Annie Laurie Gaylor is the Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) with Dan Barker. She has been part of the fight against the encroachment of religion on secular culture, and human and women’s rights for decades. Here we talk about secular women.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Who are some secular women in history who made important, but almost unknown to the wider public, contributions to secularism in the United States?
Annie Laurie Gaylor: Francis Wright was lionized by the early suffragists of the 19th century, placed in the frontispiece of the first volume of “The History of Woman Suffrage,” but is largely unremembered today.
She became the first woman to speak publicly to men and women in what were known as “promiscuous assemblies” from the podium in the United States, the first to speak publicly to advocate women’s equality and certainly the first to question the utility of religion and denounce the power of the clergy.
She was a pioneering antislavery activist, social reformer, early advocate of free public schools and editor of the “Free Enquirer.” She knew Jeremy Bentham, won praise from Thomas Jefferson and became the confidante of General Lafayette.
To the US press and clergy, she was vilified as “The Red Harlot of Infidelity,” a “bold blamer and voluptuous preacher of licentiousness.” She entreated believers to “turn their churches into halls of science.”
Another path-blazer largely unknown today but in her day as well known as Gloria Steinem was Ernestine L. Rose, born in Poland, the daughter of an orthodox rabbi who successfully fought for her own property rights when he tried to marry her off at 16 to a much older man using her inheritance from her mother as a dowry.
She wound up in the United States in 1836, just in time to become a booster of the Married Woman’s Property Act, introduced in the state of New York by a freethinking judge who had no support until Ernestine showed up. She went door to door asking women to sign a petition for their property rights and in five months’ time had only garnered five signatures.
But she didn’t give up, other women joined her, and in 1848, the first Married Woman’s Property Act was passed in New York, a small step for New York women, but a large step for womankind.
She went on to visit 23 states seeding similar legislation, and also openly espousing atheism. She was much admired in freethought circles and spent most of her life seeking to help women and overcome religion.
Jacobsen: What books would you recommend on the subject of secular women? How have women simply been the backbone of religious communities and, potentially, secular ones too? But they have been denied core decision-making positions or prominent public intellectual status?
Gaylor: I edited the first anthology of women freethinkers, “Women Without Superstition: No Gods — No Masters, The Collected Writings of Women Freethinkers of the 19th and 20th Centuries,” published by FFRF and available from FFRF.
It does need updating for the 21st century. I recommend Eleanor Flexner’s “A Century of Struggle” (about the early feminist movement but including many secular activists), “From Housewife to Heretic” by Sonia Johnson and “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Women have played a disproportionate role in the secular movement in part because we have the most to gain (and to lose) when religion controls government. Historically many women have started and led or are leading secular and freethought groups all around the world.
Since “Women Without Superstition” came out, Yuri Suhl has researched and written a new biography on Ernestine L. Rose, called “Ernestine L. Rose: Women’s Rights Pioneer.”
Matilda Joslyn Gage is another overlooked early feminist pioneer, who comprised what was called the “triumvirate” of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Together they edited the first volumes of the “History of Woman Suffrage” and she wrote the ground-breaking “Woman, Church & State” (still in print in 1893). A new bio out on her is “Born Criminal: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Radical Suffragist” by Angelica Shirley Carpenter.
Karen Garst has written or edited two books, “Woman v. Religion” and “Women Beyond Belief.” Candace Gorham has written “The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion— and Others Should Too.”
Jacobsen: How can the secular community continue to improve the representation and presentation of secular women to the public, and secular women of color?
Gaylor: Keep inviting them to speak at conferences and contribute writings to journals.
The early American suffragists were typically embraced by the freethinking community. E.C. Stanton was a revered figure published in most of the major secular journals, for example.
This led Susan H. Wixon, a respected freethought writer in the late 19th century, to say that “Freethought has always been the best friend woman had” in a major speech.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation would not exist today were it not for the intersection of the interests of women with the proponents of secular government.
My mother and I co-founded FFRF after my mother’s work as an early abortion rights and contraceptive rights advocate (with me trailing around as a middle-schooler) in the late 1960s.
We both became aware that the only organized enemy of women’s rights, particularly reproductive rights, was religion, and realized women could not be free unless government is free from religion.
Today surveys of our membership (now over 31,000) reveal that of all the other major social controversies, the support for abortion rights is uppermost.
So while our membership is male-dominated (as is true for the secular movement in general), these members support the most controversial of women’s rights. We continue to advocate for reproductive rights, along with LGBTQ rights, as an integral part of the movement.
So the short answer, in summary, for how secular groups can continue to attract women is for us to continue to advocate for the rights of women to be free from religious dogma in government.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Annie Laurie.
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: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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