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Before I went on vacation last month, you may recall how I tangled with a mob of nasty sexists who misleadingly call themselves “men’s rights activists”. Most of their comments were pure ad hominem filth, not worth the trouble of responding to, but there was one I wanted to address: from an atheist MRA who fears that feminism is ruining both science and atheism, and who thinks that some famous historical freethinkers would have taken his side.

Surprisingly, my largely religious family was very receptive of Ingersoll’s Thanksgiving Sermon:

I think Mr. Lee would do well to read it.

This MRA’s condescension notwithstanding, I’m well acquainted with the writings of Robert Ingersoll; more so, in fact, than he clearly is.

The piece referenced is a lengthy historical argument about the long climb of civilization up from the darkness of superstition, and the way that religious ideas about sin, revelation and dogma have only ever divided humanity and held us back from achieving our potential. In it, Ingersoll credits a long list of philosophers, scientists and inventors, all of whom happen to be men. Apparently, this MRA thinks Robert Ingersoll was implying that only men could have been the architects of civilization.

The truth is that Ingersoll knew perfectly well that women’s underrepresentation wasn’t due to some natural incapacity, but to prejudice and enforced ignorance. In one of his published works, he said, “There were universities for men before the alphabet had been taught to women.” Ingersoll was perfectly clear about his view that women are the equals of men in every way that matters, and that given the opportunity, they’d benefit equally from education and contribute equally to the betterment of the human race.

In 1885, for example, he wrote the preface to feminist freethinker Helen Hamilton Gardener‘s book Men, Women and Gods. Here are some choice quotes from Ingersoll’s preface:

“Nothing gives me more pleasure, nothing gives greater promise for the future, than the fact that woman is achieving intellectual and physical liberty.”

“[Women] are no longer satisfied with being told. They examine for themselves. They have ceased to be the prisoners of society – the satisfied serfs of husbands, or the echoer of priests. They demand the rights that naturally belong to intelligent human beings. If wives, they wish to be the equals of husbands.”

“Woman is not the intellectual inferior of man. She has lacked not mind, but opportunity. In the long night of barbarism, physical strength and the cruelty to use it were the badges of superiority.”

“The men who declare that woman is the intellectual inferior of man, do not, and cannot, by offering themselves in evidence, substantiate their declaration.”

Or take Ingersoll’s 1887 lecture The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child:

“In my judgment, the woman is the equal of the man. She has all the rights I have and one more, and that is the right to be protected. That is my doctrine…

If there is any man I detest, it is the man who thinks he is the head of a family – the man who thinks he is ‘boss!’

Imagine a young man and a young woman courting, walking out in the moonlight, and the nightingale singing a song of pain and love, as though the thorn touched her heart – imagine them stopping there in the moonlight and starlight and song, and saying, ‘Now, here, let us settle who is boss!’ I tell you it is an infamous word and an infamous feeling – I abhor a man who is ‘boss,’ who is going to govern in his family, and when he speaks orders all the rest to be still as some mighty idea is about to be launched from his mouth. Do you know I dislike this man unspeakably?”

Ingersoll was an early defender of contraception (he said that it “frees women”). He was an ardent advocate for the right of women to divorce in the case of violent or loveless marriages (a radical position at the time). He was even sensitive to the existence of street harassment and assault:

“It is hard to appreciate the dangers and difficulties that lie in wait for woman. Even in this Christian country of ours, no girl is safe in the streets of any city after the sun has gone down. After all, the sun is the only god that has ever protected woman. In the darkness she has been the prey of the wild beast in man.”

Ingersoll’s views on family life, feminism and women’s equality were remarkably progressive even by today’s standards, let alone the standards of the 19th century when he lived. (Remember, all this was written before women even had the right to vote!) That’s just one more reason he’s worthy of admiration. But just like the Catholic apologist who deluded herself into believing that Terry Pratchett’s writing supported her views on euthanasia, atheist MRAs don’t want to hear that their backward opinions would have been soundly rejected by the thinkers they admire.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...