‘She has forgotten her sex’: On the history of women and non-religion

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASuvi Karila discusses the historical roots of the problematic intersection of womanhood and non-religion in the context of the 19th century United States. Karila suggests that the actual experiences of unbeliever women not only in the present, but also in the past, are important to explore to address the issue of how non-religion has been and still is a very much gendered phenomenon.

Time and again studies suggest the same: women are more religious than men (see e.g. Trzebiatowska & Bruce 2012). Men tend to be the public faces of religious communities, but women participate more actively in religious activities, they pray more, and overall, religion plays a larger role in their lives. In addition, women rarely identify as atheists (Mahlamäki 2012: 60-61). Recently, this was seen in a study published by the UCL Institute of Education. The study showed that whereas 54% of British men born in 1970 identify as atheists, the figure among women is only 34% (Voas 2015). For a historian of non-religion, these results sound anything but new. The difference in religiosity between the genders had already been acknowledged by both the religious majority and the non-believers themselves 200 years ago. Here I reflect on the theme of gender and irreligiosity in the context of the 19th century United States, which is also the focus of my on-going PhD dissertation.

After the quiet decades of the early nineteenth century, the freethought movement in the United States was revitalized in the 1820s. This diverse group, including people supporting secularism from atheists and agnostics to anti-clericals, established the annual Thomas Paine birthday celebrations to commemorate the legacy of the man they saw as the founder of their movement (Brown & Stein 1978: 34-36). Though the popularity of these celebrations increased and other freethought activities followed, it should be emphasized that the freethought movement was still very marginal: the freethinkers were only a few thousand in number.

The number of female freethinkers, not to mention explicit atheists, was even smaller. Yet the few women who actually declared themselves as unbelievers were considered an almost apocalyptic threat. The fears of Protestant America were felt especially by the early ‘heroines of freethought’, including Frances Wright (1795–1852) and Ernestine L. Rose (1810–1892). In 1840, an article in the magazine the Ladies’ Companion, addressed the horrors of female irreligion. The article concluded that though irreligion is always precarious, a female atheist is something else entirely: ‘It is not contempt with which we contemplate the spectacle of a woman who has so far forgotten her sex and her nature as to proclaim herself an unbeliever – it is horror! We shrink from her presence, as we would avoid a viper. Female skepticism is social poison’ (Daniels 1840: 112).

A nineteenth-century atheist woman did not only challenge the new religious culture surrounding her, which had begun to perceive womanhood as inseparable from piety, but questioned her own very nature as the more religious sex, the gatekeeper of morality. It was questioned whether an unbeliever could be a woman at all, or whether she ‘unsexed’ herself when she abandoned her faith. For example, the public appearances and speeches of Ernestine L. Rose, who renounced Judaism at a very early age, provoked quite a reaction from a commentator in a Boston newspaper: ‘God grant I may never live to see the day when this confusion of sexes, infinitely worse than Babel, shall be consummated! — Then shall we bear the burning shame and deep disgrace of being a nation of social, civil, and political hermaphrodites!’ (Boston Recorder, 1852). It was also common to link unbelief with sexual aberration, which was an especially effective attack against women (Ginzberg 1994: 216–217).

However, atheist women such as Rose were not welcomed unconditionally into the freethought movement either, even though the question of women’s rights became increasingly visible in the movement after the Civil War. Most nineteenth-century freethinkers agreed with Protestant Americans that women were more religious, emotional, and less rational than men. Some argued it was coded in women’s biology; others suggested feminine piety was due to historical development (Kirkley 2000, p. 32-40). Woman’s role as the superstitious gender made the awakening demands for women’s right to vote an especially hot potato for the movement. If the ballot would be given to ‘the supporters of preacher and pope’, might they wreck the glorious, rational future of the nation, as imagined by the freethinkers?

All this placed unbeliever women at a fragile intersection, where they had to justify their identity not only to the surrounding society and the freethought movement, but to themselves as well. It has also led to them being too often written out of the history of the abolitionist movement and the early women’s right movement, as well as the history of freethought. Echoes of these voices from the past can still be heard today as the face of the New Atheist movement continues to be that of a white male (Miller 2013).

For a historian of non-religion and gender, the lives of Wright, Rose and others offer an interesting viewpoint to the cultural history of irreligion, as has been recently demonstrated by for example Laura Schwartz in her excellent work on infidel feminism in England (Schwartz 2013). Through looking at the ‘lived non-belief’ of these women, it might also be possible to shed light on the nature of female non-belief. In addition to women being statistically more religious, their religiousness and irreligiousness seems to be different from that of men. For example, studies have suggested that compared to men, women are more eclectic and more tolerant to contradiction in their beliefs (Mahlamäki 2012, p. 60-61). Though finding the voices of these women is a challenging task, especially those who were not part of any organised movements, it is indeed a task worth taking on.



Boston Recorder, 1852. ‘Woman’s Rights Convention.’ The Boston Recorder, 30 Sep.

Brown, Marshall G. and Stein, Gordon. 1978. Freethought in the United States: A Descriptive Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Daniels, C.F., 1840. ‘Female Irreligion.’ The Ladies’ Companion, vol. 13, p.111-113.

Ginzberg, Lori D. 1994. ‘’The Hearts of Your Readers Will Shudder’: Fanny Wright, Infidelity, and American Freethought.’ American Quarterly, Vol 46, No. 2, pp. 195–226.

Kirkley, Evelyn. 2000. Rational Mothers and Infidel Gentlemen: Gender and American Atheism, 1865–1915. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Mahlamäki, Tiina. 2012. ‘Religion and atheism from a gender perspective.’ Approaching Religion, 2(1):58-65.

Miller, Ashley F. 2013. ‘The Non-Religious Patriarchy: Why Losing Religion Has Not Meant Losing White Male Dominance.’ Crosscurrents, June 2013, 211-226.

Schwartz, Laura. 2013. Infidel Feminism. Secularism, Religion and Women’s Emancipation, England 1830–1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Trzebiatowska & Bruce. 2012. Why Are Women More Religious Than Men? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Voas, David. 2015. ‘The Mysteries of Religion and the Lifecourse.’ UCL Institute of Education, The Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

Suvi Karila is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Cultural History at University of Turku, Finland. In her PhD dissertation she studies the lived non-religion of unbeliever women in the 19th century United States.

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2 Responses to ‘She has forgotten her sex’: On the history of women and non-religion

  1. This is interesting to read the history of women becoming nonbelievers. Thanks for writing this.

  2. This is a fascinating topic and one that offers some interesting parallels to contemporary atheism as well, such as problems with sexism among atheist organizations in recent years. In 1890, Matilda Joslyn Gage started the Woman’s National Liberal Union which was condemned by R.B. Westbrook in a letter published in _The Truth Seeker_ (8 March 1890). (Discussed in A.L. Gaylor’s _Women Without Superstition_).

    Locating easily accessible primary sources is a challenge, but there’s some material available. For instance, Voltairine De Cleyre published a description of the Philadelphia Ladies’ Liberal League in “The Past and Future of the Ladies’ Liberal League.” The Rebel. Oct, Nov 1895 & Jan 1896. PDF files 01-02, 01-03 & 01-04 available at: http://libcom.org/history/rebel-american-anarchist-journal-1895-6

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