It hadn’t occurred to me, seven or so years ago when I started the website Skepchick.org, that misogyny might exist independently of religion. Most of the antiwoman rhetoric that I read or experienced came by way of holy books—“wives, submit to your own husband as you do to the Lord” and so on.
I assumed that misogyny was forever tied to religion and that shaking off one meant also dropping the other. Atheists like me, I figured, were all progressives. We had no need for an internal debate on the worth of women or on the intrinsic value of diversity. We were a group of highly evolved, forward-thinking, mostly older white male critical thinkers.
My first realization that something was amiss was when I started getting reports from women saying that they wanted to get involved in their local skeptic or atheist group, but they felt very uncomfortable being the only woman at the pub meeting. I didn’t get it. At the age of twenty-five, I had never had a problem with all-male gatherings. I was loud, I cursed like a carny, and I had no trouble telling someone exactly what I thought.
Still, I didn’t discount these women’s experiences just because they differed from my own. I listened as they told me about awkward encounters, turning down several men’s advances and then having to see and interact with or avoid all those men at the next event. I heard about unwanted touching. Sexist jokes. Rape jokes. Being interrupted, dismissed, talked over, or “complimented” on appearance.
With that in mind, when I started Boston Skeptics, I made a concerted effort to make women feel safe and comfortable by calling out sexist behavior when it happened and personally welcoming newcomers. The team that ended up helping me with events comprised mostly women. When we heard about a lot of husbands coming to Skeptics in the Pub without their wives because they were home with the kids, we started other events that took place in kid-friendly environments like museums and parks.
Considering that all these efforts were met with positive reactions from a rapidly growing group of skeptics, I still didn’t think of misogyny as an actual problem for our community. I thought of sexist behavior as something that, once identified, would quickly be corrected by both the community and the person who was (most likely) unknowingly committing the faux pas.
Eventually, though, I started dealing with more and more sexist behavior that specifically targeted me. More strange men touching me without my consent at events. More strange men explicitly inviting me to have sex with them. More men writing letters to my male podcast cohosts asking them to fire me for being shrill or hysterical or unfunny or a “feminazi.” More men commenting to me about my appearance, about how I should dress more sexily or take sexier headshots.
I was finally feeling what many women had already experienced in our community—it just took a lot more of the same behavior to get to me.
When I finally, politely, publicly asked that this kind of behavior please stop, the floodgates of hate opened, and I realized that I hadn’t been dealing with one-off mistakes. I was dealing with open hostility toward women from men (and some women) who delighted in calling me a cunt, a bitch, a twat. People who told me that asking men to be considerate of the women in our movement was akin to outlawing sex and flirting and fun. People who launched all-out campaigns to bully me, starting entire blogs about me, trying (and failing) to make insulting memes out of my photos, threatening to rape me, threatening to kill me, telling me I’m worthless and deserve to be raped and killed. These weren’t fourteen-year-olds in their moms’ basements— these were actual adults, which I know because many of them were unafraid to use their real names.
I once thought that feminism was integral to nontheism because of the overlap in goals when it came to fighting religious-based misogyny. But as I said on stage during the “Women in Secularism” conference, I learned that religion didn’t create misogyny—it merely codified and sanctified it. Those who have given up organized religion can still cling to patriarchy—and do so with religious conviction.
Now I know that feminism is integral to nontheism because in order to criticize religious-based misogyny, we have to be rid of our own misogyny. Richard Dawkins is right to criticize female genital mutilation (though wrong when he categorizes it as a “Muslim” practice), but why should anyone listen when he uses FGM as a convenient way to dismiss the concerns of women who want to attend atheist events without being sexually harassed? Attendees of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne were right to ask the all-male Muslim protesters where the Muslim women were. Alas, their point was lost as it was being shouted by a large majority of white men, one day after they laughed along with Jim Jeffries joking about punching women and sawing off their breasts.
Right now, the religious Right in the United States is fighting a War on Women. They are attempting to institute religious doctrine into law, in order to prevent women from accessing reproductive health-care and education. Atheists, skeptics, humanists, and secularists should be fighting this legislation at every level. There are many women who are beginning to realize that their religious leaders don’t have their best interests in mind. As these women begin leaving their religions, wouldn’t it be great if there were a secular community they could turn to where they could be free of misogyny? A community where women are heard and respected? Where their stories are validated? Where community leaders don’t denigrate them? Where they are seen as people with ideas and opinions, and not as merely body parts?
We can build that community, but we’re not there yet.
Rebecca Watson is the founder of the Skepchick Network, which is composed of blogs focused on science, skepticism, and secularism. She cohosts the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast.