What are we Talking About

Weekly Roundup: What Are We Talking About?

Straight from our Member’s Only Group to you, what we and our members are reading and discussing!

It’s been a busy week of sharing, discussing, and reading in our Member’s group this week. There is a petition circulating to elect a female president of the Royal Society; certainly a timely call in light of Tim Hunt’s sexist comments about female scientists. It’s also worth noting that there has been no female president since the society was established in 1660; we think it is time for a change!

Evidence has been uncovered that a U.S. Army doctor performed horrendous and torturous experiments on soldiers for many years, including inducing shock and likely sexually assaulting students under the guise of medical procedures. So far he is being cited for training he provided to students during the years of 2012 to 2013 but there is evidence to indicate that officials knew of his experiments as long ago as 2005 and allowed them to continue.

Juneteenth vigils and celebrations were held all over the U.S., taking on special poignancy in light of the terrorist violence in Charleston where 9 black people were slaughtered in church by a white supremacist. In Rhode Island, vigils were held to remember black women killed by police.

Finally, a woman’s face will grace the 10 dollar bill starting in 2020 (the 100 year anniversary of women’s right to vote) but we still can’t decide who should be on the bill. Can you?

And last, but far from least, we are getting so exciting about the Secular Women Work conference being held in Minneapolis from August 21st – 23rd. If you need a scholarship to attend the deadline for applying is July 6th!

Major Mike responds to the “Conflict in the Secular Movement” Survey

Worst Survey Ever

Worst Survey Ever. Why so many choices?

There, that's Better

There. That's better.

I’m a big fan of the “Conflict in the Secular Movement Survey” that’s been going around.

It’s about time that somebody found a forum for us to express how we feel about conflict within the secular community. At long last we can find out the question that’s on everybody’s minds: are feminists causing all this trouble, or is there no trouble at all?

As is fitting for such an important topic, the survey has been meticulously designed by research professionals. Nice they could scare up enough scientists in the atheist community. That must have been tough. Way to go, boys — and gals!

I wanted to share my answers with y’all. If you haven’t taken it yet — no cheating!

1. If you had to choose one, what is the cause of conflict in the secular movement?

A) Divisive figures who purposefully cause conflict

B) Differences in ideologies

C) Miscommunication

My only complaint rests with the first question. Why do I have to choose just one? Look at Rebecca Watson. She's an A) divisive figure who caused conflict about her B) differing feminism ideology by C) miscommunicating her statement, "Guys, don't do that."

That's how #Elevatorgamergate started.

2. Do you believe feminists in the secular movement create conflict because of their emphasis on feminism?

A) Yes

B) No

What? No “of course” button?

Ok, I’m being nitpicky. Better to make people take a stand: are feminists causing the problem or not? Answer — Take it, Steve Carell: 

3. Do you believe that the secular movement is welcoming to all people?

A) Yes

B) No

YES. I have always felt welcome in the secular movement.

Again, I’m glad they didn’t waste time with any of the usual questionnaire pseudoscience, making people waste their time to provide more “nuanced” (or wishy-washy) responses like:

Very Welcoming 

Somewhat Welcoming

Neither Welcoming or Not Welcoming

Somewhat Not Welcoming 

Not at all Welcoming

I mean really, is it welcoming or not? Make up your mind!

4. Do you believe the secular movement needs to be diversified?

A) Yes

B) No

NO. I’d really hate for Christians to be welcomed in our movement. Can’t we all just be atheists?

Again, thanks guys (and gals) for making us stick to yes-or-no choices.

5. If you do not think diversity is a problem, do you believe the secular community is working hard to outreach minorities?

A) Yes, the secular community is working hard in minority outreach

B) No, the secular community needs to work harder to outreach minorities

C) I do not think diversity is a problem in the secular movement

I've often said I don't think diversity is a problem, so (C). Logic for the win!

Although they should have made it the first option, rescuing me from having to read the other two choices.

6. Do you believe that most conflict orginates in the internet?

A) Yes

B) No

YES. Little known fact: the Israel / Palestine conflict originated on the Internet.

7. Do you believe conflict can be reduced if there was less use of social media?

A) Yes

B) No

Simple: YES. First thing the secular movement needs to do is to find out a way to keep people from using social media. This will fix everything.

8. Do you believe there should be more emphasis on social justice issues?

A) Yes

B) There is enough emphasis on social justice issues

C) The secular movement should not involve itself with social justice issues

C, of course!

We need to focus on issues like prayer in public school, the right for kids to avoid saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and the rights of atheists in the workplace.

None of these have anything to do with social justice.

9. In your opinion, is there unnecessary name calling during arguments online?

A) Yes

B) No

Anybody who thinks there isn’t unnecessary name calling online is a fucking goober nimrod.

10. In your opinion, do you believe that the responses over an argument are generally appropriate or antagonistic?

A) Antagonistic

B) Appropriate

Both! I think I can be appropriately antagonistic.


This survey managed to capture all of the nuances of the current debate — and in only 10 questions!

I’m sure the responses will give us some answers about how we can all move forward.

Susan Epperson

Ninth article in Secular Woman's Women's History Month series.

by Jamie Bougher

In 1928, the state of Arkansas passed a law. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad law. Or, well, at least it was a pretty discriminatory, anti-science law. Same thing. The law made it

…unlawful for any teacher or other instructor in any university, college, normal, public school or other institution of the state which is supported in whole or in part from public funds derived by state or local taxation to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals, and also that it be unlawful for any teacher, textbook commission, or other authority exercising the power to select textbooks for above-mentioned institutions to adopt or use in any such institution a textbook that teaches the doctrine or theory that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animal. (Alvin W. Johnson, Frank H. Yost. Separation of Church and State in the United States. Univ Of Minnesota Press; Minnesota Archive Editions edition. ISBN 978-0-8166-5965-4http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epperson_v._Arkansas).

Pretty blatant, huh? Tragically, the law stayed firmly in place for almost forty years. In 1965, Little Rock Central High School adopted a new textbook that contained a chapter about Darwin and evolution, and then required that the chapter be taught. The Little Rock biology teachers found themselves in a difficult situation. Follow state law, refuse to teach the chapter, get fired for violating the district’s curriculum. Follow the curriculum, teach the chapter, get fired for violating state law. Not a pretty picture. Lucky for all of us, the Arkansas Education Association (or AEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association) was totally on the case.

One of the biology teachers who was going to be required to teach the EVILUTION chapter was a classy young lady by the name of Susan Epperson. The AEA asked her to be the plaintiff in the case they were going to bring against the state law. In a December 2010 ACLU interview with Epperson, she explains:

The AEA needed a biology teacher to be their plaintiff. […] At the time, in 1965, there were civil rights struggles going on in the South. One of the complaints was outside agitators. The AEA didn't want the plaintiff to be a teacher from out of state and I was from a small town about 90 miles from Little Rock. I think they were also looking for a Christian believer. Because some people equate believing in evolution with being an atheist, the AEA wanted to demonstrate that one can believe in God and also believe all the scientific evidence for evolution.

Ah ha, strategery! And, actually fairly effective. The case was first brought to the Chancery Court in Pulaski County. And they won rather handily. The court held that the law was unconstitutional. Their argument said the law “violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which protects citizens from state interference with freedom of speech and thought as contained in the constitution's First Amendment” (quote from wiki page). I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not entirely clear on why they couldn’t call it a violation of the First Amendment directly. But hey, a win’s a win! Or…well, it’s a win until the state appeals to the Arkansas Supreme Court and has the Chancey Court’s ruling struck down (they argued that “the statute was a valid exercise of the state’s power to specify the curriculum in its public schools”). Bummer. Predictably, the AEA appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who decided that the Arkansas Supreme Court was quite wrong, and that the Arkansas law was clearly designed to protect a particular religion. My favorite quote:

[T]he state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them.

So the side of good wins and all is well. Epperson was actually not directly involved in the appeal process. She attended the U.S. Supreme Court hearing as an anonymous audience member. Since that time, Epperson has become a fierce advocate for evolution, reason, and science. She harnesses her faith (she is still a Presbyterian) and her credentials (Epperson is an instructor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, with multiple degrees in biology) to help fight against the too-common belief on the part of the religious that evolution must be rejected outright. The secular movement is lucky to have inspiring women like Susan Epperson on its side.

Women in STEM

Seventh Article in Secular Woman's Women's History Month Series

by Tammy Walker, read more of her thoughts at her blog Free Thinking Ahead

The history of women in STEM fields–science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—is a history of women overcoming gender discrimination. A number of recent studies have highlighted the gender disparity in these career fields. The US National Science Foundation's 2013 “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering” report notes that while women have studied STEM subjects in greater numbers since the early 1990s, and more women graduate from college than men, women still earn far fewer STEM degrees than men. Additionally, women, according to the report, hold more professorships than they have previously, though they are less than a quarter of STEM full professors.

Other studies have noted the persistence of bias against women. In 2012, Yale researchers published a study in PNAS that examined gender bias among STEM faculty. Faculty members were asked to rate student applications for a lab manager position. The student was rated more favorably when assigned a male name than when assigned a female name by the researchers. Still other studies point out gender as a factor in the treatment and consideration of faculty and students.

In spite of the disparities and biases, the history of women in STEM is also one in which women have been able to overcome societal obstacles such as lack of support and discrimination to contribute to our knowledge of the world. Highlighted here are just a few examples of the many women who have made an impact through their scientific work.


Scientists: Daughters, Wives, Sisters, Mothers

Before the 20th century, women often participated in scientific discussion and discovery though their male relatives and correspondents. Denied access to university educations, these women scientists and natural philosophers gleaned what they could reading books and learning from tutors, often their fathers and brothers. These women learned and contributed by engaging their counterparts, men and women, in conversation over household dinners, in salons, and through written correspondence. Although their work was most often done outside universities, women still added much to the discussion and to knowledge about their chosen topics.

Seventeenth century English aristocrats Margaret Cavendish and Anne Conway fit this pattern. Cavendish, also one of the first science fiction authors, discussed scientific matters with her husband, who supported her writing. Her work consisted of writing that critiqued the works of her contemporaries. Conway, educated at home by tutors, benefited from her brother's Cambridge education. He introduced her to Henry More; More and Conway corresponded on Descartes, and she influenced More's writing on the philosopher. Elisabeth of Bohemia, a seventeenth century princess, corresponded with Descartes directly, asking challenging questions of him. His book Principia is dedicated to her.

Astronomy, especially, was passed from husband to wife, father to daughter, brother to sister. Polish astronomer Elizabeth Hevelius and German astronomer Maria Winkelman, both working in the 17th century, assisted their husbands with mapping the sky and making discoveries. Caroline Herschel, sister to William Herschel, followed her brother into the field in the late 19th century. She assisted her brother in his work, and, though on her own, she discovered star clusters, comets, and nebulae.


Women Helping Women

While women working before the late 19th century often followed their male family members and correspondents into scientific studies, the women made important contributions in their own right. And as much as they needed the approval of men, they also benefited from the support of women. Mary Somerville, contemporary to Herschel, performed experiments and wrote on physics and mathematics. She introduced Ada Lovelace to Charles Babbage; Lovelace eventually wrote the first programs for Babbage's proto-computers. Lovelace also benefited from her mother's insistence that her daughter receive a rigorous education in mathematics, which allowed her to contribute to that field.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw increasing educational opportunities for women. One important factor in this rise was the establishment of women's colleges. According to the Women's College Coalition, almost all women scientists working during this time were educated at women's colleges. Included in the faculty at these colleges were women who had received their training from their male relatives, including American Maria Mitchell, an astronomy professor at Vassar. Mitchell learned astronomy from her father in the early 19th century; her parents believed that their daughters should have the same access to education as their sons. This permitted Mitchell to not only contribute to astronomy but to the education of women who would follow her into that field.


Women in STEM: Present and Future

The gender gaps in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics persist, but communities are making efforts to support women in STEM and girls who aspire to pursue careers in these fields. The National Engineers Week Foundation, for example, promotes Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, most recently on February 21, 2013. Their programming included corporations and governmental agencies working with schools, clubs, and museums to invite girls to participate in hands-on activities, talks, and job shadowing. Women in Technology, an organization whose aim is to advance women working in technology, has a committee that supports girls who are interested in STEM careers. Many local groups exist to support women in STEM fields as well.

Despite the relatively low numbers of women in STEM fields, there is reason for optimism. The US National Science Foundation's 2013 report also indicated that more women are earning PhDs in mathematics and computer science than in previous years, and women study biology and the social sciences at about the same rate as men do. The history of women in STEM is a history of women facing challenges, but it is also a history of progress.

Her•Story: Marie Curie

Mother of Radioactivity

You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.

Marie Skłodowska-Curie (7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934) was a French-Polish physicist and chemist, famous for her pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first person honored with two Nobel Prizes—in physics and chemistry. She was the first female professor at the University of Paris. Her achievements included a theory of radioactivity (a term that she coined), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium. Under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms, using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw, which remain major centers of medical research today.

Marie studied during the day and tutored evenings, barely earning her keep. In 1893, she was awarded a degree in physics and began work in an industrial laboratory. Meanwhile she continued studying at the Sorbonne, and in 1894, earned a degree in mathematics. Daughter of a Polish ‘freethinker’ but raised by a Catholic mother, Marie abandoned the Church before she was 20. The deaths of her mother and sister, according to some, caused Maria to give up Catholicism and become agnostic. It was after that, that she met and married Pierre Curie who “. . . belonged to no religion and I did not practice any”. He was an instructor at the School of Physics and Chemistry in Paris (ESPCI). Marie had begun her scientific career in Paris with an investigation of the magnetic properties of various steels; it was their mutual interest in magnetism that drew Skłodowska and Curie together. Her departure for a summer to Warsaw only enhanced their mutual feelings for each other. She still was laboring under the illusion that she would be able to return to Poland and work in her chosen field of study. When she was denied a place at Kraków University merely because she was a woman, she returned to Paris. Almost a year later, in July 1895, she and Pierre Curie married, and thereafter the two physicists hardly ever left their laboratory. They shared two hobbies, long bicycle trips and journeys abroad, which brought them even closer. Maria had found a new love, a partner, and a scientific collaborator upon whom she could depend.

On July 4, 1934, Curie died from aplastic anemia contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation. The damaging effects of ionizing radiation were not then known, and much of her work had been carried out in a shed, without the safety measures that would later be developed. It has been said that she carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the faint light that the substances gave off in the dark. Marie was also exposed to x-rays from unshielded equipment while serving as a radiologist in field hospitals during the war.

Secular Woman drew inspiration from Mrs. Curie for helping to overturn established ideas in the sciences and the societal sphere in general. This Secular Woman, in order to attain her scientific achievements, had to overcome barriers that were placed in her way simply because she was a woman, in both her native and her adoptive country. Our logo was inspired by the radium atom’s electron shell when depicted in 2 dimensions. Her dedication to the betterment of society and her discoveries eventually caused her death, but has since saved the lives of thousands. She was ahead of her time: emancipated and independent. More Information: Recommended Reading