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Madalyn Murray O'Hair And The Women Of The Secular Movement

When will we start to recognize them?

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It’s not difficult to see that there are many groups and communities still dominated by men today, especially in the secular community. All the well-known secular people are men and most of them are white. When you think about the secular community, you don’t really think about women or anybody else. This current lack of diversity in the community can create problems when trying to get people to feel welcome and not excluded.

I would like to point out that there is one woman in the secular community that has made a major historical impact: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. She was the founder of the Society of Separationists which is now known as American Atheists. This was after she filed a lawsuit against her son’s public school when they made him attend Bible readings and harassed him when he refused to participate in 1959. Her landmark case was decided on June 17, 1963 and concluded that state-mandated prayer and Bible readings in public schools were a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

She kept up her activism as she helped with other separation of church and state causes. She fought against the tax exempt status of churches, created the Freethought Society, published newsletters, made TV appearances, and gave speeches. She caused a lot of stir when she was vocal about her beliefs about the role of religion in the American public. This led her to be defined by Time magazine as the most hated woman in America. Not only was she critical of religion and religious leaders, but she was also critical of other atheists. She would kick out many American Atheist members she deemed unworthy and who would refuse to believe in the same views she had on what atheists should be like.

Although she made an impact and became well-known for her role in the secular movement, she is sadly more known in the nation for her death. On August 27, 1995, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, her son, and granddaughter disappeared. There was also $600,000 missing from American Atheists and a horde of gold coins and many believed that they embezzled and ran off. Religious leaders and people who didn’t like atheists were very likely to believe they did that. It wasn’t until January 2001 that David Waters confessed to “kidnapping, extortion, and murder of the Murray-O’Hair family.” When their remains were recovered, they were reburied by William Murray (her other son) in “an unmarked grave in an undisclosed cemetery [sic] near Austin, Texas.”

Madalyn Murray O’Hair is one of the few women who made a major impact on the secular community. She also impacted other groups with her court case that ended mandatory Bible readings in public schools. But there is still the question of why we don’t automatically think of her when we think about the people who are the voices of the secular movement.

There are many reasons. Sexism could play a major part in this. While she did make history, the patriarchy still likes to play its role in making sure the men in history are known and women unknown. Anyone who has taken a history class at all should be aware of that. Another reason could be that we focus on secular figures the same way we focus on celebrities. Those who cause the most controversy become well known within the community. Why else would Richard Dawkins be the name that appears in people’s minds when they think about the secular movement?

Furthermore, it is important that we start recognizing and remembering the other important secular people who not only defied religious norms, but had to face other obstacles like defying gender norms as well in order to move the secular movement forward as well.

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