Feminism and Women Atheist Activists Part I

My last post, “The Homogenization of the Atheist Movement,” received a response on twitter from Patrick (@SpringaldJack), expressing his concern about the ubiquity of white males in atheist organizations. Per Smith (‏@PerDSmith) of irritually had some interesting thoughts about the demographics of recent large conventions and we speculated about women’s involvement in the atheist community.

As I searched for studies about women and atheism, I came across a blog operated by Scented Nectar who describes one of her interests as “Arguing with my old cult: the radical feminists.” As I read through some of her blog posts, I came across the term femtheist, which she defines as the following:

A person who is normally skeptical, scientific, and/or atheist, but who believes radical feminism without any scrutiny or questioning. Their belief in ideological claims about society and the sexes, is on faith alone as there is no solid evidence for their claims. Scrutiny is mutiny to them. No scrutiny allowed. If a woman claims that something sexist has happened to her she must be fully believed no matter what. Any questions are accused of being misogynistic.

In one of Scented Nectar’s recent posts, “Utter Malicious Nonsense” she responds to Stephanie Zvan and Jen McCreight, who wrote about the CFI’s Women in Secularism conference.

Zvan presents a FAQ, where she discusses the prevalence of unacceptable gender based behavior in the atheist movement. She has “talked to conference organizers who have strategies for minimizing the damage when they have to invite one of these men to one of their conferences.” Her response to a question about the identities of these men is to recommend networking behind the scenes and that the “people to ask are usually female conference organizers and speakers. Those who speak publicly about sexism hear more stories from other people.”

Zvan claims that her choice to not offer a list of names is due to what happened to Rebecca Watson, but that she will tell stories “when telling them makes life easier for the people whose stories they are. (Mine are minor but irritating.) When it costs their reputation instead of ours, then it will be a simple thing to satisfy your curiosity.”

McCreight said that when she was about to attend her first major atheist/skeptical conference, “multiple people independently sent [her] unsolicited advice about what male speakers to avoid at the con” because they often “make unwanted and aggressive sexual advanced toward young pretty women.” Like Zvan, she also mentions the Rebecca Watson situation:

[S]he simply said ‘guys, don’t do that’ about an anonymous conference attendee. Imagine the shitstorm if there were public accusations of sexual misconduct of some very famous speakers. I’m not ready for the flood of rape and death threats. I’m not ready to be blacklisted and have my atheist ‘career’ ruined by people more powerful and influential than me. I’m not ready to be sued for libel or slander. I’m not ready for the SSA or other organizations I’m affiliated with to also be harmed by association. And that’s exactly how all of these other women feel – hence the silence

Both Zvan and McCreight argue that “conferences need to start adopting anti-harassment policies with guidelines of how to handle harassment that are clearly known to everyone.”

Scented Nectar recognizes the presence of unacceptable gendered behavior, but since Zvan is pointing her finger at a category of public figures within a specific community, she expects her to state what her case is and who it’s against.

This hush/hush stuff is not for private safety away from the bad man (whoever he is today), but instead, they know if they show any anonymously authored anecdotes and claim that that is evidence, they’ll be laughed at and thought of as idiots. These nasty little backstage gossipers have decided that they are victim, judge, and jury. There are to be no fair trials or means by which the accused have a chance to defend themselves.

As I read through the comments and followed some of the discussions on Twitter, I kept coming across references to Watson, who was part of a conflict a year ago. This conflict, which is now referred to as elevatorgate, apparently took shape after people watched a YouTube video featuring Watson. You can find timelines and summaries of the controversy here, here, here, and here. Leave a comment if you think something should be included.

My understanding of what happened is that Watson attended the World Atheist Convention in Dublin. She was on a panel with AronRa and Richard Dawkins about communicating atheism. She was going to talk about blogging and podcasting, but before her panel there was another panel, Women Atheist Activists. She disagreed with a lot of what happened in that panel and decided to comment on it during her presentation.

One of the panelists, Paula Kirby, said she felt she was presenting under false pretenses because she’s a skeptic about the need for a topic dealing with women’s unique challenges within the atheist community:

To me, what matters is whether the arguments that are being put are valid and whether they’re sound and whether they’re being well argued and backed up and substantiated. And frankly, I would find it hard to express the sheer depth of my passionate indifference to whether those good arguments are being put by a man or a woman or someone who’s black or white or able bodied or in a wheelchair.

According to Kirby, it may be true that women are put off by the male face of atheism, but she finds this notion rather insulting to women because it “conjures up a picture of women who are so terrified and so nervous and so feeble as though overawed by men.” She would be arguing differently if she saw any evidence that women were being deliberately held back by the men in the movement, but she has seen nothing to suggest that and she doesn’t feel that she’s being held back or disadvantaged.

On the Communicating Atheism panel, Watson took the opportunity to respond to Kirby:

[S]he made a comment that she felt that there was no problem with sexism within the atheist community because she’s never experienced sexism in the atheist community. In the skeptical movement we refer to that as an argument from ignorance and in the feminist community we refer to it as an argument from privilege.

Watson doesn’t think that Kirby’s personal perspective is a good basis for making an assessment about sexism in the atheist community and later addresses the point about women being held back:

[Kirby] also later said that she didn’t think that there was some great conspiracy to keep women out of the atheist community. Well I don’t think anyone thinks that. I think that’s a bit of a strawperson, if you will. Unless you want to consider the patriarchy in general as a conspiracy.

In her video, Watson goes on to argue that she doesn’t assume that every woman will have the same experience she has had, but she thinks it’s “worthwhile to publicize the fact that some women will go through this,” and that the atheist community can give women the “support structure they need to keep going in the face of blatant misogyny.”

Watson says that the response to her Communicating Atheism talk was mostly favorable, with the exception of one man who didn’t grasp what she was saying. After leaving the hotel bar at 4:00 AM, Watson got on an elevator, where she was joined by this anonymous man, who apparently said “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”

Watson’s commentary on this interaction is as follows:

Just a word to the wise here, guys: don’t do that. You know, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I will just lay it out that I was a single woman in a foreign country at 4:00 AM in a hotel elevator with you. Just you. And don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner. So, yeah, but everybody else seemed to really get it, and thank you for getting it.

Later, at a CFI Leadership conference, Watson summarized what happened in Dublin and she provided a sample of some of the YouTube comments she had received on past videos, all of which were sexually explicit and even advocating violence and rape. Her discussion about the elevator proposition received similar responses along with dismissive statements about feminism and sexism.

Watson went on to illustrate how ignorant young women are about feminism, quoting from Stef McGraw’s UNI Freethought blog:

My concern is that she takes issue with a man showing interest in her. What’s wrong with that? How on earth does that justify him as creepy? Are we not sexual beings? Let’s review. It’s not as if he touched her, or made an unsolicited sexual comment. He merely asked if she’d like to come back to his room. She easily could have said, and I’m assuming did say, ‘No thanks, I’m tired, and would like to go to my room to sleep.’

Watson says that there is a difference between sexual interest and sexual objectification. She claims that she was sexually objectified and that her stated desires to go to sleep and not be hit on were ignored. This isn’t an isolated incident, she adds, and many women don’t attend skeptic and atheist events because they’re tired of being objectified.

Watson’s comments led to a great deal of controversy within the skeptic and atheist communities, with some prominent figures chiming in with their thoughts. The most galvanizing comment came from Richard Dawkins:

Dear Muslima,

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


Active community members remain divided about Watson’s video. I recommend going through Tim Skellett’s (@Gurdur) coverage of the issue.

I’ll probably provide some commentary in a future post, but for now I just wanted to try and get a handle on how some of these debates are related to one another.