Fighting Words: Founders, Feminists & Freethinkers: Robin Morgan

Women are the canaries in the mine.

This acceptance speech as “Freethought Heroine 2005” was delivered at the annual convention  on Nov. 11, 2005, in Orlando, Fla.

By Robin Morgan

This is so great — being named a “Freethought Heroine”! I think of the names I have been called — you know, when you Google yourself and the first 50 hits come up: “baby killer, man hater.” “Freethought Heroine” is lovely, and I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to all of you, especially to the “feminist dynasty” that is Anne Gaylor and Annie Laurie Gaylor, and Dan. And, of course, all the men of conscience in the room; I assume you’re men of conscience, because if you’re not, what the hell are you doing here?

You members of FFRF really are quite remarkable. I wish I could hold up a mirror to you so that you could see how bloody beautiful you are. I want to start by applauding you and your chapters and the fact that you’re national, and applauding all the work that you do every day in a culture where the wonderful newspaper Freethought Today has to arrive in a plain wrapper. So, bravo. To be blue about it, you are fan-fucking-tastic.

I am going to talk tonight about the centrality of women to this struggle. That’s hardly news to you. Because today we’re not even really dealing with genuine spirituality in this country; we’re dealing with a power-political movement that masquerades behind all sorts of smoke and mirrors.

It’s not surprising that this organization was co-founded by women. There’s a long history stretching for millennia of women in rebellion against the rules, strictures, and interpretation of the mysteries of the universe. There’s also a long history of folks who know that you cannot get power over society unless and until you control the two central engines of society — one of which is human sexuality, the other of which is reproduction and the family. You control human sexuality, reproduction and the family, you’ve got it made.

Women stand at the cathexis of those issues. We are the canaries in the mine. My co-awardee today, Sen. Ernie Chambers, is quite right when he talks about how the Constitution, to which everybody genuflects, is not so brilliant on Native American rights or on the subject of slavery. But I will say this: African men, and they referred to them as African, at least made it into the Constitution, although not as a full person. Women? Not at all, black or white. Native women didn’t even get the vote until 1929, much later than African-American and European-American women won suffrage.

But the irony is that canaries in the mine at least are listened to by miners. Yet for the past 25 years, women have been saying that the Religious Right was rising in this country, rising and acting at a level of terror and terrorism, and “if they come for us at night and you do nothing, they will come for you in the morning.” Abortion clinics and general reproductive rights clinics have been bombed repeatedly, their practitioners murdered and their staffs the victims of terrorism and anthrax and assault for decades. But most people said, “Well, but that’s just women, you see, that’s just the abortion issue.”

I want to read briefly from a section of my book The Demon Lover: The Roots of Terrorism, first written in 1989, then reissued after 9/11 with a new introduction. It began as an examination of violence against women, simple enough. By that time, however, I’d already compiled Sisterhood Is Global, so I had an international consciousness. You know how that happens. Suddenly, you can’t think just locally. You think, “Hmm, very high statistics about policemen beating up their wives in Detroit. Interesting … same stats in New Delhi.” You begin to look at patriarchy cross-culturally and to look at religion cross-culturally.

So the book grew and became a study of patriarchal violence globally, about, in fact, terrorism. But not in the usual way they discuss terrorism down in that place called the Beltway, where strange people crawl out from under rocks and somehow slime into our White House. I had a chapter on state terrorism, one on insurgency terrorism, one on philosophical terrorism, and one, of course, on religious terrorism, which is actually crucial to the whole context. This is a short section from that chapter, called “Days of Wrath, Day of Reckoning”:

“If we’re to look more closely at the worldwide historical conspiracy of religious terror, let the woman reader especially be warned. You will have to cover your arms and legs. You will have to veil your face. You will have to wear bolts of cloth from crown to toe. You may not wear trousers, though your priests may wear skirts. You will have to cover or shave your head. You will be legally raped in wedlock. You will have to obey father, husband, brother, even son. You will have to become pregnant, whether you wish to or not, and carry the pregnancy to term, whether you wish to or not. You must figuratively or literally carve out your sexual organs.

“You must stay away from holy places so as not to contaminate such sites, or, if you are fortunate and permitted access, you may be forced to worship from behind a wall or a screen. You must learn that as God is to man, so Man is to you. You must ‘dwell in terror of the living God’ — and of the living man. You must nod, bow, genuflect, kneel, kowtow, prostrate yourself. You must avert your eyes. You must labor for centuries to (only partially) win a questionable victory (in only certain faiths)–that of approaching the altar directly and of ministering to others. You may be told that you have no soul. You may be told that you can enter paradise only at Man’s disposition, as his appendage, his rib, his odalisque. You will be excommunicated if you question. You will be declared lapsed, heretic, apostate, damned, doomed, hell’s handmaiden. You will be tortured, flogged, stoned, hanged, set aflame. “If you contract your soul and sacrifice your body to this system, you will be honored as a living emissary who facilitates Man’s entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.

“But, you ask, what have these rules to do with the vitality of spirit? What has this to do with … awe? The cell in division — a miniscule star in nova under the microscope; a fragile crocus shooting its wand greenly up through snow; the frog in the Kalahari Desert that neatly reconstitutes its buried, desiccated body in the first rain after long drought; vast black holes dense with energy and galaxies in whorls of dance with one another’s iridescence — what have they to do with such rules? How does this system address undersea volcanoes erupting island after newborn island in chains as invisibly indivisible as the string theory, the most advanced hypothesis of theoretical physics? How does this system speak to and for the mystical uniqueness yet relatedness of each fingerprint, each shell, leaf, gene, snow crystal?

“Religion speaks to none of these wonders. That is not its function. Religion is not about awe and joy, despite its purported proprietorship of these and its promise to eventually deliver what already lies around us every day, freely available for utter celebration. Religion is about something else. The etymology of the word itself, from the Latin, to being bound by rules. Religion is about terror.”

Those of you familiar with Bill Moyers’ writings on this subject about the millenarians and Dominionists understand that some of these religious fanatics believe the Second Coming will not occur until the last tree is cut down, until Armageddon is invoked by war and catastrophe, unless violence and chaos rule the planet. So to hasten the Second Coming, they actually want deforestation, war, poverty, plagues, and other goodies. We’re not dealing with James Watt anymore, or the old-style obsessional right-wingers. We are dealing with a very different animal, one small in numbers, but great in power since its power now emanates from the White House.

The cathexis of male identity, woman hatred, fascistic politics, violence and religious institutions, is an old and infamous alliance. In the 1930s, the German National Socialists, otherwise known as the Nazis, agitated against employed women, contraception, abortion and homosexuality, and revived the ideal of kinder, kirche, küche (children, church, and kitchen) for German womanhood. There’s a myth that the Nazis were atheists. There was “church” in there, a “Reich bishop.” A working coalition of misogyny between the Nazi Party and the German Christian religious establishment served long enough for Hitler to consolidate his power. The first bill that was passed when he came to power was against abortion — for, I might add, Aryan woman.

Next year, I have to warn you, I plan to up the ante with not one but two books against religion. (I may have to go underground, don a curly red wig, and seek shelter at an atheist safe house!) The first is an historical novel that will be out in March from Melville House Books, called The Burning Time. It’s about the Inquisition and one incredibly strong, literate, powerful, historical yet little-known woman, who had the means to fight back. I’m also expanding the piece Annie Laurie referred to in her intro to me today — “Fighting Words,” which ran in Ms. Magazine — into a full book. It has a lot of wonderful quotes against religion from the Framers.

Normally, in my speeches about the women’s movement, I always read these quotes. I start by saying the Framers were a problem. Some held slaves, some did not, and women were not on their radar, despite Abigail Adams’ good efforts. But on the subject of religion, they were radicals. The issue of their “intent” is moronic, like, you know, moronic design. (Well, if it were intelligent, would we be in this situation right now? Would the head of the world’s sole superpower be George W. Bush? That is proof enough of moronic design.)

The framers knew what they were doing in separating church and state, and their intent is made clear in their own letters and voluminous correspondence. Now, the wonderful volumes out there, 600-page tomes on Adams, on Jefferson, on Washington, they’re terrific. But enough people aren’t reading them; they’re big and they take a long time to get through.

So I thought, okay, what I’m going to do with the piece that was in Ms. with just a few quotes is expand it. So next September, just before the election, Nation Books is going to publish Fighting Words: A Toolkit for Combating the Religious Right. Small format, fits in your pocket, priced cheaply. It’s going to be an argument book. It’s going to be a tool to wave at people and say, “Aha! But actually, did you know that John Adams said that ‘the cross was the greatest engine of grief that humankind had encountered’? No? Well, here you go.”

The basic documents will be in there, including the original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had no mention of God in it. We’re going to have some basic quotes from the Framers, and other presidents and justices and a few brief law rulings, like the full text of the Lemon Test — a short legal definition that makes very clear there cannot be any faith-based legislation or faith-based initiatives, let alone in the White House itself. To be constitutional, a government action always has to have a secular purpose; it cannot have a religious purpose.

So a lot of Basic 101 will be in there, as well as quotes from other great Americans. Some of these are so much fun, I have to tell you! Victoria Woodhull, James Baldwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Barry Goldwater, Jessica Mitford and so on. And of course, the feminist lineage in this country has always been opposed to patriarchal religion, the great Elizabeth Cady Stanton being the fiercest, least compromising intellect of all. The book will also have another section called “In Their Words.” Falwell and Robertson and the usual suspects. This section also quotes the defense made on behalf of religion for apartheid, for slavery. You know, the rules that say if your daughter touches leather, you should stone her at the outside gate. That’s Leviticus.

So we’ll have a basic little book, which we hope will be in airports, with resources–groups to join, websites to surf, ways to get involved, books to read–at the back (assuredly highlighting this wonderful group). Many ordinary folks, I have to tell you, are really getting–finally–scared.

Here are just a few last quotes to throw at you:

“I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” — Susan B. Anthony

“The Bible and church have always been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation.” — Stanton, who wrote The Woman’s Bible.

Then we can leap right ahead to Jane Wagner and wonderful Lily Tomlin, from “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” and simply ask, “Why is it that when we talk to God, we’re said to be praying, but when God talks to us, we’re said to be schizophrenic?”

Mary Daly, the feminist philosopher: “If God is male, then male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination.”

Sojourner Truth: “Religion without humanity is a poor human stuff.”

Eliza Farnham: “Our own theological church, as we know, has scorned and vilified the body until it has seemed almost a reproach and a shame to have one, yet at the same time has credited females with the power to drag the soul to perdition.”

And one I really love, although I think my delivery of it may be a little different than she intended. It’s Margaret Fuller writing to Emerson: “I myself am more divine than I see.”

And of course Stanton, because it’s just too good not to, especially her great “The Solitude of Self” speech, the last she ever gave: “In the solemn solitude of self that links us with the immeasurable, each soul lives alone forever. Who, I ask you, can dare take on himself” — [and she did mean “him”] — “the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?”

There is such profound ignorance out there. The profound ignorance of ordinary folks who have been brain-rotted by this propaganda is huge. Roman Catholics, except for those folks working with Francis Kissling’s Catholics for Free Choice, don’t know that the Church didn’t formally denounce abortion until 1869. The reason that it came down in 1869 was also to placate Napoleon III, who needed more cannon fodder. People don’t know that celibacy came in not because of “godliness,” but because in the 12th century the church was getting nervous. Priests were usually married, and they had children and they bequeathed their property to their offspring. So you had to ensure that they never had offspring so any property would go to the church. Religion — news flash! — has always been profoundly and clearly political.

I want to re-express my gratitude. It’s scary out there. Even though it’s begun to start to commence to implode, before things change, more lives will be lost, and more people will be made wretched. But in terms of winning, I don’t think there’s any real doubt. For one thing, they have absolutely no sense of humor, and we do. For another, they’re profoundly rigid, and we’re not. For yet another, there are relatively few of them, and we really are the majority of the human species, trying to breathe free. I seriously believe that this is a crucial moment in human evolution, and that unless and until human beings can begin to revere whatever they want to call it — the holiness, the divinity, the sacredness — of themselves, and the miracle of themselves, and not externalize that, we can’t evolve further. I actually think nontheism is a next step in human evolution. Physics seems to demonstrate that.

So we keep on. On alternate Wednesdays and Fridays I allow myself 15 minutes to get discouraged, then I roll up my sleeves and say, “That’s enough of that.” Here’s what I tell myself when I get discouraged (perspective equals humor): One is that we must let ourselves feel like the sea, like the ocean feels about sandbags: Pooh. We’re just going to keep coming. This is not the first wave or the second wave or the 10,000th wave. This is the ocean, okay?

Another tonic for discouragement. When the Statue of Liberty was given to New York City by the French, the Catholic Church, backed by Protestant ministries all across New York City and New York state, kept it from being put up for two years! The pedestal sat there while they lobbied against it. Why? Because they said it was a pagan goddess.

Last, in the 11th century, during the Crusades, Eleanor of Aquitaine brought back table utensils, which the Saracen Arabs were using, but no one was using in Europe, where they sort of speared and gnawed their food. So Eleanor intelligently brought back table utensils. But the church denounced them as heretical and obscene, because ‘if God had wanted you to eat with anything, God would not have given you fingers.’

And they expect us to get discouraged? Oh, please. We’re being opposed by people who denounced the fork!

Robin Morgan, poet, journalist, lecturer, organizer and activist, is the author of 20 books, including poetry, fiction and nonfiction. She was Editor in Chief of Ms. Magazine for four years, and is now International Consulting Editor. Her groundbreaking anthology, Sisterhood Is Powerful (1972), was followed by Sisterhood Is Global (1984) and Sisterhood Is Forever (2003). Her memoir is Saturday’s Child (2000). Among her many nonfiction books is The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism (1989, reissued in 2002 with a post-9/11 introduction and afterword). Her books also include poetry and fiction. She is a co-founder of the Feminist Women’s Health Network, Feminist Writers’ Guild, and National Network of Rape Crisis Centers, and has organized and lectured at feminist gatherings around the world. Fighting Words will be published in 2006.

Introducing Robin Morgan

Introductory remarks, Nov. 11, 2005.

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

Our assistant Jackie Nesbitt, who helped to register you, brought to my attention a wonderful article in the Fall 2004 Ms., “Fighting Words for a Secular America” by Robin Morgan. It’s a great piece summarizing the founders’ views on state/church separation, expressing her alarm at the growing political power of the religious right. But, I have to admit, the greatest thrill for us was that the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its website were advertised in a sidebar to the article! Thank you, Robin!

Earlier this year, Foundation president emeritus Anne Gaylor happened to catch Robin Morgan on C-SPAN, talking about the importance of state/church separation. As the camera panned to Gloria Steinem in the audience, there was Robin, praising the Freedom From Religion Foundation by name!

Thank you, again, Robin!

This author of some 20 books will be releasing a new book, Fighting Words, defending a secular America, next year.

Most of us know of Robin through her feminist writing, especially her columns and articles for Ms. Magazine from 1974-1988. She was editor in chief of Ms. for four years and is now its international consulting editor. Robin is a distinguished poet, published in many journals and with several books of poetry. Her fiction includes the upcoming The Burning Times.

Her groundbreaking anthology, Sisterhood is Powerful, came out in 1972, followed by Sisterhood is Global (1984) and Sisterhood is Forever (2003).

Proving personally that sisterhood is global, Robin has traveled the globe as a feminist activist, scholar, journalist and lecturer. She is a Patron of Feminist Dalit (the “Untouchables”), in Nepal. She is an honorary member of Pan Arab Feminist Solidarity Assocition and likewise an honorary member of Israeli Feminists Against Occupation.

In this country, she is a co-founder of the Feminist Women’s Health Network, the Feminist Writers’ Guild, of Media Women and the National Network of Rape Crisis Centers.

One of Robin’s books is the timely The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism–which is not just investigative journalism, but tells the personal story of her travel to refugee camps in the Middle East, with a post 9/11 introduction and afterward.

What I did not realize about this feminist icon until I looked over her impressive resume is that she was a child actress and TV star. In Saturday’s Child, she notes that “Saturday’s child has to work for a living” and she began at age two, as a tot model, had her own radio show at age 4, then acted on the popular series, “Mama” in the 1940s and 1950s. Her memoir explains how she went from show biz and being named the “The Ideal American Girl” to become not only a literati but a founder and leader of the contemporary feminist movement.

Robin, we are enchanted to have found in you, a famous feminist author, journalist, editor, lecturer, organizer and activist, a kindred non-spirit.

Robin, of course, has been the recipient of many feminist and other awards, and I am so happy that she would take the time from her busy schedule and deadlines to fly here from New York to accept our award naming her Freethought Heroine 2005.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, author of Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So, and editor of Freethought Today and the anthology, Women Without Superstition: No Gods–No Masters.

Freedom From Religion Foundation