Overview:

Madalyn-Murray-O'Hair, the famous American atheist, had numerous female forerunners in freethought, humanist, and atheist arenas.

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Born in Pittsburgh on April 13, 1919, Madalyn Murray O’Hair became an American pariah for her aggressive atheism, as she targeted mandatory bible readings in her son’s public school. Her son’s case hit the Supreme Court, and eight of the Justices ruled that the Establishment clause of the First Amendment had indeed been violated—for a long, long while. 

Madalyn was, by this means, catapulted into fame and infamy.

The atheism game has mostly been a man’s sport. This has been true for the whole history of literary, argumentative atheism. For the last 2600 years, mostly men have published in the skeptical arena. Someone needs to explore the psychology of why this has been so.

But for now, here’s a list of courageous and talented female skeptics who preceded O’Hair, found in an excellent collection of primary writings by over fifty women, edited by Annie Laurie Gaylor and titled, Women Without Superstition.

Anne Newport Royall, 1769-1854

Royall may have been the original advocate for a separation of church and state in early America, as she opposed those who wished to form a Christian political party and a ‘Christian nation.’ She married a Revolutionary officer who was a friend of Washington and Jefferson and she was exposed to her husband’s sizable library of freethought literature. She wrote numerous books and gave many indoor and outdoor speeches on lecture tours. On political religion, she said once, “The late proceedings of those daring invaders to establish a national religion have opened the eyes of all lovers of liberty…”

Frances Wright, 1795-1852

Wright was a freethought lecturer, an advocate of women’s equality, a social reformer, and an anti-slavery activist. She defined religion as “a belief in, and homage rendered to, existences unseen and causes unknown.” She may have been the first woman in America to wear pants! She once purchased a church in the Bowery in New York City and renamed it ‘Hall of Science.’ For that, the clergy called her ‘The Red Hot Harlot of Infidelity.’ Her face dons the cover of the first volume of The History of Woman Suffrage by Susan B. Anthony.

Harriet Martineau, 1802-1876

Martineau was a writer and lecturer. At age 32, she wrote a two-volume book called Society in America, chronicling the status of America’s women, whom Martineau believed were unhealthily obsessed with religion. She translated into English six volumes of the French atheist philosopher Aguste Comte. She once predicted that “the time cannot be far off when, throughout the civilized world, theology must go out before the light of philosophy.”

Lydia Maria Child, 1802-1880

Child was said to be among the first ‘women of letters’ in the United States. She was a famous abolitionist, novelist, and journalist. She wrote one the first anti-slavery books: An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. Her towering work was the three-volume The Progress of Religious Ideas Through Successive Ages, wherein she rejected all religions and revelations. She said, “It is impossible to exaggerate the evil theology has done in the world … Even if nothing worse than wasted mental effort could be laid to the charge of theology, that alone ought to be sufficient to banish it from the earth as one of the worst enemies of mankind.”

Ernestine L. Rose, 1810-1892

Rose was probably America’s most outspoken atheist in the nineteenth century. She was a traveling lecturer and gave speeches in twenty-three states. She delivered an address at the ‘First National Infidel Convention’ in New York City in May 1845 and The New York Herald, reporting on the event, called her “the highly accomplished, talented and intellectually beautiful Mrs. Rose.” In a lecture entitled ‘In Defense of Atheism’ given in Boston in 1861, she said: “If the belief in God were natural, there would be no need to teach it … We don’t have to teach the general elements of human nature—the five senses, seeing hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling. They are universal; so would religion be were it natural; but it is not.”

Emma Martin, 1812-1851

Called a ‘heroine of freethought,’ Martin was a lecturer and pamphleteer. In her work “A Few Reasons for Renouncing Christianity’ she said: “There is yet another consideration which is fatal to the Christian religion, and that is its persecuting spirit. It calls in the aid of ecclesiastical and civil laws, and the iron hand of custom to condemn, and if possible to punish those who may express different opinions to its own view … Perish the cause which has no more rational argument its favor than that which the stake or prison can supply!”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1815-1902

Stanton hardly needs an introduction in America. We know of her from her efforts with Susan B. Anthony to secure the women’s vote. But few know that Stanton was a cheerfully committed atheist and spoke and wrote often against religion. (Could this be why the government stamped Anthony’s face onto a coin and not Stanton’s?) In 1885 at the “National Woman Suffrage Association Convention” she said, “You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon the earth has degraded women.” She often noted that the chief critics and opponents of woman’s suffrage were religious zealots, both men and women.

Marilla M. Ricker, 1840-1920

Ricker was an attorney, an abolitionist, a suffragist, a humanitarian, and a freethought activist. In a piece called ‘Why I Am An Agnostic,’ she wrote: “No institution in modern civilization is so tyrannical and so unjust to women as the Christian church … the church claims that woman owes her advancement to the Bible. She owes much more to the dictionary.”

All of the above women, and many others, undoubtedly influenced Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and helped her carve out a life devoted to irreligion. Unfortunately, these women are generally not taught in any classroom in America, but they play an important role in our history.

J. H. McKenna Ph.D. has taught the history of religious ideas since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and also in popular venues...