As Some Dismiss Feminism In The Atheist Movement, They Fail To Know Their History

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image of American Atheist founder Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Before Richard Dawkins, Madalyn Murray O’Hair was THE public face of Atheism

As much as I get frustrated about the unnecessary backlash against atheist feminists, it makes me even more upset to see some well meaning opponents of feminism in the movement who fail to learn from history. Tom Flynn, the editor of Free Inquiry and the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, points out the work of women on the front lines in the struggle of freethought in the last 40 years of the 20th century. Women have led the major atheist groups from the 1960’s to the present.

From a legal perspective, Abingdon v. Schempp was the more important case. But where the Schempp family sought to avoid media attention, Madalyn Murray lusted after it. In short order, most Americans came to think that Murray had torn Bible reading out of public schools single-handedly. In 1963, the nation had no active national atheist organization; Murray founded what would become American Atheists. In 1964, Life magazine dubbed her “the most hated woman in America.” In 1965, she married Richard O’Hair. Madalyn Murray O’Hair became a household name—the new face of American atheism.

For the cause of unbelief, this was a decidedly mixed blessing. O’Hair had wrestled atheism back into the national consciousness, but she was mercurial, vulgar, and abrasive. She helped to cement popular stereotypes of atheists as pushy and intolerant. Still, for more than three decades the most prominent atheist leader in America—quite literally, the only atheist most Americans of the time could name—was O’Hair. No atheist played a more prominent role for a longer period than she did.

During many of those years, America’s next-most prominent atheist leader was also a woman. In the late sixties, Madison, Wisconsin, atheist Anne Nicol Gaylor began to campaign for abortion rights. In the seventies, she launched first a referral service, then an organized charity that helped thousands of women obtain abortions. She was O’Hair’s right hand until they had a falling-out (the usual fate of O’Hair lieutenants). In 1976, Gaylor founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). In marked contrast to O’Hair, Gaylor was calm and professional in demeanor, though her views were little less radical than O’Hair’s.

Until 1991, when a coalition of former American Atheists local groups organized as the Atheist Alliance, American Atheists and FFRF were the only national organizations devoted explicitly to atheism, and both were woman-led. To put it another way, for more than a quarter of that far-off, misty twentieth century, all the top atheist leadership in the United States was female.

Yes, Virginia, There Was a Twentieth Century – Free Inquiry April/May 2013

Flynn also mentions that the Atheist Alliance was led by Marie Castle for several years, Ellen Johnson led American Atheists after Madalyn Murray O’Hair disappeared, and Annie Laurie Gaylor now runs FFRF. All these women were feminists and atheists.

I chuckle when I imagine the atheists complaining about feminism whining about being censored or being persecuted for “questioning everything” if Madalyn Murray O’Hair was still alive. She didn’t suffer any fools and was known to kick people out of American Atheists just for disagreeing with her.

Atheists who oppose feminism in the secular movement who say things like “I fail to see how refusing to believe in God leads to the ‘logical conclusion’ of abandoning the belief that women exist to serve men” to justify their bigotry show their ignorance of their own history.

That’s why people who say those things and create the divisive environment in the atheist movement need to be dismissed. Their views aren’t worth listening to since they start from ignorance with an infection of old crusty cultural indoctrination.


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