This a guest post from Kai Tancredi and I can't tell you how delighted I am that she devoted so much time to this essay. You may know Kai as the Swiss tool-knife partner in the amazing organizing duo that brought us all FreeOK2013 (www.freeok.org)! Kai is up to incredible things right now with projects stacking up on top of projects so I am so very thankful she was willing to write this for AOK. Share and enjoy!
Every time someone asks where are the women in atheism, I do this frantic arm flailing thing and scream “over here” on the inside.
Hi, my name is Kai and I’m a female atheist.
I haven’t written a book about it because I’ve been pretty heavily involved in the “activism” bit of atheism and there just isn’t enough time in the day. The pace at which I move often leaves me too blurry for photo ops, but I’m here. We are everywhere, founding your atheist organizations, directing your freethought conventions, lecturing and leading volunteer efforts with all the charm and wit we can muster, so who is to blame for our invisibility? Is our modesty relegating us to the shadows or are we being Joe Klein’d by being visible just below the surface and no one is bothering to look for us? Is it the media deciding who gets to be a “prominent” atheist or is our community just not excited about female voices? Is atheism just a non-priority for women in the face of the other rights being flung into fires to heat the frozen hell that is the global political landscape?
In short, yes.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, one of the hallmarks of new atheism (new new atheism, new+1/2 atheism, whatever manifestation you prefer) is that it’s less inviting and more confrontational, even aggressive in its approach to handling theists and in judging other atheists’ convictions. These attitudes, when adopted by women, have earned them the malicious and dismissive title of “bitch” or the cartoonishly absurd “feminazi” and they’re both monikers that have been ingrained in the majority of us to avoid. The sometimes insular nature of the new movement also lends itself to elitist judgement when focus on the scholarly exploits is the sole determiner of who we consider “prominent.” The concepts of freethought and skepticism inherently suggest the intellectual component often ascribed to atheism, and those who feed into that intellectualism through published works or the lecture circuit are viewed as the “faces of atheism.”
Maybe we need to change the criteria for what we consider “prominent” atheists. A movement, after all, is based in action. It may be worthwhile to highlight individuals representing us from on the ground and away from the podium. A switch in focus there opens up eyes to the efforts of atheist activists from countless other demographics and perspectives without reliance on a lucrative book deal or the stirring of controversy. Women’s involvement in social justice movements around the world have been rooted in action and in numbers and I’m not sure either of those things should be seen as problems. Organization and mobilization are well within the women’s activism wheelhouse. The problem is that among all of the other causes women have adopted in order to ensure rights and humane treatment for ourselves and our posterity, being ambassadors to atheism is low-priority.
I care about whether or not people have the social, economic and educational resources they need to achieve healthy and happy lives. My personal pet causes are education, civic equality, the swift eradication of “colorblindness” and the promotion of cultural diversity within these things. By virtue of having a vagina, I must be a female ambassador to all of these things while battling it out with legislators over reproductive and civil rights while not feeding the feminazi beast lest I cease to be taken seriously. Add in my apparent melanin content, and I’m now the [not entirely but still pretty much] black ambassador to all of my missions before I even put on that “I’m actually an atheist” t-shirt. There are women in the forefront of social justice movements because simply being a woman requires a lot of personal energy. There are many battles to fight as a woman, and I’m too busy fighting them to feel indignant about not receiving recognition as an individual representative of yet another -ism. I still have to answer to why there aren’t more people of color recognizable in atheism, then specifically, women of color. Then why, if I am a representative of all of these demographics, am I not doing more to increase visibility?
The answer is simply that I require sleep.
Well, where is the transgender representation? The prominent LGBTQ representation? When I see male “leaders” in atheism, I think “there’s a guy with whom I share a disbelief in gods.” A female leader gets more of an “I share a disbelief in gods with this woman, as well as similar anatomical structure.” There is no promise that the prominent women we seek in leadership will be an accurate representation of what we as individuals value in the atheist movement just because we share a similar set of sex organs. There are privileged white male atheists with snappy accents whose views are not accurately represented by Richard Dawkins, yet we still count him as the face of their atheism. Why? The issue of “where’s my representation” will always persist in some form, so long as any demographic remains without a set of go-to names to match the list of published, intellectual white guys.
I have problems with assertions concerning the “diminishing participation of women in atheist life.” What does this even mean? Are there activities in which one can participate that are explicitly atheist? We have to be careful not to fabricate problems for the sake of making dramatic statements or we risk detracting from the issues that really exist. I am also wondering if the concern is female representation or recognition. This is to say, are we upset that women’s values aren’t being represented by atheist leaders or that women aren’t being praised for their contributions to the movement? The former is the standard set by every socioeconomic and political -ism ever concocted. The latter is another arena within the community where we as un-herdable cats can’t decide if it’s grand-standing or not to be visible as atheists in our work. Modesty as an individual characteristic is no doubt an admirable quality, but what we need in our leadership is a willingness to do the work necessary to highlight the efforts of those we are leading. For every twenty women who are fine with being nameless, we need one woman shouting from the rooftops, pointing out to those too lazy to seek out the minority effort that these things are happening if only we pay attention. This ensures representation AND recognition. If we can’t acknowledge each other, we can’t expect the other spheres to peek in on use and tout our impact for us.
I won’t pretend that sexism is not a factor. The misogynist tripe bandied about by prominent male atheists is insensitive at best and an ironic stye in the eye of civilized discourse at worst. Privilege is as alive and well in this movement as in any other, but we expect evolved thought from the atheist camp and I’m not sure we have a right to. Anyone who has ever been involved in an online atheist community or flame war knows that atheism is not a precursor to any sort of decency or intelligence, but we should make education on those matters a priority. We keep assuming that everyone has reached the atheist conclusion through meticulous research and developed respect for diversity through a series of well-timed epiphanies along the way.
The standards to which we hold those who want to be active in the movement have to be enforced from within the community. If we’re looking to the media to provide objective, diverse coverage of our doers and thinkers, we have to acknowledge that only controversial events and personalities get the air time and there’s nothing more delightful to a dogmatic society than a condescending, belligerent “face” of atheism. If we’re not out to light some fires for that nice notoriety scent, we must push our diversity creatively and to a visible level that doesn’t require much research on the part of the media in order to corroborate what we give them. Lord knows they hate doing that.