So Elisabeth Cornwell spoke at the Reason Rally. The video is behind this link. My commentary is reproduced on that page, but I wanted it here as well to boost the signal on this, because it is not okay. It is not.
Trigger warning: mention of sexual assault.
The systematic degradation of women’s control over their own bodies and lives is not just bad, it is monstrous. It is an act of war, as rape is an act of war. There are even a lot of parallels to how female slaves were treated, because they were considered always-accessible subhuman incubators for the valuable property of their masters, much as a disposable class of unsupported children is valuable for rich white dudes today who benefit from trapping other communities in generational poverty. There are a lot of parallels, and even if it was a little hyperbolic… I expect hyperbole at a rally.
There is a problem, though. I was there at the rally and I listened to Cornwell talking about how women in America are being enslaved then invoke the alleged ideals and opinions of Thomas Jefferson, to convey how appalled he would be by this kind of inroad toward theocracy. I realize that this is a thing easily forgotten by white people in this country, but Jefferson actually personally himself enslaved women. You know who made their reproductive choices? Jefferson did after he bought them. Sure, he’d potentially stand with the white women in the audience in their struggle for reproductive freedom, but if you think he’d stand with the women of color, I don’t know where you got your history education. More likely you just didn’t consider that what he did to black women reflects as strongly on his character as what the theocrats are trying to do to you now.
This is a problem.
How much more strongly can someone imply that black women aren’t real women, their enslavement not pressing until it is shared by white women? I can think of no other reason why Jefferson’s status as a famed enslaver and rapist of slave women should be overlooked so that he can be called upon as an ideological ally to modern women, except that to some people his serial rapes and violations of the reproductive autonomy of *black* women were less important as a measure of his character than his excellent insights about religion.
We did a good job on diversity of speakers and guests at the accompanying convention this year, but if you want to be mindful of not seeming like a movement run by white people for white people, please be mindful of whom you’re asking your audience to idolize. We’re talking about a guy whose reputation for raping slaves and forcing them to bear his children is so legendary that there are entire geneology projects dedicated to tracing just his descendants among people of color.
Jefferson’s political theory was a good place to start (particularly when it comes to his views on religion), but it’s a terrible place to finish and we sure as heck shouldn’t retreat back to it to stop the enslavement of women. So let’s keep that in mind before we canonize the man and ask the women of color in the audience to look up to the guy who raped so many of their great-great-grandmothers and forced them to carry and bear his “property” against their will. Maybe some of his nasty personal/”business” habits are overlookable by a financially secure white activist, but the fact that you can overlook it doesn’t mean other people are going to be able to handwave it so easily.
I appreciated the rally and had a lovely time both there and at the convention. The sense of community was beautiful and necessary. It’s just sad that it had to be undermined by something like this at a time when we are all clearly making an effort toward including the full range of atheists in all our diversity.