Judy Saint is the President of the Greater Sacramento Chapter of Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Here we talk about her views on secular progress, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What have been the major progressions and regressions for women in secular communities? As the Founder and President of the Sacramento Chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, what were the difficulties and dynamics for the construction of a chapter and a community in the Sacramento area? Following the previous question, have those difficulties and dynamics changed over time? Or are they the same? Does treatment as a woman leader differ than if a man leader in secular communities? If so, and if from experience, how, and why? There is more discussion about the inclusion of more women within the secular communities. Whether leadership or membership, what seem like positive ways to include more women in secular communities? What seem like negative ways in which to have more women in secular communities.
Judy Saint: The notion that women are underrepresented in the secular community and leadership is not entirely correct. It’s a question of roles and visibility, not absence.
While too few women speak at secular events, or write hard hitting nonfiction about atheism, or appear in media, debates or other visible venues, if you examine all minorities or subjugated groups you will find it’s not just women, and not just the secular movement. The problem is that this culture honors and respects primarily “old, white men”, as has been noted for some time. Look at any counter-culture venue, whether a live stage, on TV or anywhere, and you will see the same problem with all of them. Women and minorities are simply not nearly as visible. So, looking for answers to why women are underrepresented could lead you down blind alleys until you ask why they and other groups are underrepresented in all visible, influential positions as defined by old, white men.
I have something to say about that.
Let’s examine first how women differ from men in regards to social participation and leadership. I learned long ago when earning my teaching credential that boys compete and girls cooperate. I was told this hoping I could adjust my teaching (mathematics, but don’t hold that against me), so that boys and girls could be given different learning, testing and classroom opportunities, best to suit their natural inclinations. That lesson has explained so much more in life than just the classroom. Boys compete, girls cooperate. Keep that in mind, or as Rachel says, put a pin in that. We’ll come back to it, but first two flashback scenes.
Here we are at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Our administration requires a massive education and outcry before it will begin addressing why so many gay men and others are dying. This is an emergency. We know in retrospect that this required bloody activism in the streets. It was dire. … What did women do? (Many of you are old enough and woke enough KNOW the answer.) Women were present in this cause in more than equal numbers, but they weren’t giving speeches, leading audiences to shout, or throwing cream pies in Anita Bryant’s deserving face. They, and I mean thousands of them, were in it up to their elbows doing work more befitting a person skilled at cooperative support rather than competitive bluster. Women were handling office phones, calling senators, asking for donations, getting permits, opening clinics, nursing until the last breaths, providing game-changing logistical and basic support for the dying men and the cause. Women know how to cooperate to get things done, taking support as well as leadership roles. I hesitate to call it “women’s work”, though that in itself is fine, but the associated stigma of those positions, mainly by males who deem their face-smashing as more important, have convinced our culture that such positions are “lesser”. They’re not. They’re just not as visible or competitive.
A second example, if you will. How did women ever break into the male dominated television news anchor positions? I remember it well. Every night we watched male news journalists. All male. Then one woman somehow earned her chops, rose to serious anchor and journalistic stardom with all the serious respect men held. How did she do it? By not smiling. Look back to the 60s, for example, at any panel on TV as the panelists are introduced. All the women smiled, the men did not. Same on any serious show. It turns out that Barbara Walters has an inability to form her mouth certain ways (like pronouncing R, for example) and could not smile. She didn’t know it would propel her, and it was not intentional, but she shot straight up to a man’s seat at the table, with all attendant respect. It gave her stature, and allowed her to enter the competitive dominant male position. The women were there, just not allowed at the table if they smiled like women.
Thankfully, women, and men, are waking up that the floor is for women, too. Awareness of female ability is on the rise. Laws, too, are trending toward mandated equality as the public demands it. Women are entering male dominated arenas and, more important, finding new arenas. Let me explain.
Opportunity for more ways to be involved is expanding. It’s no longer a dichotomy between a man promoting a book on TV or a woman having a bake sale. The whole world of possibilities between these two is opening up. For example, the importance of local reporting of separation of church and state violations, creating new popular social media sites, testing political waters by running for office, creating newsletters or publishing opinion pieces in local papers are examples along the spectrum between winning competitive TV foothold and bake sales. Women are broadening (no pun intended) their understanding of what they are “allowed” to consider. Allowed by social norm, I mean. Doors are opening, or being pushed open, and diversity is marching through them, testing a new culture developing before our eyes. When someone says women are not participating or leading, they might not be aware of where the women actually are.
As for my experience as a woman in leadership – we’re talking over six decades of leadership here – my record is unusual. I have been called kickass and other words implying not all women are like this. I have published engineering textbooks with McGraw Hill, ridden solo across the country on my motorcycle, flown across the country in a light airplane, taught black belt martial arts, produced a community-wide secular newsletter for our seventeen local freethought groups, founded our Chapter of FFRF, established a speaker series pulling together our California secular organizations, became Visibility Coordinator for AHA’s Day of Reason, wrote a private postsecondary course establishing 13 locations in California, helped establish the first freethought class in our local juvenile hall, and more. I’ll accept kickass, but why is it unusual?
Growing up with four brothers, I have enough aggressive edge in me to just go get things done. I do not wear makeup and I dress comfortably. I worry about how I will solve the roadblocks, not where I am expected to sit. Sure, men at times were cruel, but I’m not one to care. I will add, people receive less guff when they know where they’re going and have a striking professionalism. (Men can get away with one or the other, but women need both.) As my nephew said once when he heard someone challenge me, “Uh oh, you don’t mess with Aunt Judy”. I know where I’m going. As women see more role models like this more will know they can be both capable and a woman at the same time, too. More will find their take-no-guff vision for getting things done. More will learn to ignore the irrelevant comments.
Bill Gates, addressing a male audience in a foreign land, said keeping women down eliminates half the solutions and progress possible for their country. As for women participating in the secular movement, look for a wider change coming, as more role models accept the opportunities and challenges of finding a new way of getting the job done. Look, too, for new awareness of all roles, not just the roles old, white men count as visible. Women are here. Women have always been hard at work. Maybe it’s men who just don’t see them. That will change as more women step forward and our definition of participation and leadership change to include what women do.
I suggest we change the question from “Where are the women and minorities” to “How are we defining effective leadership”.
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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Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.
Image Credit: Judy Saint.