Monday, May 27, 2013

Accurate History for Activists

Dan Allosso

I spent last weekend in the Twin Cities, doing a radio interview about my book and giving a talk on freethought history at the monthly meeting of the Minnesota Atheists.  At roughly

the same time, Susan Jacoby was a featured speaker at the second annual Women in Secularism conference in Washington, DC.  A couple of people live-blogged Jacoby’s talk (here and here). Reading these transcripts and thinking about my own weekend as a presenter has changed my perspective on the role of historians in public discourse.

According to a bio produced for Bill Moyers’ website on PBS, Susan Jacoby

began her writing career as a reporter for THE WASHINGTON POST, is the author of five books, including WILD JUSTICE, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Awarded fellowships by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the New York Public Library's Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, she has been a contributor to THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WASHINGTON POST, THE NATION, and the AARP BULLETIN, among other publications. She is also director of the Center for Inquiry-Metro New York and lives in New York City.

Although she’s not a professional historian, Jacoby has tons of credibility in the literary world.  Also in the secularist world and the liberal intellectual world.  Her recent books, Freethinkers, The Age of American Unreason, and The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, are all required reading for in-the-know secularists.  I’ve read the first and third, the other one is on my to-read list.  Jacoby has done a lot to remind contemporary readers of the existence of freethinkers in American history (especially Robert Ingersoll).  So I was a little surprised when I saw the live-bloggers recorded Jacoby saying something like this:

2:04: There have been no secular activists who have made women’s rights an issue, except insofar as they are threatened by radical Islam. Telling the truth about radical Islam and women is important, but we need secularists to understand that discrimination and violence against women are hardly confined to the Islamic world...Robert Ingersoll is the only male secularist who is an exception to this. 

While Jacoby’s point that secularists need to extend their understanding of oppression is undoubtedly correct, her historical example couldn’t be more incorrect.  Throughout history, freethinkers have more often than not linked secularism with women’s and family issues.  In addition to the many women freethinkers (Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Wright, Eliza Sharples Carlile, Ernestine Rose, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc.) there have been many male freethinkers who worked for women’s rights.  In America, Dr. Charles Knowlton, Robert Dale Owen, and Abner Kneeland come easily to my mind (because I was talking to the MN Atheists about them while Jacoby was talking to the Secularist Women); in England Richard Carlile, Francis Place, and John Stuart Mill are also easy choices.  Dig beneath the surface layer of famous names, and there are many more.

The point is that Jacoby’s credibility and authority (and the audience’s sympathy with her point about understanding oppression) allowed her to insert bad history into the conference’s stream of consciousness.  It resurfaced later, in discussions like the one about whether Ingersoll would have accepted an invitation to speak at the conference, and in a general impression that secularism has generally NOT been particularly friendly to women and their issues.  The inaccuracy of this view hinders contemporary secular feminists in their efforts to identify freethought with the rights of women and oppressed minorities, and not just the “Rights of Man.”  But the authority of historical expertise (Heather Cox Richardson recently referred to it as the “oxygen”) belongs to the person at the podium — and all too often that person is not a historian.

I’m sure misleading her audience was the opposite of Susan Jacoby’s intent.  She seems to have been arguing that today’s secular women need to push beyond the movement’s history and win new victories of their own.  And this is good advice.  But pushing forward might not seem as difficult, if women were aware of the efforts and sacrifices made by earlier secularists in the same cause.  Today’s secular women might gain valuable information as well as inspiration, if the story of earlier secular feminists was better known.  So I’ve signed on with Secular Woman to tell the stories of secular feminists in the past.  I’ll be writing a monthly series of short biographies of secular women.  Secular Woman is an activist organization, so hopefully these stories will be useful to the women Jacoby was urging to continue the fight.

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