Unfortunately, there’s some static in the interview I conducted, and as best as I tried, it was difficult to eliminate. However, I have transcribed the show and so if you find it too difficult to listen to, here’s what Bridget and I talked about.
What did we talk about? The beginnings of Secular Women Inc!
Kylie Sturgess: Firstly, Bridget, tell me about yourself. You were raised as a Jehovah’s Witness? What led you to become an atheist?
Bridget Gaudette: Yes, I was. Just a little bit about Jehovah’s Witnesses – I’m sure that most people are familiar: we’re the ones that wake you up on Saturday mornings wanting to talk about God, come knocking on your doors, don’t celebrate birthdays, don’t vote, don’t smoke cigarettes. Basically, quite cult‑like, as well.
I was raised to believe in the Bible literally. I believed it all, hook, line and sinker. I believed the earth is 6,000 years old… I believed that we all we all came from Adam and Eve, and I believed all of that until I was about 22 years old. I wasn’t fortunate enough to figure things out before that. Then I went to college, and that changed everything.
One of the strongest reasons why I became an atheist was because I took a geology class, and after looking at the evidence, I realized, “OK, there’s no way the earth is 6,000 years old!” I also took a biological anthropology class where I finally, actually understood what evolution was. In my mind, I had the very ignorant thought, “OK, we came from monkeys,” – what you hear religious fundamentalists say all the time. I was one of those people!
After those two classes, I finally understood evolution. It very quickly led me to atheism. Yeah, that’s how I got there. College, imagine that! Learning, whoops!
Kylie: What was it like when you came home for the holidays and said, “Mom, dad, you wouldn’t believe what I’ve just learned…?”
Bridget: Oh, I didn’t. My parents are, to this day, extremely devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. In fact, I have no relationship with them. They disowned me. This was about 10 years ago when I finally revealed to them everything I had learned, and that I couldn’t be a Jehovah’s Witness again. I haven’t talked to my brother since. I’ve talked to my father maybe twice. My mother is kind enough to call me maybe every six months. All because I rejected their religion.
Kylie: I can see how personally this is a big thing for you to come out as an atheist. Is it like that for many atheists in the USA? A struggle against the religious upbringing or religion in politics – or is it more of an insidious thing that doesn’t really occur until you start going to the voting booth and realize what’s going to be put on the ballot?
Bridget: I think up until this year, it might have been a little bit more insidious, but this year, it’s been especially bad because it’s an election year. Religion has really come into the forefront more than it has been. We’ve been dealing with, especially this “war on women.”
There has been a lot of legislation trying to cut off women’s rights. They’re basing it on biblical principles. They’re saying that they’re trying to take abortion rights away. Birth control, they don’t want employers to pay for it. They don’t want us to take it, but let alone employers pay for it; Planned Parenthood, which is a group that helps with a lot of women’s services, they happen to perform abortions. That’s a small percentage of what they do, but they are getting defunded by the government. This is all on the news every day, and it’s all based on what they’re trying to pull out of the Bible to take away women’s rights.
It’s become a huge struggle, a constant struggle over here, among other things. But the war against women has been intense. That was also an inspiration for the group we formed.
Kylie: It seems excellent timing for Secular Women Inc. to suddenly appear on the scene. It appeared to me suddenly. Pow, there was this great website that had all these resources on the cusp of launching! Not only that, you’re the Florida State Director at American Atheists. Is there a connection there? Was that where it began?
Bridget: There actually is no connection. I am one of those people who just likes to be involved and help out a lot of organizations!
Kylie: Good for you!
Bridget: I originally was the Deputy Vice President for an up and coming atheist political organization. That’s where I met, actually, the president of this one. Then towards the end of my time there, I had been looking at American Atheists for a long time. I really, really like the organization. They’ve been around for 50 years. Florida is a very backwards state in some ways, and they really needed someone to step up and fight for these separation of church and state issues. I feel very privileged that they appointed me as the state director. But, just on the side I was working on the women’s group. It had nothing to do with American Atheists, but I hope that I can bring something to both organizations.
Kylie: What are some of the major aims of the group? You’ve got a website, as I mentioned. Lots of people joining as members almost immediately; it set off a storm on Twitter, for example. It’s open to both men and women, I noticed?
Bridget: Yes, it is. Our goal is to advocate for and promote women, but we left it open to men as well to join. There’s a lot of men that are feminists, they want to help secular women and they see that there is an under‑representation. They’ve given input to some extent, donations, things like that, which are going to benefit everyone.
We think that promoting diversity within the movement is only going to enrich it. I think a lot of men see that as well. As far as the major aims of the group, we have really big things we want to do. What we did was we took the temperature of the movement. We looked at the top, say fifteen organizations. We looked at their board members, the speakers at their conventions, the staff, and we noticed an under‑representation of women. So we’re like, “Why is this, and what can we do about it?”
Basically, our major goal is equal participation for women in the secular movement. I know that sounds broad. Our first thing is we want to get more women to join the other groups, get them on as speakers, get them to the conferences just to show diversity. We’re wanting anyone that identifies as female – that includes transgender, gender fluid people, all of that we’re counting as women, because they are. That’s how they identify. It’s not just “were you born with this set of DNA”?Kylie: It’s open to everyone, that’s great. What’s happening in the short term? Clearly there’s a number of issues relevant to many women in atheism, secularism… Other things that you’re hoping to get done in the short term?
Bridget: Well, there’s been a little bit of buzz over here about conferences and sexual harassment…
Bridget: One of the things we wanted to do is try to find something positive in this! That was we want to highlight those groups that have been proactive in coming up with codes of conduct, anti‑harassment policies for their employees and the conferences. We’ve created what we call an anti‑harassment policy registry. That way, all of the groups that have already taken this by the reigns, this issue, created policies to help protect their conference goers, their employees, show that they have a procedure for dealing with this, and we list them all publicly on the website.
The conference grants that we’re going to give, they’re travel grants to get women to the conferences, these groups will get preference because we want our conference‑goers to feel safe, and secure and confident. Those groups that have been proactive, they’re going to get more of the grants.
Kylie: Yes, they’re going to be rewarded for the efforts and steps they’ve taken in a positive way.
Bridget: Exactly. Most of our funding will go to the conference grants. We think that a lot of the women aren’t able to make it to these conventions because historically women make less money, we tend to be the ones who are taking care of the home and the children, so it’s just harder financially for us to get there. We want to take care of that. We’re going to pay for travel, hotel lodging, entrance into these.
Also, we have a speaker’s bureau to get more women as speakers and different kinds of women. We want a woman up there who has small children, and maybe she can incorporate that into her lecture. We want transgender people, transsexual. We think that when women see more women involved, they’ll be ready to join these groups, and maybe the membership will even out a little bit more as far as female representation.
Kylie: Qualifications are important, as well. A woman may have left the industry that she was involved in. She may have been an activist. She may have been a contributor to a group, gone off to have children and is now seeking to find her way back in again and talk about her experiences. It’s that kind of experience that should be recognized up on the stage.
Bridget: Absolutely. In our speaker’s bureau now, we have well‑qualified women that might have been overlooked otherwise. We have one, for example, her degree is in chemical engineering. These are some impressive women. Yes, maybe they haven’t written a book and they’re not in the scene, but they have really great experiences. We want to promote them. We want to serve as a platform to put these women up.
Kylie: As you said yourself, what influenced you was learning about geology and learning about biology. Having educated people up on the stage who can demonstrate a similar spark in those who are listening is vital, I think.
Bridget: Exactly. I’ll tell you, one of the reasons why American Atheist was so impressive to me was a lot of the staff lately have been women, the people that they’ve hired, actual paying jobs. That was important to me. The organization itself does great things and, of course, that’s great, but I love the fact that there’s so much diversity in the hiring. It think that that’s important. We look at that. If you look at a group and it’s just a bunch of old white men running it, you’re like, “Oh…”!
If you see one where there’s a lot of promotion or diversity, where you can see that they appreciate that, I think that that has a big effect. It helps women come out of the atheist closet.
Kylie: Yeah, and identifying and networking is vital, especially in a big country like the USA. Are you planning to cross the pond, as it were, maybe Canada, UK, Australia, make it global?
Bridget: Well, keep in mind, right now there’s only four of us that are running everything! We have had groups already, day one, international groups that want to partner with us. I, personally, would love that. Anybody can join. We’ve had Canadians, Australians. We had somebody from Sweden join. Ideally, yes, I would love to make this international. I’d love it.
Kylie: Great. That’s good. Baby steps first! You got the website up only just over the last week or so!
Bridget: Everything happened really fast and furious. There was a Women in Secularism Conference on May 20th, and that is when Kim Rippere came up with the idea.
Bridget: Yeah. She called me on her drive home, and she said, “I have this great idea for an organization. What do you think?”
We talked it over for about a week. Then there were a couple of other women, Mary Ellen Sikes and Brandi Braschler, who we knew. They were also feminists like us we had talked about these issues. We knew that they would fit in the organizational culture that we would like, and we all just started talking. Then, about two weeks ago is when we started the website. We did all of the content. It was fast and furious. A lot of people think that we’ve been working on this for months and months, but really…
Kylie: That’s what I thought.
Bridget: …really, it’s been about three weeks. The website, I actually am extremely proud of it. It’s really beautiful!
Kylie: Yes, it is!
Bridget: It became our full‑time job. Literally, we’re working on it… I would get off work, and I work a 50‑hour‑a‑week job as a social worker, and I would work on it all night. We had so many ideas. We wanted to put it all out there, and so far, so good.
Kylie: Brilliant. What about your personal goals? What do you hope to get from being the Vice President of Outreach?
Bridget: Well, the outreach is very broad. Just a little background on me: my Master’s is in public administration, but I focused on non‑profit management. This has always been something that I wanted to do, run a non‑profit. I did an internship where I did grant writing, so fund development is my primary thing, but I also am going to be doing the marketing.
It’s funny that you asked that question… I haven’t even really thought about it! I just want the organization to be successful. Me, personally, I will happily be the Vice President of Outreach for as long as I need to do it. I would love to be able to do this full time, like this be my only job.
The secular movement is very important to me. The United States is still one of the best countries in the world, and yet, we’ve allowed religion to just be inundated in our culture. I recently, as the State Director of American Atheists… well, there was a group that put up a huge, six‑ton monument on the courthouse lawn with the Ten Commandments.
Kylie: Oh, man…
Bridget: Yeah, stuff like that’s driving me crazy! I’m like, “OK, separation of church and state is what we’re looking for!” I want to fight against that. I hope that getting more women involved will help somehow. My ultimate goal would be to separate them completely. With Secular Woman, it’s equal participation of women in the movement.
Kylie: There’s certainly a great and fine history of women being activists and initiating change by saying they’re not putting up with it anymore, these pressures against them.
Bridget: Right. If you look at the founder of American Atheists, the oldest atheist organization, had Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a very strong secular woman. She’s a great example for what we can do.
Kylie: Oh, that’s wonderful. I’m looking forward to seeing how the site develops and certainly, what’s on the cards next. Because as you said, election year – lots to deal with, I know!
Bridget: Yes, there is.
Kylie: Thank you very much for talking to me, Bridget.
Bridget: No problem. Thank you!