Contemporary humanist communities vary widely in size, diversity, and practice, but most of them share a commitment to gender and racial parity and various other social justice initiatives. Epicurus, an early humanist thinker, was the first Greek philosopher whose school was officially open to women. While research centers like Pew do not distinguish humanists from others in the “religiously unaffiliated” category, non-religious Americans are consistently the strongest proponents of social issues like same-sex marriage and legal abortion access. However, strong internal critiques of the Western humanist movement have noted a disproportionate number of white, male leaders across humanist communities.

Although the American Humanist Association has honored notable feminist and womanist icons—including activist Gloria Steinem and author Alice Walker—with their “Humanist of the Year” award, the prominence of figures like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins has created significant stratification among non-theists. Calls within humanist communities to diversify its leadership have led to several movements that distinguish themselves from humanism out of their commitment to serving specific populations.

Some feminist critiques within humanism have worked to address the dearth of female leaders in the modern humanist movement. The first Humanist Manifesto, written and signed by American humanist leaders in 1933, did not have a single woman signatory.

Virginia DeBolt, Alice Walker speaks, CC BY-SA 2.0, http://bit.ly/2aNv9FC

Womanist humanism is a humanist movement affiliated with Black women in the West. The movement grew as a response to religious black humanism, which claimed that humans are co-conspirators with God in the eradication of suffering and hatred. Womanist secular humanism, unlike religious Black humanism, specifically rejects the existence of a god that would allow for the ongoing suffering of Black people and the continued delay of justice for the oppressed. Instead, it contends that it is solely the occupation of humans to work together to eradicate suffering. The movement advocates for a “controlled optimism” that acknowledges the extent of human potential, from humans’ ability to perpetuate great pain and injustice to humans’ liberative potential. 

Womanist critiques of Black humanism, specifically, push the Black humanist community to consider the role of gender in the way humanists understand the highest potential of humankind. They specifically fight against constructions of human possibility in masculine terms, instead emphasizing the importance of “living in tension” with different identity groups so as to widen the scope of voices and possibilities of what it means for humanity to truly be “on its own.” 

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Image Sources:

Marnie Joyce, “20111220 BETTY-85,” Gloria Steinem, New York City, NY (2011), (CC BY 2.0)

Virginia DeBolt, "Alice Walker speaks," (2007), (CC BY-SA 2.0)

See also: Humanism