Before I begin, it’s probably important to say that I appear to have caught some kind of horrible dread illness that has turned my bronchial tubes into sandpaper. Undoubtedly, this has something to do with all the toxins I’ve absorbed, an imbalance of chi energy, and the unnatural chemicals in my flu shot a couple weeks ago. As such, I’m writing through a thick haze of NyQuil, fever and my natural scatter-brainedness. The sentences look like little corridors.
Over the last couple weeks, there’s been a bit of a controversy brewing up here in Vancouver. In September, a women’s skepticism discussion group, dubbed Reasonable Women after a similar group based out of Saskatchewan, was established as an initiative of Center for Inquiry Vancouver. It was organized by Natalie Nikolaeva, and partly inspired by recent lectures from Jen McCreight and Ophelia Benson, along with some of the issues that emerged out of the controversy in July, as a safe space for women to discuss skepticism, feminism and the intersections of the two. A couple weeks ago, however, news broke that CFI Vancouver’s Executive Director, Jamie Williams, after a series of meetings with Natalie, chose to cancel Reasonable Women as a CFI Initiative, leaving it in the position of having to either fold or continue as an independent organization.
Naturally, this sparked some controversy.
I probably don’t really need to explain to you wonderful and lovely Skepchick readers that the issue of alleged sexism or androcentrism in the skeptical community and movement, the lack of diversity therein, and concerns that it fails to adequately address the needs and issues of women and other underprivileged groups have been rather touchy subjects over the last several months. Although initial reports described the decision as amicable, and it seems that all parties were acting in good faith and with good intentions, it was clear that there was indeed a fair bit of resentment and hurt on both sides. It re-ignited the very same tensions that the Reasonable Women initiative was originally designed to address, and it certainly raised a number of very uncomfortable, thorny, tangly questions.
Once the issue became public, CFI Vancouver quickly responded with a statement describing the reasons for the decision to end Reasonable Women as a CFI initiative. It was stated that the issues seemed to be that Reasonable Women was moving beyond the originally approved proposal of a women’s social discussion group and into a feminist advocacy and activism organization, that this kind of group fell outside of CFI’s focus, and that there had been an unapproved event (a screening of the documentary film Miss Representation). But… where does one draw the line between discussion and advocacy? What kinds of activism was Reasonable Women engaged in, and how did it differ from other CFI projects? What is within the scope of CFI and what is beyond it? Why was the organization originally approved and then that approval revoked after only two meetings? What changed? And why was Reasonable Women the only CFI initiative to face such a decision, and be regarded as outside their focus?
In order to sort out this whole messy business, I arranged to interview both Natalie Nikolaeva and Jamie Williams about their perspectives on the “split” and to try to work out what was actually going on. While neither can really speak for the entirety of their respective organizations (and I would like to make it clear that their individual perspectives are only individual, and don’t necessarily reflect any official positions), I figured it would be helpful to at least ask some questions beyond the official statements.
It seemed like a central issue was what, exactly, Reasonable Women had been intended to be and how it may have strayed from that. Natalie described the goals and purpose of the group as
“promoting feminism and skepticism, providing a space for women (and those self-identifying as women or sharing our concerns) to discuss topics that directly relate to us and the issues we face in the skeptics movement…Reasonable Women provides an entry point for those who feel uncomfortable or are being silenced in other groups/events. This sentiment was echoed by most women who attended our meetings. Many have also pointed out that some men try to monopolize the conversation, without even realizing that they are doing it or how it makes others, especially women, feel.”
Jamie described the initial proposal as
“a skeptical discussion group, like Cafe Inquiry [a CFI skeptical discussion group], but for women. It was proposed on the basis that some women might not feel comfortable at other CFI Vancouver or other local skeptical events, especially if they were new, either because of the location or a strong male presence. Natalie proposed that this discussion group would help those women become more comfortable with contributing at events like Cafe Inquiry, and it would act as a ‘stepping stone for them into the movement’ and to other CFI Vancouver events.”
So it would seem that the initial ideas meshed up fine. Women can often feel alienated from the skeptical community due to it often being a primarily male community, so it would make sense to provide a discussion group for women skeptics to have both an entry point into the wider skeptical community of Vancouver, as well as a safe space to discuss specifically feminist or women-oriented issues. Seems like something valuable, important, of little or no harm, and not in any way outside the scope of CFI Vancouver’s activities. So if this was the proposed role of the group, as Natalie saw it and Jamie approved it, when and where did things go wrong? What happened?
“Others might disagree, but this is how I see it: there was never any real, solid connection between CFI Vancouver and Reasonable Women, only a formal one. Me and other people involved received zero support or guidance as to how we should have handled this group or what this group could or could not do in terms of CFI policies. The only real positive aspect of being connected to a large organization like CFI is obviously increased publicity and a bigger member base from which we could get new people to join us. The split, which is not referred to as such by CFI, has happened because CFI decided that our aims and their aims don’t match up…I feel that there is a lot of uncertainty as to what is and will be happening within CFI Vancouver and if our group does not fit in, what does?”
“The initiative that was originally proposed was a women only skeptical discussion group…Within a very short period of time it became apparent that the organizers and some of the attendees desired the group to be a feminist advocacy group which was not the stated purpose for which the initiative was started, and outside the purview of CFI… What the organizers and some people wanted stopped being the simple social discussion group that was started when they began considering autonomy (including discussion of their own website, group policies, any talk of ‘dissociation'[sic] with CFI Vancouver), wanting to diversify events and plan large outreach events…and adopting an agenda or aligning with an ideology of any sort. That direction is outside CFI Canada’s model of operation, outside our focus, and a far cry from the proposal that was made to me that I approved.”
So we start getting the idea that rather than being simply a discussion group for women skeptics, it began to take on the form of a feminist advocacy organization, and that the cross into “activism and advocacy” may have begun to develop around the time that they began pushing for greater autonomy and outreach.
But one can’t help but wonder whether that distinction may have been based solely on it being a feminist organization. Rumours began to surface that the decision may have been handed down from CFI Canada itself, who’s founder, Justin Trottier, has a long and explicit association with the men’s rights movement. This year, he publicly headed up Toronto’s Men’s Issues Awareness Campaign. But Jamie made it clear that the decision was his own,
“It was a local programming decision, made by me in my role as branch Executive Director. The National Executive was not involved in the decision, and it was not a reflection of any branch or national policy. To reiterate, the only reason for this decision was that the direction the organizers and attendees wanted to go in was outside the purview of CFI Canada.”
As for whether feminist concerns are themselves considered outside their area of focus, he responded,
“Discussing feminism and women’s issues is by no means outside of CFI’s purview. Indeed, in the last 12 months CFI Vancouver has hosted lectures by Ophelia Benson, discussing the part religion plays in the suppression of women, and Jen McCreight, discussing the gender gap in the skeptical/atheist movement. We have also touched on these issues in our book club and our Cafe Inquiry discussion group. These issues are topical and important, and their discussion is always welcome. However, an initiative dedicated solely to feminist activism or advocacy is unfortunately not something that CFI Canada has the resources to organize. Neither does CFI Canada run initiatives which perform activism or advocacy independently.”
Of course, we are still stuck with some of the tricky questions about where we draw those lines. Other specialized initiatives run by CFI are still running along fine, and Reasonable Women was the only initiative to get the axe.
“I do not wish to speculate on what motivated CFI to make this decision, but since other programs that don’t necessarily fit within their area of focus have not been cancelled, it gives you food for thought. I hope that there are no elements beyond what [the official statement from CFI] provided, but again the abrupt nature of the ‘split’ might suggest otherwise.”
Other programs that continue to operate as CFI Vancouver initiatives include a Freethinker’s Book Club, Cafe Inquiry, one of Vancouver’s Skeptics in the Pub nights, and ongoing participation in a blood drive. A notable “smoking gun” in suspicions about the nature of CFI’s decision was the “Movember” drive, in which a team of various male volunteers and friends of CFI grow mustaches in support of prostate cancer research. It recently came to light, however, that Movember was never an officially sanctioned CFI project, and has since had their name disassociated from the team.
Perhaps it was not so much Reasonable Women’s nature as a women’s feminist organization that led to it being differentiated from other initiatives and cancelled as a CFI program, but rather simply the movement in the direction of an overt, autonomous activist agenda (regardless of the exact nature of that agenda). But still, other CFI programs could potentially be described as activist… for instance, their battle against an attempt to ban Gay-Straight Alliances in Catholic Schools, and work to address people’s concerns about WiFi and present the scientific evidence. Though these presumably didn’t operate autonomously, as in the direction Reasonable Women was heading (to be a CFI “affiliate” or “sub-group”), and were also likely proposed and approved exactly as what they ended up being.
One thing I strongly regret not getting a chance to delve into was from where the change in Reasonable Women’s direction came. It’s also still unclear why the threat of cancellation from CFI didn’t simply dissuade them from pursuing that direction, or whether or not that risk had ever become publicly known to its members. From an outside perspective, it largely seems like a big chain-reaction of snow-balling misunderstandings. A misunderstanding perhaps on CFI’s part that a skeptical women’s discussion group would have a strong feminist tilt, a misunderstanding on Reasonable Women’s part that the group had been approved as a social initiative rather than an advocacy / outreach initiative, a misunderstanding about the change in direction, a misunderstanding about what that would mean in terms of continued support from CFI, and numerous misunderstandings about the reasoning behind the cancellation.
I asked both parties about what effects this controversy may have on the dialogue in Vancouver about gender and diversity in the skeptical community.
“This particular issue is not a big deal by itself, but presented in a context of denying women/minorities a way to have meaningful discussion and participate in activism related to advancing gender equality within the skeptics’ movement is a big deal. I think that this became a very polarizing issue within CFI Vancouver’s membership base. My prediction would probably be that CFI Vancouver will need to review its policies to accommodate these kind of issues.”
“If anything I suspect it may improve dialogue. If Natalie and the other interested people are successful in starting their independent group (and I hope they are) that will mean there may be a group in Vancouver dedicated to working on these specific issues. I can’t see how that wouldn’t be a source of positive dialogue.”
Perhaps in both senses it can be positive thing? Although it has not by any means been a positive experience for anyone involved, at least it has raised awareness about the need, perhaps, for more transparency and clarity in CFI’s policies about new initiatives and what kinds of directions they’re able to go while being able to remain a part of CFI. Also, like the aforementioned controversy from July, it has gotten people talking about the issue of diversity in the skeptical community. And although Reasonable Women will now have to move forward as an independent organization, they’re still there, still committed to their purpose, and are still working on the effort of bringing women into the skeptical community and exploring the intersections between skepticism and feminism.
“I have a lot of great plans for Reasonable Women. I am hoping to organize a series of open lectures in winter/spring and a possible conference-like event in the summer. Both will deal with skepticism, feminism and the issues of sexism and discrimination in the movement, as well as other related topics. The participation in these is open to men and women who wish to get involved. Our short-term goals include holding monthly meetings and getting more people involved in participation, management and organization of the group.”
This has been a strange (and stressful) thing to delve into. This may well just be the cough medicine talking, but I feel it’s taught me a lot about the assumptions we can make about people’s motives in the absence of clear answers, and about the projections we slot into the gaps in a narrative. When the only reason stated why Reasonable Women had been cancelled as a CFI Initiative was a statement about it being vaguely outside of the area of focus and shifting in the direction of being an autonomous feminist advocacy group, while other similarly specialized programs were continuing unfettered, it was easy for me to draw the conclusion that those distinctions were arbitrary, and only made due to discomfort with feminism or the idea that women’s rights are inherently too “radical” an idea for CFI to be associated with. What a nice easy narrative that would have been. But as always, real life is subtle and infinitely complicated, and is not written with tidy plot arcs. The distinctions were complicated, and difficult to articulate, but not arbitrary. There is a difference between a space for feminist discussion and a group autonomously moving in the direction of specific feminist goals.
In truth, this seems to not be a story about sexism in the skeptical community, but a story about the fallibility of communication. The difficulties that come with volunteer organizations being comprised of many individuals with many individual ideals driving them to volunteer. How those ideals can clash. How goals will be misunderstood. How a proposal will mean one thing to one person and another to someone else. How nobly aiming for a democratic process of determining an organization’s direction can cause it to go down directions that were never intended. How small misunderstandings can be destructive for entire communities.
It may take some time for some of the emotions involved to calm and friendships to heal. But fortunately, nothing irreparable seems to have happened. Reasonable Women will continue to exist and to help bring women into the skeptical community and address their concerns. CFI Vancouver will move forward, perhaps with greater caution and attentiveness paid to issues of diversity and how to handle associated initiatives. All of us Vancouver skeptics have had yet another little jolt to our system to get us to think about our demographics, about how we can be more welcoming to people from underrepresented backgrounds, and about the issue of sexism in our movement that necessitated this group in the first place and contributed to the misunderstandings about its cancellation. And hopefully we’ve also gotten a lesson about clarity and the benefit of the doubt.
Reasonable Women has a Facebook page where any Vancouver-area skeptics interested in joining can learn about upcoming meetings and events. CFI Vancouver can be found at their webpage or contacted at [email protected]. CFI Canada can be contacted at [email protected]. Those interested in volunteering for CFI Vancouver can fill out a short volunteer application form.
Edit, 12:11 pm PDT, November 18th, 2011: Just wanted to clarify that Justin Trottier is no longer national executive director of CFI Canada. This position is now filled by Derek Pert.