscribed set of traits that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’ – do not usually succeed at changing the culture more broadly, although they do often exert pressure on it. But I don’t want the atheist movement, or the community of atheist feminists, to be some small, sectarian clique which makes a difference only by being able to change some secondary attitudes on the periphery of society. I want it to be a diverse, humane, constantly maturing community. I do not want to reach the point of the woman I listened to, explaining that, even if the majority of atheists are not sexist or racist, enough of them are for her to avoid associating herself with the label. I want her to know that we are better than that. And I want you to let her know it, as well.