Interview with Margaret Downey – Founder & President, Freethought Society

by | February 11, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Margaret Downey is the Founder and President of the Freethought Society. Here we talk about her background, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Margaret Downey: I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I lived there from 1950 until 1957. During that time, my half-sister, who is a person of color came to live with us. Louisiana was (and still is) one of the most prejudicial locations in the South. I witnessed at a very early age, the horrible way my half-sister was treated due to the color of her skin. My mother was a light-skin Puerto Rican, but, she too was terribly mistreated by strangers and by my father’s family. She fled to Miami, Florida after sending for several of her Puerto Rican half-sisters to help her restart her life – which now included a total of three little girls. We had a tough life, but everyone worked hard – including me and my sisters. I learned to sew for money and I cleaned houses starting at age 10. I’ve been a hard worker ever since. Because of the hatred and prejudices I observed as a young person, I’ve devoted my life to ending discrimination at all levels.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Downey: Just like all my sisters, I became pregnant at age 17. There was never any hope for a college education. We lived paycheck to paycheck. Marriage was my only future. My first marriage ended in divorce when I was 21. I married my current husband five years later. I met my second husband at work. I had obtained a high level of employment because of my work ethic, but I was continually “in trouble” for demanding equality for women (pay, promotional opportunities, and even fairness in dress code standards). I began taking night classes after my son was born in the hope of getting a college degree. My husband began getting promoted which lead to us moving often. I stopped and started an interior design business five times as the moves took place. In 1992, I began attending The Humanist Institute in New York City. It was a three year program, but I became ill after 2 ½ years and could not complete the course. I can finish this course at any time, but the responsibilities of running the Freethought Society is overwhelming.

Jacobsen: As the Founder and President of the Freethought Society, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position? What was the original impetus to create the Freethought Society?

Downey: When the Boy Scouts of America rejected my 12-year-old son’s relocation application (from New Jersey to Illinois, to Pennsylvania), I filed a discrimination lawsuit against them through the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. During the nine-year investigation of facts, I appeared on television and conducted many radio interviews. This drew people to me and I realized that there was a need for a group such as The Freethought Society. I founded the group in 1993 with only 35 people helping me with initial donations. Now, we can boast about having over 8,000 supporters nationwide and some money in the bank. The Freethought Society requires a lot of work to publish an ezine/newsletter, pay bills, maintain accounting records, organize and implement events and conduct meetings.

Jacobsen: What have been its major developments over the years in the advancement of freethought?

Downey: We have educated the public and have enlightened many about freedom of thought, science appreciation, and secular history. We are known for doing this via our publication and hosting speakers, as well as conducting theatrical presentations, theme parties, and school assemblies. A better acceptance of nontheism has been observed over the last 25 years.

Jacobsen: Aside from yourself, who have been the integral women for the freethought communities and movements? What are some pivotal texts of theirs?

Downey: Other woman doing the similar work as I include Annie Laurie Gaylor (Freedom From Religion Foundation), Robyn Blumner (Center for Inquiry), Mandisa Lateefah Thomas (Black Nonbelievers), Noel George (Foundation Beyond Belief), and Samantha McGuire (Washington Area Secular Humanists).

Jacobsen: As we move further into 2019 with the Trump Administration, we see women’s rights as very low on the agenda. What are the going to be the difficulties for the freethought community in 2019? How can we work to fight these and other regressive forces?

Downey: There are many efforts by legislators to impose bible-based laws on American citizens. We see the wall between religion and government crumpling away. Finding willing plaintiffs to object to these laws and resolutions is a difficult endeavor. We object in any way we can. The Boy Scouts of America continues to discriminate against our children and male legislators, in particular, are trying to take away a woman’s right to choose.

Jacobsen: Of those against the freethinking, we can also note the even worse negativity and tone against freethinking women. Why is this the case? How can this be changed into the future? How can freethinking men help with combatting the rather obvious sexism and prejudice more strongly hurled at freethinking women from those opposed to freethought?

Downey: Since money is not readily available to the nontheist community (we don’t promote tithing, after all), many male leaders are just trying to protect their territory. If nontheist women had more monetary resources, we could prove that we CAN run organizations just as well as a man! Society has not caught up with us, even in the freethought world. Men are still more thought of as the best leaders and as the “movers” and “shakers.” That is simply the wrong attitude for our community and our donors. Women must be given better opportunities. The nontheist male leaders who are sexist are being found out and dealt with, but some are too powerful and well-funded to be exposed for who they really are. It’s getting better, but female leaders must be more valued, financially supported and given opportunities. There is also a lot of territorial jealousy that gets in the way of progress.

Jacobsen: What are some core books and articles, and intellectuals, to pay more attention to now?

Downey: The Freethought Society crated The Tree of Knowledge in 2007. Each year we add new ornaments (book covers) designed to promote new authors.See this link for details about this project:

Jacobsen: How can people become involved with the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Downey: We have a solid core group of about 8 people who donate their time to our publication. Another 3 folks take care of the website and IT needs. We have about 15 volunteers who get involved with events. 4 – 5 volunteers can be counted upon for meetings. Our board of directors have 12 volunteers. There are very few on the team that can be counted upon for media interviews. We find that only about four people can be trusted with a professional appearance and for the delivery of quality sound bites and talking points.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Margaret.

Downey: Thank you.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by David Brooke Martin on Unsplash

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