Female Atheists

So there's a lot of talk about this panel discussion (at the recent American Atheists meet-up in Huntsville, Alabama) at atheist blogs. [Hmm--the video has now been covered up with a complaint-retraction.  Too bad--why not let people watch and make up their own minds?!] As near as I can tell, the discussion started here and now it continues here.

Were the goings on unpardonably sexist?  To begin with, this wasn't a panel of five men and one woman specifically set up to discuss the under-representation of women in the atheist movement.  That would certainly have been ridiculous. It was an "attendees choice" panel designed to respond to attendees questions, whatever they might be.  The second question was about under-representation.

The video (see first link) doesn't, to my mind, reveal men behaving badly. It actually just reveals that a regional atheist meeting is run by "just folks."  Whereas academic, urban types consistently say "men and women," these people say "guys and girls" or (mostly) "males and females." Good heavens, I bet they don't read the New York Times either!  When an audience member gets up and complains about the term "female," the panelists aren't quick enough to point out that they've consistently paired that term with "male." No harm, no foul.

A panelist makes a klutzy joke about calling women "the fairer weaker sex," which reveals that the humor in Alabama isn't quite up to my standards. [4:45 pm:  OK, with that change it's more obnoxious.]

As to the one woman on the panel being drowned out.  I really don't see that.  She's given a chance to speak, but doesn't use it well.  She doesn't seem to have much to say or maybe she's just not a confident public speaker.  It doesn't look to me as if she's bullied or interrupted.

So--I see no special problem with the session, but what about this issue of women being under-represented in the atheist movement?   I know lots of women who don't believe in God, but can't imagine any of them going to an atheist meeting.  Why not?  I think the belief is just not important to them. It's not central to their lives, doesn't define who they are.  They affiliate based on other interests--in culture, politics, books, and (drum roll) being Jewish.  But not based on thinking there ain't no deity.  That's a big "who cares?"

To get them to go to atheist meetings, you'd have to get them to care more.  But would it be good for them to care more?  Would they be better off, or would the meetings just be more gender balanced?  Hard question!

I'm a little different.  Being an atheist is not central to my life and doesn't define who I am.  If I want to make the world a better place, I'm going to choose a different focus.  But I like ideas, philosophy, debate.  For "public intellectuals," atheism is one of the lively subjects of the day.  I'm attracted to corners of the internet where atheism is discussed, and likewise I'd be attracted to real world venues.   Plus, I teach classes where atheism comes up, and both of my books have a connection to the topic. Plus, I've written a few articles for Free Inquiry and written a fair amount about atheism at this blog.

So:  "Pick me, pick me!"  I'd be happy to speak at an atheist meeting--about religion and the good life; or about animal rights and atheism; or (fun, fun, fun) about accommodationism.  Conference organizers could increase the number of female speakers if they put their minds to it.


J. J. Ramsey said...

IIRC, the joke reply used the phrase "weaker sex," not "fairer sex." Also, the jokey nature of the response came off as dismissive, as if the one responding had been (probably unconsciously) falling back on the sexist scripts of his surrounding culture.

Jean Kazez said...

Now that I think of it, I'm pretty sure you're right--and that makes a difference.

Eric Dutton said...

That's really disappointing that the video is covered up. They also excerpted the apology to make it sound like a retraction rather than a clarification.

It should be pointed out that the word female is already a touchy word in some circles of feminism; so this isn't just one audience member's pet peeve.
But whether the use of the work female sounds like a silly complaint or not, the reaction of the panel (or at least a vocal portion of the panel) was a perfect example of common sexism: a woman raises an issue about sexism and is immediately dismissed in a snarky, eye-rolling manner.
I did watch the video before it was squirreled away and I did find the use of the word "female" a little awkward, and it was rarely paired with the word "male." I wish I could watch it again so I could quote it.
This isn't an issue of local color; it's an issue of your basic, garden-variety, unconscious sexism. I think it's a very real problem and I'm glad to see that some atheists are tying not to let is sneak by undetected.

Eric Dutton said...

For reasons that would be very, very boring to explain, I didn't see the previous comments before I posted mine. I made a point very similar to J.J.'s, which makes it look like I'm piling on. That wasn't my intention.
Also, the last sentence of my first comment isn't meant to be read as "SOME atheists" with an implied sneer. (Maybe I'm over-thinking this.)

Jean Kazez said...

Yeah, it's too bad the video was covered up. When I watched, I did notice that panelists were consistent. The ones that said "female" also said "male." The one who said "girl" also said "guy." The woman who objected really did say something silly--she said calling women "female" was treating them like livestock (I think that was the term). She had failed to notice that "male" was being used too. So all humans were being treated like livestock, if any were.

The women said something silly, but OK--I'll buy that politeness is a virtue. If the panelists had had their wits about them, they could have responded quickly and politely, and moved on.

Eric Dutton said...

I think this is more than general impoliteness; it's sexism. What J.J. said about falling back on sexist scripts is dead-on.
It's worth asking why they didn't have their wits about them when they had just been taking about the problem of an under-representation of women in the atheist movement. It's an absurd way to respond, and it reveals more than impoliteness.

Eric Dutton said...

The video can be seen here:

I watched it again. Even if you listen to each panelist individually, there isn't much consistency. There were even some strange pairings (women and guys, and men and females) in single sentences. But the most commonly used term was female.
Now, I don't bristle at that word the way some do, but I don't think it's appropriate to quickly and confidently pronounce this concern "silly" and move on. No, it's not like the "n" word, but it is like the words "colored," "black," and "African." Using the "wrong" term is excusable, but being so quickly dismissive of someone who tells you you're doing so speaks to more than a lack wits.