Philosophical and Historical Foundations of American Secularism 10 – Women’s Freethought from the Founding


Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019).

Here we talk about the British and the Americans, and the American Revolutionary War.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: One of the groups of people who received more universalized rights as persons within the United States apart from the aristocratic, white, wealthy, slave-owning males were white women. What were some of the firmaments of women’s anger at the injustices? Who were some of the original movers of this anger into positive action and progressive change? How has women’s anger been a catalytic force for women’s self-empowerment? Also, how has women’s anger been an unacknowledged, potentially, force for other positive movements for greater societal provision of equal rights and treatment to all constituents of the United States of America?

Dr. Herb Silverman: White women certainly had more rights than black slaves, but I don’t think women in general have ever been privileged. There are even some parallels between how women and enslaved people were treated. Both were expected to be passive, cooperative, and obedient to their master-husbands.

Next to my wife Sharon, my favorite women are Sarah and Angelina Grimké, sisters from Charleston, South Carolina, who lived in the 18th century and deserve to be better known than they are. Their father, Judge John Grimké, was a strong advocate of slavery and of the subordination of women. He had hundreds of slaves, and served as chief judge of the South Carolina Supreme Court. Though raised with slaves, the Grimké sisters grew to despise slavery after witnessing its cruel effects at a young age.

In 1836 Angelina wrote her Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, imploring white southern women to embrace the antislavery cause. She said, “I know you do not make the laws, but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters of those who do; and if you really suppose you can do nothing to overthrow slavery, you are greatly mistaken.” Her writing drew the ire of many southerners. By the late 1830s, Sarah and Angelina were known not only as abolitionists but also as proponents of women’s rights.

The Grimké sisters left the South in the 1820s and moved to Philadelphia, where I was born, and became Quakers. At a time when it was not considered respectable (even in the North) for women to speak before mixed audiences of men and women, Sarah and Angelina boldly spoke out against slavery at public meetings. Some male abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass, supported the right of women to speak and participate equally with men in antislavery activities.  

The Grimkés grew up in a Charleston house built in 1789, three blocks away from where I now live. In 2015, the Friends of the Library at the College of Charleston (where I was a math professor) unveiled a much-deserved historical marker outside the Grimké home.

The Grimké sisters were good friends with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an abolitionist and a leading figure of the early women’s rights movement. Her Declaration of Sentiments, presented at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, parallels the American Declaration of Independence, but with women included. It asserts that both men and women are endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It explains how women are oppressed by the government and a patriarchal society. Stanton calls for women’s suffrage as well as participation and representation in the government. She also refers to women’s lack of property rights, and inequality in divorce law, education, and employment opportunities. The document insists that women be full citizens, granted all the rights and privileges that are granted to men. The Seneca Falls Convention marked the start of the women’s rights movement in the United States.

Suffragette Susan B. Anthony was a good friend and collaborator with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. However, even though Anthony was an agnostic, she didn’t like Stanton’s open criticism of religion because she feared it would lose supporters for the suffragette movement. In particular, Anthony was displeased with Stanton’s publication of The Woman’s Bible, which was justifiably critical of religion. Stanton said, “The Bible and the church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the emancipation of women,” and “Surely the immutable laws of the universe can teach more impressive lessons than the holy books of all the religions on earth.” Stanton also said, ‘I have endeavored to dissipate religious superstitions from the minds of women, and base their faith on science and reason, where I found for myself at last that peace and comfort I could never find in the Bible and the church.”

After a 72-year battle for women ‘s suffrage, women finally got the vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Women fighting for equality during the early part of the twentieth century focused on political equality. Yet to come were issues like workplace inequality, gender pay gap, sexual harassment, violence against women, and #MeToo.

Wifehood and motherhood are no longer regarded as women’s most significant professions. Women now have more educational opportunities than ever before. Nurse and teacher (and maybe Catholic nun, if you consider this a profession) used to be pretty much the only professional positions open to women. In 1900, women earned only19 percent of bachelor’s degrees. Since 1980, women have surpassed men in the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred annually in the United States.

Regarding the question of women’s anger, women have been socialized to suppress anger and even question whether their anger is justified. A case can be made that getting angry might first be necessary before being motivated to work for change. People don’t change the world by being apathetic; they do it by getting angry and refusing to take injustice any more. Anger can be used constructively by women (and men) to fight intolerance and discrimination. Recently, female anger at Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win spurred historic numbers of women to run for public office in 2018 and today.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.

Photo by Julia Caesar on Unsplash


  1. Dr. Silverman correctly points out that the most significant obstacle facing females, in their protracted fight for full equality with males, is organized religion. Every major religion holds females in lower-regard, than males — except Unitarianism (if that’s considered a major religion).

    And, because females constitute about 52 percent of the voters, in the USA, its the fault of females (collectively) that they don’t yet have equality. However, to blame females, for their own continuing lack of equality, is “blaming the victims.”

    As Betty Friedan noted, in her still must read, “The Feminine Mystique” females (the large majority) are still socialized to grow up to be “an appendage of a man.” Because as housewives, they consume more consumer goods, and thereby promote capitalism, far-more than if they had remained single.

    In other words, to sell more consumer goods, more females must become housewives and mothers in order to fulfill their Christian duty by subordinating themselves to their husbands.

    Females are brainwashed, since early childhood, that God is a man, Jesus is a man, the Holy Ghost is a man, and even the Devil, is a man.

    Here in Oklahoma, during the last presidential election (2016) I used to wear my “Hillary for President” shirt, and a dozen or so females pointed out to me, that as Christians, they couldn’t vote for any female candidate, because it says in their Christin Bible — that a female should never have any authority over a man.

    So, as long as females, are socialized by their bibles, to grow up with a biblically-induced sense of self loathing, the Equal Rights Amendment will probably become the law of the land; but nevertheless, still a significant number of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Mormon women won’t vote for female.candidates,

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