If I were to compare the effect of religion on the health, wealth and happiness of humankind with the effect of, say, feminism, I suspect feminism would win easily. Feminism has never airbrushed men out of the picture — either literally or metaphorically. It has never raised an army, never armed itself and never passed laws restricting the equal rights or opportunities of others. There may have been terrorists who were also feminists — in the IRA or the Baader-Meinhof gang, for example — just as there have been terrorists who were also atheists, but there have been no feminist acts of terror.
Feminism has never killed an opponent. Feminists have died, of course, usually at the hands of the religious. The suffragettes certainly smashed a lot of windows and even set a few fires (always in buildings they knew to be empty), but they never actually hurt anyone other than themselves. Suffragette Emily Davison was killed throwing herself under the hooves of the King’s racehorse at the Epsom Derby, crying “Votes for Women!”, and many of her colleagues went on hunger strikes when jailed for their beliefs, and then suffered the indignity and torture of force-feeding.
The evidence for feminism as a force for good is equally unequivocal. We know, for example, that the best protection for women against violence is the presence and activity of independent feminist community organisations (the presence of churches and houses of worship makes no difference at all). Not just that, either — we also know that in countries with the greatest equality between the s-xes, the life expectancy of men also goes up, because violence in general falls. We also now know, entirely thanks to feminism, that when you educate a girl and give her opportunities to earn money she would not normally have — often due to religious strictures –the benefits accrue to the whole family and community in a way they do not when you educate only boys. The phenomenon is called “The Girl Effect”.
The lives that feminism has directly saved through agitating for women’s reproductive health and rights probably number in the many millions.
Feminism has also encouraged the creation of works of art, from the literature of George Eliot and the Brontes — who, like Eliot, had to publish under male-sounding names to be taken seriously — to that of Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel and Toni Morrison. Simply by agitating for women to have access to the same educational and career opportunities as their brothers, feminism has enabled female artists, musicians, novelists, sculptors and film-makers to express themselves and add to the sum of human creativity.
Until relatively recently, religion helped silence their voices and so stifled female creativity for centuries. That alone is a terrible thing to have done, and all humanity is the poorer for it.
Yet, while we’re still expected to be deferential around religious belief, including the need to obliterate historical fact so as not to give “offence”, feminism is given no such consideration. Feminism (like its sibling atheism) remains open to derision, scorn and a conspicuous lack of respect. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s actually an advantage. Perhaps that’s why such secular movements have arguably been a source of more net positive results for humanity than the more cossetted, protected and one-eyed religions. Until very recently, the one eye through which most religions looked at the world was a male eye. Thanks to secular feminism (a movement that also includes believers from many faiths), humanity is just beginning to open its female eye and see the world as a whole.
In humanity’s slow journey towards taking the female perspective into account — a journey entirely driven by feminism and almost always in direct opposition to religion — we’re seeing that when you do, you also start to take other marginalised groups in society more seriously, too. Children’s rights begin to be asserted, and we are hopeful that the Jimmy Saviles of this world will no longer get away with damaging and exploiting vulnerable children for their own s-xual satisfaction. P-edophile priests can no longer expect that the mystique and status conferred on them by their church will offer them a cloak of silence and protection as they do the same. Taking women seriously means taking what they care about seriously, too — like the right of children not to be used s-xually. Taking women seriously means taking the feminine in general seriously, so it also means the fight for gay and lesbian rights gaining ground. As the work women do gains status, and as much of that work remains caring work, caring gains status, too.
As I’ve stated before, while I acknowledge the gifts religions have given humanity, when it comes to the final balance sheet, their universal oppression, control and stifling of one half of the human race remain — for me — their greatest sin.
*This is an edited extract from For God’s Sake — co-written by Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, Simon Smart and Rachel Woodlock — published this month by Pan Macmillan Australia and launching at Sydney’s Gleebooks tomorrow