Where Would Women’s History Be Without Freethought?

In Honor of International Women’s Day (March 8) and Women’s History Month

The untold story of the feminist movement is that it was sparked by women without superstition, by religious nonconformists, freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, and skeptics. Indeed, any woman before the late 19th century who spoke up for women’s rights became, by definition, a heretic.

Women today owe an enormous debt to the freethinking foremothers of the women’s movement, who dared to question and confront the religious status quo in our culture and civil law demanding women’s silence, subjection, servitude and obedience.

Until about 150 years ago, biblical subjection was the operative norm in western culture. Women not only were denied the vote, they couldn’t speak in public, make contracts, sue or be sued, sit on juries, attend colleges or universities, enter most trades or professions and had no control of their own property or earnings as wives. Women were not even the legal guardians of their own children, but were lawfully classed with children and idiots.” The legal phrase for it is “civil death,” but its origins were strictly religious.

Every freedom won for women in the United States, small or large–from wearing bloomers to riding bicycles to not wearing bonnets in church, to having basic rights to speak in public, attend universities, enter professions, own property, vote, and to control their own bodies–was opposed by organized Christianity.

It is logical that it was the religious skeptics who led the way. Only they were willing to challenge religious strictures demanding female subservience, blaming women for bringing sin and death into the world, and ordering “Let your women be silent . . . it is not permitted unto them to speak,” and insisting “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of every woman is man.”

* * *

Can you name these five women freethinkers who helped launch the women’s movement? (See answers below.)

1. The first influential book advancing women’s rights, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was written by this British Deist who urged that women be treated as “rational creatures.” She died giving birth to daughter Mary, who later married Shelly and wrote the novel Frankenstein.

* * *

2. This Scottish heiress and freethinker was the first woman to launch a lecture tour (1828-1829), speaking before both men and women, in the United States.

She called for women’s educational rights as well as condemning blind faith in religion. A friend of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham and of patriot General Lafayette, she was a playwright, author, editor of the newspaper Free Enquirer, and spent part of her fortune on an experimental commune in Tennessee to free slaves. She advocated: “Turn your churches into halls of science.”

* * *

3. This atheist daughter of a Polish orthodox rabbi immigrated to the United States in time to become the first woman canvasser for women’s rights.

She lobbied from 1836 on for the Married Woman’s Property Act, first introduced in New York State by freethinking judge Thomas Hertell. It became a legend in the women’s movement that in five months’ time, after knocking on doors asking women to sign a petition in support of their own rights, she garnered only five signatures. But she but did not give up, other women joined her and the Act passed in 1848, eventually spawning similar laws in other states. She believed: “Our life is short and we cannot spare an hour from the human race, even for all the gods in creation.”

* * *

4. She was the first woman to call for women’s suffrage and to call for a women’s rights convention (1848), penning the very wording of what was finally adopted as the 19th (woman’s suffrage) amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.

She reminisced that in the early days of the woman’s movement “the bible was hurled at us from every side.” She directed the woman’s movement from her fireside with seven children at her knee, but in 1896 was repudiated by the women’s movement she initiated for editing the Woman’s Bible, examining the unfair treatment of women in scripture. She worked closely for 50 years with Susan B. Anthony, a Quaker teacher turned agnostic Unitarian.

* * *

5. This dedicated radical freethinker was jailed, censored, and shunned for espousing and popularizing birth control.

She was responsible for the lawsuit overturning the Comstock Act (banning “indecent” information through the postal service). She introduced diaphragms into the United States, educated physicians, oversaw the proliferation of birth control clinics, and helped to commission the creation of the birth control pill. In her autobiography, she wrote: “I wanted each woman to be a rebellious Vashti, not an Esther.”

* * *

Just a few other women freethinkers of note:

Anne Hutchinson, the first European female heretic on the North American shore, who believed women had religious rights and challenged the Puritan theocracy in Boston. After attracting many supporters, Hutchinson was banished by the court for sedition and heresy in 1637, then excommunicated, “cast out” and delivered to “Satan” as an “American Jezebel.” Her shortlived colony on Aquidneck, Rhode Island, was the first to adopt a civil secular government in America: “It is ordered that none shall be accounted a delinquent for doctrine.” There are statues erected at the Massachusetts capitol to honor her and her supporter Mary Dyer, who was later hanged by the Massachusetts Bay colony.

Anne Royall (1769-1854), an eccentric author, travel writer, and household name in her day, who became the first lobbyist for state/church separation. She fought the influence of the growing Church & State party and tried valiantly to save Sunday mail delivery. She was convicted of being a “common scold” in 1829, although history agrees she was most “uncommon.”

Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) a Unitarian and early transcendentalist who rejected religion, “priestcraft and self-delusion,” and authored Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). An American role model, at 34 she became the first woman to work fulltime on a daily newspaper. Her credo: “give me truth; cheat me by no illusion.”

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) has become known as the “first sociologist.” This British woman was a significant role model of a woman who successfully supported herself by her writings. She wrote: “There is no theory of a God, of an author of Nature, of an origin of the Universe, which is not utterly repugnant to my faculties.”

Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898) was president of the National Woman Suffrage Association and worked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in coediting the first three volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage. She edited a national women’s journal and founded the first feminist group to work for the separation of church and state (the Woman’s National Liberal Union) in 1890, saying, “in order to help preserve the very life of the Republic, it is imperative that women should unite upon a platform of opposition to the teaching and aim of that ever most unscrupulous enemy of freedom–the Church.” In 1893, she wrote the influential Woman, Church & State, documenting the horrors of the witchhunts and the harm to women of religious doctrines such as celibacy and original sin.

* * *

The ranks of feminists who pioneered rights for themselves and other women throughout the 19th and 20th centuries were filled with freethinkers, prompting New England feminist and freethought writer Susan H. Wixon to write in 1893 that: “Freethought has always been the best friend woman had–the noblest, truest ally and champion.”

Answers to five women freethinkers:

1. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
2. Frances Wright (1795-1852)
3. Ernestine L. Rose (1810-1892)
4. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)
5. Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)

Freedom From Religion Foundation

Send this to a friend