Her•Story: Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller (July 17, 1917 – August 20, 2012) was a comedienne, author, and actress best known for her colorful costumes, wild blonde wigs, and her self-deprecating “eccentric housewife” character. She began her career at the age of 37 and became extremely popular in the 1960s. An appearance on the Groucho Marx game show You Bet Your Life led to an invitation to appear at The Purple Onion Comedy Club, which spring-boarded her into television. Diller’s comedy routine revolved around a quirky housewife persona, and her routines were filled with sharp one-liners and stories about a husband called “Fang”. Although “Fang” was an invented character, she drew her material from her own experiences as a wife and mother; her humor was invented to cope with the drudgery of her life before entering show business. Diller usually took the stage wearing brightly colored clothing and outrageous hair that were matched by her equally flamboyant facial expressions and her signature cackling laugh.

Diller’s career would prove to be a barrier-buster for women. She proved that women could not only be funny, they could have successful careers in the male-dominated field of stand-up comedy. Talent agent Fred Wostbrock credits Diller with paving the way for comediennes like Roseanne Barr and Ellen DeGeneres. In addition to Diller’s stand-up work, her many credits include voice acting for the animated television series Family Guy and Robot Chicken, appearances on Blossom, The Love Boat, and her own television series The Phyllis Diller Show. Her movie credits include The Sunshine Boys and A Bug’s Life.
Diller’s personal life was not always easy. She suffered through the heartbreak of outliving three of her six children. One of her sons died only a few weeks after his birth. Her oldest child, Peter, died of cancer in 1998, and her daughter Stephanie died of a stroke in 2002. Diller has also experienced struggles with her own health, and was given a pacemaker after surviving a heart attack in 1999.
Throughout all of this, Diller tried to maintain a positive outlook, and she did not need a belief in God to do it. In a 2011 interview with Out she expressed a Humanist sentiment, saying, “I am a kind person. I'm kind to everybody. I treat everybody the same, and I'm proud of that. In fact, that's my religion."
Diller passed away in her Los Angeles home at the age of ninety-five. She is survived by three children and several grandchildren.

Her•Story: Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen

As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.

Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen (January 7, 1911 – December 22, 1995) was an American actress. Originally a dancer, the 28-year-old McQueen first appeared as Prissy, Scarlett O'Hara's maid in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. She continued as film actress in the 1940s, then moved on to television in the 1950s. Raised a Christian, she began questioning organized religions as a child.

Early life

Born Thelma McQueen in Tampa, Florida, she had planned to become a nurse until a high school teacher suggested that she try acting. McQueen initially studied with Janet Collins and went on to dance with the Venezuela Jones Negro Youth Group. Around this time she acquired the nickname "Butterfly"—a tribute to her constantly moving hands—for her performance of the Butterfly Ballet in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (she had always hated her birth name, and later legally changed her name to Butterfly McQueen). She performed with the dance troupe of Katherine Dunham before making her professional debut in George Abbott's Brown Sugar.


McQueen's first role would become her most identifiable —as Prissy, the young maid in Gone with the Wind. Her distinctive, high-pitched voice also took people by surprise. She also played an uncredited bit part as a sales assistant in The Women, filmed after Gone with the Wind but released before it. She also played Butterfly, Rochester's niece and Mary Livingstone's maid in the Jack Benny radio program, for a time during World War II. She appeared in an uncredited role in Mildred Pierce (1945) and played a supporting role in Duel in the Sun (1946). By 1947 she had grown tired of the ethnic stereotypes she was required to play and ended her film career. From 1950 until 1952 she played Oriole, another racially stereotyped role, on the television series Beulah. In a lighter moment, she appeared in a 1969 episode of The Dating Game. Offers for acting roles began to dry up around this time, and she devoted herself to other pursuits including political study; she received a Bachelor's degree in political science from City College of New York in 1975. In 1979 McQueen won a Daytime Emmy Award for her performance as Aunt Thelma, a fairy godmother in the ABC Afterschool Special episode The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody. She had one more role of substance in the 1986 film The Mosquito Coast.

Religious Views

“I’m an atheist,” she once declared, “and Christianity appears to me to be the most absurd imposture of all the religions, and I’m puzzled that so many people can’t see through a religion that encourages irresponsibility and bigotry.” In 1989, the Freedom from Religion Foundation honored her with its Freethought Heroine Award. She told a reporter for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (8 October 1989), “As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.” She also lamented that humans had not put the energy on earth and on people that had been put on mythology and on Jesus Christ, for if we had there would be less hunger and homelessness. “They say the streets are going to be beautiful in Heaven. Well, I’m trying to make the streets beautiful here. . . . When it’s clean and beautiful, I think America is heaven. And some people are hell.”

Legacy and death

McQueen never married or had children. She lived in New York in the summer months and in Augusta, Georgia during the winter. She died on December 22, 1995, at Augusta Regional Medical Center in Augusta, from burns sustained when a kerosene heater she attempted to light malfunctioned and burst into flames. When a Christian neighbor observed the incident, however, she told the Atlanta Constitution, “I believe she [Thelma] made it into Heaven. She threw up both her hands as she was coming out of that burning house, and made it in with Jesus.” On the contrary, the atheistic McQueen had been a Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation since 1981 and had included the foundation in her will. More Information: Recommended Reading Picture: http://philosopedia.org/images/7/77/Butterfly.jpg of the photo from the SW FB photos

Bridget Gaudette, VP of Outreach

Secular Woman

Her•Story: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I would like to be judged on the validity of my arguments, not as a victim.~ Ayaan Hirsi Ali


     On November 2, 2004, Theo van Gogh was riding his bicycle to work in Amsterdam when he was shot multiple times by Muhammad Bouyeri. Van Gogh’s murderer further mutilated his body, attempting to sever his head before using a knife to pin a letter to his body. The letter made threats to many groups such as Jews and Western countries, but it also made a very specific threat to the life of one person. That person was Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

     Ayaan Hirsi Magan Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. She would move many times in her childhood, with her family eventually settling in Kenya. The common thread in all the places she lived was the dominating presence of Islam, and her upbringing was full of superstition. Her grandmother told her stories of men who could transform into hyenas. She was warned against making too much noise for fear she would awaken djinns. She was taught to be mistrustful, particularly of men. When her little brother Mahad asked her to look at something and then pushed her into a latrine, he was not punished. Instead Ayaan was punished for not sufficiently protecting herself. Perhaps most horrifyingly, she was subjected to female genital mutilation at the age of five, a torturous excision of her clitoris and inner labia conducted with scissors, in an effort to keep her sexually pure. Numerous people had the right to beat her.

     In 1992, Ali fled to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage. She began working as a Somali translator. During this work, she was exposed to many women who had been abused by their husbands. These women never fought back or pressed charges because such actions were forbidden by their religion. Ali was struck by the difference between refugee women and Dutch women. It wasn’t that Dutch women were never abused. It was that when Dutch women were abused, their community didn't blame the women, or tell them that they deserved to be hit because they were not obeying their husbands properly. The Dutch social services would naively ask abused refugee women if their families could help, not understanding that their religion dictated that families side with their male abusers. Ali tried, and failed, to find answers in the Quran. In her book Infidel, she notes that, “You must obey your husband if you are Muslim.  If you refuse your husband and he rapes you, that is your fault. Allah says husbands should beat their wives if they misbehave; it’s in the Quran.”

     The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 caused her further doubts. Though her colleagues, fueled by sympathy, rushed to assure her that they didn’t feel Islam played a role in the attacks, she felt differently. Reading The Atheist Manifesto was the final nail in the coffin. In 2002, Ali became an atheist. She described the process and the enormous relief it brought her in Infidel, writing, God, Satan, angels: these were all figments of human imagination. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect.”

     In 2004, she wrote the screenplay for Theo van Gogh’s short film Submission. The film portrays the various abuses of Muslim women, accompanied by the verses of the Quran used to justify these abuses written on the main actress’s skin. This film so enraged religious fundamentalists that it led to murder of the movie’s director and threats to the Ali’s life. Undeterred by the many threats against her life, Ali has gone on to found the AHA Foundation, which works to end forced marriage, genital mutilation, honor violence, and Sharia law.

     Secular Woman commends Ayaan Hirsi Ali. By speaking her mind about her secular beliefs in the face of terrifying threats meant to silence her, we feel she embodies our mission and values.

     Ayaan Hirsi Ali currently lives in the United States with her husband and son.

Laura Brady, Outreach Committee Member


Her•Story: Joan Dunlop

Women’s power is in our collective force, and the depth of our conviction and the choices we make as a result…. And the decision to have children or not to have children is deeply embedded in that….

When John D. Rockefeller III hired Joan Dunlop in the early 1970s to be his staff assistant on matters related to population issues and sex education, he told her, “There’s something wrong with the population field. It’s not working.” And so Joan, with no background in population issues and no academic training, entered a field with a prevailing approach that she described as “there’s this rising birth rate and the way to attack it is technology, through the women as a vehicle. And women’s lives, and why women have children, or what the rationale for it [may be], or what they felt, or [what] were their concerns, never came into it at all, ever.”

By 1984 when Joan was recruited to be the President of the International Women’s Health Coalition she was ready to shepherd a worldwide movement to put women’s reproductive lives and health at the center of the discussion of population issues. In 1992 she convened a meeting in London of women’s reproductive advocates to plan how they could have the greatest impact on the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Their work ultimately led to the 1993 Women’s Declaration on Population Policies, a statement agreed to by over 100 women’s organizations.

With the Women’s Declaration as an organizing principle, the IHWC and its allies worked to change the focus of population policy in the lead up to the Cairo conference. Joan had no hesitation in taking on the Vatican. As she said, “I was raised in the Church of England, okay? And I kept saying to my colleagues, ‘Look my favorite period was Tudor history. Let’s go back to sacking the monasteries. Let’s start there.”

The adoption of the Programme of Action of the Cairo Conference was the apex of Joan’s career. The Programme called for “advancing gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women,” prenatal care, education, including sex education, for women and girls, and, where legal, safe abortions. She continued to lead the IWHC’s efforts through one more conference before she retired, the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing where delegates agreed that women have the right to say no to sex.

Cancer took Joan’s life on June 29, 2012.

Secular Woman shares the belief system from which Joan drew her power. As she said, “[O]ne of the reasons we were successful against the Vatican …. [was we] were dealing with a belief system, just as they were, and the belief system was feminism.”

– Mary Bellamy, Secular Woman member

All quotes, except from the UN ICPD Programme of Action, are from the “Population and Reproductive Health Oral History Project,” Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, interview of Joan Dunlop by Rebecca Sharpless, April 14-15, 2004.

Her•Story: Nora Ephron

And every so often I’m with a group of people and you just run out of things to say and I say, “How many people believe in God?” In fact, the way we play the game is you have to guess how many people at the table believe in God. And it’s always more than I think it’s going to be. I’m always a little surprised that it’s even three out of eight.

Nora Ephron (May 19, 1941 – June 26, 2012) was a director, producer, screenwriter, novelist, playwright, and journalist. She was best known for writing the screenplays When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. Forever the motivator of woman and as a testament to feminism (qualities that Secular Woman holds dear) Ephron was quoted as saying, “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim”.

Nora was born on May 19, 1941 in New York City to two Jewish screenwriters. Ephron, however, was not religious. “You can never have too much butter – that is my belief. If I have a religion, that’s it”. When she was four years old, she moved to Beverly Hills, CA. After she graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1958, she moved to Massachusetts to attend Wellesley College, accompanied by her mother’s advice to avoid sororities and organized religion. There she majored in political science and wrote for the college’s newspaper.

After Nora graduated from college in 1962, she briefly interned in the White House and then became a “mail girl” at Newsweek for a year. Shortly after, she and a few friends started a satirical newspaper, which caught the attention of a New York Post editor who later hired Nora as a reporter. While working at the New York Post, she began writing essays for New York magazine, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and other publications. Her humorous 1972 essay, “A Few Words About Breasts,” made her a household name. Over time, she began to create a name for herself as one of America’s best-known humorists. Now, also as a well-known essayist, she talked about a wide variety of subjects, including criticising her alma mater, Wellesley College, for turning out a generation of “docile” women.

Nora Ephron wrote her first screenplay for All the President’s Men at the request of Carl Bernstein, her then husband and Bob Woodward. Her script was not used in the end, but it did result in a screenwriting job offer by someone who had seen the script. In 1989, Nora experienced one of her greatest screenwriting success with When Harry Met Sally. She later transitioned to directing films in 1992 with This Is My Life, but the film turned out to be a box office disappointment. Still, ever vigilant, the next film she directed became a success: Sleepless in Seattle. These triumphs solidified Nora as the foremost creator of romantic comedies.

Along with her many acheivments in directing and screenwriting, Nora Ephron went on to pursue many projects, including playwriting. In 2006, she published a collection of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Reflections on Being a Woman, which quickly became number one on the New York Times best-seller list. She also blogged regularly for The Huffington Post.

Secular Woman highlights the life of Ms. Ephron who once said, “I certainly know I’m not going to be one of those people with a deathbed conversion”. Ephron died on June 26, 2012 from pneumonia, a complication resulting from acute myeloid leukemia.

More Information: Recommended Reading

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