Choose to Challenge

In commemoration of International Women’s Day 8 March 2021.

Image by pasja1000/Pixabay

As a child, I had an elderly relative who was the stereotypical maiden aunt – an ‘unmarried spinster’, an eccentric who possibly modelled herself after Margaret Rutherford’s version of Miss Marple, a slightly tomboyish figure who once bicycled interstate dressed in khaki – and someone who spent many years being zealously involved in her local church. She spent decades doing voluntary work to assist her local male clergy, undertaking many of the same duties without official acknowledgement or credit or payment. She was happy to be exploited by a church that denied her equality based upon her gender.

What may have been the most tragic aspect of this dear lady’s life was that her unmarried status, and her close friendship (in younger days) with a ‘special friend’, suggested that she may have been lesbian – a largely unspoken suspicion within my family until years after her death. I was puzzled why such a woman would desire to devote her life to a homophobic institution. Was her cloister a closet? Did she suffer from some ingrained self-loathing religious impulse that encouraged her to live in denial for her entire life, in much the same way that closeted gay men might seek sanctuary within a homophobic church, or in the way that cognitive dissonance features disproportionately within religious LGBT populations?

A more famous female ancestor of mine – though geograpically and psychologically more distant, and I never actually met her – was also religious, also single, and founded a Ugandan religious community which later relocated to England. In its day, her community was subjected to suspicion from varied perspectives, ‘ridiculed as a naïve group of ‘do-gooders’, or, worse, as supporting the Mau Mau insurgency’. Distance and unfamiliarity prevent me from drawing any specific conclusions about her sexuality, except that she, like my other family ‘maiden aunt’, appears to have lived a life of celibacy and religious devotion. Curiously, she appears to have become concerned about ‘the need for love between missionary colleagues‘ and she ultimately founded a retirement home for unmarried former missionary women – ironically, what might have been the perfect possible retirement home for my other, aforementioned relative.

Image by wajari/Pixabay

Their stories are not uncommon when we acknowledge that women are often asserted as being more religious than men, despite the inbuilt sexism and misogyny that is rampant within so many religious communities and societies. It has always puzzled me why women give so much support to a sexist institution such as a church. Perhaps it is Stockholm syndrome, perhaps it is a desire to feel significant given a lack of understanding of the true glories of science and the surrounding universe – seeking instead to be an individual living example of the metaphoric ‘Bride of Christ‘ that is more traditionally attributed to the collective Christian Church. Such women are represented by my ‘maiden aunts’, who like 95% of women with traditional religious backgrounds, have been brought up to believe that female sexuality is ‘bad’ (Hite, 1976, xxix) as a wider reflection of their theologically asserted gender deficiencies. Why in turn, do so many women support the very religious traditions that oppress them? They have other options available.

“Love your rage, not your cage.” ― Alan Moore, V for Vendetta.

Other oppressed groupings also suffer from religious entrenchment. Decades before the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement helped to propel the struggles of US African Americans into the spotlight, Ishmael Jaffree observed: ‘African Americans are among the most religious people in the world. Religion offers us hope – hope that we will receive some benefits in the hereafter, though the cruel realities of the present seem like living hell.’ (Jaffree, 1991, 187). Often, the contribution of African-American (and Latino) atheists, agnostics and humanists, has been overlooked even by the very communities they have helped.

A generation ago, Humanist Emmanuel Kofi Mensah attributed the persistence of Eurocentric African religion, in part, to a resistance among some people to engage in rational debate which may question religious assumptions: ‘You are an Antichrist! Go away!…I am going to call my pastor.’ (Mensah, 1991, 203). The continuation of these religious ideas has caused untold suffering across Africa. Despite this, I observe modern-day African LGBT refugee communities (some in the adoptive nation of my missionary ‘aunt’), comprising individuals who have suffered family rejection, terrible forms of community discrimination and violence, and who yet cling to the same religious consolation that fueled the very homophobia which victimises their lives. Even in the USA today, African American diasporas struggle to acknowledge the oppressive traditions of religion upon their predominantly religious (and homophobic) communities.

In Australia, traditional indigenous societies (Ford & Beach, 1965, 139, 141) appear to have mirrored those of other ancient cultures (GLAA, 1994) in their acceptance of gender and sexuality diversity (Burg, 2002; GLAA, 1994; Greenberg, 1988). Andrew Farrell cites Troy Anthony Baylis as noting that ‘since European contact, Indigenous Australians have been stripped of their diverse and customary sexual and gendered practices through the imposition of a new social and cultural order’ ie. the white man’s Christianity which even today still seeks to impose itself over indigenous cultures. Some First Nations communities have adopted the culture and religion of their oppressors, and coined a popular viewpoint that homosexuality is a ‘white man’s disease’ (GLAA, 1994, 9). Despite this, the very existence of brotherboys and sistergirls reveals the reality of trans and non-binary folks as exemplars of LGBTQIA+ people within these ancient cultures – as one sistergirl stated, ‘The Gender Binary Arrived With The Boats‘, meaning that colonisers brought Christianity and homophobia/transphobia with them. (In response, perhaps we should invert modern-day white-Australia xenophobia as fuelled by some self-proclaimed Christians in Australian Parliament, and use their own words against them: in terms of entrenched colonial attitudes, it is surely time to ‘stop the boats’).

“We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets”
Harvey Milk

I note the same entrenched religiosity within LGBT communities, where theists get priority treatment at queer conferences and in LGBT media (Allshorn, 2018 & 2019). Religion is a major rationale behind the promotion of gay conversion therapy. Ex-Muslim atheist Eli Heina writes of queer spaces in the USA:

“It is bizarre, to say the least, to sit in a room filled with LGBT folks and hear nothing but praise for religion and disdain for criticism of religion. Any mention of the homophobia in Christianity or any other religion was treated as if it were taboo, or at least unnecessarily hostile.”

US blogger Alex Gabriel makes a plea for queer inclusion of atheists, and an end to gaslighting the godless:

“Attempts to be ‘inclusive’ of religious queer people by godding up our community with sermons, prayers, clergy and promotion of religious groups often mean excluding us… if you’re a secular queer person and you feel uncomfortable around religion, that is absolutely valid. It is not hate, it is not bigotry.”

Greta Christina observes the same queer religious privilege: ‘… I’m finding that I feel more at home – more welcomed, more valued, more truly understood – as a queer in the atheist community than I do as an atheist in the queer community’. Similarly, US trans atheist blogger, Tab, calls for LGBT communities to practice greater critical thinking: ‘The queer community desperately needs skepticism, much more than it needs to kowtow to the religions that despise it. It needs the humanism that provides a system of equality…’

Therein lies a solution…

“The Women’s Movement and the movement for homosexual rights have thus far traveled on a dark road which has posted many obstacles in their way. Now it will become brighter and brighter around us and in the hearts of the people.”
– Dr. Anna Rueling, Berlin, 1904. (Daley, 2010, 23).

Unweaving the Rainbow

Henrietta DugdaleMargain & Jager, Place Grenette, Grenoble, France, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

On 13 April 1869, London-born Camberwell resident, Henrietta Dugdale, became possibly the first Australian woman to publicly call for gender equality. She is attributed with being ‘a pioneer Australian who initiated the first female suffrage society in Australia‘.

Her published work became a spearhead for societal evolution and social reform: ‘The new claim of woman to a political status is itself an honourable testimony to the civilization which has given her a civil status new in history.’ Dugdale promoted gender equality and female emancipation, and a humanist world view through science and social justice. According to Humanist Leslie Allan: ‘She gave hope to the utopian ideal of the perfectibility of humankind, which she saw as the lesson to be drawn from the science of evolution.’ Dugdale stands as an example of a woman who rejected religious oppression by imagining a future, secular world that was far removed from her own society within which religion had left an indelible footprint:

“What a happy age is this far-off one! No skeletons of mythology are here deadening or vitiating one-seventh of these people’s lives. How different are those faces to those of my century! – where nine-tenths are stamped with the hideous seal of hypocrisy.” (Dugdale, Chapter XXII, 103).

Vashti McCollum, Wikimedia Commons.

The fight for humanity and against oppressive religious tradition has also been fought overseas. While Madalyn Murray O’Hair is most famous for her stand against religion, earning her the nickname, ‘The Most Hated Woman in America’; it was another, earlier female US activist who impacted most directly upon her country’s religious supremacy: Vashti McCollum, a Humanist who admitted that her activism had also made her ‘a very unpopular woman‘. An Illinois housewife, mother and academic, Vashti changed her country by challenging religious education that was being taught to one of her children:

She believed that public schools had no business allowing outside groups to come in and promote their religious views… When she told school officials that Jim would not participate in any school-sponsored religious education, an uproar ensued… Unable to persuade public schools officials to reverse course, Vashti turned to the courts.

She and her family endured a protracted trial that Time magazine and The New York Times observed shared “features that made the Scopes ‘monkey trial’ a sideshow’’ of the 1920’s”. The traumatic and expensive trial aftermath caused ongoing personal and professional difficulties for family members, and their family cat was brutally killed.

Part of the scandal was the equation of atheism with godless communism during this era, as explained by Humanist Robert Bender (p. 14):

The atheism of communists was seen as an essential part of communist evil, so all things atheist were by definition dangerous and evil. Therefore supporting religion as an integral part of the American way of life was one way of declaring one did not share the nastiness of ‘godless communism’.

Ultimately, her case was upheld by the US Supreme Court, and reinforced the separation of church and state in that nation by establishing that public school facilities cannot be used to promote religious instruction. Freedom of belief and speech includes the right to freedom from belief and freedom from the speech of those who seek to dominate and oppress others.

“Love your rage, not your cage.” ― Alan Moore, V for Vendetta.

This story began with two women – members of my biological family – whom I see as having suffered from oppression; it ended with two other women whose humanist efforts contributed to freedom from such oppression. They are sisters to each other, and to our larger human family; we can learn from them all. On International Women’s Day – and every other day – let us learn to uphold the voices, the experiences, and the empowerment of women. They can change our world.

Non-Digital References:

Geoff Allshorn, 2018. ‘A Case for Rainbow Atheism’, in Tiffany Jones (ed.), Bent Street #2, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 115-119.
– – – – – – – – , 2019. ‘Sodom Today, Tomorrow the World: Gay Liberation and Atheist Liberation’, in Tiffany Jones (ed.), Bent Street #3, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 172-180.

Robert Bender, 2012. ‘Vashti McCollum and separation of church and state in the USA’, in Rosslyn Ives (ed.), Australian Humanist #106, Council of Australian Humanist Societies Inc., Winter, 13 – 14.

B R Burg (ed.), 2002. Gay Warriors: A Documentary History from the Ancient World to the Present, New York: New York University Press.

James Daley (ed.), 2010. Great Speeches on Gay Rights, New York: Dover Publications.

Henrietta Dugdale, 1883. A Few Hours in a Far Off Age, Melbourne: McCarron, Bird and Co.

Clellan S Ford & Frank A Beach, 1965. Patterns of Sexual Behaviour, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.

Gays and Lesbians Aboriginal Alliance (GLAA), 1994.’Peopling the Empty Mirror: The Prospects for Lesbian and Gay Aboriginal History’, in Robert Aldrich (ed.), Gay Perspectives II: More Essays in Australian Gay Culture, University of Sydney, 1 – 62.

David F Greenberg, 1988. The Construction of Homosexuality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 25 – 241.

Ishmael Jaffree, 1991. ‘The Quest for Humanist Values’, in Norm R Allen Jr. (ed.), African-American Humanism: An Anthology, New York: Prometheus Books, 186 – 188.

Shere Hite, 1976. The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, New York: Macmillan Publishing.

Emmanuel Kofi Mensah, 1991. ‘Thoughts from Africa’s Leading Secular Humanist Atheist’, in Norm R Allen Jr. (ed.), African-American Humanism: An Anthology, New York: Prometheus Books, 191 – 209.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

4 thoughts on “Choose to Challenge”

  1. Once more a well researched and informative blog Geoff.
    My take on why so many women get caught up in religion is that religion is a tool to control and therefore they are a target as the patriarchy has been in charge too long and using many institutions to control them with religion being one of the oldest tools

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