Feminism and Women Atheist Activists Part II

In my last post I provided an overview of some of the talk about sexism within the atheist and skeptic communities. I have since been reading the discussions that followed from Scented Nectar’s disagreement with Stephanie Zvan and Jen McCreight.

Rebecca Watson will not be attending The Amazing Meeting (TAM) this year because she does not feel “welcomed or safe” and she disagrees with the “recent actions of the JREF president, DJ Grothe,” who is quoted as saying that the claims made by some members of the community constitute misinformation:

I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.

Watson’s response to this has been to reiterate her belief that the community is not a safe place for women, implying that Grothe is engaged in victim blaming. Grothe acknowledges the problems of sexism in skepticism, but he is of the opinion that the responses of some women skeptics like Watson haven’t been helpful. Watson views this as a denial of the problem and she refuses to support what she sees as his dismissal of women’s experiences.

From the initial quotation, Grothe seems primarily concerned about suggestions that JREF promotes sexism or condones violence or threats of violence against women. He doesn’t make the case that sexism isn’t a problem within the community.

Watson is making a general claim about the community based on her experiences and the experiences of other women. Those who object to Watson’s interpretation of the issue often address what they see as a disconnect between general claims made about the community, e.g., that it is not a safe space, and the experiences of some women who claim to have experienced sexism.

In other words, Watson’s critics don’t believe that her experience of sexism is sufficient grounds for claiming that the community has a problem, much in the same way that Watson claimed that Kirby’s personal perspective (lack of sexism) is not a good basis for making an assessment about sexism in the atheist community.

Watson argues that the community is “obviously not a safe space for me or for other women who want to be free of the gendered slurs and sexual threats and come-ons we experience in our day-to-day lives.” The implication of this statement is that those who do not share her perspective must not want to be free of sexism and misogyny.

Watson doesn’t want to assume that most women have had the same experiences she has had, but she wants to affect change, so that the women who do have these bad experiences have support systems. This requires the rest of the community or at the very least its leaders, to recognize that there is a problem.

Critics disagree about whether the problem exists, how it should be framed, and what would constitute an effective solution. This disagreement has not been welcomed to say the least.

Stephanie Zvan thinks Grothe should reconsider his allegations; Greg Laden, a Freethought Blogger, is calling for his resignation; and PZ Myers wants him to fix this genuine problem.

There’s a big gap between Watson and her supporters’ stated  goals, e.g., stopping sexual harassment, and the rhetoric being used in support of their goals. I’m specifically referring to the storylines that have emerged about what this debate is about, and who can dissent. Greg Laden writes that the skeptics movement is currently divided into two parts:

1) The part that wants women to be not only comfortable, but to lead, and this includes the majority of people in the movement, and

2) The part that wants the old timey conferences to retain their old timey charm as minor meat markets for nerds, that wants to keep its old white guy idols and icons, and that wants to move such marginal and suspicious entities as the Mens Rights Movement to the forefront, and this includes a minority of people in the movement.

There is little room for disputation with this model because if you disagree with particular issues related to the nature and prevalence of sexism, you’re immediately dismissed. Miranda Celeste Hale addressed this a year ago in Feminists can be bullies too, The epitome of condescension, and There’s nothing skeptical about the Skepchicks’ vicious “campaign.” She argues that it’s not necessary for anyone to agree that sexism is ubiquitous within the atheist and skeptic movement and that one should be free to dissent without being told to be quiet and listen.