Categories: ActivismFeminism

The Secular Movement’s Position on Women’s Rights

I just got back from 10 days in California giving talks to UCLA, the OC Freethought Alliance, the Bay Area Skeptics, and finally American Atheists for their special Rapture RAM (Regional…Area?…Meeting). I’ll start with the news you may have already heard: some guy said some sexist stuff on stage.

Greta Christina and Jen McCreight have already covered it well, but the basics are this: David Eller mentioned that there are atheist video bloggers out there (showing a pic of ZOMGItsCriss) and saying it helps if they’re funny or attractive. Yes, he did include “funny” (or some synonym) on the list of things we can be, but the focus was on the fact that Criss is pretty. Jen called him out on this during Q&A and he offered a half-hearted apology, which has now blossomed into an actual apology.

And let me pause here to mention how great it was to have so many feminists (men and women) in the audience. As soon as Eller said the thing about Criss, it was like a wave of WTF traveled through the room. This is progress! It used to be that when someone said something sexist on stage, everyone quietly let it go or even encouraged it. AA actually did a good job of stocking the stage and the audience with strong women who weren’t about to take that shit sitting down.

Eller also, a few minutes later, suggested we have Boobquake II because boobs are always great for getting attention for atheists. Blargh, yeah.

I was speaking immediately after, so I started by pointing out that my talk was originally supposed to be more general, about grassroots activism in the freethought community, but every time I go to these conferences it seems like the only time women are directly mentioned, it’s to focus on how awesome their tits are. So instead I spoke about why I think it’s important for atheists, nonbelievers, secularists, skeptics, etc to start paying attention to the war that the Religious Right is waging on women’s rights, in the US and elsewhere. The lack of acknowledgement of this problem from secular groups angers me far more than the random blatherings of one conference speaker.

Consider, for instance, what groups like American Atheists, CFI, JREF, and others focus on at conferences and on their websites. These groups do a lot of great work promoting separation of church and state, but this most often means the fight to keep creationism out of schools or stopping prayer at government meetings or removing “God” from our pledges and money. I feel that these are important causes (particularly the creep of creationism) but what’s missing?

Right now, the well-funded Religious Right lobby is working hard to convince our politicians to take away women’s rights based on nothing more than Biblical doctrine. Their agenda includes three major points:

Instituting abstinence-only education
Preventing all access to contraception
Making abortion illegal

Abstinence-only education has been shown (here and in every scientific study done) to result in more teen pregnancy, more sexually transmitted infections, more risk to the health and well-being of young people and the babies who inevitably result.

Contraception is what has finally allowed women the chance at equality. Without it, we would have no control over our reproductive health. We would not be able to delay having children until we’re ready. Withholding contraception leads to lack of education for women who have to drop out of school, social stigma for those who are sent away to give birth in secret, raised maternal mortality rates, an increase in unsafe abortions, and an increase in STIs.

Abortion is similarly necessary to give women control over their reproductive health. 80% of all US abortions happen in the first 10 weeks, when the embryo is less than an inch long. That embryo should not have the right to inhabit and leach off of the body of a full-grown woman for nine months. Abortions that are performed later in the pregnancy are most often done in order to protect the health of the mother or because there is something terribly wrong with the fetus.

Even if you still insist that the Religious Right is correct in saying that those embryos are special lives in need of saving, you should know that outlawing abortion will not stop abortions – it will only kill more women. If you want to stop abortion, the way to do it is to provide contraception and comprehensive sexual education from the moment kids start even thinking about sex.

Despite these facts, the Religious Right continues to believe these policies are for the best. Why? Because the Bible tells them that women are only good for making babies anyway, so screw them. Literally.

To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you shall bring forth children; Yet your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.’

Genesis 3:16

And the crazy thing is, they’re succeeding. In the first quarter of this year, 49 state legislatures introduced 916 bills that restricted reproductive rights. Here are a few that have passed, like in Texas, where women must have an invasive ultrasound that they either have to look at or have described to them in detail by a doctor before getting their abortion. Or South Dakota, where there’s now a 72-hour waiting period, and women must get counseling at an anti-choice pregnancy crisis center before obtaining an abortion. No centers applied to be on the official list, so that women would have no way to fulfill the requirements to have an abortion.

It’s happening all over the country and it’s spreading to other countries. The Religious Right’s attack on women’s rights is directly analogous to their attack on science in the classroom, so why aren’t non-believers standing up and fighting back? Why aren’t more of the big secular organizations decrying what’s happening?

Some organizations, like Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Humanist Association have called out some of the problems, though both could take a page from the British Humanist Association, which regularly and boldly confronts anti-science when it infringes upon women’s reproductive health. BHA’s website even describes in detail its official stance on abortion (pro-choice, of course).

So let’s support those organizations and encourage others to join the fight against the anti-woman Religious Right. Until then, the bulk of the work will be done by feminists like Amanda Marcotte and feminist organizations like Equality Now, and we can’t just leave them to do all the heavy lifting. They’re only girls, after all.

Rebecca Watson :Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

View Comments (130)

  • First, brilliant post @Rebecca Watson. I find it disturbing when people use religion, or anything else for that matter, to stomp on basic human rights.

    To be clear I am pro-choice. But I do think when it comes to abortion, there seem to be a few people saying when it comes to abortion, you can't be a skeptic and be opposed to some abortions. As @daedalus2u and others pointed out, you can't reasonably/critically claim a clump of un/barely differentiated cells is human life. And brain activity/development is certainly a reasonable marker. But the problem is, its a hard marker to define. Brain development doesn't stop at or even post birth. While there is rapid brain development in the "third trimester" pregnancies are technically viable at 24 weeks, in the "second trimester". I don't think anyone here is going to say a new born isn't alive. While it is completely uncritical to think life begins at conception, it is equally uncritical to think life happens at birth.

    I don't know when, during a pregnancy, that "magical" point is. And yes the unborn child is attached to the mother and I firmly believe, even after this "magical point" when it comes to the mother's health and safety, it is and should be her choice. But when you are a parent, you are granted a public trust (for lack of a better term)to protect and care for your child. A child isn't property, even if still physically attached to the mother. By allowing that child to develop into a person, at some point in the pregnancy there is an obligation to protect that person (and again I am not saying against the life/health of the mother). I just don't know where that point is.

  • I am skeptical that threaded commetns are a good thing.

    Note/restate: The only reasonable and skeptical perspective on abortion rights is pro choice. That statement says nothing about abortion, one way or another. This has to do with viewing society from the perspective of fairness and equality instead of patriarchy. This isn't "political," it's medieval vs. modern.

    Reality does in fact have a liberal bias. This does not apply, presumably, to every single issue, and it may only apply in a trivial way to many issues, but there are plenty of issues where the liberal or progressive position is supportable from a skeptical perspective and the anti-progressive position is based on some hooey. Almost everything that has to do with science policy at the medium to large scale falls into this category. At a finer scale it may not. For instance, that we need to understand our planet better and to use that knowledge is the correct, liberal, progressive, position and is supported by a skeptical point of view. How much money we should spend on the space program, or if we should have humans going into space or not, are issues not clearly defined as progressive/anti-progressive or skeptical/non-skeptical. Could be wrong about that, but I think that's probably true.

    I am certain that both Desiree Schell and I will read this post and thread very carefully before going on the air in June to talk about these issues.

    Also, note that over on Pharyngula, PZ Myers has approved of what some might call "political activism" as OK with or even connected to "godlessness" which is, in turn, an overlapping thingie* with skepticism.

    *I'm using a word like "thingie" instead of "magesteria" just because.

  • Rebecca,

    I happen to come down on the same side of the issue as you do. I want my sister, my niece, and all of my friends, including you to be in control of their bodies, not a government...err...body.

    I hope that the JREF does not take a stance on abortion. With the exception of the refutation of scientifically inaccurate facts, science has nothing to say about the validity of limiting abortion by a community on moral grounds. It simply isn't a skeptical issue.

    It is a moral issue.

    I have read through all of the comments and I pretty much agree with tsarbomba about this. Ok, ok, sure. His "privileged white male" shtick was not helpful, but I guess if I had my arguments mis-characterized so many times, I might be a bit testy too.

    Thanks for the forum,


    PS You know I love you, but

    "...every time I go to these conferences it seems like the only time women are directly mentioned, it’s to focus on how awesome their tits are."

    Oh come on! That's an insult to the many pro-women speakers and attendees who not only don't engage in such behavior, but call people on it.

    • "Oh come on! That’s an insult to the many pro-women speakers and attendees who not only don’t engage in such behavior, but call people on it."

      LOL wut? That actually supports what I'm saying: they have to call people on it, because that's the stuff being said on stage. I assure you that, while YMMV, the number of times women's rights have been mentioned on a stage pales in comparison to the number of times women's attractiveness has been mentioned.

  • Ah, but you didn't say "women's rights". Had you done so, I would have agreed with you. You said "the only time women are mentioned".

    It's like you're punching me in the face, all over again :)

    • Ha!

      Sorry to be unclear in the post...when I say "women are directly mentioned" I don't mean that women's names are said aloud, or that women appear on stage. I mean when we talk about women, as a sex, what do we focus on? Do we focus on the specific pseudoscience and religious claptrap aimed at them? Or do we focus on their looks?

      Even when the topic is "where are all the women," it often includes problematic points like "well of COURSE we want them around...we're men after all, har har har!"

      It's rare that I see anyone directly addressing the problems that women face.

      • Rebecca,

        Your quick wit and charisma coupled with the fact that you bob and weave arguments like Laila Ali make it nearly pointless to argue with you.

        Plus, you're damn sexy in those sparkly Chuck Taylors you wear.


        (I'm gonna pay for that one, I just know it)

  • More importantly, you have reminded me (as I need to be from time to time) that there are those out there who would prohibit women from exercising their reproductive rights.

    Because of you raising the issue, I'm going to do something about it in the next few days: I'm going to donate to a good organization, bring up the subject to male friends of mine and maybe even do some volunteer work. Seriously, I mean it.

    I still don't think abortion is a skeptical issue, though.


  • @tsarbomba: enough with the victimization already.
    And yes while the secular movement is supposedly only about religion and science, it still has a large part to play with civil rights and justice. And frankly I despise right wingers regardless of whether they are religious or not. It's got so bad that the ultimate insult nowadays seems to be that he or she is a "liberal." Well I'm proud to have liberal views for one. In fact it all seems to go hand in hand, you can just about guarantee that when it comes to any moral decisions that the Vatican, the Republicans, Tea party, the Catholic league etc will be on the wrong side.
    Atheism can be a force of good and we shouldn't need to apologize or tread lightly for that. Dammit.

  • Being funny. Being sexy. Connecting gender, skepticism and critical thinking with sexual expression. Beaver-licking. Holding workshops themed "Angry Vagina Craft Time", where attendees are invited to "craft cunts". Throwing bordello-themed parties. Even expressing a "win" situation, if British actor Matt Smith got naked on television.

    Things Skepchick.org never do, in order to get the message out.

    Oh, wait.

    • Claus,

      Can you connect the dots for me? I'm being serious when I ask, for example, if a woman sends "confusing signals" to a man who then rapes her, you think the man should receive a lighter sentence?

      I get the attempt at sarcasm, but your point is a non-sequitur. None of the things you mentioned are in opposition to the women's issues being discussed here.

      Virgin/whore boxes indeed.


      • I am not making a point about confusing signals wrt women being attacked by rapists.

        My point is, if you are criticizing other people for being misogynistic for implying that it helps the message if the messenger is funny or attractive, you should not at the same time promote the idea that being funny, attractive ("smart is sexy"), etc., is helping the message.

        Which is what is attempted, e.g., by expressing a “win” situation, if British actor Matt Smith got naked on television. How on Earth is that not just as sexist - possibly even more - as implying that it helps the message if the messenger is funny or attractive? What if I - being a man - said that it is a “win” situation, if Rebecca got naked on television? That would be denounced as sexist - and rightly so! I would never do that, it is preposterous!

        I'm sorry, but there are conflicting messages here. I simply don't get why it is OK for a woman to imply that it helps the message if the messenger is nude - on television, no less - but not OK for a man to imply that it helps the message if the messenger is funny or attractive.

        • What does "funny" have to do with anything? I don't think anyone had any problem with Eller saying Criss is funny. (Unless she wasn't intending to be and her readers were cruelly mocking her, but if that were the case, surely someone would have mentioned it. I'm not familiar with her blog, but I don't think think there's any problem with "funny.")
          Rebecca specifically referred to the "funny" part of the comment as something perfectly acceptable, if I parsed her sentence correctly.
          If you don't see any difference between "funny" and "attractive", the former is an intellectual accomplishment and the latter is an accident of birth and social convention. Unless you mean "attractive" as in "promoting interest and curiosity", as in the legal term "attractive nuisance." I don't think that's what Eller meant, as he would have shown a picture of Criss blowing something up or something. Or does it, like the recent Dunning incident, all come down to poor photo selection?

          • I read it the way you did: "Funny" is on the list of things we can be. "Attractive" is not.

            That's the point: There is a difference, when it comes to Eller making his remark: Funny he can say, yes. Attractive, absolutely out of the question!

            Yet, elsewhere, Skepchick.org puts sexiness on the list of things we can be.

            As you say, it probably is, in both cases, Eller and Dunning, just a matter of choice that was interpreted differently than was intended. But that does not entitle Skepchick.org to make up a list of things we can be, and use that as a moralistic sledgehammer they can bang other skeptics on the head with.

            As much good as Skepchick.org does, they are not the moral guardians of skeptics. Especially if they don't practice what they - if you'll pardon the word - preach.

          • No, no.

            Not the message that *Matt Smith* is promoting. The message that *Skepchick.org* is promoting.

    • I know I shouldn't feed the troll and I swear I won't from here on out, but this sort of damaging bullshit must be answered at least once: no, you're totally right: we do not oppose women celebrating and discussing their own sexuality and encouraging others to not feel ashamed about the fact that vaginas exist. We do not slut shame. We acknowledge that it's okay for women to be sexual and funny. Yes, we refuse to fit nicely into the virgin/whore boxes you've kindly set up for us.

      Aaaaaaand I'm done!

      I haven't decided yet but I may ban this troll. Others who have seen him fishing elsewhere can feel free to weigh in on whether he adds anything good to this site.

      • Update: ran the banning idea past the Skepchicks and so far they are in favor of keeping the troll as a play-thing.

  • Yeah, but you said:

    "I simply don’t get why it is OK for a woman to imply that it helps the message if the messenger is nude – on television, no less..."

    You are referring to Matt Smith, right? On TV? Matt Smith, naked on TV? What message is Matt Smith promoting?

      • I had a WTF? moment reading Claus's reply to my comment, so I re-read the original post. I think the question is should the skeptical movement be more engaged in addressing social issues, in particular the religious right's war on women, and in very particular reproductive rights?
        Almost nobody here (with the notable exception of Lauren Becker) is talking about that. Claus seems to be questioning Skepchick's right to even discuss the issues. Most seem sidetracked to talking about Eller's remarks, which were the jumping off point for Rebecca's post, but which I don't think warrant more than a Jethro Gibbs style head thwack, and certainly not the vast bulk of 120 comments.
        Most (37 of 120 by my count)of the comments that are actually related to the main topic seem to be about abortion rights (predictably), so here's my take. Most of those comments relate to people who disagree that access to abortion is a right that women should have (though I couldn't find any comments actually supporting that position, tsarbomba mentions the hypothetical anti-abortion person who is otherwise a skeptic and wants to belong to the community), or who think that being pro-choice will alienate potential allies, or who think that abortion is not a skeptical issue.
        "Pro-Choice" is not the same thing as "Pro-Abortion. Pro-choice means that you acknowledge that you don't have the right to force your opinions on the people who will actually have to deal with the consequences. What your personal feelings are is irrelevant to what should or should not be banned by law. It's perfectly possible to be pro-choice but against abortion. I am against wearing a safety pin through my nose, but that doesn't mean I don't think other people should be allowed to do so. If a group is anti-choice, then members of that organization are implicitly or explicitly endorsing outlawing abortion and preventing people from having them, but if an organization is pro-choice, that means its members are willing to give other people control of their own lives. (It's really late, and I'm not sure I'm being clear here and I want to get on to the other points, but my claim here is the anti-choice position is exclusionary, but the pro-choice position is not.)
        On the argument that being pro-choice would alienate potential allies, well accommodationism is a 2-way street. If some religious group wants to work with skeptics or atheists to keep religious doctrine or creationism or ID out of public schools (maybe because they realize that any official recognition of one sect's opinions automatically excludes there own, and quite sensibly they would rather have no official religion than the exclusive recognition of a different one), or maybe because they recognize the reality of evolution, like the Catholic church and many other religions do, they can and should tolerate us to the extent we tolerate them.
        Finally, as to whether this is a skeptical issue, there are two aspects. First are the detailed technical aspects, which we certainly can and should discuss in a skeptical forum. What exactly constitutes a human being? When does a cell or a blob of cells acquire whatever physical characteristics that make it a human (and when does it lose them?) What are the physical, psychological, sociological, economic, ethical and political consequences of legalizing, limiting or banning abortion in various ways? All these questions can be examined using evidence and logic and comparing societies and cultures where different rules prevail. So I think this means the whole question is within the purview of skepticism.
        Finally, I think it is a basic matter of personal freedom, which is always a skeptical issue. Orwell said freedom is the freedom to say 2+2=4. Restricting people's freedom to think about reality is clearly inconsistent with skepticism and antithetical to free thought. Restricting people's ability to act on the conclusions of that thought when it doesn't harm other people renders the that freedom of thought moot. So the question comes down to whether or not outlawing abortion on the balance harms or benefits people, and I think the evidence shows quite clearly it harms them.
        So my conclusion is that this is a skeptical issue, and that the skeptical movement should take a position (to the extent that it can take a position on anything), that is pro-choice.
        P.S. tl;dr, I hope there aren't too many typos.

        • You write: "Claus seems to be questioning Skepchick’s right to even discuss the issues"

          Not at all.

    • No, I am referring to the message Skepchick.org wants to promote.

      Here is the quote, from a blog entry by Rebecca, about Boobquake, a little over a year ago:

      "It’s very easy to prove me wrong here. Get Matt Smith naked on television for the next several weeks, and if flights are still not taking off in London then I’m correct. If the ash disperses and flights return to normal, my theory doesn’t hold up and I accept that. Either way, we all win."

      That's my point: How is it OK to imply that it helps the message if the messenger is nude – on television, no less – but not OK for a man to imply that it helps the message if the messenger is funny or attractive?

      I hope that clarifies.

      • Oh, well it depends. Are we talking about Matt Smith as a human person or as The Doctor? I would say there is a difference. And no spoilers please! I'm just about to start his episodes :)

  • Abstince only education is insidious and it hurts men as well as women and this needs to be understood. Men can get saddled with an unwanted child, or can contract diseases cause they don't know how to properly put on a condom. Of course this is an issue that should be important to women, but it's not just a women's battle.

    Now I am a woman and I'm skeptical, but I'm also spiritual... I have a Christian upbringing and that still very much impacts my spirtuality (though it is not the sum total of the subject).

    Christians need to realize that levitical law, and the ravings of Paul are incompatible with Jesus' teachings there's just no way around that if you look at the bible critically.

    Levitcal law is a construct that was designed for a specific culture at a specific time, and one that was for the most part male dominated at that... and that time has passed.

    Also Christians ignore the many translation errors in their book.

    Why do you ask am I bringing this up on a discussion geared towards the secular movement?

    It's because while keeping the church out of the state is an admirable goal, and certainly there are things that can be done to further it, politicians can not completey check their moral beliefs behind at the door when making decisions... they will run on a campaign based on their beliefs and people will vote for them based on their beliefs, and that's inevitable in the current system. Unless Atheism becomes a requirement for office, or we turn rule over to advanced robots, we will never have a system devoid of church influence.

    So atheists need to be able to point out to Christians how much of the bible is in conflict with Jesus' teachings.

    If we can get Christians to reject Paul's doctrine of hatred, and whatever convient parts of the old testement they want to unironically cling too while eating their BLT sandwichs, then that's a step in the right direction.

    Remove Paul and Leviticus from the equation and suddenly the justifications for homophobia (even Sodom is not a homophobic justification if you consider the full text) is gone, Paul's mysoginistic rantings are gone.

    I think a two pronged attack is neccesary fighting to keep the church away from the state... while teaching the church to critically examine the rest of the bible against Jesus... Some will come around to athiesm... and some will realize that Jesus never said a damn thing about abortions or homosexuality and said a whole lot about love and understanding.

    --Not quite an athiest but still an ally

    • Thank you for that perspective! We do have many religious allies in the fight to protect separation of church and state, and in fact the Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a reverend: Reverend Barry Lynn. Keeping the government out of the church is just as beneficial to the religious as it is beneficial to us to keep the church out of the government.

  • So this is my first post here. I have always been pro-choice but my views have changed slightly over the last year. In the past I had cast off the decision completely to the woman to decide if she wants the baby. Now I feel very strongly that I should have certain rights in such matters. I have a right to know that she is pregnant. I have the right to know her wishes. I have the right to express my wishes. I feel very strongly that I do have rights in regards to that fetus.

    While these rights do not extend to compelling her to keep the baby, I have the right to know that it exists, especially if she decides to keep it - if only because of the legal obligations I have to help financially support that child.

    I believe this just as much as I believe that the woman's decision is the final decision.

    • Actually, your rights to your sperm end when you leave it behind in someone else's body. If you want to be informed and part of the decision, I would suggest entering into a relationship before entering into a vagina.

      Also, you might consider condoms.