(I was originally asked to write this for the CFI on Campus blog. Make sure to go over there and donate!)
I attended the first Women in Secularism conference in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. The Secular Spring was in full swing. I was brimming with passion spurred by March's Reason Rally and I had just been elected president of my university's CFI On Campus affiliate group. Though I was certain that I wanted to become more involved in the Secular Movement, there was a poignant fear lingering in the back of my mind, nagging at me. I wondered whether or not I had the power, the charisma or the authority to ever become an influential secular leader.
I soon realized that one of the reasons I doubted myself was that I had never been exposed to a powerful, charismatic female leader in the Secular Movement. I had been weaned off of my religiosity on a diet of Christopher Hitchens, Aron Ra and Matt Dillahunty. Influential though these men are, they are exactly that: men. I didn't have the deep, booming voice or the tall, imposing stature of these leaders. I worried that, without these qualities, I would be passed over. It was at the Women in Secularism conference that I abandoned this worry.
The conference was small, but the atmosphere was friendly and energetic. At the opening reception, it was easy for people, both women and men, to introduce themselves and to make connections. Even the distinguished speakers in the conference's impressive all-female lineup were kind and accessible. There was an immediately apparent sense of community from that night onward. We laughed together at the infectious wit of speakers like Susan Jacoby and Jamila Bey. We cried together when we heard the powerful, heart wrenching stories that Wafa Sultan told us about the effects of fundamentalist religion on women in Syria, reminding us to "never take anything for granted".
A part of me expected the conference to focus on feminism, but it was less about any ideology than it was about the experiences of secular women. Sikivu Hutchinson spoke of a unique pressure that society puts on women and minorities to be religious. As an African American woman, she had seen first hand how religion permeates both of these communities and how little the secular activists do about it. Being a woman who had both attended school and taught in an urban public school system, I despondently realized how true her observations were, making a mental note to do more volunteer work in Detroit with my SSA group. Bernice Sandler gave a talk about how women and men are treated differently and expect to act differently, especially in the workplace. When she asserted that women generally aren't expected to speak with the power and authority, it became clear to me why the thought of being a student leader made me so nervous. It also became clear though, that each and every woman who spoke at that conference had overcome that unfair societal expectation. This realization gave me hope that I would some day be able to do the same.
Though each charismatic and insightful speaker touched me in their own way, the presentation that touched me the most was Annie Laurie Gaylor's talk on the history of freethinking women. Gaylor had compiled an extensive collection of information on women who had been outspoken critics of religious dogma from the 1800s up until the present day. She projected a picture of each woman onto the screen and told her story. These women were writers, social critics, political activists and average people who simply dared to question the beliefs that they had been raised with. Many of them struggled or died for their beliefs. Never before had I heard the history that was being laid out before at this conference. I could feel tears begin to form as I realized that I, along with every other woman in that room, was a protagonist in the next chapter of that history. I, the newly elected student activist, was now a part of a proud and powerful tradition of women in the Secular Movement. I sincerely wish that every young secular activist could have the experience that I did in that moment.
I returned to my student group with a renewed passion for the Movement. I was keenly aware that there was so much left to do in order to make this country and this world a better place for nonbelievers, especially nonbelieving women and minorities. I wanted to become the kind of student leader who would make proud the secular women who came before me. I wanted to become the kind of activist who would help create a better world for the secular women to come.