Humanist women.

Author:Earles, Beverley

One day I would like to write a book about the contributions humanist women have made not only to the humanist movement but to modern civilization. When I once mentioned this to a male humanist friend, he said, "Well, it would be a very short book." Needless to say, I have since dropped this individual to acquaintance level! But let us look at what he meant.

He meant, of course, that women have made only a small contribution to humanism, and that one really has to dig to find any of an outstanding quality. This opinion, furthermore, was probably based on a number of not uncommon assumptions within the humanist movement, of which I will mention three.

First is the assumption that one looks for contributions in published theoretical works, particularly those which have received a measure of academic acclaim.

Second is the assumption that one should look for outstanding humanists among those who have held positions of leadership in the movement. At conferences of some humanist organizations, one notices that the top table often bears a remarkable resemblance to the Politburo: all male and virtually all within a certain age group. What message is delivered by this? It is that authority continues to be located with men over the age of 50. While this state of affairs is no longer typical of congregationally styled humanist groups, it is unfortunately still a feature of a number of others, some with a high profile in international humanist circles.

Third is the assumption that the awards bestowed by the various humanist organizations give an accurate picture of who has been who in the movement. Thus, if we look at some (not all) of the more prominent humanist organizations, we find an array of awardees that is overwhelmingly male. The American Humanist Association used to belong to this group; however, there have been great changes in the AHA since the mid-1970s and these have reflected a much broader notion of what a contribution is and consequently of who has made such contributions.

The point is that those organizations that have consistently given awards to men give the impression that only contributions of men are significant. I will argue that this patriarchal system of values must be questioned and that, when it is questioned, the significant contributions of humanist women become visible. Consider some of the strategies by which women have been erased from the history of our culture in general, as well as from the history of the humanist movement.


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