Humanist Women

October 2010

INTRODUCTION

One of the major challenges we humanists face is to clarify our basic beliefs, explain our goals in every day language that people can understand and with knowledge, either accept or reject. One way I believe we can do that is to explain "our hopes for humanity." Since humanism is basically an alternative to religion the challenge is tough. Most religious "hopes for humanity" demand subservience to an outside authority with the reward for various degrees of personal sacrifice promised in a "life after death."

Humanism teaches the ultimate authority is science, the science of consequences, for every action there is a reaction. We believe the rewards for understanding this knowledge will be realized only in this life. We welcome questions, accept uncertainty, and recognize mistakes as part of the natural process of experimentation. We believe the reward for righteous living will be personal fulfillment and social justice, in this life, on this earth, here and now.

The faith of a humanist is the faith that we have the ability and the responsibility, to build a healthier world for the sake of ourselves, our loved ones, and for all humanity.

Humanism teaches we can lead good, productive and moral lives without supernaturalism and without the dictates of an ethereal authoritarian.

Our historical authorities have been such humans as Epicurus, Spinoza, Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and Charles Darwin. They were all males BUT there have been many females who have been great teachers and supporters of Humanism and those are the people I want to talk about tonight.

I was abruptly reminded of how males have subjugated women during the final minutes of my LDS excommunication trial. The presiding male judge at the trial said to me: "Do you want your wife and children excommunicated with you?" I was shocked by the question, after a short silence while I gathered my composure, I replied: "No, because I cannot make that decision, nor can I speak, for my wife nor for my children."

It was at that moment I began to realize how women and children have been treated as second class citizens. How men have arbitrarily acted as the "supervisory authority" both within the family and in the greater world community.

The Feminist movement of the past forty years has finally turned the spot light on the contributions women have made to our current era of the Enlightenment. So tonight I want to emphasize the contributions many of them have made to our society in general and the humanist movement in particular.

BEVERLEY EARLS

I will begin my presentation with a tribute to a contemporary Humanist Feminist, Beverley Earls. Beverley Earles has a Ph.D. in religious studies from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She served several years on the AHA Board. She came to Salt Lake City several years ago to speak at the memorial service of our founder, Ed Wilson. She is currently active in a number of humanist groups worldwide. In the July 1992 she wrote: "One day I would like to write a book about the contributions humanist women have made not only to humanism but to t to modern civilization." When I once mentioned this to a male humanist friend, he said, "Well, it would be a very short book." Needless to say, I have since dropped this individual to acquaintance level!

At conferences of humanist organizations, one notices that the top table often bears a remarkable resemblance to the Politburo, the governing body of the former Communist party of the Soviet Union, all male and virtually all within a certain age group.

I will argue that this patriarchal system of values must be questioned and that, when it is questioned, the significant contributions of humanist women become visible.

DORA RUSSELL (1894-1986)

As an author, a feminist and progressive campaigner, and the second wife of the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell. Dora Russell worked tirelessly for the humanist cause for over 70 years. The BBC did a television documentary on her as one of the six great women of our century. Yet she cannot be found in humanist anthologies. Dora Russell's case is one of those that tell me in no uncertain terms that there has been something terribly wrong in the way humanists have been recording their history and building their identity. Humanists need to become more astute in identifying dualistic human values in order to recognize the women of our movement and their contributions. We must do something about the fact that humanists have not had a strong conception of women as authorities and that outstanding humanist women have not always placed a high priority on personal recognition. Dora Russell once said, "Something that women have to say is being left out of everything in the world," and there can be no humanist world without it.

I have selected fourteen humanist women to illustrate tonight the contribution they have made to furthering the understanding and acceptance of humanism.

ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR

One of the leading humanist contemporary women is Annie Laurie Gaylor, cofounder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and co-chair for 15 years of the American Humanist Association's Feminist Caucus. She has a degree in journalism and has authored several books including the first book exposing sexual abuse of children by religious leaders. She is married to Dan Barker, a retired clergyman and active leader in the humanist movement.

One of her best selling books is Women without Superstition, an anthology of more than one hundred women who have been leaders in the anti-religion movements of the last 200 years. In the introduction to this outstanding publication Ms. Gaylor writes:

"Many women freethinkers have dared all things for the truth." Everyone featured in this collection has a life story worth remembering, as well as thoughts worth reading. Largely untold have been not only their stories but the history of women fighting to be free of religious strictness.

In 1977 she led a protest against prayers being uttered at University of Wisconsin graduation ceremonies. Her objections eventually led to halting the practice.

She organized a public protest against a judge who commented during the trial of three male college students charged with raping a female student, "rape is a normal reaction" to the way women dress… Her protest led to the recall of the judge.

Humanism, Agnosticism, Anti-authoritarianism, are grateful to Annie Laurie Gaylor for her unceasing devotion to researching and recording the thoughts and convictions of the brave women who have challenged the efforts of all religions to dominate the social, ethical, and political atmosphere of society.

MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759-1797)

The first influential women to talk about and write about the need for gender equality and recognizing "reason" and "rationality" as the highest human virtue was Mary Wollstonecraft. She was a freethinking deist who was born and died during the last half of the 1700's! During her short life of only 38-years she wrote two major books that have influenced the struggle for gender equality for more than 200 years.

Her first book was A Vindication of the Rights of Men published in 1790 and the second book as A Vindication of the Rights of Women published in 1792. She was a child of the Enlightenment with an unceasing faith in reason. She openly declared she was an agnostic.

She expressed strong opinions against conventional religion, the ministry, astrology, the monarchy, the customs of the wealthy and slavery. She championed women's rights, children's rights and animal rights. She counseled the benefits of breast-feeding, early education, dress reform, rational parenting, and called for a national system of free, coeducational primary day schools. She urged and spoke frequently on her deeply held views on the need to respect children and their views.

This quote from her book The Rights of Women summarizes her basic belief, "Women's first duty is to themselves as rational creatures…in fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason"

Mary Wollstonecraft was truly a feminist pioneer in the historical effort to establish humanism as an admirable philosophy.

FRANCES WRIGHT (1795-1852)

Another early women supporter of humanism was Frances Wright. She was just two years old when Mary Wollstonecraft died. She was the first women to speak out in the United States publically advocating women's equality, to question religion and to denounce the influence and power of the clergy. She pioneered antislavery, was a social reformer and early advocate of free public schools and was editor of the first humanist publication, The Free Inquirer.

She sat at the feet of free thought philosopher Jeremy Bentham and won the praise of Thomas Jefferson. But the clergy of her day said she was, "The Red Hot Harlot of Infidelity, a bold blasphemer, and a voluptuous preacher of licentiousness."

She said of herself, "I am neither Jew nor Gentile, Mahomedan nor Theist: I am but a member of the human family."

In a lecture on "Morals" she criticized religion severely declaring: "…so far from entrenching human conduct within the gentle barriers of peace and love, religion has ever been, and now is, the deepest source of contentions, wars, persecutions, angry words, angry feelings, backbiting, slanders, suspicions, false judgments, evil interpretations, unwise, unjust, injurious, inconsistent actions…we have seen that no religion stands on the basis of things known, nor bounds it horizon within the field of human observation; and therefore, as it can never present us with indisputable facts, so must it ever be at once a source of error and contention."

And on the subject of knowledge Francis Wright told an audience, "I am not going to question your opinions, I am not going to meddle with your belief. I am not going to dictate to you mine. All that I says is, examine, inquire. Look at the nature of things. Search out the grounds of your opinions, the for and the against. Know why you believe, understand what you believe, and posses a reason for the faith that is in you."

MARGRET KNIGHT (1903-1983)

Born in Hertfordshire, England, Margaret Knight attended Cambridge, receiving her Bachelor's degree in 1926 and her Master's in 1948. She authored three books on humanism: Morals Without Religion, The Honest Man, and A Humanist Anthology, a lengthy collection that demonstrates humanism is a family of ideas older than Christianity. In chronological order she lists expansive quotations of 100 leaders from sixth century BC thinkers to 20th century writers.

Margaret became a celebrity across Great Britain when she achieved the freethought coupe of giving a series of freethought lectures on the BBC radio. She gave her first BBC talk on January 5, 1955 and the fireworks began. The Daily Express wrote an accurate account of her lecture, headlined: "Woman Psychologist Makes Remarkable Radio Attack on Religion for Children." A Daily Telegraph columnist demanded that the BBC forbid a second broadcast. The Sunday Graphic ran a snapshot of Margaret next to a headline with two-inch letters, "The Unholy Mrs. Knight." It began, "Don't let this woman fool you. She looks just like the typical housewife; cool, comfortable, harmless. But Mrs. Margaret Knight is a menace. A dangerous woman. Make no mistake about that."

After her second broadcast, the uproar continued, she issued solid, humanistic advice to parents, such as "to provide a firm, secure background of affection so that it never occurs to the child to doubt that he is loved and wanted." Despite hyperbole and condemning headlines, the accurate news reports conveyed her message to an even larger audience. In 1973 she wrote: "The fashionable view at the present time is that the important thing about Christianity is not its cosmology but its ethic. I was inclined to share this view, but it dawned upon me later that my admiration for Christian ethics was based mainly on inadequate knowledge of the Gospels. Wider reading has convinced me that there is no ground for the common claim that Christianity is the source of all that is best in our culture. The true roots of our civilization lie in classical Greece and Rome; and I believe, it was one of the major disasters of history when Europe turned aside from its true heritage to embrace an ascetic, other-worldly religion which for centuries has served to stifle the free intelligence and to limit disastrously the range of human sympathies." (Preface Honest to Man, 1974)

She wrote, "morality needs no supernatural sanction, and that the philosophical arguments which claim to show the it does, are fallacious; that the mainsprings of moral action are what Darwin call the social instincts--tendencies towards altruism and cooperation that are as much part of our innate biological equipment as are our tendencies towards aggression and cruelty; the attempt to preserve moral standards by indoctrinating children with Christianity leads to a pervasive intellectual dishonesty and is doomed to failure."

VASHTI McCOLLUM (1912-2006)

Credit for stopping the indoctrination of religions in our public schools goes to one of our dynamic humanist women, Vashti McCollum. She was born in Lyons, N.Y., on November 6, 1912, and died just four years ago in August 2006 at the age of 93. In her obituary the New York Times wrote:

It was her lawsuit to stop religious instruction on school property that led to a landmark ruling by the United States Supreme Court in 1948 to protect the separation of church and state in education, Mrs. McCollum, who called herself an atheist in Illinois court proceedings but later preferred the word "humanist," said her son was ostracized and embarrassed by his schoolmates because she refused to let him attend the religion classes at his public school. The classes for Protestants were on school premises; Jews and Roman Catholics went to religious buildings elsewhere. She also contended that religious classes were a misuse and waste of taxpayers' money, discriminated against minority faiths and were an unconstitutional merger of church and state. After losing in two Illinois courts, Mrs. McCollum won an 8-to-1 decision by the Supreme Court. Justice Hugo L. Black, who wrote the majority opinion, said the practice in Champaign was "beyond all question" using tax-established and tax-supported schools "to aid religious groups to spread their faith," and, he added, "It falls squarely under the ban of the First Amendment. The First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other in its respective sphere," Justice Black wrote.

Time magazine observed that the trial shared "features that made the Scopes 'monkey trial' a sideshow''. Ms. McCollum wrote a book on the case, One Woman's Fight, She became a world traveler and served two terms as president of the American Humanist Association.

MARY MORAIN (1911-1999)

A graduate of Radcliffe College and the University of Chicago, Mary Morain accomplished much during her long life. She was noted for her support and leadership of American and International Humanist organizations and her work on behalf of the United Nations Association and Planned Parenthood. With her husband Lloyd Morain she wrote Humanism As the Next Step, published in 1988. In that book she wrote, "Humanism is practical. It helps us to understand complex situations, to solve problems, and make decisions. It teaches us that there is an intrinsic, inalienable value in all human beings. It teaches us to look for courage, for comfort, to one another, our fellow humans. A sense of belonging comes to those who realize that we are in every respect a part of nature-a nature far larger, far older, than ourselves." In 1994, the American Humanist Association named her Humanist of the Year. In accepting that award Mary said: "Most systems of basic beliefs--most life stances--give some emphasis to helping others rather than our individual selves. Believing that we exist only in a single world, the natural world that we share with other living creatures, and that we have no special first-class tickets that allow for travel to continuous existence in other spheres at the end of our journey in this life. In our human distresses, we have only each other to turn to for help."

LISA KALVELAGE (1923-)

Lisa was born in Nuremberg, Germany and immigrated to the United States after World War two. Witnessing the devastation of German cities during that war she vowed to bring greater understanding of the horrors of war to everyone willing to listen. When she and her husband with their five daughters moved to San Jose, California they met Art Jackson who was organizing a chapter of the American Humanist Association. She joined and remains an active member.

In 1966 Lisa and three other women staged a Vietnam protest demonstration at a military storage yard. They sat down in front of a forklift loaded with napalm destined for Vietnam. The women were arrested and charged with trespassing. They were convicted and sentenced to 90 days in jail. Now in her eighties, she remains a vocal critic and anti-war demonstrator. She says, "As a humanist I feel I must do everything in my power to become involved in the issues of our time. If we have this conviction, we also will have the strength to make a difference."

BARBARA FRANCES WOOTTON (1897-1988)

I turn now to another prominent British feminist humanist, Barbara Frances Wootton (1897-1988), Baroness Wootton, was born into an academic family and was educated at Girton College, Cambridge, where she won First Class honours and a research scholarship to the London School of Economics. She left Cambridge for London and labour socialist politics in the early 1920s.

Baroness Wootton was an out spoken opponent of both Christianity and Communism, referring to them as two of the greatest superstitions of the western world. Christianity, she said, had a much longer period in which to sterilize intelligence and divert the human mind from fruitful use. But it hard to say which of the two caries the heavier burden of guilt. In the mid 1940's she wrote: "In the Soviet controlled regions of Europe the battle between these rival contestants for the human spirit rages savagely, and the communists, who have the advantage of exercising temporal power, are persecuting their enemies with a fury which rivals that of the church in an earlier age…The 'scientific attitude' is the common foe of both. The skeptic would do well to make it unmistakably clear about his complete rejection of both dogmas."

"The whole attitude to doubt is a critical test of the differences between faith and scientific knowledge. To the faithful doubt is a sin, to the scientist it is the first of all virtues."

MARGARET SANGER (1879-1966)

Humanist Margret Sanger, is credited with probably making the biggest historical contribution to the sexual freedom of all women, filing the lawsuit that resulted in the overturning of the Comstock laws giving women the right to birth control information! She was honored with recognition as "The Women of the Century" in 1966.

She was responsible for the distribution of the diaphragm, the development of effective contraceptive jelly, the education of physicians in birth control techniques, the proliferation of birth control clinics, the founding of the Planned Parenthood organization, and ultimately the creation of the birth control pill.

Margret taught women to "look the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in her eyes. She described herself as "a nurse working in the slums who saw a fire and was shouting for help."

In 1920 she wrote a book titled, Women and the New Race, which sold a quarter of million copies. She campaigned for a women's right to erotic satisfaction and charged Christianity with turning back the clock for women two-thousand years. She said the church had deprived women of their legal rights, educational rights, her love life, and her reproductive freedom.

The historian, H.G. Wells wrote, "when the history of our civilization is written it will be a biological history and Margret Sanger will be its heroine." She died at a few days before her 87th birthday in a Tucson, Arizona nursing home.

SONIA JOHNSON (1936-)

Sonia Johnson is a business consultant, a freethinker, and writer. She was excommunicated from the LDS church in1979 for having a leadership position in the movement supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. In1982 the Feminist Caucus of the American Humanist Association named her "Humanist Heroine" of the year. In her acceptance speech she said:

"We know men's rights are worth laying down one's life for. Patrick Henry is considered an American Hero because he said, 'Give me liberty or give me death.'

"No one doubts that, and the revolution was the result. Women must realize that women's rights are worth the same sacrifice. Human rights are never bestowed, they are wrested."

Following her excommunication from the Mormon Church she was interviewed by a news reporter who asked, "if, now that you are no longer theologically a Mormon, have you acquired any non-Mormon habits?" " Yes", she replied, "in fact I have. I have acquired the habit of free thought."

Sonia advocates faith not in God or goddess, but in our selves, in our own voices, in our own judgment, our own abilities.

In her book, From Housewife to Heretic, she writes: "We've got to start listening to our own hearts. We're just beginning to learn how. We have got to learn to love and value ourselves and other women, to make the same kind of sacrifices and take the same kind of risks for our human rights, dignity, and safety that men have always known had to be taken and made, and they've always been willing to take and make for themselves."

BARBARA WALKER (1939-)

A contemporary feminist, Barbara Walker, now in her early seventies, was born in Philadelphia in 1939. Seventeen years ago the AHA held their annual conference in her home city and appropriately recognized her as our "Humanist Heroine" of the year.

I had the opportunity of attending that conference and hearing her vibrant acceptance speech.

In that speech she told us she began to question religion when her high school curriculum included reading the King James Bible which to her sounded cruel. She said the story of a God who would not forgive the world until his son had been tortured to death, did not strike her as the kind of father she would want!

She said, "Faith in God necessarily implies a lack of faith in humanity. The profoundly cynical premise of all religionists is that people are not capable of behaving decently toward one another unless they are lured with promises of pie in the sky."

When skepticism is regarded as a vice, skeptics are forced into a minority position and forced to live in a world whose majority opinions they find very distasteful."

Ms. Walker concluded her remarks with this observation: "Our world is violent for the very reason that its full of men who have been wounded by oppressive father figures, both real and imaginary. This can be changed by bringing us all down to earth in the practice of enlightened humanism and take sensible precautions for the preservation of our earth and our own species."

BETTE CHAMBERS

My final feminist Humanist Hero is a personal friend and advisor. I served on the AHA broad during one her many terms of leadership. I can assure you of her complete dedication to our principles. Bette Chambers joined the AHA in 1961. She was a member of the Minnesota Humanist Society, and eventually was elected president of that society. Bette was appointed to serve as a vice president the AHA board in1966 and was elected to her first term as AHA board president in the fall of 1972. At that time the AHA was in a lot of turmoil and needed reorganizing. It was at this time that Ed Wilson became her mentor, and remained so until his death here in Salt Lake City nearly 20 years ago. In a personal letter to me she wrote about the problems she faced in her final year on the AHA board.

During the waning months as AHA board president in 1979 a simmering controversy in the Humanist Magazine publishing division erupted. It resulted in the abrupt resignation of Paul Kurtz as editor, the appointment of previous board president Lloyd Morain as editor and within a few months Lyle Simpson was elected to be the AHA board president. Lyle restored an atmosphere of respect and put the AHA back on the road to fiscal solvency.

Bette continued her leadership role as the volunteer AHA Executive Director and managed the national office in Amherst New York from her home in Lacy, Washington until a paid Executive Director was hired. Later she served as Editor of the Free Mind Magazine for 20-years

She concluded her letter to me: After serving in humanist leadership roles most of my adult life, I am now at that point where I am jealously guarding my independence and my husband's. He's 92, a thorough humanist, and a true prince among men. We've been married over 60 years, raised three daughters, and now have three grandsons and a great grandson and great granddaughter. Our days are spent reading books we've always wanted to read, and coping with health issues. We enjoy the quiet time and are both taking maximum advantage of it. Because of health, we no longer travel any great distances. While I miss all my good humanist friends and colleagues, I cherish my memories of the internal disputes and their resolutions. The years of introducing humanism to hundreds of people and mentoring young humanist leaders were richly rewarding. I am nearly deaf, and so public gatherings, and speeches, must give way to e-mail and easier forms of communication.

I would define humanism simply as "the Golden Rule; writ large." But when a few more words are required, I say "Humanism is a moral philosophy grounded upon the premise that all people deserve recognition for their unique dignity and worth, free from any form of supernaturalism. When possible I expand the definition to say: "Humanism is a world-view, informed by science, based on democracy in the social order, coupled with concern for the natural world and including compassion and succor for the less fortunate, and the recognition of equality in all endeavors."

CLOSING

I believe the examples I have shared with you tonight indicate that women have been strong, important leaders of the Humanist Philosophy, often over looked but never under rated. They have made significant contributions to the social and cultural developments of society in general, the Humanist movement in particular, and have demonstrated the validity of the world wide feminist movement. My personal belief is: "Humanism is being passionate about living this life."

--Florien Wineriter