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Should I participate in a Male-Only debate?

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Should I participate in a Male-Only debate?

The Argument Of The Month Club (AOTM), a Catholic men’s organization in St. Paul, Minnesota, invited me to debate Leroy Huizenga, a Catholic theologian, on the topic “Do The Gospels Give Us The Real Jesus?” on February 12. They agreed to pay all travel expenses, plane ticket, hotel, and an honorarium, and said I could invite FFRF members and friends to the event. They have since been publicizing and promoting the event, and I started doing the same.

On January 29, as I was updating FFRF’s Events page, I went to the AOTM website for details. ( I spotted this note at the bottom of the page announcing my event:

“$12 at the door (The total cost for the night) You will get great appetizers and beverages, hear one of the best inspirational stories you have ever heard about manhood and faith. Do all this while you listen and enjoy a fabulous “Manly Meal”. Men of all creeds and ages are welcome to join in the good humor, food, and fellowship. Priests and seminarians get in free but will not be shown partiality in debate. Fathers are encouraged to bring their minor sons.”

I almost glanced over that paragraph, but the last line caught my eye: “Fathers are encouraged to bring their minor sons.” What?! What about daughters? What about mothers? It was only then that I realized this event was not just organized by men, but it was for men. For men exclusively. (What exactly is a “Manly Meal”?)

I immediately shot the organizer David Deavel an email, which prompted the following exchange:

Dan:“While looking at your Event page today, I see that it seems to suggest that your meetings are open to men only. Is that right?”

Dave: “That’s right.  Men only.  12 bucks a head for drinks, dinner, dessert, and the show!  Not a bad deal, eh?”

Dan: “Can you open it to women that night?”

Dave: “No.  Sorry, ours is a men’s group organization.  But any atheist/agnostic men are welcome to come and plunk down their 12 bucks.”

I thought about this for a long time . . . maybe 30 whole seconds . . . before deciding I couldn’t go through with the event.

Dan: “I’m sorry. If I had known it was a male-only event, I would not have agreed. I would love to do the debate, but not if women are excluded. Sometimes men’s groups sponsor public events that are open to the public, which is what I assumed. Can’t you rethink that policy for this one event? Women would certainly benefit from the exchange, and the men present would also enjoy their participation.”

Dave: “I’m sorry, but this is a men’s group–we put on events that are for men.  No doubt women might benefit from the exchange, but part of the secret of the success of this group is that it is a men’s event only.  There is a group of women in the Twin Cities currently organizing a women’s group similar to ours–if you have a woman interested in debating for them, I can pass on the information so that if they want to do a similar debate they can contact her.  If they decide they will have men and women speakers, I can pass on your name to them.  But right now you’ve got a great opportunity to debate and present your arguments against one of the big parts of Christian belief in front of 400 or so men, most of whom are serious Catholics or Christians of some sort.  You’ve got a debater, you’ve got a crowd, you’ve got a plane ticket, and you’ve got a free dinner waiting for you!  We’ve had other atheist debaters before, like August Berkshire from the Minnesota Atheists.  It’s gone fine.  So don’t worry and let’s talk about format.”

I decided to sleep on my reply. The next morning I sent him this answer:


If women are excluded from attendance, then I can’t do it. This is based on a commitment to “freedom and justice for all.”

I acknowledge your right to have a male-only group, and I applaud your freedom of association. I don’t deny that Argument Of The Month has produced benefits for members. I admire your commitment to debating important issues, and I really would like to join you, as I agree with you that truth has nothing to fear from honest dialogue and critical inquiry. I also enjoy these debates and exchanges immensely, and have been eagerly looking forward to meeting you and Leroy. I have no doubt that you are all good people, intelligent and fair-minded.

I hope you will reconsider.

The Feb. 12 topic has nothing to do with “men only.” (If it did, maybe I would understand your concerns.) I have many female friends in your area, and I simply cannot announce that their husbands and male friends are welcome, but they are not. I’m sure you see how they might feel insulted. Although I understand that private groups are free to limit membership, I cannot give the appearance that I condone such discrimination. My participation in a gender-exclusive event would reflect poorly on the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is opposed to patriarchal attitudes. Although you may not feel AOTM is “patriarchal,” I think banning women certainly gives that appearance.

I have sometimes spoken before women’s groups, where men have been welcome in the audience. The integrity of those groups was not threatened by having males present. From your comments, I don’t see how AOTM would be harmed by inviting intelligent, informed, caring women to the event. You write that “part of the secret of the success of this group is that it is a men’s event only.” But what does that mean? Wouldn’t inviting women make it MORE successful?

I have spoken at Catholic churches, where the leadership is all male, and I accept such invitations because attendance is open to all, regardless of creed, race, or sex. I have spoken before events organized by Islamic groups, whose membership is limited to Muslims, where nobody was denied admittance to the public meeting. I would love to do the same with you on February 12. But if you are barring women from entry, then you are also barring me.

Please reconsider. Make this one evening, at my request, a truly public event.

Dan Barker

I don’t think my request was unreasonable. What if Annie Laurie had decided to come with me that night? Would she have had to sit out in the car?

He responded about an hour later:

Dear Dan,

I’m very sorry you don’t think you can do the event.  I agree with you that the topic does not have to do with “men only”; nor, I would think, does any topic have to do with “men only” in the strict sense.  But the purpose of the Argument of the Month is to put on events for men–it is about male fellowship as well as the intellectual topic.  Why you seem to think this is somehow “hurtful” to women is, frankly, beyond me.  I know many strong women, including my wife, who is a tenured philosophy professor, who understand that there are goods involved both in men and women gathering together as well as separately for fellowship and intellectual conversation.  I’m sorry that you seem to think that such gatherings are bad, but you at least have a consistency in refusing to speak before women’s groups as well.  I will indeed not pass on your name to the Twin Cities women organizing their own version of the Argument of the Month.  As you say, you affirm the rights of freedom of association, so if you do not feel that you can speak to our group, then it is up to you to withdraw.

We will cancel the hotel reservation.  You will have to cancel your own flight.  Given that I gave you the website to our organization, which I described as a “Catholic men’s group,” in the initial invitation of January 4, with the information about the nature of our events being open to any man in the public, before you agreed to speak for us, it is right that any penalty for cancelling the ticket be taken care of by you.  I’m sorry that you feel you must withdraw, but we will adhere to our own internal rules about the nature of our events.

If you wish to change your mind, please write back.  I’m sure that Dr. Huizenga and all those who would attend the debate would appreciate your participation.


My final reply:


Thanks for understanding. This is very important to me, as a feminist. I’m sure your principles are important to you as well, and we will have to disagree. I was really looking forward to this event. Perhaps someday you might do something truly public, and might think to invite me again.

I do speak to women’s groups. They have always allowed and encouraged men to attend their public events, if not their “private” meetings.

I wish you the best.


I will gladly personally pay the penalty for canceling that plane ticket. There was no good reason to exclude women from that event. Although I am sure the AOTM club, a private religious organization that meets in a Catholic church, would deny they are causing any harm, it seems clear to me that they are perpetuating the same Old Boys Club mentality espoused by the Pope, their church leaders, and their bible, which demeans women and tells them to “keep silent” in the church that is run by “men only.” I can’t change their minds, but I am sure not going to play along with such bronze-age discrimination.

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