Teen Skepchick Interviews: Skeptifem

This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing women scientists and skeptics about life, the universe, and everything.

In my perfect world, feminism wouldn’t exist—because it wouldn’t be necessary. Everyone would value and practice critical thinking, which would not mean we would all reach the same conclusions, but it would certainly obliterate some perspectives that are completely and totally moronic and demented—like sexism and misogyny.

As Skeptifem points out in the interview that follows, “Sexism is completely irrational. It is an irrational belief system that is rampant in our society and has negative consequences for all of us.” You would think skeptics would naturally embrace feminism, but as many feminist skeptics have discovered, this is far from true. Skeptifem is a blog that works to remedy this situation, turning a feminist eye on skepticism, and a skeptical eye on feminism.

Did you consider yourself to be a feminist when you were a teenager? Was there a moment when you remember identifying yourself as a feminist?

I considered myself a feminist during my teens. There weren’t many feminist educational materials around, so most of it was self-styled and based on my personal observations about the world. The only feminist book I had was about “goddess powers” and other new age bs. The Internet and good feminist literature helped me refine my views in the future.

I do remember having some moments where I questioned being a feminist, but I also experienced sexism regularly. It seemed foolish to oppose something that tried to help fix that. Hearing the experiences of my mother growing up helped me to understand how much feminists accomplished for me. There were things I did and said that, looking back, were very anti-feminist. I put up with a lot of shit from men that I shouldn’t have, for one thing, so I see myself as a sort of protofeminist as a teenager.

The closest thing I have to a specific moment where I became a feminist was when I realized how futile shaving was, around 15 years old, and quit permanently. I realized I would be branded a feminist for doing so and embraced the label. It repelled a lot of truly awful men, so it was practical for me as well as ideological.

Skeptifem and a friend messing around at a clinic during the swine flu epidemic

Did you consider yourself to be a skeptic when you were a teenager? Was there a moment when you remember identifying yourself as a skeptic?

Yes and no. I figured out the Catholic Church was moronic and wrong pretty early on, along with the Bible. The number of priests that came and left our congregation in my short membership still makes me uneasy to think about. On the other hand, I fooled around with tarot cards and Wicca, tried to be psychic, etc. I didn’t believe in any specific gods but a mushy ill-defined “power” in nature. It was a turbulent time, and believing in all that gave me some measure of control over my life, but none of it was real.

Looking back on it now, it seems like I was playing pretend games as a teenager, getting the same kind of comfort out of it that children do. I get the sense that many people who engage in woo are doing what I was doing. It would be better if they would play D&D or LARP instead of being so serious about it. I became less and less serious about it as time went on, and abandoned practicing any of it eventually. I did not think about it very much for a few years and kept the same basic beliefs.

I think I was about 19 when I identified as a skeptic. I read the long exchange between Sylvia Browne and James Randi and realized how foolish I had been in thinking that information about the future or dead people could be transmitted the way that psychics or religious people said they could. There was a part of me that knew that if any of it were true, there would be evidence for it.

I read The God Delusion and became more convinced that an evidence-based approach to the world was much better for me to follow. The wonderful science education that my mother gave me was an influence on this conclusion; it was miles ahead of what the schools offered me.

Do you think the meaning of feminism changes for each generation? Do you think it has a different meaning for teens today than it did when you were a teen, when your mother was a teen, etc.?

I used to think that the time a person was born in was a predictor of how radical their vision for humanity could be, but I have been proven wrong. Visionaries like Emma Goldman had a point of view in the early 1900s that is still relevant for feminists now, and is still radical in its aims.

The mainstream of feminism does seem to change with each generation. I am a younger feminist, so it is difficult to say with authority what previous generations experienced (outside of reading older feminist works). It may also vary by region. Reading The Feminine Mystique was not all relevant to my life in Colorado but is extremely relevant to life in Utah.

The only thing that really seems to divide feminists is the type of problems they are solving. Solving a practical on-paper sort of problem (like discrimination in a law) will call upon a different skill set and a different mindset than solving a cultural problem (though many feminists manage to tackle a variety of issues simultaneously). One thing I enjoy so much about feminism is the variety of perspective that is available; any division proves to be a strength rather than a weakness because it keeps the community alive with interest and ideas.

Outside of feminist circles, the meaning of feminism has been watered down and mischaracterized constantly. I was lucky to know people who weren’t afraid of calling themselves feminists, like most women I know now are afraid. The media has made feminism seem like a female supremacy marketing tool instead of a political movement with real aims (when it isn’t completely hateful towards feminists). The Girl Power campaign that Barbie had when I was a child is a perfect example of the knock-off “feminism” that most people are familiar with today, as is the Dove campaign for “real beauty.”

Why do you think the intersection of feminism and skepticism is important to recognize and understand?

Feminism is skepticism turned inward, applied to some of our most personal beliefs about ourselves as men and women. Freeing ourselves from these delusions would make a better society for all of us. Skepticism about things you don’t believe in is very easy. It is much more difficult, and much more rewarding, to aim skeptical inquiry towards our most personal issues in life. The critique of the personal begets critique of the cultural institutions that taught us and ultimately power structures that keep things going as they are.

Many women like me knew that there was a lot of wrong going on towards women but lacked a way to examine or discuss the issues in order to draw conclusions. Skepticism and feminism both helped me immensely in reaching important conclusions about the world around me.

Are there aspects of feminism that you think require a more skeptical approach than is usually given?

Very few people are raised with feminism. The majority of feminists had to exercise a lot of skepticism to draw the conclusions that they have. The culture we are raised in is very anti-feminist, and voicing any feminist opinion will earn a woman quite a bit of hatred right away.

Feminists have to be very skeptical when examining women’s issues as a result of the overwhelming resistance to feminist ideas within the general public. There is also a wealth of serious debate and talk about feminism. One of the foundations of skepticism is discussing difficult questions in a reasoned fashion. These are things I love about both communities.

There is a thread of new age nonsense that brands itself feminism, however. There are some feminists who subscribe to it, which is disappointing. Mostly it is women who want some kind of religion but are fed up with the patriarchal nature of all mainstream religions. There is a reluctance to be critical of the experiences of women within the feminist community. There are so many times that women are told their experiences of sexism were not real that critical examination of oppressed people’s experiences becomes taboo. However, the percentage of feminists that are comfortable criticizing religion is much higher than that of the general population, from what I can gather.

How can the skeptical community benefit from a better understanding of feminism?

A more feminist-allied skeptic movement would mean a woman-friendly environment. There has been recognition of the fact that fewer women than men are interested in skepticism, but the efforts to solve the problem have been disappointing. There are folks who argue that women are just inherently less capable or less interested in skeptical inquiry. Accepted members of skeptical communities make these arguments; it isn’t some fringe group.

Some other folks are having what are essentially marketing meetings about pulling in the female demographic, without any real thought as to changing their own attitudes about women. Women know when feminism is disingenuous, and most of us who attend conventions or groups have experienced or witnessed some form of sexism. A woman-friendly space isn’t really possible without feminism.

Sexism is completely irrational. It is an irrational belief system that is rampant in our society and has negative consequences for all of us. Skeptics have everything to gain by embracing feminism. Skeptics who do not feel comfortable examining their own sexism strike me as very hypocritical. As a result, I tried to work within a skeptic group to raise awareness. Repeatedly attempting to make people aware of these issues sapped a lot of my energy and made me very disillusioned with skepticism in general for a while. Very few people cared enough to respond to me, and those who did decided to do so with derision and poorly thought out arguments. I eventually learned I was not the first one to try, either.

The recent incident with Richard Dawkins (see here and here) shows that the movement has a long way to go. Skeptics have zeroed in on religious oppression of women and have blinders to the problems of their own behavior, as if one cannot do something sexist without engaging in female genital mutilation (FGM).

The depressing thing is that so many people seem to agree with Dawkins and minimize the damage that the constant threat of sexual violence has on women in the Western world. Women clutch their keys like a knife when they walk to their cars; they keep their hands over their drinks; they buy cars with heart beat detectors—some just don’t go out at all because the threat of violence is so thick in the air. Police officers are commended for going out and dealing with the world despite the threat of danger, but women are derided for daring to complain about the conditions.

Only violence against women evokes the kind of comments that Dawkins made. Many people have pointed out that had a stranger asked Rebecca Watson for money at 4 a.m. while she was alone in an enclosed space, very few people would have blamed her for feeling unnerved. No one would point out the theft of wealth from Third World countries or the wars in the Middle East to nullify her complaint in that case either. The fact that he asked her for sex somehow makes it a non-event, makes it seem less absurd to completely cast aside her complaint in favor of focusing on “real” issues.

The infuriating part about all of this is how nice Watson was in having a complaint, and how it made no difference in the treatment given to her by skeptics. She didn’t take society or men in general to task the way I would have, and the outrage against her for saying something continues on. She assumed the man she talked about had good intentions, and she used the opportunity to give some polite advice to men about approaching women in public. The aim was to prevent women from feeling uncomfortable in public, a positive, and very mild, goal.

It is something for young feminists to remember when an opponent tries to say that feminists should make their message more palatable, perhaps be a bit nicer in voicing their complaints. The truth is that men do not like their privilege to be challenged. As a white person, it is not pleasant for my white privilege to be challenged by a person of color, but that isn’t their fault, so I learned to deal with it and listen instead. This is what women should expect from men in their lives and men who lead movements. Anything less is an insult.

It is unfortunate to see another prominent atheist leader join the ranks of sexist white men (along with Christopher Hitchens), but there is still some hope. PZ Myers demonstrates how it is completely possible for men to be feminist allies and leaders in skepticism.

Do you recommend any particular resources for teens looking to learn more about feminism and about skepticism? Are there any, aside from your blog, that address the way the two interact?

Every teenager should have a copy of Yes Means Yes! If that isn’t possible, they should drop by scarlateen.com. Even states with sex education in their schools fail to teach young people anything nontechnical about sexuality. The trouble these resources would have saved me as a teenager cannot be understated.

Grassroots: A Field Guide to Feminism is a great book geared towards young people about how to actually act upon your feminist convictions. It has information on how to organize, and reassures women that you don’t have to fit some preconceived notion about feminists in order to be an effective organizer. This is invaluable for young women who want to do something, but aren’t sure how to go about it.

Pharyngula has threads about equality often and is big enough to have a large audience. The real treat is the regular posters in the comments section, who do a wonderful job of tearing apart misogynist arguments. Much can be learned by simply reading the debates there. The community at Pharyngula is one of the more feminist groups of skeptics online.

Jill of I Blame The Patriarchy has an evidence-based view of the world and posts about science and atheism in addition to feminism. If nothing else, this website can help people think critically about their own personal views by challenging many of them. Jill is also hilarious and an extremely talented writer.

I began Skeptifem because I could not find many resources that had to do with feminism and skepticism. The feminism I did find was disappointing and was of the Girl Power variety I described before.


What advice do you have for young women developing their sense of self in an image-conscious society?

What is desirable in a woman changes every couple of years and varies wildly from place to place. Study other cultures and recognize how arbitrary beauty is. Appearance isn’t a game any woman can win. Compare what happened to Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin when each ran for office; a woman’s appearance can be used against her no matter what it is.

If you do fit the cultural definition of attractive, you will be treated like a vending machine for sex by men or humiliated. If you don’t fit the cultural definition of attractive, you will be ignored by men or humiliated. Random men are the ones who decide if you are attractive or not and act accordingly—you never have any say. Playing into this system by acting as though it is your job to be attractive for others just gives men more power over your life.

Realize that anyone who tries to put you down about your appearance is assuming that it is your job to please them visually. Once you realize that it isn’t your job to be visually pleasing to anyone, ever, it becomes very hard for anyone to make you feel bad about yourself. Women deserve to feel as good about themselves as men, and it is something that most women yearn for. You can begin to figure out what you like about you and go after it, regardless of what others think. The power of casting off the cultural beauty mandate is transformative and positive.

If you could give your teenage self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Dropping out of high school doesn’t mean you can’t go to college or have a good job; it just means you can do those things a lot faster. I did drop out of high school and went to college and ended up working in healthcare, and none of the bad things people threatened me with happened.

* * * *

Skeptifem is a twenty-something white woman living in Utah. She is an atheist, a skeptic, a feminist, an artist, and an activist. She started her blog, Skeptifem, to bridge a gap between skeptics and feminists. She works in the healthcare industry.

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Melanie Mallon

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

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