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This is a guest post by frequent commenter Claudia.

Often the circumstances that surround an event tell us more than the event itself. We all know the stories of the manger scenes around the holidays: City puts up a manger scene on public property, secular group reminds city of the existence of the “Constitution” (and “lawsuits”), city takes down manger scene, and the atheist community is flooded with vitriol and hatred by religious people.

In these situations, it’s not just the presence of the manger scene that’s a problem, but also the over-the-top backlash against its removal.

It has happened again, this time within our community. I’m sure most of you are aware of Femalegate by now. The situation: There’s a discussion and the subject of inclusion of woman in the movement comes up. The panel has 5 men and 1 woman. In the audience, men outnumber women two to one. The complaint that women are hit on too much at meet-ups is met with comments about it being “biological” (which can be easily read as, “So suck it up”). Eventually one woman, feeling belittled and passed over in favor of men in the audience, calls the panel out for the use of terminology. In return, she gets jeers and a sarcastic joke.

From here, the situation could have gone in various directions. As a community that prides ourselves on intellectual honesty and the ability to recognize (and even celebrate) nuance, we could have:

  • Had a conversation about how panel discussions on delicate topics should and should not be handled.
  • Discuss how a broad context of many different factors can contribute to making a minority feel unwelcome.
  • Recognize the importance of the original subject and start over brainstorming the kinds of concrete steps that can be taken to make the movement more welcoming to women.

All of these would have been mature, complex, yet worthwhile ways to take the conversation.

We chose none of these.

Instead we decided to spend the better part of a week debating whether the word “female” is offensive (though, to be fair, the guest posters themselves attempted, but failed, to take the debate elsewhere).

Virtually no attention was paid to the broader context. Most comments trying to explain how context matters were totally disregarded in favor of saying “female isn’t offensive!”

You know what can make you feel unwelcome? That when you try to explain why you find something unwelcoming, you are told (in no uncertain terms) that you don’t have the right to feel that way, you’re being oversensitive, or you have to get over yourself. There seem to be a lot of people who say they want to hear from women in regards to how inclusiveness could be improved, but they are absolutely unwilling to admit that they could possibly be doing anything wrong.

“How can we make the movement more inclusive to women?”

Well, I think it would be nice if people said X less often.

Y bothers me when I go to events.

Oh c’mon, do we have to police all our words now? I get called Z all the time and I don’t go bawling to the bathroom to whine! And besides, Y isn’t that bad; lots of women like it!

I don’t think the word “female” is offensive in the slightest. It can be used offensively, but so any other term. However, the reaction to the original complaint, where the objections of women have been delegitimized, ridiculed and denied any kind of context, has been a hell of an eye-opener. I always thought that the freethought community was largely welcoming and that issues of gender disparity would correct themselves over time. I’m no longer so sure about that.

In closing I’d like to ask anyone reading (female and male) to ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Do you believe that there is a gender disparity in the movement and that this is a problem that should be corrected?
  2. Do you believe there’s a possibility that there are aspects of the movement itself that could make women feel like they are not as welcome as men?
  3. Do you think that the opinions of women in deciding how to get more of them into the community are valuable?
  4. Are you willing to refrain from treating any objections you hear as challenges that must be defeated at all costs? (Note that this does not mean you have to agree with all objections, only that you do not view the objector as an enemy who must be defeated.)

If the answers to these questions are “no,” then any conversation is futile, since you either don’t think there is a problem or you are unwilling to let your guard down long enough to solve it.

If the answers are “yes,” then I’d be overjoyed to hear your thoughts on the issues.

I’ll even let you call me missy.