One of the reasons I'm looking forward to the "Feminine Faces of Freethought" conference on Saturday is that for once, I'm (presumably) going to be sitting in a room with women who are happy to make common cause with other women. Ever since I organized a talk on feminism at my junior high school, when I was 13 years old, I've been happy to do that.

Some women--apparently a non-negligible number in the "freethought" community--don't affiliate with other women in that way. At a recent meeting, Harriet Hall wore a T-shirt that said, in part, "I'm a skeptic, not a skepchick, not a 'woman skeptic', just a skeptic." In a recent blog post, Sara Mayhew applauds her--
The message of Dr. Hall’s shirt resonates with me because it addresses the most important thing to me about feminism and equality; that you can’t make assumptions about my thoughts, feelings, and experiences based on my gender. I don’t consider myself part of a subset of skeptics because I’m a woman. What I want is to be viewed as a human individual. My experiences aren’t going to be the same as yours just because we share the same gender.
Mayhew's post drew a furious response from a few feminists. That's too bad, because the fury makes you want to rush to Mayhew's defense, as if her statement were completely innocent. Surely it isn't.

Imagine a gay man wearing a T-shirt that says "I am not a gay skeptic, just a skeptic" or one who writes the equivalent of Mayhew's paragraph:  "I don't consider myself part of a subset of skeptics because I'm gay. What I want is to be viewed as a human individual."   Gay people are in fact a disadvantaged minority.  Gay people do have a set of common problems. If you refuse to identify yourself as a member of that minority, you do a little to make that group, and their undeniable disdvantages, invisible. Sure, it's understandable to want to be viewed as a human individual, but if you live in a world where gay people are discriminated against, as a group, then there's good reason for gay people to make common cause with each other.

Same goes for a black skeptic (or black philosopher, or black lawyer ... or whatever) who insists "I don't consider myself part of a subset of skeptics because I'm black. What I want is to be viewed as a human individual."  Sure, you want that. It would be great for each of us to be viewed as a human individual, if nobody "saw" race, gender, sexual preference, disability, etc. But for the time being, black people are a disadvantaged subgroup.  Blacks who say "I am just a human individual" now are letting down other members of that group, since all benefit when the group advocates for itself collectively.

Just like blacks share problems and gay people do, of course women do as well. Obviously women, as women, don't have the very same experiences.   But it would make sense if we at least shared dismay that there's never been a female US president, that all of the four horsemen of new atheism are men, that women are more likely than men to be raped and sexually harassed, that women in some countries can't vote or move around freely. Beyond that, it would make sense to take an interest in finding solutions to these problems.  Being female and disassociating from other women is like being black and disassociating from blacks, or being gay and disassociating from gays--all three reveal a lack of solidarity, and solidarity (when you're in fact a member of a disadvantaged group) is a virtue.


julian said...

I'm pretty conflicted on this. Solidarity, and I realize this isn't what you're going for, seems almost like conscription. Because we share X we must both combat Y regardless of our experiences or life goals.

And I think that's part of the fear and rebelion we're seeing. People want their lives to be their own and "solidarity" can feel like an imposed obligation.

But of course it's no more that now than it was in the civil rights era. There are issues that disproportionately and unjustly affect minority groups like women. Like you say, showing solidarity against the injustices is a good. I'd add, as someone who used to be terrified of any kind of group conciousness, it does not erode who you are.

((Typing on phone. Hope that was readable and not totally all over the place.))

Michael Fisher said...

Obviously you are talking about Mayhew's blog post here, but going back one step...

Has Harriet Hall said anything about the message on her T-shirt? I get the impression she has said nothing since or during TAM ~ is that correct?

T-shirt front:- I feel safe and welcome at TAM [Smiley Face]
T-shirt back:- I'm a skeptic, not a "skepchick", not a "woman skeptic", just a skeptic

Jean Kazez said...

Julian, I don't think we all have to "combat Y". We are not all cut out of the same cloth. We are not all activists. But to actually stand up and say "I am not a member of that subset" is going much further than not being an activist.

Michael, Don't know if Harriet Hall has said anything. I wonder if what was running through her head, really, was just a desire to distance herself from a specific group of feminists. If so, fine. I think she made a mistake by expressing that by distancing herself from women as a group instead of from those people. I other words, I like "I am not a skepchick" better than "I am not a woman skeptic." The first is about a particular set of bloggers, the second about disassociating from women as a whole group.

Michael Fisher said...

@Jean ~ I suppose the same since she's no stranger to misogyny. Thus the "woman" part of her message was an error of judgement.

Quote from [Wiki] :- [In 2008 she published an autobiography focusing on her experiences as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force (she retired as a full Colonel). As a female physician, Air Force officer, pilot and flight surgeon she was a minority in several respects, and encountered prejudice. The title of the book refers to an incident after her first solo flight when an airport official told her, "Didn't anybody ever tell you women aren't supposed to fly?"]

Good luck at the conference next week ~ I look forward to your report

Craig Urias said...

If we strip away the context leading up to the T-shirt, I would agree 100%. However I interpreted the T-shirt to be opposing some negative behavior coming from the skepchicks and other skeptics. Dr. Hall assumed (rightly I think) that she was safe and welcome at TAM, and from that it follows that the frenzy over harassment was a negative thing. It appeared to be the result of online infighting that got out of hand, without sufficient grounding in the real world.

For example prior to TAM, a women skeptic (not part of skepchick) had been calling for DJ Grothe to be fired. While I don't know DJ personally, I have heard almost every podcast he has recorded, and he seems super-ultra-reasonable to me. There has to be a principle of charity in play, otherwise misunderstandings and misstatements turn into war. The call to fire Grothe emerged, I think, from a toxic online culture of premature demonization.

In general when I read that so-and-so was attacked, and I go back to see exactly what the attack was, I often find just another point of view being interpreted with undue malicious intent. Do you really think that a face-to-face conversation among reasonable parties would escalate to the point of one party calling for another to be fired?

Jean Kazez said...

Right, I have the feeling the T-shirt was really about certain bloggers, and she over-stated her point when she talked about not being a female skeptic. I'm with you on the issue of DJ--I wrote about that whole business a few months ago. I've also listened to most of his podcasts and see him as "super-ultra-reasonable" too. I find some of his actions puzzling (to be honest) but I'm prepared to apply a principle of charity for the most part. Yes, face-to-face would change a lot, and also an honest reckoning of what people really agree and disagree about. When all is said and done, I don't think there's a huge amount of disagreement.

Craig Urias said...

Yes, "woman skeptic" alone would be an over-statement, but my guess is that it refers to particular woman skeptics who are not part of skepchicks. The front of the T-shirt said, "I feel safe and welcome at TAM", which may be in reply to Greta Christina (not a skepchick) who said,

"I have no intention of going back to TAM because I don’t feel safe there. I don’t feel confident that D.J. Grothe takes threats of violence against public figures in this movement seriously: especially gender-based, sexualized threats of violence against female public figures."

This quote is representative of an undercurrent of craziness in the atheosphere that is very difficult to address without sounding privileged or misogynistic.

julian said...

Quick note, I can't think of a single woman skeptic who called for Grothe to be fired. I remember Laden suggesting it was time he resign but that's it.

Craig Urias said...

julian, I hope we aren't niggling about calling for resignation versus calling to be fired. I'll concede any point on wording. Zvan was calling for DJ's resignation. I haven't the interest to track down Christina's official stance, but her opinion seems clear from her words above: "I don’t feel confident that D.J. Grothe takes threats of violence against public figures in this movement seriously."

Marc Jagoe said...

I feel like your assertions leave out the personal feelings of the people in these minority groups you are citing. As a black person I feel like any member of my group and race has a right to live their lives as they see fit. They are under no obligation to acquiesce to group considerations or prevailing thought on any matter, be they political, social, or religious.

Of course, there is good reason to find some common cause with other people of the group you are assigned to by society, especially if you are a black person in America. I choose to do this when it makes sense for me as I have seen true racism in my life and recognize civil rights as an area where I should focus my energy, when the situation calls for it. I understand that another black person may not see things the way I do for any number of reasons. Perhaps they haven't had experiences similar to mine or their response to these experiences is not the same as mine and they have an ability to deal with racism in a different way. Whatever the case may be, that hypothetical person has a right to process information and lead their lives as they choose in a free society. I would say the same thing about women or gay people or any other historically disparaged group.

There are many black groups and black individuals that I choose not to associate with because I don't agree with their ideas, platforms, or methods. I have that right and I have the right to distinguish myself from them as an individual, especially if the larger culture of the institution in question (people of other races or ethnicities) is labeling me or defining me by the tenets of these groups that I rejected. This is precisely what I see happening here with these women that, for one reason or another, have gone against the women and feminist groups that are claiming to speak for the interests of all women.

Too often, people of good intentions in the majority group look at minorities as well, minorities instead of individuals. It happens all of the time to me and I presume other black people, as I'm sure many have come to understand as our society has become more integrated. More times than I can count I have had people who were not black come up to me and assume that I liked this or that or I felt a certain way about a social issue based on nothing than my skin color. This has become tiresome over the years but it's simply a fact of life that I have come to accept, but I do look forward to the day when it's not a factor. It would be nice to have a person of any racial group look at me and think that I may like and watch one of their favorite shows because I am a person with two functioning eyes and ears, for instance, and engage in a friendship that would not have happened because of preconceived notions about group identity that prevail, today.

I'm not advocating for a race-less, gender-less, sexual orientation-less society, as I know that's unreasonable. In the world we live in, all of these things are factors in the way people are treated in the workplace, by the government, and in general social interaction, so of course we have to be mindful of diversity in all of our considerations. However, as we move towards a more equitable and fair society I think it's both a moral and ethical imperative to consider the individuality of people of any group and respect their autonomy in thought and action.

julian said...

I had a pretty long reply to Marc Jagoe typed out (on this crap phone too!) but I'm not getting into that. Suffice it to say no one is required to enlist as reserve forces. No one. But, throwing others under the bus (barring some legitimate complaint) when they are combatting any oppressive issue is reprehensible.

Refine their position. Be critical. That is how a group grows and improves. Don't paint them as worse than what they are fighting. In very few cases will they be.

And that's all I trust myself to say before losing my mind.

SimonSays said...

The group solidarity (there's a word we don't hear enough in our circles!) aspect is indeed important Jean and thanks for bringing it up. Though obviously of the male group myself, I do recall witnessing the feeling you describe in full force at the Women in Secularism conference last May and from the feedback we saw online, I was not alone. I wish I could attend the Dallas conference but of course will be in my home town of DC next year on May 17-19 for Women in Secularism 2.

Torquil Macneil said...

I think what feminists like Mayhew and Hall are resisting is being co-opted on the basis of their sex by political formations that they don't agree with, not denying any legitimacy to group identity whatsoever. That strikes me as the most likely interpretation of their remarks given the context of an extremely toxic online row over specific issues real and perceived, and we should prefer to most generous interpretation I think.

It also illustrates yet again the danger of expressing your views on T-shirts/posters/billboards/placards and if I were a conference organiser I would forbid message-T-shirts to speakers from the platform without prior approval, but I don't think I would have considered that as part of any ant-harassment policy prior to these events.