Printer Friendly

Humanist women.

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.

The first strategy has been the theft of women's work, either by men using women's ideas and calling them their own or by publishers and editors attributing the work to men even when they have been in fun possession of facts to the contrary. Dora and Bertrand Russell jointly wrote a book called The Prospects of Industrial Civilization, yet biographer Ronald Clark has attributed the main ideas to Bertrand Russell. Knowing Dora's work as well as I do, I can assure you that Clark has done this with no justification whatsoever.

One of the "problems" for scholars of John Stuart Mill has been that he was most emphatic about the importance of Harriet Taylor in the shaping of his ideas and prose. Mill referred to his publications from 1840 onward, including On Liberty, as "joint productions." In a 1986 humanist publication of the Subjection of Women, there is no mention of Harriet Taylor as collaborator, although other influences on Mill - those of Coleridge, Comte, and Wordsworth - are given due recognition. To make matters worse, this humanist reprint says on the cover that here John Stuart Mill "strikes a powerful blow for women's rights."

Far too many critics have decided that, where his beloved Harriet Taylor was concerned, Mill was simply unreliable: really, all the good and progressive ideas were entirely his. But Harriet Taylor's reputation has also been severely undermined by the attribution of some of her separate writing to Mill. The article called the "Enfranchisement of Women," for example, which is more radical than anything Mill wrote, has been attributed to him. The fact is that Taylor did not believe that women should be educated in order to be fit companions for men, whereas Mill did so believe - at least where married women were concerned.

The stories of Dora Russell and Harriet Taylor show that, even when the facts of authorship have been laid out for all to see, historians and critics and publishers have managed to promote the so-called facts they wanted to see. When we add this strategy to others, it is no wonder we have lost track of our outstanding humanist women.

The first strategy, then, is theft, pure and simple. The second strategy is simply not recording - or, at the very least, greatly understating - the contribution women have made. Harriet Martineau was a highly influential writer on political economy in the London of her time, but she frequently makes it only to the footnotes. And what about Matilda Joslyn Gage, who in 1893 wrote the landmark book Women, Church, and State? Gage did not figure much in humanist circles, although I understand that someone is doing a dramatic portrayal of her in the Unitarian churches. Gage's book is a must for humanists. In it she wrote: "The most stupendous system of organized robbery known has been that of the church toward women, a robbery that has not only taken her self-respect but all rights of person." Gage questioned the whole fabric of nineteenth-century American society, both as a feminist and as what we today refer to as a humanist. I could name many others who have suffered the same fate, but I shall return to the case of Russell.

Dora Russell was born in 1894 and died in 1986. She worked tirelessly for the humanist cause for over 70 years. She was given an obituary in both the New York Times and the London Times. The BBC did a television documentary on her as one of the six great women of our century, yet she cannot be found in humanist anthologies - not even in British ones. For instance, she is not mentioned in Margaret Knight's anthology of humanist writing from ancient times to the present, which includes only four women. Nor is Dora Russell found in histories of free thought written by humanists. She does not appear in the Encyclopedia of Unbelief, although I should point out that this publication mentions more humanist women than I have found reference to elsewhere. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, incidentally, was published in 1986 by a humanist press, and the entry on women was written by a man (Gordon Stein). Was no woman judged capable of writing the entry on women of unbelief?

In Dora Russell's case, the question is this: how is it that one gets recognized by the world's most prestigious newspapers and broadcasting establishments but is overlooked by one's own movement? (It must be acknowledged that the Rationalist Press Association was one humanist organization that did recognize Dora Russell's efforts; indeed, it was the only publisher who would accept her articles during the time she was branded a communist. Furthermore, when I brought her to the attention of the AHA, she was posthumously given an award at the national conference in 1987.)

Nevertheless, Dora Russell's case is one of those that tell me in no uncertain terms that there has been something terribly wrong in the way humanists have been recording their history and building their identity.

The first strategy I referred to was theft of ideas; the second was failure to recognize the contributions women have made. A third strategy is the failure to recognize the individuality of women married to famous men. Dora Russell suffered from this acutely. Just three years ago, David Hendley, a professor of philosophy at the University of Waterloo, wrote of one of Dora's books: "None of this is particularly innovative," although this and her other writings do show that "Dora Russell was not just |Mrs. Bertrand Russell.'" How patronizing and chauvinistic! Does Hendley think that, if she had written nothing, she could justifiably be referred to as "just Mrs. Bertrand Russell"?

Much of humanism's history has been recorded with reference to ideas (here I refer to the various anthologies of free thought, atheism, histories of ideas, and so forth). This fixation on ideas has sucked the life out of the movement, and it has also had the effect of rendering women invisible because it is largely the ideas of males that editors have selected. Other things, particularly things that women have done, have not counted as worthy of notice. While increasing numbers of humanist organizations have a broader concept of "contribution," the facts are that people do not usually get prestigious humanist awards for running religious education classes year in and year out, for making sure that the elderly and infirm get to meetings and socials, for being secretary, organizing the creche, playing the piano, and so forth. These are things that women typically have done, but they have been undervalued. (I would add that it is a cop-out to suggest that, because these activities are essential to running an institution, they are not gender-related. It is no accident that women traditionally have performed these tasks.)

We humanists consider ourselves so advanced in having adopted a one-world view in which reality is a space-time continuum, where there is no soul-body division, and so forth - but what is the present state of our values? Does mind still dominate in humanism to the detriment of body and all that is associated with it - that is, the practical, the aesthetic, the reproductive? These areas have been the principal concern of women, and to the extent that they are undervalued by humanists we continue to be patriarchal and follow in the footsteps of the Western religious tradition. In this tradition, spirit has received the highest value; humanists have simply transferred this value to the mind and its products.

The feminist message I am trying to put across is that, as humanists, we cannot assume that we have always addressed the whole person; this is evident where we have entertained dualistic values and have assumed that contributions must have the stamp of scholarship or of officialdom. We need to become more astute in identifying dualistic values in order to recognize the women of our movement and their contributions. We must do something about the fact that humanists have not had a strong conception of women as authorities and that outstanding humanist women have not always placed a high priority on personal recognition.

So what, finally, am I saying? I'm saying that it isn't enough to look to Messrs. Ingersoll, Emerson, Huxley, Dewey, Russell, Adler, van Praag, and the rest. We have also to look to Ms. Taylor, Ms. Russell, Ms. Martineau, Ms. Gage, Ms. de Beauvoir, and all the others I cannot name here. These women, too, embody many of our ideals and must be safeguarded for present and future generations. Dora Russell once said, "Something that women have to say is being left out of everything in the world," and there can be no humanist world without it. I agree.

Beverley Earles has a Ph.D. in religious studies from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She currently teaches in the English language program at Kansas State University. She is a board member of the American Humanist Association and is active in a number of humanist groups worldwide. This article is reprinted from the July 1992 issue of International Humanist.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Humanist Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Earles, Beverley
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Death with dignity.
Next Article:Themes from the 1992 World Congress in Amsterdam.

Related Articles
Humanism and evolutionary humility.
Humanist resources.
Organizations. (Humanist Resources).
The issue at hand.
The unfolding of Humanist Manifesto III. (Cover Story).
Humanist resources.
Humanist resources.
Humanist resources.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters