Today’s New York Times bears a heartbreaking photograph on its front page showing a row of abject women garment workers in Bangladesh. The accompanying story reports that they daily churn out garments for the U.S. and European markets that individually often sell for more than each garment worker earns in a month. Minimum wage for garment workers is set at roughly $37 a month. That inexpensive “Made in Bangladesh” label comes with too high a price tag for womankind.
The story immediately brought to mind a haunting quote, my favorite quote by 19th century freethinker Helen H. Gardener. In the chapter, “Vicarious Atonement” from her elegant and still-timely book, Men, Women and Gods (1885, reprinted in my anthology Women Without Superstition), Gardener wrote:
“I do not know of any divine commands. I do know of most important human ones. I do not know the needs of a god or of another world. I do not know anything about ‘a land that is fairer than day.’ I do know that women makes shirts for seventy cents a dozen in this one. I do know that the needs of humanity and this world are infinite, unending, constant, and immediate. They will take all our time, our strength, our love, and our thoughts; and our work here will be only then begun.”
Women’s Equality Day, marking the 92nd anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, takes place Sunday, Aug. 26. Gardener was a significant force in the final push of the suffrage movement, using her social and governmental connections to organize, and was chief liaison of the major suffrage association with President Wilson’s administration. Gardener was part of a continuum of women freethinkers and nonconformists who sparked and nurtured the women’s right movement. It took freethinking women who refused to “be in silence and subjection” to challenge religious sway over secular laws. Gardener became a friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who, in 1848, galvanized the woman’s movement by being the first to call for woman suffrage. Stanton wrote the very wording of the suffrage amendment that is now in our Constitution.
As we toast (or at least raise our coffee mugs) to these freethinking feminist foremothers on Sunday, let’s remember Gardener’s counsel on our work here. While exploitative global economics, of course, factor into the equation, the low status of women in underdeveloped nations stems fundamentally from women’s low status under patriarchal religions. The problem with most religions isn’t just that they are founded on fables or women’s servitude. Religion’s unnatural preoccupation with an unprovable, unlikely deity and afterlife corrupts human priorities and robs attention from “the needs of humanity and this world.”