All religions thus far have taught the headship and superiority of man, [and] the inferiority and subordination of woman. Whatever new dignity, honor, and self-respect the changing theologies may have brought to man, they have all alike brought to woman but another form of humiliation.” – Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Had Christianity Benefited Women?”
National Atheist Day falls this Sunday, and while surely many posts and articles covering the celebration will focus on current policy issues facing the secular community (religious exceptions to the Affordable Healthcare Act, anyone?), here at Half-Way to a Mid-Life Crisis, we’ll be taking a historical (and, of course, feminist) approach.
Yes, ‘atheist feminism’ has its own Wikipedia entry . . . and while this immortalizes the concept in the hallowed halls of internet infamy, when was the last time you read about Ernestine Rose’s British atheist organization, Association of All Classes of All Nations or Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible?
So, this April 1st, we’re remembering the women who dared to suggest the unthinkable: that organized religion was inherently corrupt because it systematically oppressed women.
Ernestine Rose, born in Poland in 1810, was the first known feminist-atheist hybrid. Raised by a rabbi father, and betrothed without her consent at age sixteen, Rose circumvented the Jewish courts (where her father, as the local rabbi, would have ruled on the matter) to argue her case in secular court, where she pled her own case and won a dissolution of the engagement. At nineteen, Rose emigrated to England, and spent the rest of her life in England and America lecturing (sometimes drawing crowds in the thousands), petitioning, and organizing for women’s rights – even being controversially appointed as president of the National Women’s Rights Convention at Philadelphia (with the support of Susan B. Anthony who defended Rose’s atheism as a valid religious choice).
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a more recognizable figure for American audiences by virtue of her key place in the American women’s suffrage movement, was indeed eventually ostracized from the movement in her later years for her vehement anti-religious stance – the NAWSA’s Corresponding Secretary Rachel Foster Avery’s resolution officially separating the organization and its goal of suffrage from The Woman’s Bible was the subject of fierce debate, but ultimately approved. Although there is no definitive prove that Stanton was an atheist per se, her clear distaste for the organizations and texts of the major religions put her at odds not only with a suffrage movement increasingly supported by religious women, but with one that became narrower in its goals of “women’s suffrage and nothing else,” as NAWSA delegate Laura Clay would summarize it.
Today’s feminists, in an environment of globalism, have begun deconstructing non-Western religions’ place at the table. Due to a recent American focus on the Middle East, most of us know what women’s issues have been brought to light vis-à-vis Islamic fundamentalism. But how many of us know that one of Taoism’s goals for women is the end of menstruation? And that all Zoroastrian priests are required to be male (corresponding to a male god)? It seems that neither Judeo-Christianity nor Islam have a monopoly on the way in which their practice holds the possibility for severe and systematic abuse of women’s rights.
Now, this is of course, not to say that a woman must either be an atheist or a masochist. While atheist feminism requires a strict rejection of religion – an entity it considers innately oppressive to women – in a post-modern culture, where analysis is not only allowed, but often encouraged, feminist branches of major religious groups (Christian, Jewish, Islamic) have sprung up in response to the traditional, masculine interpretation of sacred texts. What is required is a constant vigilance on how our belief systems are constructed and why. Even for non-atheists, the kinds of conversations that are taking place in that community (like on the podcast Godless Bitches) can help keep us on our toes.