Should secularists have man-free events?

This is a shorter version of a Center for Inquiry blog post.

women-onlyInspired by UNIFI and other campus groups’ activities, the Secular Alliance at Indiana University has been debating the advantages and the risks of hosting women-only events. I think some of the arguments raised by both sides will be useful and relevant to other groups seeking to reach out to different demographics and combat internal inequalities.

In the hopes of encouraging more widespread discussion of ways to concretely improve our communities, I raise four objections to the idea of an exclusive women’s group, and four responses.

A women’s group serves no purpose.

Having smaller meetings for secularists with specific shared interests or backgrounds can be very rewarding for those members. It’s a fact that women in our society tend to have a number of common experiences that men don’t, including encounters with religious strictures and expectations that don’t apply to men. If a women’s group helps members talk more freely about these experiences – and/or is just a crazy amount of fun – then it has a purpose. Statistically, men and women also tend to have different talents, interests, and beliefs, which means that diversifying in one way can help you diversify in many others.

Whether this is the best solution may vary from group to group, but most groups would probably benefit from at least talking the option over. Even groups with a well-balanced membership and leadership could benefit from having a women’s subgroup – because it erodes low-grade gender bias, for example. As Virginia Valian notes, men tend to interact with women as they do with inferiors, avoiding eye contact when the woman is speaking and taking for granted that they aren’t in leadership positions. In a 1975 study by Don Zimmerman and Candice West, men were found to interrupt women in conversation over twenty times as often as women interrupted men. Having a space for women to talk can counteract that effect. It can also draw attention to the disparity, making women more likely to speak out when they’re talked over or dismissed.

Banning men from certain events is discriminatory and alienates members.

One way of expressing this objection is to demand that if women get their own events from which men are barred, then men should also get events that exclude women.

But some forms of exclusion can be OK, even if others are not. A group that excludes women is not equivalent to one that excludes men, for the simple reason that we live in a culture that heavily privileges men over women. Creating events that increase the autonomy of men at the expense of women reinforces that disparity, whereas creating events that increase the autonomy of women at the expense of men does not, and may even erode certain inequalities.

Consider a group that was only for black Americans, to give them a safe space to share their experiences with racism without having to explain or justify things to people of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This might not be a completely unproblematic idea, but it at least is a lot easier to see the justification and use for such a group than it is to see the justification for a whites-only group. Similarly, a group that was only for gay men (excluding, e.g., straight allies) could be justified without appeal to essentialism or intrinsic superiority (and without endorsing groups that ban gay men!), simply by noting that our culture imposes different expectations and experiences on gay men and that there may be a need for people of this demographic to express themselves in a place where they feel relatively safe, supported, and understood. If these two sorts of groups make sense, then a group that’s only for women also makes sense.

A women’s group presupposes a clear gender dichotomy.

Not every freethinker or humanist identifies exclusively or exhaustively as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. How will they know whether they’re welcome at a women-only event? Genderqueer, intersex, etc. college students are likely to already be suffering as a result of our society’s mania with fitting everyone into ready-made boxes. The last thing we want is to make them feel that they have to ‘pick a side’ or explicitly justify their gender identity (which may differ from their gender expression, their genital sex, their chromosome line-up, etc.) to a bunch of near-strangers, just to participate in some light recreation and enlightening discussion.

This is probably the biggest problem with a women’s group. Even if it seems unlikely that someone who shows up to one of the women’s events and doesn’t identify as a man but ‘looks too male’ might be mistreated, the bare possibility may cause some of our members to feel anxious, confused, excluded, or erased. Adding more groups (like an LGBT one) might help in this respect, but it wouldn’t totally solve the problem, because it would still depend on forcing people to figure out the vagaries of their personal identity before they can come play Jenga or go horseback riding. Creating a group for ‘non-men’ rather than for ‘women’ would be more inclusive, but it doesn’t totally eliminate the problem, because there will always be people whose status as a ‘man’ is undefined or who fall outside the group only as a technicality.

I think the only adequate response to this objection is to talk about it and hear what individual members think. We can’t eliminate every possible way we could offend anybody in advance, before we’ve actually talked things over face-to-face. But we can raise the issue in a sensitive and open-minded way, letting everyone express why they think it’s a great idea, or why it troubles them, or how they’d like the events to be framed. There’s no way we’ll please everyone, but at least people will feel they’ve been heard.

If we end up affirming the need for events like this in spite of their dependence on defined genders, I expect it will be because we live in a culture where it’s simply a fact that ‘women’, as conceived by the masses and by cultural authorities, are a reified class. You don’t need to erase bisexuals or essentialize ‘gayness’ or ‘maleness’ in order to build a group responding to the fact that gay men are a special group defined and disadvantaged by our culture. And you don’t need to erase mixed-race people or essentialize ‘blackness’ in order to build a group responding to the fact that black people are a special group defined and oppressed by our existing culture.

Similarly, a group for women can be defined in terms of the sorts of experiences being treated as ‘a woman’ inevitably involved in our society. Even if you don’t strongly identify as a ‘woman’, if you feel you’ve had those experiences, you’re welcome to join the group. Pretending socially constructed groups don’t exist won’t make them go away, and it certainly won’t alleviate any of the inequalities that attend their construction.


22 thoughts on “Should secularists have man-free events?

  1. Yes, women should have their own events because that creates an atmosphere of equality … you know … when only one gender is catered to. It’s like making blacks have their own water fountains…. it truly makes them equal.

    1. Isn’t there an important difference between ‘this is an event/resource specifically for black people’ and ‘this is an event/resource black people aren’t allowed to go to’? The former gives new options to a disadvantaged group, while the latter excludes a disadvantaged group. We aren’t forcing women to go to their own event (like black people were forced to use a different water foutain); we’re allowing them to.

        1. Giving more options to a group that currently has fewer options compensates for the status quo, making it possible for the two groups to eventually become equal. Suppose you have one pile of 3 apples, and one pile of 6 apples. If you want the two piles of apples to be equal, you can’t just put an equal number of new apples in each pile; you have to put more apples in the smaller pile than in the bigger one, or the current disparity will never change.

          1. You’re talking apples to apples and that is NOT what we have in society. Too many squeaky wheels are shouting for oil.

            The true equal act is to treat all the same. When “the movement” sponsors gender biased meetings they are specifically and without doubt saying that the two are not equal.

            Should we go whole hog and break it all down and have meetings by ethnicity? If you think that is wrong, why would you do it by gender? Where to the Trans people attend? Is a female event open to lesbians?

            When you deign to cater to one group and not ALL groups you have fucked up the equality equation. There is no way around that.

            1. You’re talking apples to apples and that is NOT what we have in society. Too many squeaky wheels are shouting for oil.

              Could you say more about this? I don’t get what you mean by ‘apples to apples’ or what that has to do with the great level of need in our society.

              If we compare a stack of 3 apples to a stack of 3,000, instead of comparing 3 and 6, the same rule holds: Adding equal amounts to each stack won’t tend to equalize them, because initial inequalities will be preserved. It only makes sense to give everyone identical opportunities (e.g., ban affirmative action) if you assume everyone is already equally advantaged.

              they are specifically and without doubt saying that the two are not equal.

              They’re saying men and women aren’t currently equal in freedoms and opportunities, because society gives men unfair advantages. Producing a society in which the two groups are treated equally requires that we take steps to alleviate that unfairness; just pretending the inequality isn’t there won’t change anything.

              I don’t see anything wrong with having meetings for black atheists, or for gay atheists. I even used those as examples in my post.

              Lesbians are of course women. So are MtF transsexuals. Other people, however, don’t fit so clearly into these gender schemas, and I recognize that and worry about it too in the third objection I raised above. I don’t have a settled view on what to do about that, but it seems like a useful thing to have groups talk about on an individual basis. I don’t think refusing to talk about it will make things more equal.

            2. I know that you mean well. You are categorizing people in order to give one group some special priviledge. This is not equality. When I talked about apples, you make an equivocation that women are equal to men in some way. The gender inequality starts in society and has it very roots in religion. By treating the ‘female’ gender differently you do not make them equal, you highlight the differences. It does not matter how hard you try to qualify who is eligible for female events, as soon as you make one you have said they are not equal.

              I am NOT refusing to talk about it. Not even close. I am an equalist. Imagine that you take some other minority and put them in the same position… for the sake of argument, lets say it is short people. Would you think that a short person event would give them equality?

              1. Sometimes differences have to be highlighted in order to be combated. Serious diseases have to be brought to a doctor’s attention so that medicine can be prescribed. Ignoring the disease won’t always make you healthy. Similarly, pretending that women and men are already treated equally won’t make them more equal. If women would like to talk about their experiences in a safe space with others who share a lot of those experiences, that could have a very positive equalizing effect, because it counteracts existing inequalities. Likewise for groups where gay men talk about their experiences to other gay men.

                1. So you are now implying that they have not already been highlighted by generations of women… way to denigrate their efforts. You’re going to save them… nice.

                  1. Do you think that’s a fair characterization of what I said? To say that there’s more work to be done is not to say that we have made no progress thus far. And how is voicing support for the women who want to start women’s events attempting to ‘save’ them?

                    1. You ARE suggesting the one thing that will say they are NOT equal. Don’t give them an equal seat at the table, give them their own table. Don’t worry about letting them into THE tent, get them their own tent. Do you realize that this is exactly what monotheistic religions do?

                      If you want to voice support for women, good. Voicing support for women only events is detrimental to their equality in society. Work on getting them to THE table, not on getting them their own table.

                      I wholly support the equal treatment of ALL people, not just women. What are we to think of your opinion for those who are not self identified as white men or white women? The problem currently is that too many thing atheism is for old white guys. So you want to help women… is it just white ones? What about black males? What about Columbian transvestites?

                      Your efforts to categorize and treat special certain groups leaves out all other groups and this in itself is zenophobic and does NOT promote equality.

        2. “Allowing” was probably the wrong word as that assumes permission was needed.

          I think it could be a positive thing if it had the effect of making more atheist women come out. I also feel like women should feel free enough to come out at any atheist event though. There just seems to be so few outspoken female atheists compared to men.

          1. Do you know why there are fewer outspoken female atheists?

            Why not address that problem and the number of women at events problem will address itself.

            The only time that atheists have voiced a concern about women is to generally say that they are not safe at atheist events. Guess who did that? Now you think we need to compensate for it. We don’t.

            If you want to plug for women atheists… blog about them. Show people they exist. Only through knowledge are people truly encouraged to join and participate. Making it women only won’t change a damn thing. The problem was that women were not encouraged to speak out at all, never mind about atheism.

            Creating separate events only says “yes, you’re special, but not good enough for the real events”

            Fuck, if there was an atheist movement instead of just rumors I’d fire the PR department.

                1. This is what the apple analogy was about. If two people are sick, the way to make them equally healthy isn’t to treat them identically. It’s to try to understand their individual situations and respond accordingly. If one person is poor and another is rich, and you want them to be equally wealthy, the way to do that isn’t to treat them the same. It’s to give money to the poor person, or take it from the rich, or both. Likewise, if women aren’t given enough voice in the secular movement, the solution is to give women more opportunities to speak and be heard, not to wait for the problem to spontaneously resolve itself.

                  The goal isn’t to treat everyone identically, regardless of their needs, or their desires, or the details of their lives; it’s to make the world a better place, in this case by changing existing social mores that restrict some groups’ liberties. Those mores aren’t going to change on their own. It will take discussion, and hard work, and creatively trying out a wide variety of new practices.

                  Dismissing one interesting option out of hand just because it acknowledges that there really are differences between groups of people is not going to improve anybody’s status. Our desire to feel righteous and just and ‘above bias’ is not more important than getting actual results. Sometimes getting results means getting your hands dirty and recognizing existing inequalities so they can be addressed.

                2. Equality in name only is inequality in practice.

                  Look, let’s start from your premise that, “Equalism is the belief that all human beings, regardless of gender, race, age, ethnic origin, or any other factor that defines our individual differences, are totally equal. Supporters of equalism believe that in order for equality to exist, society as a whole must be virtually ‘color-blind’ and ‘gender-blind,’ and that the laws and policies which govern our society must be created for the benefit of all and not based on these differences.” ( It’s a nice belief, but would you like to provide some evidence that this is (present-tense) the state of affairs? We are a long way off of color-blindness and gender-blindness and until we aren’t we have to deal with the fact that your belief is simply out of touch with reality. This would be sound advice if, you know, it wasn’t an actual verifiable problem that men like Christopher Hitchens legitimately believe there is some essential difference preventing women from being equal: “Women who think they are not treated equally, hear my words. To be treated equally you have to deal with the fact that some people are going to think you are stupid regardless of your sex.” ( ( And you have to deal with the fact that some people are going to think those women are stupid because of it.

                  This proposal—which I will confess reservations about—is only an affront to equality if you pretend that somehow we can solve this problem by just pretending equality already existis. As a feminist, I agree it is unfortunate steps must be taken to engage with sexist attitudes, situations, and people. That the long term goal is what you describe as equalism does not change the fact that when women walk into a room—and for some unfathomable reason, secular spaces in particular—there is an enormous number of assumptions attached to their identity.

                  None of this establishes the wisdom of this particular course, though I defer to the women of SAIU on this count. But let’s not pretend that by burying our heads in the sand sexism will magically work itself out.

  2. Sometimes women-only events have the advantage of removing male hierarchies and cause different interactions among women, who are operating in a profoundly patriarchal society. Those who think denial of this reality is an adequate response and cloak that denial in “equality” talk are denying the existence of a patriarchal society, and thus part of the problem. Thanks for drawing attention to these matters, and the easily observed shortcomings of the arguments of those who oppose such gatherings and fail to understand the reasons they add a different voice and viewpoint to the overall discussion.

  3. Giving unequal treatment to a sub-group which has traditionally been socially disadvantaged by unequal treatment does not achieve social equality; Whether or not the now separated group takes resources from the socially advantaged core group is not at issue. This is not a problem of numerical inequality and cannot be addressed as might an accountant’s balance sheet.

    You can not create social equality for each member of a diverse group of people by promoting division and disparate treatment of individuals and by promoting subgroups.

    Poor analogies hurt this discussion.

    When discussing these matters, arguments pro and con, which rely upon quantitative analogies fail entirely to identify and solve problems of qualitative realities.

    The problem here is not that one pile of apples numbers too few and another too many. The problem, more correctly identified by way of analogy, is that the opportunity to partake of applesauce varies between peoples in the group.

    Inequitable treatment of anyone in the group is the problem, which creates a subgroup properly defined by the inequity. Attempting to redefine and subgroup by race, color, creed, sex, orientation, disability, etc exacerbates the problem of inequity.

    Physically segregating and encouraging self-identification of the marginalized group(s) which suffered inequity does not begin to fix the problem, because it is more of the same. The goal needs be reintegration of the marginalized subgroup by way of equal treatment which will eliminate the subgroup. Isolation and more disparate treatment should not be the goal. The original problem, properly identified, is that some people are not getting their share of THE SAUCE. No other sauce will do.

    Part of the social quality of partaking of this applesauce is that you are encouraged to sit at the same table with your respected equals and share equally from the same sauce.

    There will only be fair shares of the sauce and a consistent flavor enjoyed by all, when everyone gets their share from the same pot while sitting at the same table.

    Talk of justice hurts this discussion.

    You can not tip the scales somehow and undo past inequality. Equality either exists now or it does not.

    The rules are either fair or unfair and the playing field is either level or not level, right now, here, today.

    Pursuing justice for past inequity is chasing a rainbow at the expense of ever getting out of the rain.

    Please, before anyone works up an emotional head of steam and begins to trot arguments. Take a few deep breaths and hear my plea…

    Please, imagine a group of people who unify in a single community by choice, who regard one another as social and intellectual equals. Now try to imagine what roles division, segregation, exclusion and isolation played in how they came together to regard and respect one another as equals. This is nearly impossible to imagine because of the tremendous disconnect between these ideas.

    Mutual respect and admiration can only be formed if there is interaction. This interaction needs to be among and between members of a single group. Divisions create an “us vs. them” mentality. Humans do that. Until everyone in the group numbers each member of “our group” as “us”, we will foster inequality.

    Thank you to Myatheistlife for presenting an unpopular idea which needs not only discussion, but ultimately to be understood as truth, unpopular as it may be. This understanding is not born of rhetoric or political correctness, nor is it born of fantastical delusions of achieving ‘restitution’ for past wrongs. This is about achieving equality now and maintaining it in the future. The past is gone, so long as we leave behind the failed methods of the past, and don’t recreate those realities for the sake of misguided goals or personal power.

    It is my opinion that where social movements call for separatism and exclusion, there hides a personal will to power. If it is not your personal desire for power, you are perhaps knowingly or unwittingly fueling the machine of someone else’s will to power. If your leader(s) tell you that the goal cannot be achieved as a group, and you must splinter the group to achieve your goals, their stated goal and your heartfelt goal may be at odds.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment in depth, Kelley. But don’t you think this worry is slightly over-the-top? If a couple of atheists want to get together and start a sewing club, they aren’t “unwittingly fueling the machine of someone else’s will to power”. They’re… sewing. Likewise for an atheist book club. And likewise if some atheist women want to get together once in a blue moon and play a board game in an environment where they feel more comfortable, more understood, more likely to be listened to and treated as an equal. (Or any number of times in a blue moon.) I don’t even see anything inconvenient, much less dire and sinister, about this scenario.

      This is not a problem of numerical inequality

      All inequalities are ‘numerical’, in the sense that they can be counted and ordered. But I agree gender inequality is an extremely complicated phenomenon, involving innumerable small-scale disparities that accumulate over time. If you’re contributing to inequality by not looking at women when they talk to you, then look at women in those contexts more often. If you’re contributing to inequality by unconsciously demanding higher standards for women’s résumés than for men’s, then adjust those standards.

      Women’s events can be useful because they give people an opportunity to voice ideas and concerns that might ordinarily go unheard, and that can then be taken to heart and shared with the larger group. The ultimate goal is of course to make such events totally unnecessary; but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful at the present time for some groups and clubs. Similarly, the goal of anti-religious activism is to make anti-religious activism unnecessary and obsolete; just because we want to live in a world where no one cares about ‘religion’ doesn’t mean the best way to create that world is to make believe it already exists.

      The problem, more correctly identified by way of analogy, is that the opportunity to partake of applesauce varies between peoples in the group.

      So some people get more applesauce than others, or more applesauce opportunities, or longer ones…. The qualitative/quantitative distinction is in most contexts a confusion. That’s clear here from the fact that you think switching from a simple quantitative relation to a more complicated quantitative relation somehow involves a total abandonment of quantity. The very idea of equality, as something distinct from perfect identity, doesn’t make sense if one speaks in purely non-quantitative terms.

      Attempting to redefine and subgroup by race, color, creed, sex, orientation, disability, etc exacerbates the problem of inequity.

      That may be true sometimes, but how can you claim it’s always so? These groups already exist in our society. Pretending we don’t notice or think in terms of them, or refusing to talk about them, isn’t going to suddenly make them go away. It’s particularly obvious that combating inequalities disabled groups face requires recognizing those groups and taking concrete steps to help them, not just pretending we’re all happy shiny equally-well-treated people by default. Ignoring the existence of gay people doesn’t help get gay people the right to marry. Ignoring the existence of black people isn’t what got the Civil Rights Act passed, and it’s people who fight for racial equality and equal opportunity, not people who pretend race isn’t an issue in the U.S., who are responsible for the progress we’ve made in civil rights to date.

      Physically segregating and encouraging self-identification of the marginalized group(s) which suffered inequity does not begin to fix the problem, because it is more of the same.

      We aren’t forcing people into novel segregated communities; we’re affirming the right of disadvantaged people who want to talk to others with shared experiences to do so. If they’d rather not, that’s fine too. Either way, it’s not ‘more of the same’, because having more opportunities and liberties is not the same as having fewer opportunities and liberties.

      People want to have better lives, not in all cases to have their identities or in-groups destroyed. (And certainly not to have their identities erased from our discourse or awareness.)

      The goal needs be reintegration of the marginalized subgroup by way of equal treatment which will eliminate the subgroup.

      Sure. Often that goal is best served by having everyone meet together and talk things over. Sometimes it’s best served by having the subgroup meet on its own and blow off some steam or talk things out. It varies from group to group, and from individual to individual. I find it singularly implausible that the best approach here will demand that absolutely all secular groups adopt exactly the same strategy.

      Part of the social quality of partaking of this applesauce is that you are encouraged to sit at the same table with your respected equals and share equally from the same sauce.

      You act like people are suggesting that we ban women from ordinary events. The proposal is instead to recognize the value of women defining new spaces for talking and interacting freely. So your analogy doesn’t hold. Giving the sauce-deprived an opportunity (if they so wish) to talk amongst themselves may be one of many useful steps in remedying sauce inequality. (Ideally we’d just reallocate the sauce and be done with it, but that’s rather more difficult when the ‘sauce’ consists of tens of thousands of small unconscious behaviors that everyone participates in and that are firmly entrenched in contemporary society.)

      You can not tip the scales somehow and undo past inequality. Equality either exists now or it does not.

      I don’t think anyone’s suggested that the goal is to change the past. Rather, the goal is to change the future by counteracting inequalities in the present. The idea is not to claim revenge for past injustices, but to fix past injustices whose effects continue into the present day, and that will go on propagating themselves so long as we don’t go out of our way to prevent them. Compare:

    2. If there is a room full of atheists and all get to speak only once, yet there are only 10% women, not by any persons fault but because that is just the population that decided to show up, is that equal or unequal? Who defines what is equal or unequal? If women decide they are not adequately represented in a group, why is it wrong for them to form some sort of rally in order to draw more women to the cause?

      A question that I think was asked earlier, why are there fewer women atheists per capita than men? Are there actually fewer or are they just not outspoken? Why?

      I would also point out that African Americans make up an even smaller group of atheists than women. That is often attributed to “black culture” and the prevalence of religion and the church in their culture. Is there a “female culture” that makes them less likely to be atheist?

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