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 978-0-8166-5965-4

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.

If Clara Schumann Had Only Been a Man!

Eighth Article in Secular Woman's Women's History Month Ariticle Series

By Renée Neary, of NiftyIdeas

And if you were to be forgotten as an artist, would you not be beloved as a wife?

I came across this google doodle while researching material for my article for Women's History month. When Google created the doodle to celebrate the birthday of Clara Schumann last September, the irony of the picture was probably unintended. The lovely image of a serene-looking woman surrounded by a boisterous group of children is both appealing and insightful. The picture is whimsical and delightful but, when viewed through the prism of the historical experience of creative women, there is a disturbing subtext. The viewer's first impression of the woman pictured is not of an acclaimed musical genius, but of a mother. Although Clara Wieck Schumann was a world-renowned concert pianist whose career spanned over 60 years and whose influence is still felt today in concert repertoire, the piano keyboard which forms the bottom border of the doodle almost seems like an afterthought. The focal point of the doodle is a woman so thoroughly surrounded by her children that they are literally hanging off her body and hampering her freedom of movement. Even a woman like Clara Schumann, who had managed to carve out a bit of personal fame in a thoroughly masculine world, was ultimately depicted primarily in the role which her patriarchal culture insisted was the only legitimate one for women. As an illustration of the recurring motif in women's history, this google doodle really fits the bill.

Maria Anna Mozart (30 July 1751 – 29 October 1829), a child prodigy like her younger brother Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was a musician of uncommon ability. Before her artistic opportunities were abruptly cut off, it was Maria Anna, not Wolfgang, who often received top billing at the Mozart family recitals performed in Salzburg and more than 80 other European cities in the second half of the 18th century. By the time she was 11 years old, contemporary music critics were marveling at the perfection of her technique, reporting that her performances were "masterly". Her father, Leopold, had begun instructing her in music at the age of 7 or 8 and some of his surviving letters mention his pride and astonishment at her talent.

My little girl plays the most difficult works which we have … with incredible precision and so excellently,” her father, Leopold, wrote in a letter in 1764. “What it all amounts to is this, that my little girl, although she is only 12 years old, is one of the most skillful players in Europe. Maria Anna Mozart: The Family's First Prodigy, Elizabeth Rusch,, March 28, 2011.

It was because of Maria Anna's influence on the young Wolfgang that his talents came to light at a very young age and it was because of the children's musical interaction that Leopold decided to begin Wolfgang's musical instruction much earlier than was customary – probably greatly increasing Wolfgang's ability to develop his musical aptitude. Nannerl, as Maria Anna was called by her brother, is known to have transcribed some of Mozart's earliest compositions (before he knew how to write music himself) and it is highly likely that she collaborated with him on some pieces. She composed works of her own, as well.

However, careers in musical composition (like any other career) were forbidden to young women in the 18th century – even for a girl described as a "prodigy", "virtuoso" and "genius" by the 18th century men who had been in a position to evaluate her talent. When young Wolfgang innocently announced after a performance one day that the composition they had just played was Maria Anna's, their father was scandalized. He ordered his daughter never to compose again.

While Maria Anna obeyed her father's – and society's – command that she retire from performing after she reached marriageable age and devote herself to more "womanly" pursuits (marriage, raising children and keeping house), it is known from Wolfgang's letters that she continued to compose in private throughout her life. It is possible that another Mozart might very well have contributed musical gifts to humankind that could have rivaled those of her celebrated brother, but we will never know for sure because not a single piece of her work was saved. She disappeared from public life and would have disappeared forever from history had she not been the sister of a very famous man who happened to mention her work in his letters.

What must it have done to this hugely talented woman to have been forced to give up all hopes and dreams of a musical career? Mozart's biographers usually mention that he and Nannerl drifted apart in adulthood – and that she is believed to have suffered from depression after her marriage – but the reason why this might have happened apparently arouses little curiosity and even less scholarly consideration. Even an armchair psychologist could probably discern that the frustration and emotional pain of being forced to suppress her enormous talent very likely resulted in bouts of depression as well as some unavoidable jealousy which could have contributed to the distance which grew between the once-close siblings. Maria Anna had to watch her younger brother receive the support and encouragement from their family that she herself had been cruelly denied, and as his renown increased, it is easy to imagine that Nannerl's painful frustration probably did, too.

Another woman whose existence has thankfully been remembered was another musical prodigy whose talent eclipsed that of her famous younger brother in their early years. Fanny Mendelssohn (14 November 1805 – 14 May 1847), eldest child in a distinguished Hamburg family, exhibited both a passion for and outstanding ability in music at a young age. Visitors to the Mendelssohn's salons usually expressed equal admiration for both Felix and Fanny but composer Carl Friedrich Zelter (who instructed the Mendelssohn children in music) recognized Fanny's artistic genius and singled her out for high praise.

He (Abraham Mendelssohn) has adorable children and his oldest daughter could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special" Carl Friedrich Zelter (Fanny Mendelssohn's music teacher), in a letter to Goethe, 1816.

Although it has been established by music historians that Fanny's virtuosity at least equalled and possibly even surpassed her famous brother Felix's, the strict rules of society circumscribed her artistic horizons just as it limited the opportunities for intellectual and creative fulfillment for all women. While under her father's control, her only creative outlets were her performances at private homes in front of small groups of trusted friends and family members. Fanny's sole documented public performance was for a charity benefit in 1838 where she played her brother's first piano concerto.

Unlike Maria Anna Mozart, however, Fanny Mendelssohn and her acclaimed brother remained close throughout their lives. This may have been partly due to the fact that Felix never failed to seek Fanny's expert opinion on his own compositions and he followed her advice when she recommended revisions. There is some evidence that they may have collaborated on some works, too, including an opera. The sincere respect that Felix showed his sister no doubt helped to secure their sibling bond even after any hope of pursuing her own musical aspirations that Fanny may have had were bluntly dashed by their father.

Music will perhaps become his (Felix's) profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament, never the basis of your being and doing. Abraham Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, in a letter to his daughter Fanny, 16 July, 1820

Fanny was also fortunate in that she married a man who encouraged her to continue to compose music – her husband, Wilhelm Hensel was an artist who often illustrated her musical compositions. Reviving a family tradition begun by her great aunts and continued by her own parents, Fanny was able to perform these works alongside her brother's at private salons she hosted at their home in Berlin. The general public, however, disapproved of the idea of a woman composer, so Fanny's talents were rarely on display to any wider audience. On a couple of occasions, however, Felix had some of her songs published under his name.

Fanny HenselAlthough no musical profession was considered a suitable occupation for women during most of her lifetime, toward the second half of the nineteenth century attitudes had begun to gradually shift and Fanny had the joy of being one of the first women to have any of her compositions published. During her short, prolific lifetime, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel produced over five hundred musical works, of which a handful were published before her death in 1847.

Biographical blurbs about famous people tend to gloss over the real life challenges experienced by their subjects. Rattling off a list of accomplishments in the glib language of academia often inadvertently conveys a false sense that the person's life was a neatly knotted string of isolated wins along a lifespan were laughing, crying, living and dying were merely blips along the way. But, when one takes the time to read between the lines and think about the events in a life – the brief references to pregnancies, childrens’ births and deaths, illnesses and upheavals; the casual mentioning of war, plagues and economic turmoil – it is impossible not to realize that human lives are more like a tapestry of interconnected relationships and momentous events.

An accomplished person’s “wins” could have been thanks to or in spite of some of those relationships or events, but they are never unaffected by what is occurring in the rest of a person’s life. Notable women in history were no exception to this, but there is still a tendency to report their contributions and achievements as if they occurred in a vacuum.

Composing gives me great pleasure… there is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound. —Clara Wieck Schumann

Clara Wieck (13 September 1819 – 20 May 1896), was yet another musical prodigy whose ability to develop her prodigious talent as a pianist and composer was abruptly curtailed upon her arrival at young womanhood. We know about her thanks to her marriage to Robert Schumann, a less accomplished pianist than Clara was, but a gifted composer who went on to enjoy considerable acclaim, largely thanks to Clara's promotion of his works.

Clara Wieck Schumann bore eight children within thirteen years, and eventually became the main breadwinner for her family as her husband withdrew deeper into music while battling his psychological demons. While raising her large brood (virtually alone because of Robert's illness), she resumed her performing career to support the family, and was instrumental – some would say indispensable – in introducing and popularizing Robert's compositions in European society.

at the pianoClara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out. – Robert Schumann

The domestic challenges and responsibilities that she faced and conquered are testimony to Clara's inner fortitude but she was not just a strong and capable wife, mother, business woman and concert pianist. She was gutsy as well. There is a famous story that during the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849, Clara faced down a mob of armed men, walked into the city through the front lines to rescue her children and walked right back out again through the same, undoubtedly astonished, line of revolutionaries. All this, while she was seven months pregnant with her son, Ferdinand.

It has been noted by some of her biographers that Clara Schumann "lost confidence" in her ability to compose as she got older and that her output virtually ceased when she was about 36 years old. What is rarely mentioned is that an enormously significant event occurred in Clara's life during this time which almost certainly contributed to her loss of confidence. Her husband, Robert, who had been mentally ill for years, attempted suicide in 1854 and had himself committed to an asylum where he remained until his death two years later.

clara schumann 1878I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one? – Clara Schumann

Faced with the reality that what they had been pretending was a 'supplementary' income was actually the only income upon which her family could rely, Clara resumed her performing career in earnest. Raising seven surviving children, managing her household and expenses, maintaining a rigorous performance schedule with concerts all over Europe and coping with the loneliness of the loss of her beloved partner, is it really surprising that her ability to compose had suffered? One wonders how she managed to juggle so many responsibilities at all: Clara did the work of several people and she did it very successfully. Although she certainly never again had the emotional and physical leisure to devote to composing, in her later life Clara Wieck Schumann earned a reputation as one of the greatest pianists of her generation, and her influence upon recital repertory persists to the present day.

Maria Anna Mozart, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Wieck belong to a small but distinguished company of hugely talented women whose existence we only know about because they were connected in some way to famous men. While their accomplishments were severely limited by the strictures of patriarchal society, they were nevertheless the lucky ones.

"The Triumph of Death" Peter Bruegel, the ElderLife, as Thomas Hobbes so memorably said, was 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short' for most people for most of human history. Only when the terrible burden of eking out a living is lifted are most people able to turn their attention to intellectual or artistic pursuits, which is why intellectual and artistic greatness has always been almost exclusively the province of the wealthy.

It is a reality that the vast majority of extraordinary human beings never enjoy great fame and are not remembered – not even by their kith and kin – beyond a generation or two. World renown and the opportunity to achieve it has always been mainly the privilege of wealthy or powerful men. Poverty, sickness, brutal living conditions and lack of education have robbed humanity of the chance to have known the potential contributions of more than 95% of all the people who have ever lived. This tragic loss has been universal, affecting both men and women in every region of the world in every century.

In very rare cases, a talented poor man might get very lucky. If he managed to bring his talent to the notice of a powerful man – if he succeeded in gaining the patronage of a nobleman, bishop or king – then even a lowly peasant might have had a chance to rise up out of obscurity. For gifted women, however, there were virtually no available avenues out of obscurity. Poor women worked as hard as poor men, bearing and nurturing children, growing and gathering food to feed their families, struggling for survival. Like their male counterparts, poor women lived a hand-to-mouth existence from the cradle to the grave, but unlike men they almost never even had the chance of becoming the charitable project of a wealthy patron due to the oppressive societal mores which restricted the freedom of "respectable" girls and women. To do so would reduce a poor woman to the status of a prostitute or worse, and her life would be ruined anyway.

The situation was little better for women born into wealthy circumstances. All wealth and property was owned by their male relatives so no woman ever possessed the kind of personal wealth which might have conferred some independence and freedom to pursue creative dreams. A noblewoman who attempted to defy patriarchal rules of feminine conduct could very well have found herself disowned by her family and out on the street. She was expected to embrace marriage and motherhood and what is more, she was expected to be satisfied with whatever contentment could be found there and expect nothing more. Robert Schumann expressed this when he wrote to Clara, “And if you were to be forgotten as an artist, would you not be beloved as a wife?"

While both men and women were permitted to share in the joys and tribulations of parenthood, the intellectual satisfaction of education and the challenge of explorations in art, science and philosophical ideas were strictly reserved for men. Women's intellectual or artistic aspirations were barely acknowledged, and the emotional toll of their deprivation was attributed to female hysteria. In essence, patriarchal culture reduced women to little more than the status of animals – human broodmares whose only valued function was reproduction. Indeed, it was not until the last century that the church recognised that women have souls. Women were, quite literally, considered to be no better than animals. As the property of their male relatives, powerless and penniless, women have been forced by patriarchal culture for thousands of years to make the only viable "choice" available to them after puberty – retirement into marriage, motherhood and almost always, inevitably – invisibility.

The world of music, art and intellectual pursuits has been the jealously guarded world of men for most of human history, while the talents, hopes and dreams of women have been largely suppressed, ignored and dismissed. During Women's History Month, we celebrate the great strides that women have made in the last century, while paying homage to the remarkable women who managed to overcome almost overwhelming social obstacles to make their mark in history.

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.

The Strong Atheist Women who Led History

Sixth article in Secular Woman's Women's History Month Series


by Rachel Johnson, find her on twitter and listen to her podcast, The Pink Atheist

Women have played a vital role in the historic forward movement of the Atheism. The impression is often given in society that atheists have always been men, and they have led the charge, but the reality when uncovered is something completely different. It was women who pushed back religion first. It was not only feminism which the women were pushing; it was clear cut atheist women who stepped forward. There are many names, but some are vital for us all to know. The atheist community should take pride in the fact that when it comes to women, we were first in leading the way to a better future, not just for women, but for our world as well.

Madalyn Marie O’Hair was the founder of American Atheists. She is best known for her lawsuit in 1963, which removed bible reading from schools. She was president of American Atheists for 23 years, and after she was de facto president for the 9 years her son served as president. American Atheists has grown to one of the largest American groups, and has gone on to challenge many infringements of religion and state separation laws.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a staunch feminist and was a leader in the formation of the women’s suffrage movement. She also wrote the woman’s bible, criticizing the way women were portrayed in the bible. She later became the president of the women’s suffrage movement, but, after the controversy of her book, she was distanced from the broader movement. She played a big role in moving women’s rights forward.

Susan B Anthony was another stirring and fire powered atheist who was a part of the women’s suffrage movement. She spent her life working toward the cause of ending women being second class citizens. She was such an anti-religious woman that she was even removed from speaking, and was also removed from power in the women’s suffrage movement. She fought for women to keep the money they earned and have rights to their children. She also was part of the movement to give women voting rights.

While this is just a small sample of the women who have given their time and devoted their lives to the cause of women’s rights and atheism, there are many more. In fact there are a shocking number of women out there who have lived their lives working towards equality. They faced ridicule by women of their time, as well as men. They were treated as outcasts, and removed from their places of power because of their atheism. These women lived in a time when women were nothing but property and housewives. They were ahead of their time, and that is likely because they were atheists, and willing to see the world from an honest vantage point. There are also women who are more current and have started organizations like Anne Nicole Gaylor who was co-founder of Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Anne Nicole Gaylor, along with Annie Laurie Gaylor, worked to found Freedom from Religion Foundation – which is now one of the prominent groups who guard civil liberties. They often engage in stopping infringements on civil rights by the religious who try and put religion into schools. They have become well known and have been a vital part of many court cases. Thanks to them and the lawyers working for them they have kept many religious groups from using schools to promote religious ideas and doctrine.

Many women have taken prominent roles in most of the atheist groups. More and more women are becoming atheists every day. We are a vital part of the atheist movement. We should all become more familiar with the women in history who have led to this moment, the ones who were not only ahead of their time, but eloquent and intelligent. Even before Christianity spread through the world, there was one woman who challenged religion. She paid the price with her life. Hypatia was well known for challenging the patriarchal society of her time, and the religious establishment. She was brutally murdered by Christians for her refusal to be silenced, and her writings were burned.

Women with such strength and honor speak of the reality of womanhood. We are not weak, but are strong by nature. We do not need the protection of men, but the protection from men who try to dismiss our intellect and devalue us. We do not need to be kept in our place, but take our rightful place alongside of the men as leaders, and strong intelligent voices who can bring change to the world.

Lucy Parsons, Revolutionary

Forth article in Secular Woman's Women's History Month Series

By Jadehawk – Follow her on twitter (@IAmJadehawk) and check out her blog

Lucy (Lucía) Eldine González Parsons was a woman of Hispanic, Native American, and African American heritage, married to a white Southerner who would later become one of the Haymarket Martyrs; a woman who fought against specific oppressions of women and people of color, but who also believed that class oppression was the cause of all other oppressions; a woman who, over the course of her life, would be a socialist, an anarchist, and lastly, a communist. For all these reasons, histories of social movements tend to dismiss and ignore her entirely. So perhaps it's the actions of her enemies that shows most clearly how important a figure she was: Chicago Police tended to refer to her as "more dangerous than a thousand rioters" [1], and the FBI raided her personal library, confiscating all her writings and reading material shortly after her death [2]. Clearly, she was a notable enough annoyance to those defending the status quo.

Lucy González was born in 1852 or 1853 in Texas, possibly into slavery given the "one drop rule" that applied at the time [3]. In 1871, she married a well-connected Southerner named Albert Parsons, who was involved in helping freedmen register to vote. This and other pro-African-American actions meant persecution by the Klan for the mixed-race couple, and so, in 1873, they left Texas and moved to Chicago [4]. This was a time of great social conflict in the US as a result of an economic crisis very similar to the one we've just gone through: one of the largest banks of the time collapsed, causing a depression and mass unemployment, which was then used by the rich business owners to slash wages, bust unions, fire people, and otherwise destroy the ability of working people to support themselves, all the while enriching themselves throughout the crisis [5]. Lucy and her husband settled in the poorest worker neighborhoods of Chicago, and became increasingly involved in the labor movements and politics of the time.

At first, Lucy Parson's role was limited to hosting the meetings of the union and socialist activists in her home. In 1879 however she started writing articles for the various labor and socialist papers active at that time. In these articles, she criticized the mistreatment of veterans of the Civil War by men who had stayed home and profited from the war; sharply attacked abuse of servant girls by their upper-class mistresses[6]; campaigned for the 8-hour-workday; and supported the efforts of the Working Women's Union to gain "equal pay for equal work" for women, as well as better working conditions and shorter hours – women at that time worked in conditions worse than the men, for less pay, and for more hours. She also put women’s suffrage on the Socialist Labor platform, and gained access for women to the workers' unions [7].

Her perhaps most revolutionary article, and the beginning of her more active involvement in the labor, socialist, and anarchist movements came with the article published on the front page of inaugural issue of the Alarm in 1884. Written in the aftermath of one of the coldest (and consequently deadliest for those without shelter) winters in Chicago, “A Word To Tramps", it was a call to arms (literally and figuratively) for the masses of unemployed and homeless in Chicago, to "Learn the use of Explosives" [8] rather than die from cold, starvation, or suicide. The article was reprinted as a leaflet and distributed widely. At that time, she also begun to speak at, and organize, protests. She was an excellent orator, considered "as a rule, both frightening and beautiful in her intense earnestness" [9].

As a result of their activism, Lucy Parson's husband was arrested as part of the Haymarket Affair. Lucy Parsons campaigned across the country to free the arrested men, gathering financial and moral support for the men. Everywhere she went, police barred her from entering meeting halls, arrested her, and otherwise tried very hard to prevent her from speaking, considering her a dangerous agitator [10]. And even though ultimately her campaign to free her husband and the other Haymarket Martyrs was unsuccessful, her tour across the country had contributed greatly to her efforts at organization and radicalization of American workers. It was also only the first battle she fought for the rights of political prisoners. As part of the communist International Labor Defense, Lucy Parsons worked in the 1920's and 1930's on the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine teenage boys framed for the rape of a white woman; Angelo Herndon, a black man who had led a march of 10000 in Atlanta, protesting Depression conditions; and a number of other black victims of a racist justice system [11]. In fact, during her time in the labor, socialist, anarchist, and communist movements, Lucy Parsons did not only agitate for the rights of "the worker" in general, but took on the specific oppressions affecting women and racial minorities. Through her work in the Working Women's Union she fought for the rights of women to be treated equally as workers, and she fought for women's reproductive freedoms, the freedom to divorce, and against the scourge of rape in marriage [12]. On the eve of the tragic Haymarket event, she led a march of several hundred women, demanding the eight-hour-work-day. In Freedom, the paper she begun to write and edit in 1891, she spoke out against atrocities against blacks committed in the South:

Never since the days of the Spartan Helots has history recorded such brutality as has been ever since the war and is now being perpetrated upon the Negro in the South.

Women are stripped to the skin in the presence of leering, white-skinned, black-hearted brutes and lashed into insensibility and strangled to death from the limbs of trees. A girl child of fifteen years was lynched recently by these brutal bullies. Where has justice fled? [13].

She also had the distinction of being only the 2nd woman to join the International Workers of the World (AKA the Wobblies), and was a main speaker at at the IWW's first ever convention in 1905, where she advocated a general strike of workers as a tactic in the struggle against exploitation. She was the first labor leader to do so in the US [14].

Lucy Eldine González Parsons died in 1942 as a result of a fire. She was buried, appropriately enough, next to the Haymarket Monument[15]. She was a relentless fighter for the rights of workers, women, and people of color, and she deserves to be remembered as an important contributor to social justice.

[1] Mirandé & Enríquez, p. 92

[2] Ahrens, p. 181

[3] Weir, p. 571

[4] Ashbaugh, pp. 13-15

[5] Turkel, p. 116

[6] Ashbaugh, pp. 32-33

[7] Mirandé & Enríquez, p. 94

[8] Parsons, p. 2

[9] Chaplin, quoted in Mirandé & Enríquez, p. 92

[10] Turkel, p. 122

[11] Ashbaugh, p. 258

[12] Mirandé & Enríquez, p. 95

[13] Parsons, quoted in Ahrens, p. 70

[14] Mirandé & Enríquez, p. 94

[15] Turkel, p.123

Ahrens, G. (Ed.). (2004). Lucy Parsons: freedom, equality & solidarity – writings & speeches, 1878-1937. Chicago, IL: Charles Kerr.

Ashbaugh, C. (1976). Lucy Parsons: American Revolutionary. Chicago, IL: Charles Kerr.

Mirandé, A. & Enríquez, E. (1979). La Chicana: The Mexican American Woman. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Parsons, L. (1884, Oct. 4). A Word To Tramps. The Alarm (Newspaper). Chicago Historical Society People's Exhibit 18.

Turkel, S. (2005). Heroes of the American Reconstruction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Publishers.

Weir, R.E. (2013). Workers in America: a historical encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Marie Souvestre, Freethinker

Third article in Secular Woman's Women's History Month Series.

by Lauren Michelle Kinsey

It took around seventy years of relentless organizing, struggle, and solidarity for women in America to win the right to vote in 1920. I love the following music video for how it quickly evokes the struggle and gives the feeling of what women were up against in that period of history.

It was only a little over a decade after women won the right to vote that, in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt became the First Lady of the United States. A powerhouse, she broke the rules about women’s roles. A public speaker, a traveler, a columnist, a policy advocate, she thought and acted independently from her husband.

In 1951 Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an article about the seven people who had influenced her most throughout her life. In it she wrote,

My mother died when I was six. After my father's death when I was eight years old, I did not have that sense of adequacy and of being cherished which he gave me until I met Mlle. Marie Souvestre when I was 15. The headmistress of the school I went to in England, she exerted perhaps the greatest influence on my girlhood.

According to the website of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum

She [Roosevelt] was educated by private tutors until the age of 15, when she was sent to Allenswood, a school for girls in England. The headmistress, Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre, took a special interest in young Eleanor and had a great influence on her education and thinking. At age 18, Eleanor returned to New York with a fresh sense of confidence in herself and her abilities.

Who is this woman who had such a profound influence on our powerful First Lady? What worldview did Marie possess that gave her the ability to empower the insecure Eleanor during such a sexist era? Well, according to Jeffrey D. Vowles of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Souvestre was an out agnostic. He writes that, “At a time when the term atheist was virtually unutterable, she owned up to being an agnostic. Her teaching method was based on primordial doubt and the testing of every proposition.”

Sexism crumbles in the face of critical thinking. The brilliant and freethinking Marie Souvestre instilled in Eleanor Roosevelt, and many other important women, the basic tool that would set them free. The freedom of those women, in many ways has laid the foundation for the freedom you and I experience in our lifetimes. What can you and I accomplish that is worthy of the legacy that Souvestre left to us? What can we do to pay it forward?

About The Author

Lauren Michelle Kinsey is an amateur writer, reporter, photographer, and videographer. She’s written for Plunderbund about Ohio politics and for The Huffington Post about bisexuality. Her main areas of interest are science, health, technology, and politics. She’s driven by a desire to live a fulfilling life and make the world a better place. You can find links to follow her on social media at

Herstory of U.S. Women’s Right to Vote

Second article in Secular Woman’s Women’s History Month Series.

by Toni Van Pelt

Adapted from NY Times story by Judy Pehrson 2001

The struggle for enfranchisement in the United States, a woman’s right to vote, actually began in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, led by Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony (Judy Pehrson NY Times 2001). The Declaration of Sentiments adopted at the convention demanded the right to vote, as well as equal rights in education, industry, the professions, political office, marriage, personal freedom, control of property, guardianship of children, making of contracts, the church and in the leadership of all moral and public movements.

The Suffrage Amendment was introduced into Congress a generation later, but it remained on the shelf. By 1912 it had only once been voted on in the Senate in 1887 and never in the House of Representatives. It had not received a favorable report from the committee of either house since 1892, and had not received a report of any kind since 1896. Suffrage had not been debated on either floor since 1887. To add to the bleak outlook for the amendment, incoming President Woodrow Wilson opposed it.

It was into this vacuum that feminist Alice Paul came. Paul, a well educated Quaker from NJ, who had participated in the British Suffrage Movement while studying in England set about bringing the issue of votes for women to the attention of Congress, the President and the country as a whole. After years of trying friendly persuasion, the National Woman’s Party, which she founded, and it’s 50,000 members decided to change tactics and took to the streets. They marched, picketed the White House, held rallies and publicly burned speeches by President Wilson about freedom abroad, protesting that women had no freedom at home. For their trouble they were harassed by onlookers, beaten by the police and arrested and force-fed when they went on hunger strikes.

Through it all Paul and her followers stood fast with the dedication described by one of them who told a judge “So long as you send women to jail for asking for freedom, just so long will there be women willing to go to jail for such a cause.”

Paul also used quieter tactics, such as education. She eventually convinced Wilson to support suffrage and he included it as an issue in his message to Congress in 1918.

Finally, in June 1919 the Senate passed the 19th amendment and Paul and the National Woman’s Party went on the road to assure ratification by the states. After ONE year of strenuous maneuvering, 36 states finally ratified the amendment – Tennessee was the last to ratify on August 18, 1920. The final proclamation granting women the vote was signed August 26, 1920 – ending a four-generation struggle.

Alice Paul wrote the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, three years later. It took 72 years from the time women’s voting rights were envisioned and written down to became a reality. It has been 90 years since the Equal Rights Amendment was envisioned and written down. How much longer will it be before women are written into the U.S. Constitution with complete human rights equal to men?

Women’s Contributions to Science Fiction Literature

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

by Tammy Walker

Just imagine: the twenty-first century, a time in which all people across the Terran globe enjoy lives of equality, peace, and freedom. A time in which discrimination based on gender, race, and culture is a thing of a dark and distant past. A time in which secular humanism guides all people to treat each other fairly on the home planet and on colonies on distant worlds. And, if you can, just imagine a time in which the achievements and interests of men and women are held in equal esteem and made available to all.

We haven't achieved this science fiction vision of the twenty-first century yet. We live in a time and place in which we're arguing about whether or not a woman can be a geek and enjoy science fiction and its offshoots. “Booth babes” still adorn tables at conventions in which organizers eschew harassment policies. And covers of science fiction novels often show more of a woman's skin than her character. On the surface, science fiction doesn't appear to have much to offer women. The genre has been largely male-dominated and male-focused. Yet, given its history and potential to help us think about the present and the future, science fiction has benefited—and benefited from—women. Women have contributed to the development of the genre throughout its history, and female authors have engaged in conversations significant to the advancement of the genre as well as of society.

Science fiction provides a medium through which, as many authors and critics note, writers and readers can explore possibilities in future worlds and criticize the present reality. This should be of interest to secular women in particular for a couple reasons. First, science fiction gave women a voice when they might otherwise have been silenced. Their visions of future worlds contributed to conversations about what women's roles could be. Second, science fiction should be of interest to the secular community because it allows us to ask questions like “What happens if we allow religion too much power in society?” or “How would a society without religion approach sexual mores?” and have a possible view of the answers. We may or may not like what we see. Given the vision, though, we have the power to act on what we have seen.

Women as Science Fiction Pioneers

From the beginnings of science fiction, women wrote novels and poems that helped define the genre and its concerns. Some literary scholars contend that science fiction began with Mary Shelley's 1818 publication of Frankenstein. Though others argue that science fiction had its roots in earlier works and intellectual movements, such as the concept of Utopia, both Frankenstein and Shelley's 1826 novel, The Last Man, undoubtedly influenced other authors, male and female. Adam Roberts, in The History of Science Fiction, cites Jane Loudon's 1827 novel, The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, as another early influential work. Roberts notes that “Loudon's novel dramatises the dialectic between technology and religion that continues to determine the development of the genre.” That tension between technology and religion is key to much of science fiction that followed.

Even before Shelley and Loudon wrote about science and society, women used fiction to explore social structures by creating utopian worlds in which men and women were equal, or more nearly so. An early example is Margaret Cavendish's 1666 The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, in which an Empress, interested in science, controls the planet. Lee Cullen Khanna, in her essay “The Subject of Utopia: Margaret Cavendish and Her Blazing-World” argues that Cavendish, writing about gender and science at a time when women's speech was restricted, created work that “may be seen to initiate an alternate utopian tradition.” This tradition was one that remained important to women who may have otherwise had no means to voice their concerns about a society in which gender-based discrimination prevailed.

A Woman's Place is in Science Fiction

Women continued to use the utopian form after Cavendish. Activist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose famed 1890 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, looked at the poor treatment of women in her own time, created a utopia for her 1915 novel Herland to further explore gender and society. Roberts notes in his history that utopias that portrayed greater opportunities for women came before the wider backlash against roles imposed on Victorian-era women. He cites examples such as Mary E. Bradley Lane's 1890 Mizora: A World of Women, Elizabeth Corbett's 1889 New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future, Elizabeth Wolstenholme's 1893 poem Women Free, as well as Gilman's Herland. The construction of utopias in women's science fiction continued throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century as a way of questioning the role and effects of gender on individuals in society. Notable examples include Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 The Left Hand of Darkness, Joanna Russ's 1975 The Female Man, Marge Piercy's 1976 Woman on the Edge of Time, Suzy McKee Charnas's 1978 Motherlines, and Doris Lessing's 1980 The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five.

Despite all the success of women science fiction authors, many twentieth century female authors published under male or unisex names as a way of obscuring their gender or identity. In Science Fiction in the 20th Century, Edward James cites the example of Catherine L. Moore who had to publish as C.L. Moore in order for her work to be accepted by pulp magazines in the 1930s. In the introduction to Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference, Jane L. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten note examples of women using “androgynous names”, authors such as Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and J. Hunter Holly, all of whom published in the 1950s. Alice Sheldon wrote under the decidedly male name James Tiptree, Jr. As these women created fiction, they also had to create a fictional identity. That they had to use names that were not specifically female became part of their fiction and part of their criticism of a period in which femininity hindered one's chances of publication and success.

Race, Religion, and Politics

Gender is only one of the topics women science fiction authors have explored through the genre. Throughout her work, Octavia Butler examines the effects of race on individuals and societies. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale displays the horrors of religion given too much control over a society; Sheri Tepper's Arbai Trilogy is also critical of religion. Susanne Collins's recent Hunger Games trilogy, aimed at younger readers, investigates the damage an all-powerful government can inflict on its deprived citizens.

That these women authors create female protagonists who succeed on some level—Katniss survives the games, Offred escapes and writes her narrative of her ordeal, Olamina founds Earthseed and survives in spite of hardship—is a feminist statement in that these women aren't rescued by men. But the focus isn't on gender alone: Katniss survives because of her strength and wit, Offred survives because she's willing to take risks, and Olamina survives because of her intellect and ability to connect with others. They are fully drawn and individuated women, equal to the men in their societies, if not legally, then in their characters.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Science fiction often privileges the male; this is especially true of the classic science fiction that contained two-dimensional female characters. Yet there is a long, rich history of science fiction that respects women, written by both men and women. And those authors contributed to larger conversations about the role of women in society. Just imagine, again, a genre of literature that can help us see the potential benefits and dangers that result from our culture taking one path or another. Science fiction can give us this view; it's up to us to learn from what we see.

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Six Obstacles Standing Between American Women and the Secular Movement

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The following article is a condensed republication of the original piece by the American Secular Census July 31, 2012. Read the full analysis on the American Secular Census website.

The American Secular Census, the national registry of demographic and viewpoint data recorded by Secular Americans, periodically releases statistics related to current topics of interest in and about the secular movement. Spirited online discussion of misogyny and sexism during the summer of 2012 led us to focus on data concerning women’s participation in secular events and organizations.

In May we published statistics related to the Census question Have you ever felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement?  Responding “Yes” were 11.4% overall and 14.4% of women.

For this more detailed July analysis of women’s experiences in the secular movement, we zeroed in on information provided by those who described themselves as either “aware of organizations and events but have not participated” or “former participant[s] who [are] currently inactive.” We hoped to learn why women stay away (or go away) from the secular movement. We also looked at how women on the Census compare with registrants overall in terms of their secular self-identity, their “out” status, and their assessment of the secular movement’s strengths and weaknesses.

Note that women represent 40% of American Secular Census registrants in this snapshot, up from 29% on June 7th and down from 41% on February 3rd. These statistical variations highlight the ongoing, dynamic nature of the American Secular Census as new registrants create accounts and record their demographic and viewpoint data.


  • Most women respondents not currently active in the secular movement are aware of groups and events but do not participate. A smaller percentage were involved at some point but are now inactive. For both of these subsets, insufficient time is cited most often as the main obstacle to participation.
  • Other obstacles named by women outside the secular movement are inconvenient eventsinsufficient moneybad experience with group, person, or eventnot a joiner; and lack of childcare.
  • A non-trivial number of women respondents admitted they are not really sure why they haven’t participated in the secular movement.
  • Although not the top response, lack of childcare was the one factor to emerge as a disproportionately women’s concern. Just 39.1% of all registrants submitting this Census form were women; yet women represented more than 61.1% of the “lack of childcare” responses. No other selection showed a gender imbalance this marked.
  • Women are more selective about revealing their nontheism to others. Fewer women described themselves as “completely open” compared with Census registrants overall, while more women acknowledged being closeted in certain situations.
  • Most women Census registrants consider atheist to be their primary secular identity, followed by secular humanist and agnostic. Almost 3/4 of those who chose agnostic were women, suggesting a gender preference not seen with any of the 20+ other identities offered.
  • Both overall and among women, Census registrants say that the secular movement’s most effective work has been facilitating friendships and a sense of community. Both overall and among women, the secular movement’s weakest impact is felt to be in the sphere of political influence.
  • Women currently involved in the secular movement and those with a history of involvement were just as likely as Census registrants overall to see no disadvantage to participation: a little over 53% for both groups. This trend suggests that involvement in the secular movement can be as satisfying for women as others, once obstacles to participation are overcome.

Read the full analysis on the American Secular Census website for more detail about these datasets:

  • Women who are aware of organizations and events but have not participated
  • Former women participants currently inactive
  • Women’s openness about their nonbelief
  • Women’s primary worldview identity

– Mary Ellen Sikes, Secular Woman VP of Operations, is also the president and founder of the American Secular Census. Register here.