ISHASH member interview: Suvi Karila

 In the fourth of our series of interviews with ISHASH members, Nathan Alexander interviews Suvi Karila.


Thanks for doing this interview, Suvi. First, could you briefly introduce yourself (where you’re studying, what level you’re at, who your supervisor is, etc.), and could you give a short summary of your current research project?

I’m a second year PhD candidate at the Department of Cultural History, University of Turku, Finland. I work under the supervision of the department’s professors Marjo Kaartinen and Hannu Salmi and senior lecturer Tiina Mahlamäki from the Department of Comparative Religion. In my PhD dissertation I focus on the intersection of gender and non-religion: I study the “lived non-religion” of unbeliever women in the 19th century United States. Currently, I’m working with archival material as a Visiting Fulbright Fellow at the History Department of Harvard University.

 Which women are you looking at? What do you mean by “lived non-religion”?

The women I focus on are Ernestine L. Rose (1810-1892), Lucy N. Colman (1817-1906), Elmina D. Slenker (1827–1908) and Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912). The reason I chose these four women in particular is that I wanted to look at people with different backgrounds. They all abandoned religion at different stages of their lives and they all had very different religious upbringings, ranging from experiences in a Catholic convent to a Jewish ghetto. I’m interested in looking at the ways in which these differences play out in their practices and understandings of unbelief. Of course, one important factor was also to find women who actually have left enough source material, which luckily these women did as they all wrote quite a bit about not only their “infidelism,” but a variety of topics from abolitionism to anarchism.

What I mean by “lived non-religion” is that I want to look at non-religion as a comprehensive, lived experience that can affect one’s life on many levels. Thus we can’t fully understand the history (or the present for that matter) of non-religion by only viewing it on a communal level, or only by focusing on the history of theology and philosophy. That’s why I want to bring these individuals and their experiences to the front, and look at how it actually felt to be a non-religious woman in this context, how their unbelief developed and what it consisted of. Also, I find the term “non-religion” practical when studying the experiences of these women since they describe their own conviction with a variety of terms ranging from “infidel” and “atheist” to “skeptic,” “unbeliever” and “freethinker.” Non-religion seems to work as a good starting point, umbrella term, to describe the object of study.

Could you give a short biography of each woman?

Ernestine L. Rose rebelled against her rabbi father already in her childhood, spent in an eastern European Jewish ghetto in 1810s and 1820s. She left her home at the age of 17, when she had already declared herself an atheist, and traveled across Europe. In England she became involved with the utopian socialist movement of Owenites, among whom she met her husband. With a group of Owenites, they traveled to the United States in 1836. She became one of the very first explicitly spoken atheist women in the antebellum United States. During the thirty-three years she spent in the country, she was an active lecturer in several of the era’s reform movements, including the nascent women’s rights movement. After moving back to England in 1869, she continued to attend the activities of these transatlantic movements in her new homeland, where she died in 1892.

Lucy N. Colman spent her childhood in the 1830s New England. Her religious upbringing coincided the Protestant revival of religion sweeping the area. However, the Presbyterian and Methodist teachings did not convince her. As she grew up, she found her faith with the Universalists. At the age of 18, she married another Universalist, but was widowed only six years later. Her second marriage tragically also ended in the husband’s early death, but the marriage left her a daughter. Facing single parenthood at the age of 37, Colman continued her career as a school teacher. This work put her face to face with the reality of segregation of white and black children in the educational system. She made her best to overrule the segregation and also began to get more actively involved with the abolitionist movement. At this point she was no longer a Universalist, but a Spiritualist. After the early death of her daughter, she chose not to have a religious funeral service and also gave up on Spiritualism. In addition to her work for the emancipation of the slaves, she now directed her efforts for the cause of freethought, which she continued until her death in 1906.

Elmina D. Slenker, born in 1827, was exposed early to freethinking ideas as her father, a radical Quaker preacher, turned the family’s home into a salon, dedicated to discussion of issues such as freethought and abolitionism. According to herself, she officially became an unbeliever after her mother had asked her to read the Bible in exchange of one dollar. From a teenager until her death she was one of the most devoted writers for freethought. Her wide-ranging contributions include editing her own paper, Little Freethinker, dedicated to freethinker children. However, she is most often remembered of her jail sentence in 1887. Slenker, who was not afraid to write about controversial topics such as free love, was accused of spreading promiscuous material in letters. Slenker died in 1908.

In 1866, in Michigan, Voltairine de Cleyre was born to a freethinker father and was named after the famous Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. However, she was sent to a Catholic convent for formal education. Her experiences in the convent were marked by the feeling of isolation, fear of death and beyond. This all resulted in her becoming a full-blown freethinker and atheist before her 20th birthday, and at a later stage in her life, one of the important figures of the anarchist movement in the United States. Before her early death at the age of 45 in 1912, she had traveled across the country speaking and writing not only essays, but also novels and poems, about the subjects of social justice, women’s rights and mental freedom. She never married, but had one child.

What they all had in common was the urgent need to do what they considered to be right, even if it caused them a lot of pain. They did this in different ways, but for all of them, their non-religion was at the very core of their understanding of themselves and the driving force behind their moral views.

It seems like nineteenth-century freethinkers in the US were a fairly tight-knit community since their numbers were quite small, so I wonder if these four women knew/corresponded with each other?

Yes, they knew each other to some extent, but I haven’t found any correspondence. They all were active members in the freethought movement, but in somewhat different stages of its development in the United States. Rose was most active in the movement in the middle of the century, whereas Colman became part of the movement only then. The two met at some of the abolitionist and women’s rights movement events though, and had common friends including Susan B. Anthony and William Lloyd Garrison. There are mentions that Rose visited Slenker’s childhood home as a guest, but I haven’t yet discovered any comments on that from Slenker herself. Finally, de Cleyre was the youngest of the four: she wrote about Rose, Slenker and Colman in a very respectful tone, but yet she was quite different from the three as she represented new, more radical freethought, emerging towards the 20th century.

Presumably these women’s gender and irreligious views doubly marginalized them in American society, but how did their gender influence their role within the freethought movement, which seemed to be dominated by men?

That is a very interesting question. The position of the freethought movement towards women was indeed quite ambivalent. Mostly this was due to freethinkers, like the majority of Americans, considering women as emotional beings to be the naturally more religious gender. This meant two things.

On the one hand, as Evelyn A. Kirkley has pointed out in her book Rational Mothers and Infidel Gentlemen (2000), “the woman question” was central for the mission of the movement. If they managed to release women from the shackles of superstition, priests and preachers would no longer have their most reliable supporters. Also, women were responsible for the important task of giving proper upbringing for the “little freethinkers,” future infidels. On the other hand, some freethinkers doubted if releasing women was actually too difficult a task, at least at the moment. That is why not all freethinkers of the nineteenth century, no matter how radical they were otherwise, supported the voting right for women, which was the major debate of the latter half of the century. This was not limited to men: some women also argued they should not be given the ballot.

What this sort of thinking meant for the women I study is one of the major questions in my dissertation. At the moment I think the freethought movement offered for them rhetorical spaces that no other movement could, but it did not mean their gender had no effect. Especially when a conflict emerged, it seems their gender was used against them. As infidel women were considered by the general public to be an even greater threat than infidel men, women proclaiming unbelief also attracted more negative publicity for the movement – sometimes this was a problem too. Of course, in the case of Ernestine L. Rose it was not only her gender that raised prejudice, but her Jewish background as well. Still, all the women were able to have a voice in the movement and they also aimed to transform some of those prevailing ideas that hindered women’s participation. Whether or not they had success can be debated. What is still true today is that women remain a minority in most non-religious groups in the United States and elsewhere.

You mentioned a number of the radical causes “your women” were involved in (abolition, women’s suffrage, anarchism, and so on), and I wonder how (or if) their irreligious views informed their other political views?

I think it’s really difficult to distinguish their irreligious views from their political views. Considering that in this context, being an openly irreligious woman was a very bold decision to make as it labeled a person an immoral monster, it’s not really surprising that for these women it was a very defining component of their identity and political activity. Every time they spoke for things like women’s suffrage and abolition, in some sense they had to also speak for irreligion. In their argumentation, the women relied strongly on the view that religion was harmful, especially for women, and moreover, religious conviction was morally inferior to irreligious one, which was proven by religious argumentation for things like slavery. When the women wrote about their deconversion, they highlighted the moral conflict they perceived to exist with what they felt was right, just and morally correct, and what they were told God had ordered or demanded. The way the women saw it, their work for the rights of slaves and women stemmed from this realization.

There’s been a few works on the relationship between atheism/irreligion and gender in the 19th century (Infidel Feminisms and Rational Mothers and Infidel Gentlemen are two that spring to mind). How does your work fit with this literature? Does your work provide further support for their conclusions or does it offer new interpretations?

Of course, I’m still at a relatively early stage of my dissertation, so we’ll see where I’ll end up. But I think my approach is different: I will focus more on the individuals and their lives and experiences than to the freethought movement and its connections to the women’s rights movement. Hopefully, my work will not only provide further support for previous research, but also give us new perspectives by approaching the theme from a different angle. I also hope to develop the ways in which we can use non-religion as a category of historical analysis.

What can these women’s experience tell us (if anything) about gender and non-religion today?

One of my favorite anecdotes about Ernestine L. Rose is her discussion with Susan B. Anthony, a close friend and fellow women’s rights advocate. Anthony writes in her diary on April 4, 1854, of her questioning Rose’s uncompromising nature, her way of demanding perfect integrity from herself and others when it came to reform issues such as women’s rights and abolitionism. Rose admitted her guilt, saying she couldn’t help herself, though it sometimes caused her a lot of pain. Anthony wanted to offer sympathy for her anguished friend and offered her a copy of a religious hymn for consolation, which made Rose cry for Anthony’s astonishment. When Anthony, not seeing her mistake in trying to comfort her atheist friend with a Christian text, asked whether she had hurt her feelings, Rose responded: “No, but I expect never to be understood while I live.”

Though a lot has changed since 1854, I’m not certain if Rose would be understood by many even today. Unbeliever women of the nineteenth century were a minority within a minority, as are unbeliever women in the 21st century United States. They craved to share their struggles with others in similar situations, and did their best to find women of past and present to identify with. This was very difficult for pioneers like Rose, but as women wrote about each other and their predecessors during the course of the century, they produced a sort of “alternative history” of unbelief, from the point of view of women. Voltairine de Cleyre, for example, wrote highly of all three, Rose, Slenker and Colman.

However, the women’s writings have later been left out of the historical canon, and today the history of non-religion presented to us is dominated by men. This places unbeliever women currently struggling with their identities in some ways very much in the same position as Rose and her contemporaries. That’s one of the reasons why I want to bring forth those forgotten experiences. I believe they can give us some perspective to the development of non-religious identities and the major role gender has played within that development.

Thanks again for this fascinating interview, Suvi.

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