(RNS) Rebecca Watson meant it as a funny story, almost an aside.
In a video blog, the popular skeptic blogger recalled a man following her into an empty elevator and inviting her up to his room after she spoke about feminism at a European atheist conference last June.
“Guys,” she said with a bit of a laugh, “don't do that.”
Hers and other atheist/skeptic blogs were soon flooded with comments. Many women told of receiving unwanted sexual advances at freethinker gatherings. Some men, meanwhile, ridiculed Watson as overly sensitive or worse — or threatened her with rape, mutilation and murder.
Before she knew it, Watson, 30, was subsumed by what everyone now calls “Elevatorgate.” And when best-selling atheist author Richard Dawkins chimed in, the incident went nuclear.
“Stop whining, will you,” Dawkins wrote in one of three comments on Pharyngula, a popular freethinker blog, comparing her experience to that of a fictional Muslim woman who had been beaten by her husband and genitally mutilated. “For goodness' sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.”
Now, more than a month after “Elevatorgate” erupted, freethinkers are assessing its meaning. Many acknowledge they have a “woman problem” — men outnumber women at atheist gatherings, both at the podium and in the audiences.
Yet many, including Watson, say Elevatorgate is less a calamity and more an opportunity to welcome women and other minorities into a community that's long been dominated by white men.
“The majority of emails I have gotten have been from men who said, `I had no idea what women in this community went through, and thank you for opening my eyes,'” Watson said. “There has actually been a net benefit coming out of this that I think has made everything worthwhile.”
No one is suggesting the freethought community is more sexist than other segments of society — after all, the most famous American atheist, the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, was a woman.
Nonetheless, the incident has struck a chord, perhaps because atheists and other skeptics pride themselves on reason and logic — intellectual exercises that theoretically compute to equality.
The problem, they agree, is long-standing. Women veterans of the movement recall meetings in the 1970s where 80 percent of attendees were men.
“I think the essential problem that women have in the movement is that they are greatly outnumbered,” said Susan Jacoby, author of “Freethinkers.” “When you talk about women atheists, there is less of a pool than men. Women are more religious than men, therefore there are fewer women active in this movement than there are men. So you are starting with a smaller pool and that is a fact.”
But that is slowly changing. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found a 60-40 percent breakdown among men and women who say they who have no religion. Yet women make up 52 percent of the broader population.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, notes that while men might fill their gatherings, women often lead freethought organizations. She has directed FFRF's local chapters to use more women — at least 50 percent — in their billboard and bus banner ads.
“We want to be proactive and make sure there is diversity,” she said. “The movement is big enough now.”
That is reflected in a new “Women in Secularism” conference announced in August by the Center for Inquiry. The conference, billed as the first of its kind, will be held in May in Washington, D.C., and will feature an all-female lineup.
“A lot of us think it is long overdue,” said Melody Hensley, executive director of the center's Washington office and the organizer of the event, which will include Jacoby, Watson and Gaylor. “If you have women leaders, you are going to have more women. So this conference is a step forward to attract more women to the cause.”
P.Z. Myers, Pharyngula's founding author, a 25-year veteran of the atheist community and an ardent supporter of Watson, said when he is asked to speak at events he routinely asks if women will be invited to speak — a suggestion he said never meets with resistance.
But Elevatorgate, he said, “was different … It opened our eyes to the importance of diversity in the movement, and when you do that, you sometimes discover there are fringes to your diversity that you don't really like.”
That, he continued, creates “an interesting problem for us.”
“We want to be welcoming to everyone and we don't want to tell men who have been active in the movement for 20 years we don't want you. What we would really like to do is educate these men to be a little more sensitive.”
Watson would like that too.
“I thought it was a safe space,” Watson said of the freethought community. “The biggest lesson I have learned over the years is that it is not a safe space and we have a lot of growing to do. The good news is there are a lot of people within the community who are interested in making it better and getting rid of our prejudices.”
Prominent Women in the Freethought Community:
AYAAN HIRSI ALI is the founder of the AHA Foundation, which seeks to protect women and girls from fundamentalist Islam. In her best-selling memoir, “Infidel,” the former Dutch politician described her religiously-inspired genital mutilation and journey to atheism.
GRETA CHRISTINA is a freelance writer who runs an influential blog on atheism, feminism, gay-lesbian issues and other topics. She will speak at the Center for Inquiry's Women in Secularism conference.
R. ELISABETH CORNWELL is the executive director of the U.S. branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, which supports science education and critical thinking against religious fundamentalism. She originated the organization's “OUT Campaign,” which encourages atheists to publicly declare their beliefs.
ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR is the co-president (with her husband, Dan Barker) of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which bills itself as the country's largest freethought organization. Her 1997 book, “Women Without Superstition,” is the inspiration for the Center For Inquiry's Women in Secularism Conference.
JENNIFER MICHAEL HECHT is a poet and historian whose books “Doubt: A History” and “The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism and Anthropology in France” were best-sellers and award winners. She teaches at Columbia University and The New School.
MELODY HENSLEY is the executive director of the Center for Inquiry's Washington office and the driving force behind its upcoming Women in Secularism conference, the first of its kind.
SUSAN JACOBY is an independent scholar who has written 10 books, including “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.” She writes the Spirited Atheist column for The Washington Post's On Faith website.
EUGENIE C. SCOTT is the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a position she's held since 1987. A self-described secular humanist, she has been instrumental in promoting science education — especially evolution — in school districts across America.
TONI VAN PELT is the director and treasurer of The Institute for Science and Human Values, which promotes and encourages scientific inquiry and human values. She is a congressional lobbyist and was instrumental in establishing the first public policy offices of the humanist movement in Washington.
REBECCA WATSON is the founder and contributor of the Skepchick blog, which was founded in 2005 to promote skepticism among women. She is also host of The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast. She speaks frequently at freethinker conferences on feminism and the religious right.